I first met Keegan-Michael Key from Comedy Central's Key and Peele on stage in front of an audience at The Second City. I was watching the show. Our mutual friend and Keegan's fellow cast member Andy Cobb pulled me on the stage to participate in an improvised scene. Andy knew I was a Second City alumnus who performed on the Mainstage, toured with The Second City Touring Company and taught in the Training Center. Keegan did not.
Like any good improviser, Keegan was gracious, welcomed me on stage, then promptly escorted me offstage as soon as possible. I don't blame him. Improvisation really should be left to the professionals or students who know the basics of the form.
Afterwards, Andy introduced me to Keegan and we had a good laugh. They invited me to do the 45 minute improvised set after the show. I had a blast.
I got to see Keegan-Michael Key perform in his final days of obscurity before he went to LA to join the cast of Mad TV and introduce the country to characters like Coach Hines-a favorite amongst teenage boys in particular.
From the first time I saw him perform I knew he was going to be a star. As an audience member I couldn't take my eyes off of him. His boundless energy was infectious. He was the host of a party you desperately wanted to attend.
The Second City has a tradition where a cast member performs their favorite scenes with original cast members and friends on their last night performing at the theatre. I'd gotten to know Keegan after the night we shared the stage. Based on his talent and the warmth and joy he emanates I knew his last night was not to be missed. It was a night full of hilarious scenes and I knew I was witnessing a crucial turning point in Keegan's life.
I recently spoke with Keegan-Michael Key for a series of interviews I am conducting about people who have embraced the unexpected in life. He is featured in my upcoming book Unexpected Life: Interviews About Embracing the Unexpected coming to Amazon May 10th.
I started our conversation by telling Keegan why I wanted to speak with him on the theme of embracing the unexpected:
Tania: I remembered that you are a stepfather and that your stepson is close to your age.
Keegan: Yeah, he's real close. [Keegan's stepson is 8 years younger. His wife is thirteen years older than him.]
Tania: So, I suspected there might be an unexpected love story there. I also remember your final performance at Second City. You were so grateful and as you were taking your bow you continually pointed to the ceiling and mouthed "thank you" as you looked up. It moved me because it seemed like you had a direct line connection to God. And I wondered how you came to your faith. How did that unfold?
Keegan: In 1996 I found my biological mother. I am adopted. Finding her was something that had always been in my mind. My parents always said, "That's a possibility for you." At age 25, I found her. That was one of the most unexpected and crucial and significant and foundational things that has happened in my life. She told me about her life and how she lives and how she made it through giving me up for adoption and a lot of that came into play in subsequent conversations and the next thing you know I'm sitting in her living room with my mother with tears rolling down my face accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. So,that [accepting Jesus Christ] was pretty unexpected. It's one of the touchstones in both my spiritual and personal life.
Tania: How did you meet your wife?
Keegan: My personal life took a turn when I made a professional decision. I left graduate school and a dear friend of mine died in a car crash. Two other friends wrote a script as catharsis. One of the co-writers was going to make that into an independent film. [She wanted to cast Keegan as one of the leads] but I had a job offer from The Illinois Shakespeare Festival.Who knew that was going to be one of the most significant forks in the road in my life. I felt like I should do something to honor the memory of my friend Geraldine but that was tertiary. Primarily, to be completely honest, I got scared. I didn't know anybody [at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.] I had just left Penn State after three years [for Graduate School.] I missed my Mommy. So I went home [Detroit]...and when I did the movie I met my wife. Two years later and we are walking down the aisle. It was never this fireworks in the sky sort of thing. It was like a snap and I just knew if I look at this woman and I say "Till death do us part" that's a doable thing. I made that choice.
Tania: Was becoming a husband and stepfather a fluid transition?
Keegan: It wasn't fluid. I say all the time "I turned into a man about 6 months ago and I am 43. I am trying everyday to try and to be a responsible person who acts at least 30% of the time in a selfless manner. The decisions we make-that unexpected turn-all that comes from chemicals. We are made of neurons, molecules and tissues and neuro-transmitters and synapses. It's what governs our existence here. If I am experiencing some amount of stress with my wife or my writing partner I have to go "Ok, remember don't go into a tailspin because what's happening in your brain is that your synapses are firing and there's something happening in your brain. That doesn't make it a fact. You are going to have to go on a fact finding mission to find facts. We all have our issues and triggers. Feelings aren't fact but it's a fact that you have feelings. I have to deal with that a lot over my life. So, no it wasn't perfectly fluid.
Tania: You articulate that analytical process very well but in the crucial moments of your life it sounds like you went with your gut.
Keegan: That's true. In those crucial moments that's what happens. I missed my Mommy. It doesn't get more primal than that. I went home and then cut to 24 years later and now I am talking to you. The most crucial ideas we have happen from a moment of deep emotion and not necessarily a moment of deep analysis. That's how I maintain a sense of wonder in my life.
Tania: So how did you end up at Second City Detroit?
Keegan: [Keegan's co-stars in the film also worked at The Second City Detroit. They encouraged Keegan to audition.] Much to my chagrin. Because I had just finished my masters in fine arts in a performance program--how dare they ask me to audition [for comedy]? This was asshole stage. Deep down I knew that comedy was something I wanted to do but there were no comedy schools [in Detroit]. I didn't have that knowledge. After hemming and hawing and fear I auditioned and I was there three, four years and then I got a promotion to the e.t.c. at Second City Chicago.
Tania: You never did the traditional training?
Keegan: It was trial by fire. At 3 1/2 years is right about when I did my 10,000 hours. I did my 10,000 hours at Second City Detroit.
Tania: Your career really did just roll from there. [While he was still at The Second City Keegan was cast in Mad TV (shot in Los Angeles). It was his dream to be on Saturday Night Live (shot in New York) but rather than wait to audition with no guarantees he made the calculated decision to join Mad TV. Keegan knew he would eventually end up in LA so he figured he would simply start there with a good-paying job.]
Keegan: I had people from Second City rooting for me at Mad TV. [One of the executive producers was a Second City alumnus and other cast members were already in the ensemble.] "It was a more comfortable decision to do Mad TV. Quite a few decisions have come from seeking comfort. When I am in an uncomfortable situation I manufacture "a womb" so I can be uncomfortable inside the womb.
Keegan-Michael Key is on a roll. His Emmy nominated show Key and Peele returns for its fourth season on September 24th on Comedy Central. Keegan appeared on the hit FX show Fargo and will be featured in Playing House on The USA Network. He is also working on a screenplay with his writing partner and co-star Jordan Peele and Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin). He is currently featured in the movie Let's Be Cops.
Just in case you weren't already convinced that Keegan-Michael Key is a great guy he apologized for trying to "railroad" me off stage all those years ago. Then, I asked him to do a bit of Coach Hines for my stepson Thomas (a big fan) so I could bank some major Stepmom points. Keegan was happy to oblige.
In this recording (3 minutes) we wrap up our conversation by talking about some of Keegan's projects. Halfway through, Coach Hines sends Thomas a message.
Do you have a story about embracing the unexpected in life? I'd love to hear about it in the comment section below.
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