Rich Talarico: Key & Peele writer reveals how the comedy sausage is made

By Amy Martin, Fri., Aug. 29, 2014 /

As television comedy writers’ rooms go, few are as gregarious as Key & Peele‘s. Most of the writers have deep improvisational comedy backgrounds, among them Rich Talarico, who notes wryly, “We all have performance experience.” Emergency vehicles should probably be on-call.

Mix that creative insanity with two extremely talented comedy performers, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and accolades ensue. The four 2014 Emmy nominations include variety series writing and original music and lyrics. The show won a vaunted Peabody Award in February.

A tall, hulking product of a colorful Italian family in upstate New York, Talarico has been deeply immersed in improv since the early Nineties. “I was a college dropout doing stand-up comedy and community theatre. I had no choice but to go to Chicago to pursue comedy at Second City,” he quips. “Moved there to take classes for a year. Stayed almost 10.” His first improv teacher was Stephen Colbert.

Talarico rose through the Second City ranks to become a teacher and featured writer-perfomer, worked for iO Chicago (formerly improvOlympic) and wrote for MADtv and Saturday Night Live. He performs weekly at iO West in Los Angeles as one-third of Dasariski. In addition to Key & Peele, Talarico writes for Comedy Central’s Review.

This year’s Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, running through Sept. 1, hosts an improv showcase and a writers’ panel with Talarico and fellow Key & Peele writers Becky Drysdale (Second City, Boom Chicago, Big Gay Sketch Show) and Colton Dunn (Boom Chicago, Upright Citizens Brigade), along with Phil Jackson and Charlie Sanders of UCB.

The Sketch Comedy Show Process

A number of popular Key & Peele sketches were initiated by Talarico, including the bumbling substitute teacher who mangles students’ names (“Is Dee-nice here?”) and the Middle East duo that leer at burqa-clad women passing by (“Did you see the bridge on that nose?”).

Rich TalaricoTalarico says that “most sketches start at morning meetings called ‘dookie sessions’ where everyone floats out an idea. The rest of the writers chime in and offer their two cents on how to handle that idea or what direction they might take it.” Though occasionally “something happens in the office that makes us laugh and we write it together, much of the time a writer then takes his idea and the notes from others and goes off to write.”

In fully committing an idea to script, Talarico says, “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. I rewrite and refine and rewrite.” Even so, he adds, “It’s a very collaborative environs. This is the most team-based group I’ve written with since Second City. 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.”

The team generates a huge surplus of material, which is what he considers “the secret to ‘what’s in the sauce’ at Key & Peele“: volume. “We had probably in excess of 1,000 ideas pitched,” Talarico says. “From those, we developed and wrote over 500 sketches for season 4, but only about 120 or so got made. So just digging in deep, getting a creative flow going, and catching the good stuff is a nice way to work.”

Talarico on the Rise & Having Fun

Increasingly, Talarico is working as a director. He was tapped recently to direct Comedy Central’s new short-form digital series CC:Social Scene, where suggestions submitted via Twitter provide fodder for improv. A short film he directed, Sylmar the Genie, was featured in the L.A. Comedy Shorts Festival. “Ultimately, I’d like to make bigger and bigger projects,” he says. “I’d love to direct, produce, and write feature films of my own.”

But first a performer, always a performer, for Talarico. He’ll be teamed with MADtv pal Mo Collins in the stand-up and storytelling Mo and Tell show at Out of Bounds. “Mo is one of the funniest people I’ve ever worked with and such a joy to be around,” he says. “We always had a great time during and between takes on MADtv.”

Rich Talarico performs with the Key & Peele Writers Saturday, Aug. 30, 8pm, at the Long Center, and as part of Mo and Tell Saturday, Aug. 30, 9pm, at Stateside at the Paramount. For more information, visit