Life’s Rich Pageant: Writer-performer Rich Talarico

Life’s Rich Pageant

Writer-performer Rich Talarico, appearing at Austin’s Moontower Comedy Festival this week, taps into improvisation to create award-winning Key & Peele sketches.

published Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Austin — How to win a Peabody Award: Take two extremely talented comedy performers, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Add two very creative and supportive executive producers, Jay Martel and Ian Roberts. Mix with a staff of intelligent writers having top-tier improv performance backgrounds. Pour into Peter Atencio, a director who nurtures creative talent, and bake with director of photography Charles Papert so that it all looks just right.

Voila! Key & Peele, a Comedy Central series that garnered its first Peabody in February. The sketch show, known for its plucky approach to tough social issues such as race relations and political hypocrisy, launches its fourth season this fall. The Peabody commendation noted: “It’s like Abbott and Costello meet Richard Pryor when the duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele fearlessly apply their mischievous minds and satirical savvy to racially aware sketches both broad and incisive.”

One of those brainiac Key & Peele writers is Rich Talarico who joined the staff in early 2012. A tall, hulking product of a colorful Italian family in upstate New York, Talarico has been deeply immersed in improv comedy since the early ‘90s. “I was a college drop out doing stand-up comedy and community theater. I had no choice but to go to Chicago to pursue comedy at Second City,” he quipped in a recent interview. “Moved there to take classes for a year. Stayed almost ten.”  His first improv teacher was Stephen Colbert.

Talarico rose through the Second City ranks to become a teacher and featured writer-perfomer, co-creating five original sketch comedy revues. Talarico has also worked iO Chicago (ImprovOlympics) and wrote for MADtv, Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He continues to perform regularly, chiefly at iO West in Los Angeles as one-third as Dasariski.

Able to span the over-the-top silliness of MADtv to the satiric bite of Second City, Talarico was a natural pick for the writing staff of Key & Peele. His comedic paintbox is rich with inversions and punctures of common logic.


He’s also subversive:

Bottom line is that Talarico is truthful: “If you have a nugget of truth to base your comedy on, it can’t be denied. Truth works.” And he’s willing to take risks, as noted by his slogan: “Leap and the net will appear.”


Key & Peele

Fuse that mindset with Key and Peele’s grasp of topical issues and it’s a formula that wins awards. “Key and Peele are passionate bright guys who have a lot to say about our world. The writing staff are bright funny people who also have a lot to say,” observed Talarico.  “I’m incredibly grateful to be on this show.  I feel like I can write what’s on my mind and the guys are always interested in hearing it.“

Though Talarico has written for shows with massive casts, creating sketches for just a two-person cast is no problem.  “Keegan and Jordan are two of the greatest performers working today. Period,” said Talarico. They can do anything, impressions, straight scenes. They can be subtle and can be huge. They’re amazing and that’s saying a lot because I’ve had the pleasure to work with and write for some incredible talents over the years.”

Talarico has taken the helm on a number of sketches, including:

  • The substitute teacher who gets increasingly angry at students who question his name pronunciations (“Is dee-nice here?”).
  • The literally explosive (and sumptuously shot) “L.A. Vice.”
  • The fabled manager Mr. Mahina who comes nightmarishly to life.
  • The sexually charged Middle East duo Karim and Jahar who leer at burqa-clad women passing by (“Did you see the bridge on that nose?”). See video:


Writers’ Room

Most Key & Peelewriters have deep training in improvisation as well as sketch writing. “There are Second City, iO, Upright Citizens Brigade people, and some have done comedy sports,” said Talarico. “Some of us are from all those theaters. It’s a wide variety.” While stand-up is highly focused verbal humor, improv focuses on character, interaction and plot. This makes the brains of improvisers “creatively wide,” said Keegan-Michael Key, and leads to a highly interactive writing process.

Though occasionally “something happens in the office that makes us laugh and we write it,” according to Talarico, much of the material starts “at morning meetings called dookie sessions where everyone floats out an idea. The rest of the writers can chime in and offer their two cents on how to handle that idea or what direction they might take it.  The writer then takes his idea and the notes from others and goes off to write.“ These dookie sessions tend to be highly entertaining, noted Talarico: “We all have performance experience.”

In fully committing an idea to script, Talarico said, “Sometimes I walk through the sketch in each character’s point of view. I do definitely prod it and pull it, figure out where it breaks and bends, where it stretches. If they are around, Key and Peele are a great resource as you rewrite things. So are Jay [Martel] and Ian [Roberts], the executive producers. The other writers are there to help, too. It’s a very collaborative environs. This is the most team-based group I’ve written with since Second City.”

“Then we have internal table reads,” continued Talarico, “and then we rewrite and refine and rewrite. Key and Peele might improvise on set, which is gravy on the whole thing. It’s always better when they do.”


Behind the Camera

Key & Peelediffers from most sketch comedy shows in the realism of how it looks, a tribute to the skills of director of photography Charles Papert. Absurd characters and actions might be at play, but the setting will appear authentically real. On the set, director Peter Atencio brings to life the pacing and personality of each scene. “I’m always happy with how the sketches look and come out,” said Talarico. “In fact, I’m usually delighted.”

Talarico’s aim is to braoden his palette of writer and performer: “I started 22 years ago as an actor and spent the last 13 years writing for tv and film. I’ve been on many sets over the years and learn from both sides of the camera on every set, always learning.” For a comedy series of video shorts he wrote and directed called The Bank Manager he commandeered an abandoned building in his hometown of Frankfort, New York.

“I am branching more and more into filmmaking,” said Talarico. A short film he directed, Sylmar the Genie, will be featured in the L.A. Comedy Shorts Festival in May. “I’ve been shooting and editing and learning with every edit,” he said. “Ultimately I’d like to make bigger and bigger projects. I’d love to direct, produce and write feature films of my own.“


At Home in Austin

Talarico will be performing at the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival on Saturday, April 26 at The New Movement, a hip improv enterprise that’s a major Austin presence. His first set will be with Vanessa Gonzalez and Chris Trew, two featured TMN performers. He returns for a later storytelling show with the full ensemble.

Several of the Key & Peele writers, including Talarico, will be at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Austin this August, doing improv sets, teaching workshops, and participating in panel discussions.

“I do come to Austin a lot and love it there,” said Talarico. “There’s some stuff I’d like to do in LA before I leave, but I’d love to live in Austin at some point. As long as it’s not in the summer.”

Here’s another video. Watch what you wish for in Sylmar the Genie:





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