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Keegan-Michael Key on Detroit, work post-Key & Peele, and hyphenated first names

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Keegan-Michael Key is one of the biggest names in comedy today with Louis CK and Nick Kroll. The “MadTV” alum and co-creator of Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele “is also from Detroit and co-founded Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theater. On December 22nd, he returns home with the 313, an improvisational group of Detroit comedians now based in Los Angeles – for a special performance in Detroit Institute of Arts presented by the Detroit Creativity Project, a group that seeks to inspire young people through the art of improvising.

Model D spoke to Keegan-Michael Key by phone about Detroit, his work on “Key & Peele” and his separate first names.

Model D: What is it like to perform in your hometown?

Keegan-Michael Key: It’s always nice. Clearly the best time. The warm energy, the level of support, are things that I can’t get anywhere else. Unfortunately I can only perform there once or twice a year. I would really like to do a play in my theater – the Planet Ant Theater. I played maybe two pieces there and haven’t had the opportunity to play one in about ten years. But if I did that, my managers and agents would pull their hairs out. “You’re going to be in Detroit for four months ?! Play a piece ?!” But that’s my love Whenever I performed in Detroit it was improvisation and mostly for the Detroit Improv Festival.

MD: What do you think of the city these days?

KMK: The city center is unrecognizable in the best possible way. It’s amazing to see what young people call Midtown that we used to call the Cass Corridor and has so much vibrancy. But we need to make sure it continues to spread for neighborhoods to thrive. And it happens – slowly but surely. I am very hopeful for what the city can become.

MD: How was Detroit’s comedy scene during the days in Second City? And how did it inform your current comedy brand?

KMK: It was an exciting time because we were the beginning of the comedy community. It was fantastic. And that’s where I learned how to write as an improviser. It has a huge impact on how I create sketches and characters. In improvising, it really sped up my character creation process as you create on the fly. All of this was born from my experience in Detroit.

MD: Do you and Jordan Peele use improvisation to generate material for your sketches?

KMK: Yes. That’s exactly what Jordan and I do. Other writers on the show have more autonomy to work with their own ideas, which we then edit and revise. But when Jordan and I write for a sketch, there is a lot of improvisation involved. We both, riffing symbiotically, improvise scenes anew. Then we will polish the material that night and go over it again.

MD: There are a number of Detroit comedians in LA, hence the “313”, and I understand you are very close. Why is this bond so strong?

KMK: We knew we were creating something from scratch in Second City [Detroit]. And from then on, we felt like doom was imminent, that Second City might close any day. Somehow this stress kept us close. Many of us have had this camaraderie too, because the majority of comedy people were actors first. We’d done plays, independent films, knew each other from the University of Detroit and Wayne State. We’ve known each other a long time.

MD: Tell me about the Detroit Creativity Project. What is your commitment and why do you believe in his mission?

KMK: I am a board member of the Detroit Creativity Project. And I’m involved because art is a great way to break up young people. Everyone in the world should be a little vulnerable, and improvisation forces you to be vulnerable. You really have to rely on someone else to make it work the way it should. You will learn how to create something out of nothing as a group. This is what the citizens of Detroit must do as a city, as a village. So when we teach positive problem solving skills to young people in a positive way, they bring it to the city as they age. I think it’s important and necessary.

MD: The groundbreaking show “Key & Peele” unfortunately ended. What are you working on right now?

KMK: Jordan and I did a feature with the working title “Keanu” that will be out on April 29th next year. I am in talks to possibly do a film with James Franco and Bryan Cranston. I also produce a lot, one with Vine superstar Andrew Bach for Fox. And I could do a Broadway. Lots of nice potential things that make me feel positive.

MD: After all, you don’t see many people with separate first names. What’s the story behind it?

KMK: My mom wanted to call me “Michael”, but my dad thought everyone would call me “Junior” (Key’s dad is Michael). They looked in a baby book and saw “Keegan”. Then dad had the brilliant, simply brilliant idea to use both. Now there is no official document in the world that my name fits on.

Details of “An Evening With Keegan-Michael Key and the 313,” held December 22nd at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Click here. The show is presented by the Detroit Creativity Project, which aims to inspire young people through the art of improvising.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based writer and improviser. Follow him on Twitter @ AaronMondry.

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