‘Key & Peele’s Look Was Inspired by ‘South Park’

Sketch comedy has been a consistent fixture on TV for years and has taken a lot of forms over time. While Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have both moved on from the hit show, Key and Peele still ranks up there with the fan favorites of the genre.

The show reached critical acclaim and has become a cult classic, regularly being discovered by new fans in syndication and on social media, partly due to its still very relevant themes of race relations and parody of ethnic stereotypes. The show was inspired by many works that were influential on the stars and crew, but the director of the series actually drew special, personal inspiration from a pretty unlikely place– South Park.

Key and Peele

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele | Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Key and Peele was started as a project on Comedy Central when both titular stars were a few years after their roles in the sketch comedy classic, Mad TV. The two’s relationship as a comedy duo, however, goes back much further. The two met as performers at Second City, a legendary improv comedy troupe in Chicago, in 2002– well before their mutual appearance on Mad TV.

About three years after leaving their roles on Mad TV, the two by chance had the same manager. According to The Things, the manager approached Key about the possibility of doing a show with Peele. Peele responded, “Why would I not want to do a show with the greatest sketch writer I’ve ever known in my entire life?”

The show ran for only three years and 53 episodes but created a lasting impact. Even six years after the conclusion of the last episode, the two have regularly reprised their roles for events over the years, such as Key’s iconic performance as Luther (President Barrack Obama’s “anger translator”) at The White House Correspondents Dinner in 2015.

The inspiration behind the show

Key and Peele weren’t the only geniuses behind the iconic show. The show’s director Peter Atencio was massively influential in the theme, look, and feel of the show from the early days of the concept. While he may not get as much credit as the titular comics, the show was just as much his creation as theirs.

According to Mental Floss, Atencio drew a lot of inspiration from old sketch and improv HBO shows, like The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show, and Kids in the Hall. Atencio’s inspiration to become a filmmaker however came from animation rather than sketch comedy.

“It came out when I was in high school at the Denver School of the Arts,” Atencio says of the iconic animated comedy, “At the time they didn’t have Comedy Central in Colorado, and there was such a huge furor of controversy and buzz around this show. So I had a friend who had a cousin in another city record them on VHS and mail them to us.”

Hitting close to home

Peter Atencio is a native-born Coloradan from Ft. Collins, according to IMDb. South Park may be pretty unrealistic when it comes to its plots, but a lot of the locations and running gags from the show were inspired by co-creator Trey Parker’s youth in Conifer, CO.

The show was immediately endearing to many Colorado youths who identified with a lot of the absurdities the townsfolk of South Park exhibit, even if they are exaggerated. As fans readily point out on Reddit, the fictitious town of South Park was actually based on Fairplay Colorado, not far from where Parker grew up. The town was originally chartered under the same name as the fictitious town before changing its name to Fairplay and shares a lot of geography with the town from the show.

The little town of Fairplay sits in a high valley in the Rockies, not coincidentally called South Park and is at the south edge of Park County. Many of the buildings in the town are near matches to the buildings in the show, and many of the characters are homages to people Parker grew up with in Conifer or nearby Fairplay.

While South Park may not necessarily come across loudly as a foundational influence in Key and Peele, fans should be happy that the show was so inspirational to Atencio. Without his work on Key and Peele, who knows what amazingly hilarious moments fans of the show would have been denied.

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