Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key Are Two Comedy Nerds in Love
If you’re ever out to dinner, and the couple next to you are playing with the table lamps, there’s a very good chance you may be sitting by Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key.
“Keegan and I were in a restaurant the other night, and they had these two skinny little lamps instead of candles — these fake little candelabras on the table,” Elle tells me this past Monday morning. “It’s just the two of us at dinner — it was kind of a dark restaurant — and Keegan picked up one of them and pretended it was a microphone, and I picked up one of them and pretended it was something else. And then Keegan picked up both — we both silently, without speaking to each other, just passed it back and forth while we’re waiting for our dinner, pretending what this candle thing could possibly be.”
She and her husband are laughing over the phone at themselves. “It was like playing with props at the dinner table,” Keegan says. “That’s something we enjoy doing.”
“What’s very funny is that Keegan puts them down, and one of the lights go out on one of them,” Elle adds. “He immediately assumed that whatever prop gag he had done with it ruined it. So we had to get a waiter to come over, and I was like, ‘No, no, I think the battery’s dead — I think you’re fine.’”
With faux shame, Keegan says, “I overworked the prop.”
“If somebody had seen us do it,” says Elle, “it would’ve been very funny.”
Now married five years, the Keys have built a life out of a shared love of comedy. Elle, a former actress who’s now a writer and producer, has been collaborating with her husband on projects, including the podcast The History of Sketch Comedy, which began in 2021, starring Keegan as our guide through the different eras of sketch performance. (Elle serves as director and co-writer.) A success on Audible, and a winner of a 2022 Webby Award, the podcast has been adapted into a book, The History of Sketch Comedy: A Journey Through the Art and Craft of Humor, which is out now.
Written by husband and wife, the book is part comedy history and part Keegan history, detailing crucial moments in his comedic upbringing. (There are also mini-essays by comedy luminaries such as Christopher Guest, Tracy Morgan and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.) It’s a breezy read, but what is perhaps most impressive is that, unlike the rest of us, who risk draining the funny out of something by describing it, the Keys’ breakdown of classic bits, whether it’s “Who’s on First?” or the “Bring Out Your Dead” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, manages to be insightful while retaining the original gag’s humor.
For Keegan and Elle, these sorts of discussions come naturally — after all, it was the foundation of their relationship, which was professional before it was romantic. “We had many discussions about comedy and what we each thought was funny,” Elle says of that early get-to-know-you period. “Basically, we’re the cross-section of our senses of humor. We both like the way things heighten — we both like the way things build. We like something called a ‘turn,’ when a joke is going in one direction and you’re not expecting the ending — but then, you realize that ending is probably the inevitable ending. We had comedy-nerd conversations with each other about what made things funny or what made (sitcoms) work. Or, joke ratios — there are TV series that have really high joke ratios, where you’re laughing every two minutes. We were breaking down what we liked in comedy.”
“I don’t know that we could really describe the secret sauce of how you do that and still keep it entertaining,” says Keegan of the book’s accessible explainers to why funny things are funny. “It’s just something that was natural to us.”
“We both liked the science of humor,” Elle adds. “When I pitched Keegan the idea to do a book, many years ago, it got put on the back burner, but I was always gathering information. If Keegan happened to tell a story about The Second City, I wrote it down somewhere or I made a mental note: ‘Oh, that’s a fun story’ or ‘This is an interesting thing that happened in Keegan’s life’ or ‘Tell me more about this renaissance festival that you performed in when you were in Michigan.’”
Her quiet accumulation of her soon-to-be-husband’s anecdotes eventually found their way into the History of Sketch Comedy podcast, Elle encouraging him to really lean into his enthusiasm for sketch’s evolution over the centuries. “I would say to Keegan in the booth, ‘Okay, let’s do that one more time, but explain it as if our 10-year-old nephew and our 86-year-old aunt were sitting in front of you and you were telling them how it works. Your excitement about the subject is infectious, and it makes people want to get on board.’ To use humor to teach is super, super helpful. I think, with any subject, if you have a really funny teacher, you’re going to like that class. If you have a funny teacher who’s teaching you math and they do it with humor and they do it with excitement, it makes such a difference than if you have that Ferris Bueller teacher taking roll call going, ‘Bueller, Bueller, Bueller.’”
When Keegan and Elle first started hanging out, there wasn’t a thought of a possible love connection. (After all, they were both involved with other people at the time.) “We started trying to figure this out creatively,” she says. “We were like, ‘Oh, this would be a cool person (to collaborate with) — I’m producing, he’s trying to figure out what to do next with his career, let’s see if there’s something we can work on together.’ That was the seed — it took a long time for that to change.”
Keegan, who was previously married to actress and acting coach Cynthia Blaise, says of Elle, “I think that comedy was definitely one of the linchpins that brought us together.” He pauses, thinking of how to describe what it was about Elle that drew him to her. “There’s a magic about Elle,” he says finally. “There’s a magic about her that I experienced when I first met her. She just had a really different perspective on things. I liked her.”
Elle was familiar with Keegan’s work, meeting him after Key & Peele had finished its acclaimed run and he was now focused on acting in films and sitcoms. “I thought he was fantastic and brilliant,” she says. “I actually felt he was somehow being — I don’t know if this is the right word, but ‘underutilized’ came to mind. Kind of like when you see a Ferrari driving down the streets of New York City and you’re like, ‘God, that’s such a beautiful car and a well-made car — that car can do so many amazing things, and it’s just going from stoplight to stoplight in traffic.’ Keegan’s this incredible talent who can do just about anything, and if there was a way to make all the lights green, what would he be able to do?”
Sometimes, because creative partnerships are so intimate, deeper feelings can spark. But those feelings can also cause anxiety: What if we screw up this good thing we’ve got by dating? Elle didn’t have such concerns.
“As a husband and wife, people certainly have ups and downs and challenges, but we have to show up at work together,” she says. “So somehow, work actually is the easiest part of a relationship — or at least in our situation. I’m always amazed that people are like, ‘Oh, I could never work with my husband’ or ‘I could never work with my wife.’ Keegan and I are like, ‘Oh, that part is easy — we still have to deal with all the other stuff that married couples have to deal with.’ But when we show up on set — and I think it shows — we have a really, really good run of things that we do together,” a nod to their previous TV education/competition series Brain Games and Game On! “They’re positive and bring smiles to the world,” Elle says of their joint projects, “and those are the things that we want to work on together.”
Relationships require good communication, and although perhaps it’s an obvious parallel, I wondered how much overlap there is between improv and marriage. Keegan definitely sees similarities. “In our relationship we talk a lot about ‘flow’ and being in flow with each other,” he replies. “And I think ‘flow’ is another way of saying ‘Yes, and’ in any situation that you find yourself in, like buying a new home. When you’re having discussions with your spouse, you work on being in flow with each other.”
Being in flow has its benefits — especially this past weekend. “We were in an Uber last night going to a friend’s to watch the Jets-Chiefs game,” Elle recalls, “and I was texting people who were going to the game. And while we’re in the Uber, someone offered us two seats. So I just said to the Uber driver, ‘Can you make a left turn and head to the Lincoln Tunnel, please?’ We were in the car about an hour before kickoff, and I was like, ‘Are we doing this?’ And Keegan was like, ‘I guess so. We don’t know how we’re getting home, we don’t know where we’re going, but let’s just see where this journey takes us. Are you up for this?’ We kind of look at each other: ‘I’m up for this if you’re up for this.’”
“Our life seems to work best when those things happen when we’re in flow like that,” Keegan says.
Elle agrees. “I think our relationship, there’s a little bit of magic in there that we both appreciate and go, ‘Look, if somebody reached out, there’s a reason, so let’s give it a shot.’”
The book discusses various comedy titans — Monty Python, Milton Berle, Bert Williams, Carol Burnett — but I was curious if there were any comedy duos this couple particularly liked. “Mike Nichols and Elaine May have a lot of really, really fun bits,” Elle replies, adding, “Keegan and I have been working on our George Burns and Gracie Allen. And the Sonny and Cher stuff is so fantastic, their banter in the openings of the show with Sonny and Cher talking back to each other.”
Our modern era doesn’t seem to have the same kind of high-profile romantic comedy duos like Burns and Allen or Sonny and Cher, although Keegan points out that Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, who have been married 20 years, are a great present-day equivalent. “They have a podcast together,” he says. “I think that there might be couples that we’re just not seeing as much that are in the podcast world so it becomes, as opposed to being strictly performative, it’s more casual.”
“And Kelly Ripa!” adds Elle.
“Oh, Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos!” Keegan exclaims. “Yeah, there you go — there’s a husband-and wife-duo. That’s great, Elle.”
Having done a podcast and a book about sketch’s enduring appeal, do they fantasize about a particular bygone comedic period they would have liked to have experienced? “I would’ve loved to have performed in the vaudeville era,” Keegan says. “That would’ve been fantastic, and Elle and I would’ve made a good comedy team. We could have done the nice traditional crosstalk and been really, really good at it. We’re both trained actors who studied theater acting as well as on-camera acting, so that element of being in front of an audience has always been something that’s near and dear to my heart.” Keegan starts getting excited. “Also, being able to take the time to hone a bit is something that people must have really cherished — you could hone a bit until it was just absolutely perfect and…”
He laughs. “It’s that science again,” he says. “It’s being able to know exactly when the audience is going to respond, how they’re going to respond, how loudly they’re going to respond. And then you can play inside the bit and tweak it, polish it and perfect it.”
Keegan and Elle have other projects they’re hoping to do together — Elle makes an oblique reference to a narrative podcast series about a husband and wife who star in their own radio variety show — but in the meantime, they’re very happy to sit around discussing and debating comedy. They have a lot in common humor-wise, but not everything.
“We have a mutual love for all different types of comedy,” says Keegan. “But Elle grew up in a household where jokes were told — set up, punchline. If I can speak for you, honey, you’re partial to jokes — you really enjoy jokes. But I do, too — I’ve learned to enjoy jokes more now than I ever have before because of my exposure to her.”
“You (now) get better-quality jokes,” she teases him.
“That’s true. That’s true,” he replies, laughing.
Elle did have to sell Keegan on her overall comedic philosophy. “I have always been — and more so now than ever — very adamant that humor doesn’t have to punch down,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of conversations because he’s hosted so many events, and I’m usually the head writer on those projects, that humor should be positive and uplifting and bring joy. Keegan can make fun of himself, but we don’t make fun of Keegan, and Keegan doesn’t make fun of anyone else unless they’re in on it. That is something that I really have drawn a hard line on: In any writers’ room that I am in, or anything that I’m producing or directing or writing, it has to be supportive and fun. There’s no reason to mock people or embarrass people — you can make people laugh by including them in the jokes. When we first started working together, someone would give us a script or pitch us jokes, and some of the jokes might be funny or make you laugh, but sometimes you laugh at things because they’re uncomfortable, not that they’re funny.”
“They’re clever but mean,” adds Keegan. “Frankly, I was resistant to (Elle’s stance). I’m just like, ‘Hey, it’s a joke — funny is funny.’”
“‘You don’t leave laughs on the floor,’” says Elle, imitating Keegan.
“Right, exactly,” he replies. “But then I discovered that there was a better way — there was a more light-filled way to go about it. So that’s become a rule. A guideline in our lives and our work is to not punch down.”
One of their most endearing moments from their marriage so far was during the 2022 Webby Awards when The History of Sketch Comedy was the People’s Voice Winner for Best Writing, Podcast. The two of them went up to accept, but it was Elle who spoke from the stage. Fighting back tears, she simply said, “Find someone who inspires you,” followed by a kiss.
“For the Webbys, you’re only allowed five words,” she tells me about that viral moment. “So I had pitched Keegan ideas: ‘Laughter makes the best medicine.’ I was trying to come up with five-word things that have something to do with humor. And the reason why I got choked up is because I wouldn’t tell him what my five words were.
“There’s no way I would’ve created, written and directed that podcast if I wasn’t so inspired by him,” she continues. “I really wrote it as a love letter for Keegan. I was going to be the one giving this speech, and there’s no way I wasn’t going to share back in that speech. So that’s what I came up with. And then when I got up there, I realized, ‘Oh no, Keegan doesn’t know what I’m about to say.’ What you can’t see in the video is he got teary-eyed on the way off the stage, and then we got to the bottom of the steps and now he’s full tears and everybody who met us backstage was crying. It was really special.”
“It took me by surprise in the most lovely way,” he says, adoringly. “She was so wonderful and gracious and sweet. She could have said any five words…”
“He gave me a moment to shine,” Elle adds.
“I gave her a moment to shine,” he says. “And she gave it back.”