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

Keegan-Michael Key is one of the biggest names in comedy today, right up there with Louis C.K. and Nick Kroll. The "MadTV" alum and co-creator of Comedy Central's "Key & Peele" also happens to be a Detroit-native and a co-founder of Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theater. And on Dec. 22, he's returning home with the 313, an improv troupe composed of Detroit comedians who now live in Los Angeles, for a special performance at the Detroit Institute of Arts presented by the Detroit Creativity Project, a group that seeks to inspire young people through the art of improvisation.

Model D spoke with Keegan-Michael Key by phone about Detroit, his work post-"Key & Peele," and his hyphenated first name.

Model D: What's it like performing in your hometown?

Keegan-Michael Key: It's always lovely. Unequivocally the best time. The warm energy, the level of support, are things I don't get anywhere else. Unfortunately I only get to perform there once every year or two. I'd really love to do a play at my theater -- the Planet Ant Theater. I maybe did two plays there and haven't had the opportunity to do one in about ten years. But if I did that my managers and agents would rip their hair out. "You're going to spend four months in Detroit?! Doing a play?!" But that's my love. When I've performed in Detroit, it's been improv and mostly for the Detroit Improv Festival.

MD: What are your thoughts about the city these days?

KMK: Downtown is unrecognizable in the greatest possible way. Seeing what young people call Midtown, which we called the Cass Corridor back in the day, have so much vibrancy is incredible. But we need to make sure it spreads out further so the neighborhoods start to thrive. And it's happening -- slowly, but surely. I'm very hopeful for what the city can become.

MD: What was Detroit's comedy scene like during the Second City days? And how has it informed your current brand of comedy?

KMK: It was an exciting time because we were the beginning of the comedy community. That was fantastic. And that's where I learned how to write as an improvisor, so it's had quite an impact on how I create sketches and characters. In improv, since you create on the fly, it's really expedited my character creation process. All that was born out of my experiences 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 for the show have more autonomy to work with their own ideas, which we then edit and rework. But when Jordan and I write for sketch, there's lots of improv involved. The two of us, riffing symbiotically, re-improvising scenes. Then we'll polish the material that night, and go through it again.

MD: There's a number of Detroit comedians in L.A., hence the "313," and I understand you are very close. Why is that bond so strong?

KMK: We knew we were creating something from scratch at the Second City [Detroit]. And from there, we had a feeling of impending doom that Second City could close any day. Somehow that stress kept us close. Also many of us already had that camaraderie because the majority of comedy people were actors first. We had done plays, independent films, knew each other from University of Detroit and Wayne State. We've known each other for a long time.

MD: Tell me about the Detroit Creativity Project. What's your involvement and why do you believe in its mission?

KMK: I'm a board member of the Detroit Creativity Project. And I'm involved because the arts is a great way to crack young people open. Every human being in the world should experience a little vulnerability, and improv forces you to be vulnerable. You really have to rely on another person for it to work the way it should. You learn how to create something out of nothing as a group. That's what the citizens of Detroit need to do, as a city, as a village. So if we teach young people problem solving skills in an affirming, positive way, they'll bring that to city as they grow older. I think it's vital and necessary.

MD: The groundbreaking show "Key & Peele" unfortunately ended. What are you currently working on?

KMK: Jordan and I made a feature with the working title "Keanu" that'll come out April 29 of next year. I'm in talks to potentially do a film with James Franco and Bryan Cranston. I'm also doing a lot of producing, one with Vine superstar Andrew Bach for Fox. And I might do some Broadway. Many lovely potential things that I'm feeling positive about.

MD: Lastly, you don't see many people with hyphenated first names. What's the story behind it?

KMK: My mother wanted to name me "Michael," but my dad thought that everyone would call me "Junior" (Key's dad's name is Michael). They looked in a baby book, saw "Keegan." Then dad had the brilliant, simply brilliant, idea to use both. So now there's not an official document in the world that my name fits in.

For details about "An Evening with Keegan-Michael Key and the 313," happening Dec. 22 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, click here. The show is presented by the Detroit Creativity Project, which seeks to inspire young people through the art of improvisation.

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