This week marks the end of Key & Peele. If you are not saddened by this, then you have not seen the wonders that Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have wrought on the tubes of both the You- and cathode-ray varieties. In the last five years they have, if not redefined sketch comedy, at least shown us all that it is capable of so much more than we thought.
Key and Peele have been breaking ground in a number of ways — comedically, technically and racially. Comedically, they deal in high quality comedy. They go beyond snark or ironic commentary and dig to true satire. They speak to issues without ever making it feel like they’re preaching. Some sketches feel ripped from the HuffPost frontpage while others say nothing except “isn’t this funny?” From an insider’s perspective, one of the most incredible things about the show is just, percentage-wise, how much of it is funny. On a typical sketch comedy show, at least half of the sketches don’t work. Most of the time you laugh because you get what they were trying to do. Not every one of Key & Peele’s sketches are this-has-gone-so-viral-my-mom-Facebooked-it hilarious, but I can’t think of a single one that plain doesn’t work.
Also, Jordan and Keegan are giving America something we haven’t seen in almost half a century — a really funny comedy duo. It’s not one person bouncing off a sidekick or a variety show where they are the main faces supported by a cast of underlings. It’s almost all them, all the time. A two-person team performing as a single consciousness/from a singular point of view. It used to be a comedy staple, but we haven’t seen one that really pops since, what, Nichols & May? Cheech & Chong? With Peele and Key, every character is different but every character is noticeably them. Think about the comedic stamina required to get in and out of all the wigs in the East/West Bowl sketch, not to mention keeping track of which voices or speech impediments they’ve already used. These men are masters of a very specific, very silly craft.
Key & Peele is also technically impressive. As someone who did sketches on stage and TV for many years, what struck me first when watching the show was how damn good it looked. So many of Comedy Central’s shows share the same faux-live, low budget aesthetic, that it must be some kind of corporate mandate. But from the start, Key & Peele has looked like they’re spending money. The kind of production value a MadTV or SNL would aim for once an episode if not a few times a season — Key & Peele does in every sketch. I’m sure that’s in no small part due to the ingenuity of director/producer Peter Atencio. But it also takes smart writing to craft the sketches so that whatever budgetary limitations they have don’t get in the way of the joke. From the space-capsule blackout in “I Said Bitch” to the huge Les Miz parody, Key & Peele always looks like there are more dollars on the screen than a basic-cable sketch show should have.
But as a Black man, what I love most about Key & Peele is that it’s not a Black show.
I’m sure Comedy Central thought they were getting a Black show, perhaps one to step into the shoes of the hallowed-one-that-got-away, Chappelle’s Show. But what they got was a show that is both less overtly racial than Dave Chappelle’s yet more racially groundbreaking. They play Black characters and do material that comes from the experience of being Black but it is not a Black show. Their takes on politics, movie parodies, social satire, multi-ethnic, and multi-sexual characters are informed by their creators’ ethnic backgrounds but not dictated by them the way they would be on a Black show.
I think part of the reason they are able to have this freedom is because Key and Peele are performers who identify as biracial. While the fluidity of identity in many forms is a hallmark of this millennium, it is still a rarity in American entertainment. Showbiz is still dominated by the categorizations and false dualism of the last century. Don’t believe me? When you read the term “biracial,” which two “races” are you thinking of? It ain’t Korean and Ashkenazi. It’s Black and white. Halle Berry is the “first Black woman” to win a Best Actress Oscar, not the first biracial one. Obama is “the first Black president.” It’s like Hollywood has instituted its own unconscious version of the old Tennessee “One-drop” Rule.
In taking on the mantle of biraciality instead of simply accepting the designation of “Black,” Key and Peele stop Key & Peele from being a “Black” show. They acknowledge the old Rule, but they refuse to be bound by it. They are Black when it suits the joke they are telling and Indian or Mexican or “neutral” when it doesn’t. Identifying as biracial lets them talk about race, but they also frees them from having to talk about race. When they do a sketch about a Latino gangbanger who refuses to sit in a chair, we as the audience don’t have to flinch or second-guess their intentions the way we might if it were a performer we identify as white or wait for the wink or the nod we might expect from a performer we identify as Black. Even Chappelle or The Richard Pryor Show couldn’t get away with their stars playing non-Black characters without having that be the joke or at least commenting on it.
Now, the desire to turn these expectations on their ear would mean nothing if they weren’t coupled with Keegan and Jordan’s enormous talent and range. Their command of accents, impressions, characters and modes of performance from slapstick to musical to Bergman-esque stillness are what allow them to do what other shows could not.
So, as we bid goodbye to Key & Peele, let’s applaud them, first, for being funny as hell and second, for charting new paths. And let’s hope they rise like the phoenix from their sketch show ashes to become huge mainstream comedy brand names. Like a biracial Ben Stiller and a mocha Will Ferrell — their unique sensibility inspiring the next generation of comedy performers to break down walls by being true to themselves.
Phil LaMarr was a member of The Groundlings Theater and one of the original cast members of Mad TV. He is known for his work in Pulp Fiction and for his extensive voice-over work, including Futurama, Samurai Jack, Justice League, and Family Guy. He can currently be seen in the monthly improv comedy show, The Black Version and in the TV One comedy, The Weekly Show. Follow him on Twitter.