The biggest challenge every sketch show faces is success, and the longevity that comes with it. If you’re Saturday Night Live, it’s easy to shake things up when they get creatively stagnant by rolling over the cast and bringing in new writers. But a specific personality-driven show like Key & Peele can’t exactly fire Keegan Michael Key or Jordan Peele. So as it enters its fifth season, premiering Wednesday on Comedy Central, the series is providing the same mix of clever topical sketches and more cinematic, bizarre material, but with a more political bent than ever before. The show didn’t necessarily need to change—but that it did seems to prove that it still has room to grow creatively, and that Comedy Central is happy to let it do so.
The network used to have a habit of giving comedians one short season to find their sea-legs before yanking their shows from the schedule—as happened to near-forgotten cult hits like Viva Variety, Stella, Jon Benjamin Has a Van, and countless more. But the network’s roster is now stuffed with shows that were given time to prove their worth, from sitcoms like Workaholics and Broad City to sketch hits like Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer to mockumentaries like Review and Nathan For You. It’s an approach that’s lent the network vitality and relevance, along with the ability to keep evolving.
With Jon Stewart on his way out the door, Key & Peele is now one of Comedy Central’s longest-running shows, and a standard-bearer of the kind of intelligently silly work the network has greenlit in recent years. It’s immediately followed on the Wednesday night lineup by a brand-new series, titled Why? With Hannibal Buress, that’s an encouraging sign of more innovation to come. Buress’s project hasn’t been shown to critics yet, because it’s filmed the day before it airs, but it promises to be a mix of stand-up, on-the-street interviews, and sketches. Why? may not be a hit out of the gate, but with Key & Peele as a lead-in, it’ll have a solid chance of finding an audience.
A relative newcomer, Buress is a fine example of Comedy Central cultivating its talent without trying to put it in a box. With his show, the 32-year-old Chicago native seems to be trying to play with the straightforward format of The Daily Show and its scripted ilk, allowing himself to critique current events up to the minute without having to just sit behind a desk reading cue cards—a process he mocked in a “leaked Daily Show audition tape” released Tuesday.
A stand-up comic on the rise, Buress first broke out with his supporting performance as the laconic dentist Lincoln on Broad City, another of the network’s new hits, and has since become even more famous for (somewhat inadvertently) helping spark the downfall of Bill Cosby with a well-timed joke about the star’s long history of trying to cover up rape allegations. The network has been trying to find Buress’s groove for more than a year—he notoriously announced on Twitter that Comedy Central had picked up a project called Unemployable for 10 episodes, hoping to get the ball rolling on a slow development process, when it had actually done nothing of the sort.
Key & Peele is a more time-tested emblem of the network’s patient approach. The opening episodes of this fifth season see the the show trying to avoid being pigeonholed as one that just satirizes issues of race. In one sketch, a band of pirates sing dirty sea shanties and brag about drinking with beautiful women. “The lass was past consent, so it was off with her we went, and we threw her in bed and rested her head because that’s what gentlemen do,” they sing. “Because a woman has a right to a drink or two!” Take away the pitch-perfect staging, and the sketch is basically a well-meaning lecture—not usually the easiest territory for laughs. As comedy, it doesn’t quite land, but as television, it has an admirable edge, one that’s apparent throughout the new episodes provided to critics. A sketch debuting a Hillary Clinton “anger translator,” who faces off with Barack Obama’s, delights in the candidates’ foibles and reasonable frustrations rather than taking the easy route of mocking them. Later, a TED Talk given by two elaborately dressed rappers serves as an informational session on the menstrual cycle for confused boyfriends.
Interspersed between the sketches are scenes where the show’s stars drive through the desert together, bouncing non sequiturs off of each other like an episode of True Detective. “I consider myself a male feminist,” Peele pontificates at one point, prompting an eye-roll from Key. It’s that self-awareness that’s always worked for this show—it might be skewering a sensitive newsworthy issue one second, but then undercutting any seriousness the next with a truly surreal work. Often, it happens in the same sketch.
At the same time, Key & Peele is also part of a much more cinematic new wave in sketch comedy that wrings jokes from every technical detail. The third-season sketch “Continental Breakfast” is a five-minute masterpiece about a hotel guest who can’t get enough of his free croissant and grapes. Without ever hitting a punchline, it draws as much comedy from its gauzy lighting and slow camera pans as it does from Peele’s mugging. The same season saw a brilliantly accurate parody of ‘80s educational videos, starring a deeply emotional Mr. T, that wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t shot on VHS and filled with inspirational freeze-frames. That same visual verve is still on display in the fifth season, especially in the show’s new credits, which perfectly imitate the ink-blot visuals of the True Detective opening.
Even if you don’t regularly watch the show, you could probably name a favorite Key & Peele sketch without too much trouble: perhaps the animated hotel valets going on about action movies, or the frustrated substitute teacher who cannot for the life of him pronounce a single white student’s name correctly. Or maybe it’s the procession of ridiculous names and hairstyles from the football players of the East/West College Bowl. Key and Peele have long excelled at identifying racially sensitive topics and taking them to logical extremes for laughs. Similarly, Buress’s laconic stand-up style tackles serious issues with a deceptively soft touch. It is to their credit, and Comedy Central’s, that they’ve been given room to explore new comic territory.