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December 12, 2019

No Brain, No Gain

Comedy and science converge for Keegan-Michael Key in Nat Geo’s Brain Games.

Jacqueline Cutler
  • Richard Cartwright/National Geographic

For a contained guy, Keegan-Michael Key excels at rage.

While Jordan Peele perfectly imitated no-drama Obama on Comedy Central's Key & Peele, Key seethed with righteous fury as anger translator Luther.

Yet in real life, he radiates Midwestern niceness, even after living in New York City for years. Though he's been Horatio in Hamlet at the Public Theater and performed in Steve Martin's Meteor Shower on Broadway, Key became famous and won an Emmy for sketches on Key & Peele.

"My background is Shakespeare and the classics — Molière and Ibsen," he says. "I am a drama nerd."

A drama nerd who's having a terrific run.

In addition to hosting National Geographic's revamped Brain Games, he's narrating an adaptation of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, one of his five Netflix projects.

This year, he's voiced characters in The Lion King, Toy Story 4 and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a prequel series on Netflix. He's also thrilled about his roles in Dolemite Is My Name (with Eddie Murphy) and Ryan Murphy's upcoming The Prom (with Meryl Streep).

"It's been a fun year — a year full of variety," Key says, taking a break from shooting Brain Games promos in Brooklyn's GUM Studios.

The one-hour episodes, which premiere January 20, present celebs with logic and memory challenges. Participants include Ted Danson, Mark Cuban, Tiffany Haddish and married duo Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell.

It feels like a perfect fit.

"His improv background, spontaneity and natural wit — and ability to quickly engage with a comedic beat or piece of science and make it relatable — make him an avatar for our audience," says Geoff Daniels, Nat Geo's executive vice-president of global unscripted entertainment.

"I'm fascinated by brain chemistry, brain psychology, neuroscience," Key explains. "Signing on for this show was a no-brainer."

As was narrating Dr. Seuss's pithy take on trying new things. "Keegan had to match the timing of our temp narration," notes Jared Stern, executive producer of Green Eggs and Ham. "A lot of actors would have been frustrated over that. Instead, he was joyous, and he was great. He nailed it."

Key's first exposure to improv was the British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? After earning a B.A. in theater at the University of Detroit Mercy and an MFA at Penn State, he joined The Second City Detroit. "It was as if I got a second master's degree in comedy," he recalls.

Yet growing up in Detroit, stardom wasn't his goal. "I thought I would be a truck-driving veterinarian," he says. "I was going to drive around the country and help animals. But I always, always, always loved movies."

Making more movies is his dream. "I want to be the next Jason Bourne," Key says. "I want to do action cinema, thrillers, spy thrillers. I would love to be that person who gets to do a nice, small dramatic indie and also do something costarring with Dwayne Johnson."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2019

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