This Week’s “Real Time” Explored Sketch Comedy History

Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key joined Bill Maher in conversation

Bill Maher
This week's "Real Time" featured a trip into comedy's history.

Sometimes the main interview on a given episode of Real Time With Bill Maher takes flight; sometimes it never gets off the ground. When he gets confrontational (as he did with David Mamet last year), there’s a great energy to the conversation; when he’s more in agreement with his guest (as he was with Elon Musk earlier this year) the result is more inert. Get Maher discussing comedy, though, and you generally get some of the show’s most engaging and candid moments.

Cue collaborators and spouses Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key, on Real Time this week to promote their new book The History of Sketch Comedy: A Journey Through the Art and Craft of Humor. (And yes, that does mean that both Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have books out this month.) Maher talking about books and/or comedy has made for some of the show’s best interviews; an interview that touches on both seems like a win for all involved. Maher also noted that this was a milestone for the show: namely, the first time he’d had a married couple on the show together.

The conversation included some questions about the challenges of having someone be your partner in both work and life. Elle was quick to point out that each of them had projects of their own in addition to their collaborations. Still, humor seemed to be a part of their lives both personally and professionally. “When we’re sitting there having breakfast with each other, we try to make each other laugh,” Keegan-Michael said. 

That segued into a broader discussion of humor and the hazards of trying to approach jokes from a more analytical standpoint. Keegan-Michael got one of the bigger laughs of the night by pointing out that comedians don’t necessarily laugh at one another’s jokes. “We admire,” he said, “We go, ‘That was good. That was a funny one.”

“I’ve never made Jay Leno laugh,” Maher admitted.

Maher went on to suggest that both sketch comedy and marriage only work when there’s true commitment there — and praised Keegan-Michael’s for being thoroughly invested in the material when he did sketches. “There’s never any doubt that you’re in it all the way,” Maher said.

It wasn’t a revelatory conversation, but it did involve three people who all know a lot about comedy and its history sharing what they knew, and that was entertaining in its own right. There was a slightly awkward moment when Maher contrasted the styles of The Carol Burnett Show to Saturday Night Live — though Keegan-Michael Key’s Harvey Korman impression was, unsurprisingly, spot-on.

As longer interviews on Real Time go, this was a good one. The Keys gave a good sense of their knowledge of comedy and their personal dynamic, and Maher’s comments about where his personal history and approach to comedy overlapped with each of them (and where it didn’t) were revealing. And hey, the lineage of sketch comedy does seem like a subject with limitless possibilities.

Some other notable moments from the episode:

  • Maher, on New York City mayor Eric Adams’s international trip to discourage migrants from crossing the border into the U.S:  “Don’t you know our catchphrase? We’re the Little Apple!” 
  • “Donald Trump was in court this week. I’m not sure of that; I’m just playing the odds.”
  • This episode’s panel? Reason’s Matt Welch and The Dispatch’s Sarah Isgur. The conversation was largely in the vein of two people with relatively broad knowledge talking about recent news — in this case, immigration, the Speaker of the House and retail theft.
  • Isgur surprised Maher by pointing out that fentanyl is used in medical procedures. “We actually do use fentanyl for real reasons,” she said. “It’s just that if you use it for not-real reasons, you die.”
  • Late in the panel discussion, Maher brought up a recent poll indicating that a growing number of Americans are interested in a third party candidate. He raised the question of whether there was anything more to this than past third party runs — which led Isgur to propose (jokingly?) that No Labels should put Matthew McConaughey at the top of their ticket.
  • Maher, on the idea of a McConaughey candidacy: “No, we don’t need that.”
  • Welch, on the third party question: “Americans are notoriously…third party in the streets, major party in the sheets.”
  • Maher, in the middle of a New Rules bit about pandas: “The zoo is animal jail with balloons.”
  • The bulk of New Rules focused on the controversy surrounding Hasan Minhaj. “If you’re going to speak truth to power, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you have to include the truth part,” he said.

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