Early in the premiere episode of Comedy Central’s new sketch comedy series “Key & Peele,” the show’s two stars, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, talk about the challenges of of being biracial in 21st century America.
“We find ourselves particularly adept at lying,” Key explains, “because on a daily basis we have to adjust our blackness.”
This leads into a riff about all the people they sound whiter than – “We sound whiter than the black dude in a college a capella group!” Key laments – that’s very funny, and that also establishes a mission statement for the series (which debuts tonight at 10:30) beyond simply, “Here are two funny guys doing sketches and celebrity impressions.” There are sketches on the show that have little or nothing to do with race, but more often than not, the humor is informed by the intersection between what’s considered black culture, what’s considered white, and what a couple of light-skinned buddies who self-identify as nerds can get away with depending on the company they’re in.
Comedy Central has tried a few of these sketch/stand-up hybrids over the last decade (I quite liked the short-lived “Important Things with Demetri Martin”), but the one “Key & Peele” will obviously be compared to is “Chappelle’s Show.” Before Dave Chappelle walked away from the show (and, for a good while, show business), he made a huge mark with comedy that was simultaneously blunt and thoughtful about race(*), and Peele recently described Chappelle as “a hero of ours” while describing the decision to mix the sketches in with segments where they talk to the studio audience.
(*) I know everybody loves the Rick James episode, but I’m very fond of “I Know Black People,” a game show where Chappelle challenged various black-adjacent white people (a cop, a Korean grocery clerk, a writer on “Chappelle’s Show”) to answer questions about black culture, and Chappelle, John Mayer and ?uestlove trying to identify which musical instruments are most likely to make different racial groups dance.
The humor in “Key & Peele” is gentler than “Chappelle’s Show” – the two stars come across as laid-back and genial when they’re talking in the studio – but no less keenly-observed. And, much of the time, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
In the highlight of tonight’s premiere, Peele does an excellent impression of President Obama, who has hired an “anger translator” named Luther (Key) to loudly rant about his various enemies (clip NSFW):
Next week, Key and Peele play a pair of actors in a play about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, each getting caught up in the audience’s enthusiastic response to different bits of oratory, until the show devolves into a pandering collection of catchphrases and, inexplicably, pop-locking.
Again, not every sketch has a racial theme – in the premiere, for instance, there’s a parody of “Hell’s Kitchen” and the way reality show judges try to constantly fake out contestants – but enough of them do to give the show a unity and make it feel like something to watch for a full half-hour, rather than seeking out individual sketches when they go viral the next day.
There are some growing pains. In the two episodes I’ve seen (particularly the second), there are several sketches that have one basic joke repeated for several minutes. Sometimes, it works because the joke gets elaborated on each time – in the premiere, Key and Peele play two married friends who have to seek increasingly-remote locations before they feel comfortable referring to their wives by every woman’s second least-favorite word – but other times it’s just the same gag over and over until you’re past ready to move on to the next one.
It helps that the stage patter between Key and Peele is so strong. Where I remember very little of what Chappelle or Demetri Martin did and said in front of the studio audience on their respective shows, some of the best “Key & Peele” moments take place on that stage, whether it’s Key recreating his experience watching “Bridesmaids” on an airplane or the two friends acting out what it’s like when white people fight outside bars.
The whole genre of “white people do it like this, and black people like this” humor got horribly played-out during the stand-up boom of the ’80s and early ’90s. (One of my most-quoted “Simpsons” gags is Homer watching one of these routines and cackling, “It’s true! We’re so lame!”) And, of course, those jokes always had an undercurrent of suspicion or confusion about another group. But Key and Peele straddle both cultures, and there’s a feeling in that bit, and most of the material they do, that they’re just as capable of behaving like the white frat guy outside the bar as they are at being the President’s anger translator.
So we have two likable and funny guys and a lot of untapped material. That’s an excellent start.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org