Keegan-Michael Key’s journey to ‘SNL’ began on Detroit stages

The Detroiter, who hosts this weekend’s ‘Saturday Night Live,’ has been steady climbing…

Keegan-Michael Key’s journey to ‘SNL’ began on Detroit stages
Keegan-Michael Key's journey to 'SNL' began on Detroit stages 1

The Detroiter, who hosts this weekend’s ‘Saturday Night Live,’ has been steady climbing the comedy ladder for the last three decades

When it was announced earlier this month that Keegan-Michael Key would host this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live,” the Detroit-raised star responded to the news with four simple words. 

“Dreams do come true,” Key wrote on Twitter

It is indeed a dream for most everybody who has performed sketch comedy to one day grace the stage of NBC’s long-running comedic institution, which is in the home stretch of its 46th season. 

For Key, who was born in Southfield and raised in Detroit, it’s the culmination of the 50-year-old’s long journey as a performer, which has included six seasons of Fox’s one-time “SNL” rival “MADtv” and five seasons of Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” (with his “MADtv” co-star, Jordan Peele) and which began in the city as a member of the now-defunct Second City Detroit troupe and a founder of Hamtramck’s Planet Ant theater. 

Planet Ant executive director Darren Shelton has known Key from an early age and has watched in awe as his career has progressed, step by step, over the last two decades. 

“It’s always been really cool to see,” says Shelton, 31, whose parents owned the coffee shop that eventually became Planet Ant. “It’s like, Keegan’s playing a reporter in (the 2004 Bernie Mac comedy) ‘Mr. 3000,’ and then it’s like, Keegan’s on ‘MADtv’ now! And then, ‘Key & Peele’ is a thing that exists! It’s always crazy to see someone you know hit these marks, and every time he checks another box it’s surreal.”

In addition to being an extremely personable and attentive individual, Shelton says Key has always been an inspiration as a performer, exacting enough that he insisted on having a live chicken as part of his first Planet Ant production, “Praying Mantis,” in 1996. And when he wanted the programs for the show to have burnt edges, Key and his castmates took matches and lit the edges of every one of the booklets the night prior to opening. 

“I remember specifically one time, he was a character in an improv scene who was drinking a hot coffee mug. And you could see that it was hot on his lips. You could see he was blowing the steam off of it. At one point he stopped in mid-sentence to interrupt himself by taking a sip of his coffee,” says Shelton. “That’s improv basics done at the highest, most professional level. That hot coffee became a character in the scene, and he never says a word, he never mentions it. But he’s holding it up close to his mouth, and the way he holds his coffee cup, it demonstrates the body language of the character. He creates so much about this character just by this choice to hold this coffee cup and stand there drinking it.” 

Key’s performer chops were honed in college; he earned a bachelor’s degree in theater at University of Detroit, and later a master’s degree of fine arts at Penn State University. 

“He is an actor, and that’s what makes everything he does really solid,” says Margaret Edwartowski, a mainstay in Detroit’s improv comedy community, who is a co-founder of the Planet Ant Improv Colony and a former Second City castmate of Key’s. 

“He has this great training on top of being crazy talented, and on top of being really likable,” she says. “He’s the guy that if you had a scene, you wanted to give it to, to make sure it got into the show. Because you would hand him his script and he would completely understand everything you were trying to accomplish, and put 110% in all the time. Sometimes 160%, which is more than you even wanted, but he doesn’t phone it in, ever. He just has this very contagious energy and a very likable vibe. He’s just magnetic.” 

Key, who performed as Horatio in an off-Broadway production of “Hamlet” in 2017, in recent years has starred in the Netflix comedy series “Friends from College,” the Rudy Ray Moore biopic “Dolemite is My Name” and the holiday-themed “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.” In December’s “The Prom,” he shared scenes — and a kiss — with Meryl Streep. Also in 2020, he hosted a game show on CBS entitled “Game On!” 

He has also lent his voice to a number of animated projects, including “Storks,” “Archer,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Hotel Transylvania 3,” “American Dad,” “Toy Story 4” and Disney’s remake of “The Lion King.” He has a voice role in this summer’s upcoming “Hotel Transylvania 4.”

Additionally in the voice field, Key recently hosted a podcast which was directed by his wife, Elle Key, titled “The History of Sketch Comedy.” In the series, he explores the roots of sketch comedy as well as his role in it, including the sizable impact “Saturday Night Live” had on his own life: in 1983 when he heard his stoic father roar with laughter watching Eddie Murphy impersonate Stevie Wonder while Wonder was at his side, he calls the moment “the beginning of my sketch-comedy path.”

On Saturday, that path comes full circle. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

‘Saturday Night Live’

11:30 p.m. Saturday


NBC

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