The Comedy Central series is TV's new best ongoing exploration of race.
Dave Chappelle's frustration with doing his Comedy Central first became public in a June 2004 performance, the month before Barack Obama, then an Illinois State Senator, became a national political figure with an electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention. The end of Chappelle's Show as a regularly televised program was the end of America's best ongoing comedic exploration of race. And this ending came precisely at the moment the country needed Chappelle's Show most, when the elevation of a black man to the nation's highest office unleashed a torrent of racial insecurity and racial vituperation. It's taken eight years, but Comedy Central has finally found the vital comedians for the age of Obama in Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, biracial comics who plumb race in America in Key & Peele. The half-hour combination of sketches and standup, which airs at 10:30 on Tuesdays, premiered to strong reviews in late January, pulling 2.1 million viewers to give Comedy Central its biggest launch of a new show since 2009.
It helps that Jordan Peele does the best Obama impersonation in Hollywood (Saturday Night Live auditioned him as a cast-member, but inexplicably, decided to stick with Fred Armisen's impression), a perfect replication of the President's voice he deploys to do more than just deliver punchlines. In one of the show's early sketches, a group of men are freestyling on a corner with a rigged-up microphone and speaker. When one of them (Key) finishes his routine, which is mostly an enumeration of his own excellence, a limousine pulls up, and President Obama steps out. "I'm the leader of the free world," he intones, holds out the microphone, and drops it with a decisive hiss of static.
What's brilliant about the sketch is not that it discredits the gathering on the corner or the rap battle itself. It's not that Obama is showing up to tell the men they're wasting their time, or now that he's president, they should be consuming and creating high culture instead. Instead, there's a continuity between the men on the corner and the President: Obama's election suggests new heights to which black men can aspire. In the words of The Wire's Slim Charles, "Game's the same, just got more fierce."
Key and Peele do similar work in perhaps their best concept: the idea that Obama, in an effort to answer the frustration of his liberal critics, has hired a man named Luther to be his anger translator. When the President says he wants his critics to know his "intentions are coming from the right place," Luther explains that he actually means that "They're coming from Hawaii, which is where I'm from, which is in the United States of America, y'all. This is ridiculous. I have a birth certificate!" And when Obama says "I am on your side," Luther translates that statement, with help from a bullhorn, as "I am not a Muslim!" The scene is so cathartic because it's simultaneously an answer to the wishes of the Drew Westens of the world, who would like to see Obama in the scrum, and an explanation of why the President can't gratify them. While it's nice to hear reaffirmed that the President shares our rage about certain irrationalities, Luther is a weaker figure than no-drama Obama, literally shaky with the force of his anger.
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"I think [the presidency] is a miserable straightjacket for anybody," Key said in a recent interview. "The president frames things in a much more 18th-century way, [saying] 'you're reasonable people and I expect you to look at facts.' He'll do that through actions as well as words, and that's threatening to people."
The president, Key and Peele explain, is also the bridge to the future where much of the rest of their comedy is located—even if we're not there yet. "A lot of people say that somehow because Obama's elected, we're in a post-race world," Peele says, but he suggests that people need to consider another test: "I would say if you prefer that your son or daughter marries someone of a specific type, I think that's what racism is in its core." But even if that hesitancy persists for some people, the trend line is clear. "The president is a symbol of what is to come in the future, which is more and more and more interracial people," Key says. "Give it about 100 years and everybody's going to look like us."