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Nathan Arizona

Race to the Top: The Meaning of ‘Key and Peele’

One of the three most important television shows about race in the Obama era says goodbye — way too soon

Can we just start with the most obvious thing? The show was called Key and Peele. Excusing the “e” in that second surname, it was a title that seemed like a directive. Whether “peel” was to “reveal or expose” and “key” was an adjective meaning “crucial,” a verb meaning “to scar or deface,” or a noun referring to any device that unlocks and permits access, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have spent the past five years performing as advertised. And tonight, they’re going to stop, ending their half-hour Comedy Central show and along with it the virality of its sketches and its difficult achievement of locating what’s funny about race without losing what’s disturbing about racism. They’re doing this near the apex of both the culture’s awareness of the show and the nation’s need for it.

This was the third great American show of this so-called golden age of television to satirize race and racism — after Chappelle’s Show and 30 Rock, the former from the perspective of a black male, the latter, largely, from a white woman’s point of view. Key and Peele was different: two biracial men in a sustained conversation with each other about blackness and whiteness and how to raise the veil on even the perception of racism — allowing white people to see what some black people do when, say, they’re just watching winter-storm coverage. That happened in a sketch late in the third season. The white anchors — a man and a woman — warn viewers to beware a common scourge: “Oooh, you gotta watch out for that dangerous black ice,” says the female anchor, a chirpy but sharp blonde. “It’s transparent and sneaky. Hard to see that black ice.” There’s a cut to the male anchor, who’s paired with a graphic of a gray ice cube with narrowed eyes and teeth gritted wide enough to see a gold cap. It’s wearing a backward baseball cap. The report is for the Minneapolis–St. Paul region, but the ice could’ve come straight out of Compton. She tosses it to the black weatherman (Key), but he’s speechless, so the male anchor, serenely, introduces a black field reporter (Peele), who’s out in the snow and also in disbelief. His first utterance is a skeptical “Yeah … ”

The comedy, at first, appears to be that the black newsmen have picked up on an intentional insult. The anchors repeat “black ice” often enough and with enough alacrity that you sometimes hear it as “black guys.” The segment could have ended right about there, with the audience perfectly well versed, after all these years, in racism-as-farce. But the actors playing the anchors turn the offense into sport, and the light-skinned weatherman and darker-skinned on-the-street-reporter (under the circumstances, a house Negro and his field counterpart) decide to play defense. “One must keep in mind that just because black ice looks different than white ice, that doesn’t make it more dangerous,” says the reporter. “One must remember how hard it is for black ice to survive, what with the authorities trying to destroy it with the snowplows and the salt trucks. But black ice perseveres.” The weatherman chimes in, unhinged: “As you can see right now, the city is being controlled by oppressive white snow, making it hard for all people to advance. And we do not hear much ‘news’ about that, though. Do we?” Then the white female anchor recalls, with Midwestern/news-desk cheer, the time that black ice almost “robbed me of my … balance.”

“That sounds exactly like something black ice would do,” says the male anchor, sending his black coworkers into frenzies: “Black ice never asked to be out here!” Peele puts just enough skepticism into the character’s pulpit-y speechifying that you’re laughing at his awareness of how stupid the extended metaphor is. The exhilaration of the black men’s aggravation gets at one of the show’s strengths: the affronted discourse Key is able to have with Peele in sketch after sketch. But the series’ most devastating bits refuse to lose sight of the affronter’s unyielding dominion. Before the female anchor goes to commercial, she offers a tease to the ensuing segment: “Next up: Why is America being ruined by black people?” That segment typifies race relations on this show: We’re on thin black ice.

Cartoons Plural

It seems apt that the tenure of a biracial president occurred during a watershed moment for biracial stars — Drake, Dwayne Johnson, Blake Griffin, Russell Wilson. These sorts of popular changes spoke to a browning of American life that contributed to the myth that the country had moved beyond race. Key and Peele began in 2010, as a string of national scandals — involving everyone from Henry Louis Gates to Shirley Sherrod to Trayvon Martin — had begun to disabuse us of that delusion. The show followed Chocolate News, Comedy Central’s previous attempt — after the premature demise of Chappelle’s Show — to keep black comedians and the subject of race on its air. Chocolate News practiced sketch comedy that might have been too old-school black for a network whose other programming was still largely white. Its star, David Alan Grier, had been satirizing race on TV for two decades at that point, and he was neither as go-for-broke lethal as Chappelle nor as ornately fantastical as Key and Peele. The sketches on Chocolate News were broad, obvious, and occasionally toothless, but 10 episodes weren’t enough of a weathervane to deem the show a failure. Nonetheless, an 11th episode never materialized.

American television has always been fundamentally white. Its points of view emanate from the vantages of those who control the industry and create its content. If it deals with race as a problem, it typically can do so only if it believes there’s a solution. But as a black viewer, I’m never looking for contrition, simply an acknowledgement of a condition; I don’t need television — or American culture — to provide a remedy. Black America has tended to see the discrepancy between the cultural importance to diagnose and the delusion to attempt to cure. Merely giving a nonwhite person a speaking role is not absolution. That contradiction is visible to a black audience almost anytime it sees itself chauffeuring, housekeeping, mammying, best-friending, sidekicking, saying everything about white characters while saying nothing about itself. That was the biracial brilliance of Key and Peele. It understood race as real and racism as inevitable, and never lost sight of the way in which individual white people can be agents of change but also of offense, wittingly or not supporting a system of demoralization.

Key and Peele knew better than to demand that we keep learning to live with each other. These five seasons of television have asked how we can more honestly live with ourselves.

The show’s breakout star character was Luther, President Obama’s tall, bald, be-ringed “anger translator.” The president (Peele) sits in an armchair, serene but hard, responding, in polite self-defense, to the public’s response to him. Meanwhile, Luther (Key) stalks behind him. Luther’s meltdowns weren’t funny because they were a generic black man’s rage. They were funny because Keegan-Michael Key imagined that Luther was Obama inside out. In exposing the president’s volcanically aggrieved inner self — a man regularly buffeted by condescension, disillusionment, presumption, willful obstruction, distrust, disdain, and disbelief — Key turned stereotypical black militancy into a kind of ignoble grace. You leave those segments — in which Peele performs the culture’s most astonishing Obama impersonation, loading it with hauteur, hubris, cluelessness, and sex — torn about which idea of the president is more dignified: the pacific man giving the country a kind of fireside chat or the maniac ranting behind him? Each personality is like a rock shaped by prolonged exposure to the pressure of both white and black expectation. The Luther sketches proliferate because the context for them remains fertile. We want a modulated black president, but not too modulated. We want him angry but not too angry. Key and Peele aren’t playing with fire here. They’re committing arson. Or they were. The sketches became so popular that Obama himself has appropriated Luther to do live translation at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

But in focusing on race, it’s possible to miss the dozens of other things this show managed to do. There was, for starters, the withering parody of 2012’s Les Misérables that is still the most technically and artistically brilliant thing the show has pulled off. Then there was the constellation of characters. Key and Peele played obese nerds, dim-bulb pimps, girl-power pop stars, girlfriends, grizzled action stars, Darius Rucker, compassionately progressive rednecks, and scores of football players with names like D’Squarius Green Jr., Jackmerius Tacktheritrix, Davoin Shower-Handel, Ozamataz Buckshank, and X-Wing @Aliciousness. They spoofed fraternities and goths and men’s incapacity to satisfactorily perform cunnilingus. They did Mexican gangsters, macho Arab closet cases, white news anchors, Italian mafiosi, and Indian call-center workers, some more reductively than others.

Together, they were Meegan and Andre, a bratty narcissist and her long-suffering bro boyfriend, one of the show’s most inspired dysfunctional relationships. She’s stupid and pathologically stuck on herself, and even though, in playing her, Peele appears to be wearing almost nothing to lighten his brown skin, you glean an entitled white woman and her sisterhood of social blindness. These sketches get to some pitiful, lunatic realm of insecurity. Andre knows he should leave but he also knows that his attention is a finger in the dike of her ego. He also might not know who he is without her. They’re like Pepe Le Pew and one of his suitors but upside down, in a Road Runner cartoon, if the road ran through wherever the Kardashians live.

But the show kept coming back to race — or, rather, race kept coming back to the show, like a boomerang or a cold. Some sketches would begin with Key and Peele at a bar or a party and racism would just happen, just as it does at actual bars and parties. Take the time in Season 3, when these two are having a drink and overhear two white women casually speculating about what it would be like to have sex with a black guy. They listen, vacillating between being appalled and aroused by the increasingly harsh racism of the speculation — maybe they’re good lovers because they had no fathers, maybe because their penises are big.

When one woman gets up to go to the bathroom, she tells her friend that if she sees a black guy, she might go down on him. One of the male friends makes an excuse to follow her to the bathroom, allowing his friend to move in on the remaining white woman waiting on a couch. She sees who’s approached and says, matter of factly, “I’m sorry. I don’t have any money, sir.” That’s the punch line of a joke that’s really about how white women are so appealing to black men that not even racism is sufficient enough a deterrent. The show was hard on bigots, but it was not sparing toward black men. Of course, Key and Peele understand that there’s a wider racial system in place and that it has warped some men’s self-image. They managed to dramatize that warping in sophisticated ways.

Barack Obama Addresses White House Correspondents DinnerOlivier Douliery-Pool/Getty ImagesIn trying to satirize what race is, the show embarked on an odyssey to explain how race works. The first sketch on the first show was a bellwether. Key, more or less as himself, is on the phone on a Los Angeles street corner telling his wife he’s going to buy theater tickets for her birthday. He’s loose. He sounds educated. He looks casual in jeans and a maroon track jacket. He’s explaining to her that their seats might not be that great when out strolls Peele from a store, in a black hoodie and a puffy vest, looking hard. Key sees Peele, who catches a look at Key. And Key’s character becomes a different man, one who matches this other guy’s onyx hardness. “That” becomes “dat.” “Theater” becomes “thee-AY-ter.” A person who’s never been to a play is what he thinks a real black man is: hand in pocket, cool, dominant, almost offensively casual. “I’m a pick yo ass up at 6:30 then,” he says to a wife who must know her man has wandered into the vicinity of another African American and needs to express not just blackness — each man can see the race of the other — but black virility. Peele sees Key and gets on the phone (“What’s up, dog? I’m about five minutes away … Yeah, son … Nah, man … I’m telling you”). The light changes, Peele crosses, and then he says, in the voice of Real Housewives–gay-bestie crisis, “Oh my god, Christian. I almost just got mugged right now.” This 45-second joke has so many layers, but all you do when you see it — when you see most Key and Peele sketches — is laugh. But they’ve picked up what’s also sad about who the culture thinks black men are — who some black men who live in a white world tend to be: unsure.

For the first three seasons, Key and Peele hosted most of the segments in front of a live studio audience that enjoyed the wit of their improvisational interplay. The series seemed a degree more serious in Season 4, which opened with Peele walking in a deluxe subdivision in which the white neighbors are disturbed by his presence. He’s walking with his black hoodie down as a police cruiser approaches and the Hollywood-thriller music boils over. Peele dons the hood and the point of view switches to inside the cruiser, where the cop sees what’s been printed on the side of the hoodie: the profile of a young, blond white kid. It’s obviously fake, but it’s good enough for him — a false white male being more permissible than a real black one. That’s not a moment that’s going for comedy, per se, just blunt commentary. But Key and Peele manage to take the stage anyway at the start of the episode. And the rousing ovation they receive feels off.

That might explain why the live segments were gone once the fourth season started. That season’s first segment was damningly concise. A newsman reads a detailed crime report featuring a black male. When it’s over, the anchor, played by Key, says, “That’s it for sports.” I kind of gasped and laughed at the same time. I don’t know how you bound onto a stage and yuk it up with an audience after that. So they stopped.

Season 4 unfolded in the fall of 2014, amid the brewing Bill Cosby sex scandal. And the heaviness of that steady disillusionment seemed of a piece with swapping out Reggie Watts’s a cappella–ish opening song, with its glimmers of the number that used to kick off The Cosby Show. In its place was a grimmer intro that parodied the beautifully overblown illustrations that began True Detective while Breaking Bad–style guitar played. It was amusing and telling and seemed to match the new tone between segments. Instead of a live audience, Key and Peele talk to each other while Key drives them across a seemingly endless stretch of what looks like the American Southwest. They talk about their families, asking random questions (“Who’s your favorite actor?”), while looking straight ahead, still connected but also subdued, serious, searching. Are they driving toward or away from something? This could be a quiet rebuke of Jerry Seinfeld’s web show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which annoyed some people for featuring too many white comics. But their show has never felt that petty. And Key and Peele are great enough actors at this point to feel a weight that’s come over them in the sketches — but especially in that car. You just don’t want it to end with the two of them clasping hands and driving over a cliff, even if sometimes it feels as if that’s where the rest of us are headed.

This was a very funny show that always seemed saddened by its own existence, by its popularity, by what it has perceived in American society. Who can say whether the decision to end it was a matter of having run out of new things to say or having eternally more and feeling the precarious burden of giving voice to that eternity – possibly for mis-comprehending viewers. Five years or five hundred? It’s entirely possible that the sobriety of those car scenes and the decision to walk away from a hugely successful show reflect a lesson learned from Chappelle’s cautionary mental breakdown. Inhabiting racism so immersively for even two proper seasons was toxic for him. Key and Peele might be trying to maintain the sanity Chappelle says he lost. They’ve already accomplished a nearly impossible feat. The show has managed the trick of treating race as a literal construct — no show has more crucial hair and makeup artistry — that many of us can’t live without and too many of us refuse to live with. It wasn’t perfect. But neither was its audience. Those between-sketch driving scenes bespeak the show’s moral challenge. It knew better than to demand that we keep learning to live with each other. These five seasons of television have asked how we can more honestly live with ourselves. 

Filed Under: TV, comedy central, Key and Peele, key & peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele