How Not Wanting to Disappoint Certain People Lead Keegan-Michael Key to a Successful Career

September 4, 2018

During a SAG-AFTRA Foundation interview, funnyman Keegan-Michael Key revealed two pivotal decisions he made in his life which were based on not wanting to disappoint certain people. One was a drama teacher and the other a friend. In retrospect, the award-winning performer can see just how impactful those two moments were in regards to his career path.

At the age of 17, Key’s high school drama teacher believed in his emerging talent enough to cast him as Jesus in the school play Godspell. Being he was not a senior, Key was astonished and honored to learn he was given the part.

“When somebody believes in you, you’re given extra currency. It’s the most important thing in the world … At least this person who’s an authority figure in your life says, ‘No, you can do the job. There’s something intrinsic about you. You–I’m not picking anybody else. And I know you can do it, Keegan.’ It means the world to you when somebody gives you a shot, a chance,” Key said.

Young Key decided to go along with his teacher’s talent assessment and try to make her happy. He recalls,“I didn’t want to let her down.” He worked with a strong sense of purpose and soon realized giving his best performance enabled him to move even the unlikeliest of his peers to tears. As a result of this experience, the Michigan native picked up the acting bug, and thus, Key credits his beloved high-school drama teacher with giving him a career direction in life.

In college, Key furthered his education in the fine arts and earned a masters from Penn State University. He compares his graduate school studies to British training: “Lots of technique–lots and lots and lots … You could always fall back on this piece of technique or this piece of technique,” he said. He then took his classical training and auditioned at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival where he was selected for roles in two different productions. But before he could act in the plays, Key came to a proverbial fork in the road. Indeed, his good friend from Michigan was asking him to return to Detroit so she could cast him as the lead in her independent student film.

Going back and forth in his mind whether to prioritize Shakespearean roles or his friend’s thesis project, Key recalls the determining factor in making up his mind; he decided to return to his friend because he “didn’t want to disappoint her.”

While acting in her film, Key came to find that several of his castmates were performers at Second City Improv Theater in Detroit, and they were encouraging Key to audition for the comedy theater. “How dare you. I’m a classically trained dramatic actor–how dare you!” Key now laughs remembering his initial frame of mind while considering the pursuit of improv comedy. Fortunately, Key took them up on their suggestion, auditioned, and soon was a member of Second City’s mainstay cast. That decision proved to change the trajectory of his career.

Key never imagined that choosing his friend’s film role over two classical theater roles would so profoundly shape his career path. It wasn’t long before he joined Second City in Chicago where scouts regularly search for talent. Indeed, Key was plucked to become a cast member on comedy sketch television series MADtv where he continued for six seasons playing characters like Coach Hines and Dr. Funkenstein. More importantly, he met and formed a comedic rapport with fellow castmate Jordan Peele while on MADtv. And the two performers famously went on to star in the super-viral Comedy Central sketch series Key & Peele from 2012 to 2015. The comedic duo went on to win a Peabody Award for their work.

Now Key can call himself an actor, comedian, writer, and producer. His other work includes roles in USA Network’s comedy series Playing House, as Ethan Turner in the Netflix ensemble Friends from College, in the action-comedy film Keanu which Key co-wrote, and in 2017, Key made his Broadway debut in Steve Martin’s comedy Meteor Shower.

With a steady stream of new roles and opportunities, Key must look back and be really glad he didn’t want to disappoint his loved ones.