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Emmy Race 2016: Production Designer Gary Kordan’s Real World Detail In “Key and Peele” Variety Series

By: Marjorie Galas

After winning his first Art Directors Guild Award In February 2016 for his work on the variety show “Key and Peele”, production designer Gary Kordan was overwhelmed with gratitude.  He’d received a nomination in the “Variety, Competition, Reality or Game Show Series” category the year before, however winning in 2016, when the show aired its final episode, felt like the proverbial cherry on top of a creative concoction five seasons in the making.

“It was an honor just to be nominated.  It was even sweeter to win when the show wrapped,” said Kordan.

Kordan had a long history working on successful Comedy Central projects, from his days as an art director on “Mind of Mencia” to production designer on hits including “@Midnight” and “The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumall,” and was approached by the network early in the show’s development.  After a meeting with producer Keith Raskin and show runners Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, Kordan realized the series would have a much more cinematic aesthetic than most other Comedy Central variety shows at the time.    Upon meeting with Key and Peele, he shared his plans for handling their series more like a drama than a sketch show.  After landing the position, Kordan’s process began when he received a packet that outlined 86 sketches – a process that continued throughout the duration of the series.  This initial packet proved to be a guideline for the production schedule that included the ten sketches a week: two sketches a day for the seven week series schedule.  The tight schedule left little time for deliberation or experimentation.  Armed with a talented crew, Kordan quickly developed a rapport with the other “Key and Peele” department heads and tackled the tasks with gusto.

“You had to just go for it and make it happen,” said Kordan.  “The first season was filled with exhilaration.  We didn’t cheap out, we pushed it as far as we could. When we heard feedback including ‘Wow, this show looks great’ it really fueled everyone to come back, to push it to the top and make it look better.”

Despite the demands of the intense schedule, the majority of “Key and Peele” crew members returned.    For the five season run of “Key and Peele,” the production crew blocked off the four month long schedule, forsaking other projects to push the artistic stakes to new lengths.  The members of the different departments continued to refine their shorthand communication, providing more time to devote to their work.   By the fifth season they were so well in tune with the comic’s needs and stylistic visions, some segments occurred without formal meetings to discuss palette or material.  Kordan recalls “Pirate Chantey” – a sketch set in a candle lit hull featuring pirates singling about feminists rights – fell into place perfectly in look, tone and color, despite a time crunch that forced the department heads to operate without a single inter-departmental meeting.

Regardless of time crunch, Kordan remained devoted to details.  “Key and Peele” sketches required a full range of locations, from the interior of the White House to the mid-century back alleys of France.   Kordan researched every sketch visiting physical locations such as museums and libraries and websites such as Pinterest and Wikipedia to obtain a well-rounded education of the location.  He’d create between twelve to fifteen mood boards for each sketch.  Once the design was defined, he’d meet with cinematographer.

“We’d look at the design and walk through it, acting it out almost like theater,” said Kordan.

Once on the same page, Kordan would assess the budget and scout the location with the directors.  They’d define the sightlines so Kordan could inform his team to build only what was needed.  Once sets were completed the “icing on the cake” was added: a scenic painter would layer on grime, dirt, finger prints and other aging details to give the set a real location feel.

While Kordan loved the thrill and challenge “Key and Peele” offered, he was excited to focus attention on new projects when the series concluded.  He was behind the production design on the pilot episode of recently optioned “Downward Dog.”  Shot in the winter in Pittsburgh, Kordan loved working with the local crew and infusing the design with an edgy, indie film tone to the ABC comedy that follows a dog who’s learning how to adjust to his owner’s (Alison Tolman) new found relationship.  He’s currently busy on the second season of Amazon’s “Just Add Magic” – a children’s series with sets as diverse as outer space and a downtown court room.

“I’m never looking for the easy way out,” said Kordan.  “I love challenging myself and my crew.  I love to try to pull things off.”