I've only seen the first two episodes of the sketch-comedy show "Key & Peele" (Tues., 10:30 p.m. EST, Comedy Central, and 10 p.m. on Comedy in Canada), but they made me eager to see more.
The confident and amusing "Key & Peele" will inevitably be compared to "Chappelle's Show," which became a huge hit for Comedy Central less than a decade ago by examining race issues with a knowing, laid-back wit that allowed people of all races to laugh at themselves. There were many comics over the years who made it more permissible to joke about race, but "Chappelle's Show" deservedly had an outsized impact on popular culture in part because it was so casually funny about a topic that can be thorny and difficult.
As I re-watched "Chappelle's Show" in recent months on Netflix, I appreciated once again the way Chappelle combined incisive observations with surreal goofiness to create sketches like "I Know Black People" and "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories." They hold up not just because they are funny but because they manage to be intelligent and disarmingly silly at the same time. Comedian Paul Mooney also contributed hilarious bits called "Ask A Black Dude," and at times "Key & Peele," which mines some of the same territory Mooney and Chappelle explored, might as well be called "Ask Two Black Dudes."
Creators Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, both of whom appeared on MADtv, are biracial, and they're adept at exploring what it's like to negotiate a world that is perhaps a little more enlightened than it was a decade ago, but still not quite post-racial. The good news is that they're smart about more than just race, though watching them imitate the drunken fighting of overly macho white dudes is one of the funniest thing I've seen so far this year.
As you'd expect, President Obama figures into the duo's comedy. Peele does a very credible impression of the Commander in Chief in a good sketch in which Key plays an "anger translator," who expresses the strong emotions the president can't convey himself. Less successful are a couple of Lil' Wayne bits, which play out like lesser imitations of Chappelle's Lil' Jon rants of yore.
But not every sketch has to do with race: One skewers reality television cooking shows; another features husbands who pretend to each other that they have the guts to tell off their wives whenever the men feel put upon; and one of the best bits is a concise skit about a man who goes about getting medical marijuana in exactly the wrong way. In the second episode, a sketch that starts out as a parody of '90s slow-jam crooners goes in an unexpected -- and very funny -- direction.
Interspersed with the sketches are on-stage moments in which the two talk about things like moving between white and African-American worlds. Both of them "can sound whiter than Mitt Romney in a snowstorm," Peele notes, but they're able to moderate their "blackness" based on a given situation, as they demonstrate in a nimble opening sketch.
The first couple of episodes of "Key & Peele" contained more hits than misses, and none of the misses were actually bad; there were just a couple of sketches that went on a little too long or felt a little derivative. If upcoming episodes are as solidly written and performed as these two (and have tighter editing and a more ruthless focus on fresh ideas), this could well be one of the best new cable comedies to come down the pike in some time.
Regardless of our heritage, we're all living in a not-quite-post-racial world. While I look forward to seeing more "Key & Peele" sketches that have nothing to do with skin color, it certainly wouldn't hurt to have guides who know the territory well and can laugh with us as they explore some of its weirder and more corrosive corners.
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