There's plenty of us who remember the first time we saw our parents cry, but for Keegan-Michael Key an even more meaningful core memory is the first time he heard his dad laugh.
In his new book The History of Sketch Comedy: A Journey through the Art and Craft of Humor, which the actor and comedian cowrote with his wife, producer and writer Elle Key, Key remembers the impact that Saturday Night Live had on him and his dad.
"The first time I remember hearing my father laugh was in the living room of my childhood home," Key writes. "My father watched the TV screen in awe and in glee. And he was chuckling. My man was chuckling. My father, who was six foot four, 270 pounds, and an otherwise very stoic man, was losing his damn mind. What the hell was happening? It turns out that one of the greatest comedic talents of all time was on TV."
Rich Polk/Getty Images; Everett Collection Keegan-Michael Key; Eddie Murphy
That talent was Eddie Murphy, then a cast member on SNL, who was involved in a sketch with famous musician Stevie Wonder. In the sketch, Murphy plays an executive auditioning talent to play Stevie Wonder impersonators, one of whom includes the real Wonder. This ultimately leads Murphy to do his own Wonder impression.
Sally Montana Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key
"Eddie does his own spot-on version of Stevie, IN FRONT OF THE LEGEND THAT IS STEVIE WONDER," writes Key. "What?!?? And then, get this, Eddie starts singing! Like he's going to sing better than Stevie Wonder. And he does! What the heck . . .? My little mind was blown. Ain't nobody in my house was ever the same again. My father and I both drank the giggle juice, and we were done. Finished. Fini. Terminado. Kaput. And if I am ever asked if there was a specific moment that started me on my path toward the mecca of sketch comedy, I would say it was this monumental moment, watching this scene, in that little house on Woodstock Drive off of 8 Mile Road. This was the beginning of all of it for me."
Key uses this moment as his own gateway to sketch comedy, before delving into the broader history of the form in general in his new book, out Oct. 3. EW shares an exclusive excerpt below.
Chronicle Books 'The History of Sketch Comedy'
The History of Sketch Comedy excerpt
I would like to take you on a journey from the early origins of comedy, way back in Rome and Greece, to a place that is not so way back—the home of my early origins . . . a block south of 8 Mile in Detroit. Yes, Motown, the Motor City, the D, which is where I grew up. But believe it or not, Greece wasn't totally out of the picture. After all, I lived a short chariot ride away from a place called Greektown. And Coney Dogs, which were served in restaurants owned by Greeks, were a staple of my childhood. There was even a restaurant called The Parthenon. Which, by the way, had excellent moussaka.
I lived in a small house on the border between mostly Black Detroit and the mostly white suburbs. The area has had some notoriety, thanks to the film 8 Mile starring Eminem. And no, I don't know Eminem, or Berry Gordy, or Stevie Wonder for that matter. I didn't know Marvin Gaye either. I did know Gladys Knight's niece, though. We grew up in the same neighborhood, so maybe that counts for something.
Anyhow, at a very young age, somewhere around when I was three or four years old, my parents told me I was adopted. My understanding of adoption was that the woman who gave birth to me wasn't able to raise me, and my adopted parents picked me to raise as their own. And as a child I always wondered what would happen if these new parents ever decided that they didn't want me either. And now that I'm older and wiser, I'd love to say that I have it all figured out, but that's not exactly true. I know that I'm very lucky to have the home I did, and I appreciate all of the opportunities that have been given to me along the way, but you probably don't need a degree in astrophysics to see that kids who are adopted may at times be faced with a lack of self-worth or can feel like they don't belong or fit in. Maybe even more than others. And I am no exception.
And yes, I do know that astrophysics isn't the right science here, but it's funny to name something that's clearly unexpected. I could have gone with philately, which might have been even funnier, as it sounds even more like a social science, but is actually the study of postal stamps. I mean, there are a lot of sciences to pick from. For example, there's pomology, which I only just recently learned is not the study of palms. One of my favorites is gigantology, which is indeed the study of giants. And frankly, I probably also said astrophysics because it might get a reaction, a smile, a chuckle, or maybe even someone out there might read this and think, Hey, this guy makes mistakes and I make mistakes, so we're similar . . . and I like him for that.
My bigger point is that maybe most, if not all, -ologists can figure this one out . . . that when a kid doesn't feel like they belong, they can certainly act out or, well, in my case, act. Whether I was fully aware of it or not, I was constantly trying to figure out what I needed to do to make everybody accept me, and it was certainly reflected in my behavior. Thankfully for me, the energy I put into getting into fights on the playground, and speaking out of turn in class, did eventually transition into my joining chorus and even landing a role in the school play.
I know I'm not alone on this. A number of my comedic contemporaries today have had a similar path. There are many actors who use this art form as a way to channel their energy into something positive, and something that brings joy to others. Many of my talented peers, from Jim Carrey to Tracy Morgan, have found humor as a path through some darker times. The brilliant and Oscar-winning actor Alan Arkin had such a rough time growing up that he specifically credits his time performing at The Second City for saving his life.
The First Time I Heard My Father Laugh
Even though it was most definitely past my bedtime, it was a rare Saturday that I didn't try my very darndest to sneak back downstairs and catch some of the great Saturday Night Live.
The first time I remember hearing my father laugh was in the living room of my childhood home. My father watched the TV screen in awe and in glee. And he was chuckling. My man was chuckling. My father, who was six foot four, 270 pounds, and an otherwise very stoic man, was losing his damn mind. What the hell was happening? It turns out that one of the greatest comedic talents of all time was on TV.
There was magic coming from the screen; it was a scene on SNL where Stevie Wonder, yes, that Stevie Wonder ("My Cherie Amour," "Ribbon in the Sky," "Higher Ground," "Superstition") is auditioning for a job as someone who impersonates . . . Stevie Wonder. And he starts his impression with a song, and he's doing the whole thing like off-kilter and off-key. It's really funny. He does a truly fantastic job as a terrible singer. He continues to sing and sing badly.
Then it happened, the camera turns to reveal a young and brave sketch comedian named Eddie Murphy. In the scene, Eddie is playing the executive who is running the audition, and he stops Stevie Wonder and says:
Man, that's the worst Stevie Wonder impression I've ever seen in my life.
And then, Stevie responds in a voice that channels an awkward and high-pitched Jerry Lewis:
What's the matter with it?
Like straight-up Jerry Lewis, he's playing a nerd and he's killing it. Then Eddie, who is clearly frustrated, shares:
Oh man, what you're doing is ridiculous, man. I know Stevie Wonder and what you're doing is . . . it's too tense, man. You need to mellow out a bit.
What came next is one of the most creative, funniest, boldest moves I'd ever seen in my life.
Eddie Murphy reaches into his pocket for something and he says,
Now, the secret to doing Stevie Wonder is . . .
And then this ballsy motherf---er reveals a pair of black sunglasses and goes on to show our Stevie Wonder "impersonator" how to really do a "Stevie Wonder." He's just like,
Man, is Stevie unique. You got to have the glasses and you got to loosen up that neck, man. Move that neck around. Just got to move that neck around a little bit.
And Eddie does his own spot-on version of Stevie, IN FRONT OF THE LEGEND THAT IS STEVIE WONDER. What?!?? And then, get this, Eddie starts singing! Like he's going to sing better than Stevie Wonder. And he does! What the heck . . .?
My little mind was blown. Ain't nobody in my house was ever the same again. My father and I both drank the giggle juice, and we were done. Finished. Fini. Terminado. Kaput. And if I am ever asked if there was a specific moment that started me on my path toward the mecca of sketch comedy, I would say it was this monumental moment, watching this scene, in that little house on Woodstock Drive off of 8 Mile Road. This was the beginning of all of it for me.
EXCERPT from The History of Sketch Comedy: A Journey through the Art and Craft of Humor by Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key Published by Chronicle Books, October 3, 2023