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."
And along the way, everyone will have to learn to talk like them, too. Much of the humor in Key & Peele is based in the concept of code-switching, the idea that under different circumstances, people adopt different diction, accents, terminology, and even core assumptions in order to fit in. While code-switching has often been used to explain how members of racial, ethnic, or linguistic minorities assimilate into majority culture, many of Key and Peele's jokes suggest that everyone can benefit from the ability to code switch. "Being a hybrid is not necessarily something to hide, but something to celebrate. It's very Pauline in a way," Key says, as in the Paul of the Bible—the apostle of Jesus who wrote several of the books in the Christian New Testament. "I'm a big fan of Paul in that regard. It doesn't matter if you're Sippian, or Greek, or Hebrew, I'm going to speak to you where you're at without judgement."
Code-switching becomes a class issue like in sketches like the one where Peele shows up at the office of a doctor, played by Key, in search of a prescription for medical marijuana. Peele's unable to grasp what sort of excuse Key needs to write him a prescription, cycling through ailments that range from AIDS to a fishhook caught in his lip until the the good doctor smacks him to make him feel the kind of pain that offers a sufficient excuse for a pot prescription.
It happens in between minority groups, as in another sketch where Peele's character, a young black man who's reacting badly to the news about his mother's health being relayed to him by an Indian doctor played by Key, responds by turning every diagnosis into a yo mama joke. When the doctor forces him to take the conversation seriously, Peele's character confesses he's been using humor as a shield—only to have Key's doctor absolutely eviscerate him with a filthy escalation of their battle of wits.
And it happens as a way of emphasizing gender differences or expressing manly braggadocio. In one sketch, two young married men relate a series of arguments with their wives, starting each anecdote with the boast that "I says bitch," when in reality, they said no such thing. They're both terrified at being caught using the word, retreating to the basement, a tree, and ultimately to outer space to complain about the women they obviously dearly love in a way that's simultaneously tough but vulnerable. In an increasingly interconnected world, there are fewer pure enclaves in which only one kind of vernacular is spoken: we all need to learn to speak and interpret many tongues, and many shades of meaning. That's not an easy thing for people who value their separate identities, or their ability to speak and listen without having to work to understand or to be understood.
But it's a world that's coming anyway, and Peele, who says that comedy is the closest thing he has to a religion, believes that laughter may help us adapt to it. "I think that when somebody laughs, genuinely laughs, that something is happening within them that is special," he says. "It forges the conversation. When something happens in comedy that sort of strikes a chord, they talk about it. I'm a big fan of discussion. I think it's the best thing that we have for ourselves."