Night Out: Keegan-Michael Key and Mike Birbiglia Take Pizza and Obama Imitations Seriously

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Night Out: Keegan-Michael Key and Mike Birbiglia Take Pizza and Obama Imitations Seriously

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Night Out

By LEAH ROZEN

Mike Birbiglia and Keegan-Michael Key were laughing — hard.

Mr. Birbiglia’s laugh was a repetitive bray: “A-heh, a-heh, a-heh.” Mr. Key’s was a louder Woody Woodpecker cackle that kept climbing in register.

Their guffaws rose from the back row at the UCB Theater, an improvisational comedy showcase in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Mr. Key and Mr. Birbiglia were at a performance last Tuesday featuring three improv teams. It was their way of winding down after spending a packed several days promoting “Don’t Think Twice,” an indie comedy in which they star. The movie, which Mr. Birbiglia also wrote and directed, opened Friday.

The two have formed a mutual admiration society since a scheduled 10-minute Skype call in 2015 went on for two hours. “My wife said: ‘Who are you talking to that you’re so loud and energetic?’” Mr. Birbiglia said. “‘I’ve never in my life heard you talk to someone like that on the phone.’”

The outing was thematically in keeping with the sweetly wistful movie about longtime members of an improv group in New York who face big life decisions when it appears that the group may disband.

Both men have backgrounds in improv. Mr. Birbiglia earned laughs at UCB, and Mr. Key with Second City’s Detroit troupe.

While both still do improv, they’ve definitely moved on. Mr. Key, 45, starred on “Key & Peele,” a popular sketch show on Comedy Central with Jordan Peele that ended last year. Mr. Birbiglia, 38, tours as a standup act and pops up in TV shows (“Orange Is the New Black”) and films (“Trainwreck”).

After the UCB show, the two strolled to Co., an upscale pizza restaurant a few blocks away. Analyzing the show as they walked, both expressed admiration for an improv team called Women & Men.

“There was a whimsy to their performance,” Mr. Key said.

At Co., they scored a corner table with a view of Ninth Avenue. Each ordered an individual pie topped with veal meatballs, though Mr. Birbiglia requested his without onions and olives. Mr. Key chose a glass of red wine; Mr. Birbiglia stuck to sparkling water.

The discussion segued from improv to pizza. Mr. Birbiglia considers himself a connoisseur, while Mr. Key claimed only to be an enthusiast.

Mr. Key, who is separated from his wife, recently moved to an apartment in TriBeCa (he also lives in Los Angeles). “I haven’t found my pizza place there yet,” he said.

Later on, Mr. Birbiglia lamented: “People err on the side of the cheapest pizza. Wrong! Wrong, America.”

Mr. Key cracked up.

Mr. Birbiglia wasn’t finished, saying, “It’s an inexpensive food, but if you have high-quality versions of it, it makes people wildly happy.”

The two compared and contrasted their Obama impressions. Mr. Key’s was polished. (He’s perhaps most famous for playing Luther, Obama’s anger translator, a “Key & Peele” character who appeared at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner beside the president himself.)

President Obama’s Anger Translator (Full + HD)

Video by The Daily Conversation

Mr. Birbiglia’s attempt, while not sounding nearly as presidential, is based on Mr. Obama’s surprising response last year when asked by the comic for parenting tips. The president advised Mr. Birbiglia not to fear a full diaper. “It doesn’t smell like adult poo,” the president told him, a line he now quotes in his standup act and appearances.

Talk also turned to fame and losing your anonymity.

“Oh, yes, the H.M.S. Anonymity has left port,” Mr. Key said. “I like meeting people. I very often feign that I don’t like it, but if I’m completely honest, it lets me meet people, another human.”

It was past 10 p.m., and the restaurant’s kitchen was closing. Mr. Key had to leave anyway for a live appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” while Mr. Birbiglia was eager to get home to his wife, Jen Stein, a consulting producer on his new film, and baby daughter, Oona.

Was Mr. Key nervous about doing Colbert’s show? “Not after this glass of wine,” he joked, draining the last drops. “We come from the same school: We’re improv guys. If you’re from Second City” — Mr. Colbert is a fellow alum of the illustrious group — “it’s the Marines.”

“You’re in the Marines?” Mr. Birbiglia asked, feigning astonishment.

“Yeah, the Marines of comedy,” Mr. Key replied.

Exit laughing.

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