When Keegan-Michael Key is on, he’s the life of the party.
At last month’s VIP preview at Jack White’s Third Man Records store in the Cass Corridor, the Southfield native and star of Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” was practically bouncing off the walls. He shook hands, took selfies, cracked jokes and jumped in the photo booth with strangers, all while radiating an enthusiasm and excitement for life that couldn’t be faked.
“When I am in a group of people, like more than 30 or 50 people, what you’re getting from me is a classic Myers-Briggs extrovert,” says Key over the phone earlier this week from his home in Los Angeles. “Different people do different things: some people like to gamble, some people are very sexually active, some people play sports to get their adrenaline. I simply need to be interacting with another human being to get energy. When I am around people, I get giddy. I don’t know how to be sullen around a group of people — especially when I am home.”
Key is returning home Tuesday for a sold-out benefit show at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which will raise money for the Detroit Creativity Project, which aims to bring improv training to middle and high school kids.
Improv is close to his heart. Aside from being a former cast member of the Second City troupes in Detroit and Chicago, Key founded Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre in the mid-1990s.
He would go on to star on the Fox sketch comedy series “MADtv” for six seasons and later on “Key & Peele,” which co-starred fellow comic Jordan Peele and wrapped its acclaimed five-season run in September. In April, he appeared at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, performing as an angry translator for President Barack Obama — alongside the president.
But before he shared an audience with the President, Key was in the audience at the movies with his father.
Key knew his father — a large man standing 6 feet, 4 inches and 270 pounds — as a relatively stoic guy who kept to himself. But at the movies, he would transform, letting out what Key describes as a “big, high, shrilly, shreiky hyena laugh” when something would crack him up.
“It was like a light bulb turned on, and you could see the vulnerability in this enormous man,” says Key, 44. “And I guess even as a child, I must have clocked the magic of that. What’s the alchemy that makes these art forms change a man in his tracks, and wouldn’t that be a fun thing to do?”
Laughs became his pursuit, and he began performing comedy skits in his living room for his family. Through his schooling — Shrine Catholic High School in Royal Oak, University of Detroit Mercy and Penn State (earning a Master of Fine Arts in Theater) — Key kept his focus on his career goal.
Like anyone who takes on comedy as a career, “SNL” was a dream. While at Second City, Key remembers being considered for a part on “SNL” at the same time he was offered a job at “MADtv.” He chose the sure thing and never looked back.
Now he’s starring in movies — “Keanu,” in which he stars with Peele, will be released in April — and he’s stacking his schedule with projects for the next two years.
“If you want to see a magic trick, come to L.A. right now and take a walk with me, because I’ll be levitating,” he says.
“It’s quite amazing how if you gamble on yourself, things can go your way.”
An Evening with Keegan-Michael Key and the 313
8 p.m. Tuesday
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit
Tickets sold out, some VIP packages available
Call (313) 833-7900 or visit dia.org