Production Designer Gary Kordan Talks ‘Key & Peele’ Emmy Nom

Gary Kordan designs Key & Peele‘s visual comic flair and received his first Emmy nomination

Call him “the King of Comedy.” (Well, when it comes to production design.)

gary kordan
(Photo: Comedy Central)
Despite more than two decades of work in TV comedies, production designer Gary Kordan received his first Emmy nomination this year for Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, something that came as a surprise to the industry veteran.

“You never think you’re ever going to be the one to get the nomination,” said Kordan. “You just do the work and assume the other people get nominated. But people started to say to me, ‘This show looks cinematic,’ and I started to wonder if maybe we’d get noticed.”

Gary Kordan was bred for comedy. He started his career working at Catch a Rising Star comedy club, watching the likes of Jon Stewart, Rosie O’Donnell, and Joy Behar take the stage. Eventually, he ended up working for The Joan Rivers Show, developing a close relationship with the late comedienne.

“I feel like I understand comedy. It something I gravitate toward and something that gravitates toward me.”

Maybe that’s why things especially gelled for him and the crew of Key & Peele during this final season. In addition to Outstanding Variety Sketch Series and Writing for a Variety Series nominations, the Comedy Central sketch show received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Production Design for a Variety, Nonfiction, Reality, or Reality-Competition Series. The two nominated episodes, “Ya’ll Ready for This” and “The End,” feature two sketches Kordan is especially proud of: Pirate Chantey (from the episode “Ya’ll Ready for This”) and Negrotown (from the final episode titled “The End”).

For Pirate Chantey, there was little time to prep, but Kordan attributes the success of the sketch to everyone really bringing the best they had to offer to the table, from the hair department and costuming to key assistant location manager. “The process of Pirate Chantey was no different than any other sketch,” said Kordan. “Not a lot of time. Not a lot of budget. But it’s the best example of department heads being so in sync with each other, that we didn’t even need to meet with each other before hand to completely plan everything out.”

gary kordan
(Photo: Comedy Central)
The Pirate Chantey sketch is visually stunning—and hilarious—which is a major feat in comedy, and follows a group of progressive pirates, singing about women they’ve loved (“We say ‘Yo, ho!’ but we don’t say ‘ho,’/’Cause ‘ho’ is disrespectful, yo!).

The other sketch, Negrotown, was just as big of an undertaking as it looked, telling the story of a black man who bumps his head on a cop car and is magically transported to a town where black people can always hail a cab.

“We wanted to create a throwback to musicals with saturated colors and bright costumes. There was an attempt to make it look like a Gene Kelly musical, almost like Gene Kelly in an alternate universe.” There was even great detail given to the sign at the entrance of Negrotown, with its “Welcome to Mayberry” flair mixed with African elements.

Gary Kordan
(Photo: Comedy Central)
Both sketches juxtapose old with the new: archaic pirate songs with feminist undertones, a Gene Kelly parody highlighting racism in America (even though Negrotown aired over a year ago, it could have been written yesterday and still seem timely).

“I’m so proud of these sketches, and they’re highlighted by the writing that won’t ever become dated.”

The nominations are slightly bittersweet, considering they are for Key & Peele’s fifth and final season. Of all the things Kordan will miss, it’s what audiences don’t see on the show, what goes on behind the scenes.

“One of the things that’s rare in the industry is to keep a crew together, and we all stayed together through five seasons and a pilot. We were all crazy, evil geniuses. I trust these people with my career.”

Next, you can catch Gary Kordan’s work in the pilot for the canine comedy Downward Dog, which stars Alison Tolman (Fargo) and was picked up by ABC.

“We filmed an extremely strong pilot,” said Kordan. “It feels like an indie feature. I know people say, ‘It’s a talking dog show,’ but it’s really a single person’s dramedy.” Downward Dog follows the relationship between a woman (Tolman) and her dog, and it was filmed in Pittsburgh. “I had no idea what to expect of Pittsburgh. What I experienced was a thriving arts community. Just really catered to art, music, and coffee. The film and TV crew could rival any other town.”

In the meantime, Gary Kordan is enjoying the moment and all the Emmy accolades for Key & Peele. “Again, you still don’t think you’re ever going to get an Emmy nom, though. It’s an out-of-body experience.” An out-of-body experience that could have production design’s King of Comedy laughing all the way to gold on Emmy night. 

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