Keegan-Michael Key: Comedy Central star fondly recalls his days at university


Keegan-Michael Key’s popularity has soared nationally, thanks to his starring role in Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele.” But if he hadn’t first played the role of Jesus in a production of “Godspell”, there’s no telling where he’d be now.

“That’s what started it all,” said Key.

Key, one of the UDM’s most famous alums in the entertainment industry, lived at 8 Mile and Woodward, and went to Shrine High School in Royal Oak, where his drama teacher pushed him to come out of his shell and act.

“I really believe she’s responsible for a lot of my career,” said Key.

 During his junior year, Key played Jesus in “Godspell.”

The experience was an eye-opener for him.

“I remember after that thinking, ‘Geez, I don’t think I want to be a veterinarian anymore I think I want to do this,’” said Key. “Also, because being a veterinarian requires math and I don’t do math. I enjoyed acting so much.”

When it came time to deciding on a college, Key did what so many high school students do. He looked at his options.

He visited with professors at Kalamazoo College, Albion College and Wayne State University but ultimately decided on what was then known as the University of Detroit.

Key was familiar with the area. As a boy he lived in a house behind the McNichols campus.

But it wasn’t the close proximity that prompted him to choose the university. It was the personality of the theatre’s artistic director, David Regal.

According to Key, Regal stressed to his students that they were going to roll up their sleeves and work hard. He recalled that Regal also made it so that the students were basically running a rep company but at the same time learning practical knowledge about what they wanted to do for a living.

Years later, Regal says he knew Key was a special student.

“Like most students, he grew slowly,” said Regal. “He did extra things that escalated his growth as an artist. He organized a once-a-week improv group on campus and ran it, which became wildly popular. He was aggressive in finding things to do in the art and pushing himself.”

Regal and Key have remained in contact. They talk every few months.

Last spring, Key came back for one night and performed with other alums at the

Grounds Coffeehaus with the help of the theatre program.

“He brought the house down,” said Regal.

As a student here, Key was a commuter and lived at home, but he didn’t let that hold him back from enjoying college and getting involved on campus.

“I loved college,” said Key. “Especially with a liberal arts college, it’s there to teach you how to learn. I learned practical skills for what it was that I wanted to do for a living.”

While much of Key’s time was spent in the theatre program, he did make time for a staple of UDM student life. He became a brother of a fraternity, Phi Kappa Theta.

Early on into his pledging, Key had a conversation with an active brother. It left a great impression.

“I remember a brother taking the time to sit down and talk with me about what I wanted to do in college,” said Key. “For someone to say ‘Or so you’re an actor?’ I felt that he made an earnest connection with me. To me, that’s brotherhood. It is the fraternal nature of interaction that was always lovely, but being in the basement and singing songs together, that was the best.”


Stays in touch with fraternity

 Key wishes that he could have spent more time at the house and done more with Phi Kappa Theta but his other “fraternity”- theatre- took over.

Still, Key has stayed connected with his brothers over the years. In fact, for some Thanksgivings and Christmases, Key and other Michiganders will have dinner together at a brother’s house and play the piano and sing songs.

Even current brothers of the UDM chapter of Phi Kappa Theta feel a connection with Key. Some have even met him.

“I was able to see him two summers ago at a comedy show in Ferndale,” said Vinnie Paoletta, current president of Phi Kappa Theta. “Some brothers and I sat in the front row. He saw our letters and completely stopped the interview that he was doing on stage to talk with us.”

Paoletta said that after the show Key caught up with the group and talked for a little bit and also took pictures.

“He’s the nicest guy ever,” said Paoletta. “For him to give us a shout out like that, it really showed how proud he is of the fraternity.”

 Key graduated from what became the University of Detroit Mercy in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree of fine arts in acting but didn’t have a plan for what he wanted to do next.

He auditioned for the University Resident Theatre Association program, interviewing with several schools before ultimately picking Penn State University for graduate school.

After graduating with a master’s degree in fine arts in acting and performance and stage, Key came back home in 1996 and shot an independent film in Hamtramck. He met his future wife, Cynthia, during the filming.

Later in 1997, Key was working on a play when he and friends decided to renovate Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Café into the Planet Ant Theatre, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary as an institution.

Key auditioned and got into Second City Detroit, where he stayed for four years until moving onto the original Second City in Chicago.

During his two years in Chicago, Key was contacted by “MADtv” representatives about auditioning for their show in Los Angeles.

“They came and scouted me and said, ‘Can you come out to L.A. and audition for us?’ So I did,” said Key. “They offered me a job the next day. The big decision there was that I was getting ready to schedule my “Saturday Night Live” audition. It was like, ‘Well, they’re offering me this job now or I could wait another month and a half and go out to New York and audition for SNL.’ ”

Key said that he couldn’t pass the bird in the hand, so he accepted the “MADtv” offer.

He would later find out that the scouts at “MADtv” had been secretly keeping their eye on him for five years after he had sent them an audition tape back in 1999.

Key was hired at a time when two actresses had left “MADtv”.

“It’s funny, they came looking for a woman and they ended up hiring me,” said Key. “They hired me right after they hired Jordan Peele.”


‘MADtv’ connected Key, Peele

This connection would prove to be a important point in Key’s career, as he and Peele built a relationship that produced countless “MADtv” skits and, years later, a show titled “Key and Peele” on Comedy Central.

The sketch-comedy show debuted in January 2012, drawing some of the largest audiences Comedy Central has ever seen.

Just this past October, it was announced that “Key and Peele” had been renewed for a fourth season, much to the delight of Key.

Given his success, Key has had several opportunities to meet high profile people and celebrities, but some stand out more than others.

“The big one, of course, is the president,” said Key. “The fact that we found out that President Obama not only watched or saw the “Obama Luther” sketches but that he actually enjoyed them was huge. Then when we met him he said ‘I need Luther, I need him’. It’s almost as if we were actually expressing his frustrations, which is amazing.”


Detroit remains big part of life

Despite traveling all over the country to film shows and movies, Key remains close to his hometown.

“My favorite thing about the city is coney dogs,” said Key. “I have no business eating them but I have to. It’s my food, it’s Detroit food.”

Key said that he also loves going Comerica Park and Slows Bar-B-Q. In fact, Key is childhood friends with the owner and executive chef.

Family plays an important part in his life, too.

“My mom and I will always take the longest way possible we can when we go anywhere downtown,” said Key. “We’ll always take Woodward.”

Key has been know for keeping the spirits up of those he works with and when it comes to his legacy, his take on it is simple.

“I’d like people to just say ‘Here was a guy who loved other people and gave to them, and he also happened to be a pretty damn good actor,’ ” said Key. “My legacy would hopefully be that people loved me trying to be a human and not be trying to portray other humans all the time. I love my job, I wouldn’t do another job but I would like to be known as a person who left a legacy of helping his fellow man.”