Obama's Anger Translator Takes a Final Bow
The Daily Show resurrected Luther, the character who promises to tell Americans what the president is really thinking—but gave the president himself the last word.
There’s perhaps been no better satire of the Obama presidency than the figure of Luther, Obama’s anger translator. Key & Peele’s serialized sketch, in which the title character says all the things Obama won’t and can’t say as president, was multifaceted in its insights: about the performative demands of the office, about Obama’s own cool demeanor, about the collision of all those things in the person of the country’s first black president. Key & Peele’s Luther sketches—including, and perhaps especially, the one performed with the actual President Obama, at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner—were, in all that, as profound as they were wacky, and as much about the country Obama governed as they were about the president himself.
Since that country elected a new president in November, Key & Peele fans have been clamoring for a return of the character—to “translate” the calm, hopeful messages Obama has been sending about the transition into some angry (and, in that, cathartic) real-talk. On Thursday evening, during Keegan-Michael Key’s appearance on The Daily Show, they got their wish: After a brief conversation with Trevor Noah, Key introduced the sketch he had made with Jordan Peele—one in which Peele’s “Obama” gives his final address to the nation as its president. One in which Luther, as always, is there to translate.
It’s everything you’d expect of such a sketch, expertly executed. Obama informs Luther to keep calm; Luther is completely unable to do so. “Don’t you understand?” Luther asks. “This is how The Hunger Games starts!” To Obama’s exhortations that now someone else will be calling the shots, Luther screams, “Yeah! Vladimir Putin!” To the president’s reminder that “it was a close election, but the people have spoken,” Luther replies, “Yeah! They voted for Hillary Clinton, but then this outdated electoral college mumbo-jumbo voodoo bull[bleep]!” and walks out of the room in uncontainable exasperation. To Obama’s note that “it’s more imperative than ever that we move on as a country united,” Luther replies “united in the fact that we can’t [bleep] stand each other!”
So the post-election Luther sketch is made mostly the stuff of the pre-election versions: “No drama Obama,” next to the losing-his-mind-with-outrage Luther. But as the sketch wraps up—as “Obama” concludes his farewell address to the nation—the whole thing pivots. It’s Obama who gets angry. It’s Obama who, more significantly, no longer feels the need to disguise that anger.
When Luther excoriates the new president’s immigration policy—“the only good immigrant is a smoking-hot white one!”—Obama ads, “who plagiarizes speeches.” Luther stands in a moment of stunned silence as he realizes that the president has left nothing for him to translate. Later, Obama mentions the tradition of the outgoing president leaving the incoming one a note, in the desk of the Oval Office, offering advice. The contents of that note have been confidential, Obama says, “until now.” Luther grabs the note out of the president’s hand and reveals that the message Obama has left to President Trump reads, “Go [bleep] yourself.”
It was, for a series of sketches that has always operated on several dimensions, a fitting conclusion: In Luther’s (ostensibly) final appearance, he cedes his outrage to the president himself—who, soon to be freed of the many constraints of his office, seems to be out of patience with the requirement that he keep his cool. After eight years of partisan gamesmanship, and eight years of stoicism, Key & Peele’s version of Obama has had it with all the cool-keeping. He no longer needs someone to translate his anger. “In summation,” the outgoing president tells the nation, “it’s been real. It’s been good. But it hasn’t been real good.”