Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have said the philosophy behind sketches in their popular Comedy Central show "Key & Peele" was to take the best five-minute scene from a larger comedy film and make it stand on its own. When the pair’s first feature film, “Keanu,” hits theaters Friday, fans will be hoping the other 85 minutes of the movie hold up as well.
"Keanu," which follows two cousins on a quest to recover a stolen cat, is the first major project from the writer/actor duo since "Key & Peele" ended in September, and the pressure's on. The transition from improv-based TV sketch comedy to feature films has a rocky history, with as many misses as hits. Writing short, minutes-long sketches is a very different game from penning a feature-length film, and success in one is no guarantee of success in the other.
“One of the main things about sketch comedy is you get in and you get out,” Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York, told International Business Times. “In a movie, you have to stay in that world for 80 or 90 minutes.”
For "Keanu," a lot of the early reviews have been positive, but critics are also making the inevitable comparisons between the film and the TV show where Key and Peele made their names — and assessing how these two fare vs. all the other sketch comedians before them who've attempted the leap into movies.
Watch the trailer for "Keanu" below:
“The first thing you think of is “Saturday Night Live,” said Thompson. “‘SNL’ has been the breeding ground for these types of things.”
Remember all the “SNL” sketches-turned-movie? There was the occasional hit, such as “The Blues Brothers” or “Wayne’s World,” but they are far outnumbered by the flops. “MacGruber,” “It’s Pat: The Movie,” “A Night at the Roxbury” and “The Ladies Man” were all critical and commercial disasters, to name just a few. The reason might be that taking one-note, improv-based characters from quirky sketches and fleshing out two-hour character arcs for them in a full-length movie is no easy task.
“The writing is so important. When you are focusing on sketches, you are not really focused on character,” said Michael Diaz, a New York-based improv comic who also wrote the 2006 film “The Story of Juan Bago.” “When you are doing a film, you have to be true to the story and develop the characters. When you get into a cutting room [to edit a movie], sometimes the improv doesn’t fit and it doesn’t work. You need fleshed-out characters.”
It is perhaps for that reason that “Saturday Night Live” has had more success making movie stars, instead of movies — think Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell. All of them graduated from “Saturday Night Live” and found enormous success, but with roles that were not hamstrung by the expectations facing familiar characters from already popular sketches.
"Saturday Night Live" is far from the only jumping off point for sketch comedians — Thompson said the tradition of comics transitioning mediums dates back to Vaudeville and the advent of television. Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx emerged from "In Living Color" in the 1990s to become blockbuster superstars. Keenen Ivory Wayans and his brothers, Marlon and Shawn — the creative forces behind that same show — also went on to successful film careers in their own rights.
However, none of those eventual stars did it alone. Will Ferrell, for example, partnered with director Adam McKay and veteran producer Judd Apatow for “Anchorman” in 2004, which turned Ferrell into a comedy institution. After that, Ferrell and McKay founded Gary Sanchez Productions, the production company that created the popular video site Funny Or Die, as well as over a dozen hit films and TV shows. Sandler has built a similar empire with his production company, Happy Madison.
“[Sketch comedy and film] are two very different mediums. In improv or stand-up, the talent is front and center. In film there are many other factors and pieces,” said Jeetendr Sehdev, a celebrity branding authority and marketing professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “The fact that Will Ferrell is a big comedy brand and has a whole operation that understands that brand and how to translate that successfully is so important.”
Stand-up comedian Amy Schumer produced “Inside Amy Schumer,” a sketch show on Comedy Central, for three seasons before she teamed up with Apatow to write and star in 2015’s “Trainwreck.” The movie was a box office hit, earning Schumer a Golden Globe nomination.
Others haven't been so lucky. After becoming one of the biggest stars on “Saturday Night Live,” Andy Samberg branched out into film with 2007’s “Hot Rod.” It did not go well. While Samberg has continued to pop up in various movies as a supporting character and he's still a star on TV — his Fox series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” won a Golden Globe — he was never able to establish himself as a comedic leading man on the big screen.
With Key and Peele, though, there is plenty of reason for hope. The pair is working with longtime “Key & Peele” director Peter Atencio, someone who no doubt understands their vision. “Keanu” is also not an adaptation of any particular sketch, even if it harnesses a similar sensibility to Key and Peele’s Comedy Central series.
Plus, “Key & Peele” always had a cinematic quality to its production value that can easily be translated to film. In that respect, the two comedians’ movie-like philosophy towards sketch comedy might be the key to success in their movie.
“It’s not a science,” said Thompson, the pop culture professor at Syracuse University. “It’s show business. There is no formula.”