Reboot Star Keegan-Michael Key Talks Edgy Comedy, Emulating 90s Sitcoms, And More [Exclusive Interview]

There have been endless reboots and revivals of various sitcoms from television history, but Hulu's "Reboot" is bringing back a 2000s sitcom you've never seen. The new comedy series from "Modern Family" creator Steve Levitan puts a meta spin on the sitcom revival trend by following the cast of a fictional but familiar sitcom called "Step Right Up" as they embark on bringing back the series for today's audience. Keegan-Michael Key leads the series as Reed, the sitcom's patriarch who left the series, only for it to be canceled shortly thereafter. Though he hoped to embark on a more serious acting career, he didn't exactly blossom as a big star after the sitcom ended.

Leading up to the show's premiere on Hulu today, /Film had a chance to speak with Keegan-Michael Key about tackling the surprisingly edgy approach to reviving a 2000s sitcom. Key also acts as producer on the series, so his perspective on the show's comedy is an integral part of the show's DNA. In our interview, find out how he balances the comedy and drama on the series, what his work entails as the show's star and producer, and what sitcoms he might like to see get a revival. And is there any chance for the return of "Key and Peele" anytime soon?

'How does this work logistically so that an audience will laugh out loud at it?'

Have you been involved with this series since it started development, or did you come along at a later time?

At the very beginning of the development, I sat down with Steve and had a meeting years ago, and he pitched the idea to me. And I said, "I'm in. I'm here for that. I'm attached. Wherever this goes, however long it takes, I'm in." And we went from there. So I was involved since the very beginning.

Not only do you star in this series, but you're also a producer. Considering your extensive experience creating, writing, and producing your own TV projects, can you talk about how involved you are in the creative direction of the show when you're not the show's creator, but you are still starring and producing?

Yeah, it's an interesting division of labor for me. Most of the time, I would say, what I do is I spend time clarifying. So on set, if it's possible that I can make something clearer or make something pop a little bit more, I do a lot of the producing on set. So I'll make a comment about, "What if we were to change that line here to this," or, "Can I massage this here?" And just have discussions with [creator] Steve [Levitan]. For me, everything is about clarity. How do we make it the clearest it can be?

Then the other thing is bifurcating my focus a bit. So I spend half of my time, or 70% of my time, thinking about Reed and his motivations, what he wants to do, what he's trying to achieve as a character. Then another amount of my time thinking, how does this work logistically so that an audience will laugh out loud at it? It's funny, Paul [Reiser] has that line in the show, his character says, "Last time I checked, we were writing a comedy show. We don't want them to be sitting around in thoughtful amusement. We actually want them to laugh," which is almost like he's making Steve's mission statement. So I feel like sometimes that's part of my job. "Are we going to do this here? I feel like we should have that coverage there." That kind of thing to make sure it's solid, that the comedy is solid.

'The improvisations fit in a much narrower lane on this show. But we get them in'

Was it always intended to be this edgy? Because it feels like it could easily be a series that didn't have any teeth and could have been on a network somewhere. But being on streaming, you're allowed to push that envelope a little bit with the language and humor and whatnot.

It was always meant to be this edgy. For Steve, it feels a bit like a candy store. And it's not replete with profanity or replete with nudity. It's just, he wanted to have the opportunity to, "If I want to make a point, I want to be able to add a little extra bite to it." Now he has that luxury.

When you have someone like yourself, not to mention other accomplished comedy writers like Rachel Bloom and Paul Reiser on set, is there a lot of room for improvisation?

There is room for improvisation. We improvise every now and again. It's not as loose as it would be, like we were on "Key and Peele," where there were days where we're just, "Guys, we're going off on a 5K here, so catch up." You know what I mean? It's a little more focused. In fact, I might even say it's a bit laser-focused. So the improvisations fit in a much narrower lane on this show. But we get them in. We get them in where we can. Especially Paul Reiser. Especially Paul. He's dropping gems like boom, boom, boom.

When it comes to creating the setting of the fake sitcom "Step Right Up," how did you determine how emulate the familiar 90s sitcoms? Obviously, there's some "Full House" in there, there's some "Family Matters." What was the process of figuring out exactly how to create the vibe of "Step Right Up" for the show?

Well, we were very fortunate because we had, again, we have both Paul and Steve, who are veterans from that era. So if you go even further back to "My Two Dads," and Steve wrote on "Wings," and he wrote on "Frasier." So both Paul and Steve have spanned a couple of eras where we've gone from sitcoms that just show footage to sitcoms that go, "I'm the character, and now I'm me." You can tell what era a sitcom's from by the intros.

Yeah, exactly.

And Paul comes from "Mad About You." So we have this wealth of information, this vault of information, from these two gentlemen in particular, and some members of the writing staff. So it's very fortunate in that regard. I feel like it's right there.

' We get that extra six or seven minutes to explore the feelings of the characters...'

I love that you all have your own story that's going throughout the series. I'm really impressed with, honestly, how each character gets their time to shine, despite the fact that the season feels so short. The balance of comedy and drama is really interesting too. There's some real heartfelt moments here. Was the intention always to have a show that wasn't just doing a satire of making TV but adding in some real drama that digs in and makes you care about these characters?

Yeah, the intention was always about making us care about the characters. Again, since Steve was given the keys to this new candy store, it's like, "Since we have that opportunity, let's draw some of that out again." You saw, of course, evidence of that in "Modern Family." There were blips here and there of really wonderful, sentimental, heartwarming moments. He really wanted to take the opportunity to stretch that out and let that breathe more.

At the same time, I think it's interesting that Steve also uses a certain degree of discipline. Hulu said, "You can have a 40-minute episode if you want." But for us comedy people, it's, "Brevity is the soul of wit, so let's try not to go over 28." But still, a typical running time for a half-hour show is about 22 minutes. So now we're in this wonderful place where we can let it breathe. We get that extra six or seven minutes to explore the feelings of the characters and the genuine dilemmas they find themselves in and sit in that little bit. Tthat was definitely one of the things we were targeting in making this series.

'I'd be more than happy to watch another season of 'Friends' with them how they are now'

There have obviously bee tons of sitcom revivals that have happened in recent years, which is really where the inspiration for this comes from. Are there any sitcom revivals that haven't happened yet that you would like to see happen?

I'm right about the right age where the sitcoms that I saw, [I wonder], as an intellectual exercise, who would you cast today if you were rebooting a show altogether? So, as an intellectual exercise, again, who would have the chemistry that Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot had in "Perfect Strangers?" Who could do that today?

One could argue that you and Mr. Jordan Peele would be...

[laughs] One could argue, one could argue. It's a show that both of us very much enjoyed. And clearly, you know we're "Family Matters" fans.

[laughs] Yeah, of course.

Maybe we do that. Maybe we do take "Family Matters" in a dark direction —

[both at the same time]: Like they did with "Bel-Air." [both laughing]

So I can think of several sitcoms in that way. One that comes to my mind, of course, is "Perfect Strangers." Also, the interesting thing is you could also then revive a sitcom and bring back people. Because I do think it is interesting to see a person as they've been more seasoned in life and what brings them to where they are now. What would that bring to the character that they're playing? I'd be more than happy to watch another season of "Friends" with them how they are now.

But it's funny, it's those late '80s ones where lots of actors, and even late '70s to the '80s, lots of Broadway actors. It's that Norman Lear model where he got accomplished Broadway actors and put them in this medium, which was very similar to theater, and people sparkled. Who would play "Maude" now? Who has that presence? Who would "The Golden Girls" be now? It's a fun, as I said before, a fun intellectual exercise. Because those women were all people who performed in front of audiences for the majority of their career. And now we have more entertainers not performing in front of an audience; performing in front of a phone or on a set. It'd be interesting to see if you could remake that magic.

Are you guys already talking about a second season? Because this is a pretty tight first season, having only eight episodes. So I hope you're planning for more already.

We are hoping. We are definitely hoping. Yes, we're hoping against hope, by all hopes next to another hope. So yeah, it would really be a fun thing to do.

'It's something that is in the back of our brains sometimes'

You know, since we're talking about reboots and revivals, I have to ask, have you and Jordan Peele talked at all about potentially bringing back "Key and Peele" at some point for your own revival?

It's something that is in the back of our brains sometimes. But right now, we're just happy to be working on the stuff that we're working on. When I say "it's in the back," I mean it's way, way in the back, yeah.

The first three episodes of "Reboot" are streaming on Hulu now, and new episodes debut on Tuesdays through October 25, 2022.