Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have never worried about looking cool. If they did, I bet their sketch comedy would suffer; they’d be unwilling to put themselves in embarrassing situations or would frantically recover from any action that’s counter to their slick façade. As it stands, their show Key & Peele soars because both are willing to act foolish, unconcerned for how they come off as long as the product is a success.
The opening sketch of the show’s second season encapsulates Key & Peele’s earnest attempts at flipping cool on its head. In slow motion, we see Key and Peele walking down the street, carrying silencer guns and wearing dark, tailored suits. Every step is calculated, and their faces are stern. Then, Peele slips. A bird flies into his face. A piano knocks him down and rolls him far off the street. Any trace of calm and collectedness is gone, and he’s not the only one: Key mocks Peele with a reenactment of Peele’s goofy batting-at-pigeons gesture, and stares in amazement as Peele rockets off on top of that piano, mouthing a very clear, “Oh, shit!”
As their sketches twist, they allow themselves to act surprised—seemingly so invested in the action at hand that the comic turns genuinely catch them off guard. In a parody of So You Think You Can Dance, Peele plays the unflappable British judge and Key is the eager-to-please, horrible dancer vying for a spot in Las Vegas. Peele passes, but Key spins a sob story so compelling, he comes off looking like the coolest person in the room, leaving Peele beside himself. There’s also a sketch where the pair raid a Civil War reenactment, playing the most stereotypical slaves imaginable in order to goad the faux-Confederates into reacting. When one does, almost saying the N-word, the guys flip on a dime, turning into grifters who steal 1800s relics from hateful people. They effortlessly slide in and out of coolness.
The banter, taking place in between sketches, has improved dramatically from season one: It now comments directly on the sketches we’ve just seen or are about to see, rather than simply dancing around the themes. As invested as Key might have been playing Mary Magdalene’s pimp in the previous sketch, he completely loses his shit when Peele quips, “You looked like the Jack of Hearts,” beginning some discussion about the ridiculous wig Key had to wear. Plus, the show starts with the story of Key and Peele meeting Barack Obama, providing some context for the a trio of sketches that has Peele portraying Obama as a college student, lending Obama-isms to his pursuit of weed. They’re shot with what looks like a vintage 1980s camcorder, and Peele’s spot-on portrayal hits even harder knowing he’s such a massive fan of the president.
(Side note: Jay Pharoah has nothing on Jordan Peele when it comes to Obama impressions. We need to start a campaign to get this guy on Saturday Night Live for at least the month leading to the election.)
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, though: When the banter’s flimsy, Key and Peele now have to end it with something to the effect of, “Now let’s watch some rednecks,” as they do leading into the Civil War sketch. There’s a lot more in season two to fill out these interstitial segments, but without the polish and variety of the sketches themselves, I can’t help but feel like they’re tossed in there. The ones in the second-season première are mostly too short to establish the kind of rapport Key and Peele have naturally, and they can seem jarring when the world of the sketch is so rich.
It doesn’t take much for Key & Peele to invest people in its world. The final sketch contains only two shots. The first is in a locker room after a big basketball victory. Key is talking to Peele, the player, who spews the usual boring sports rhetoric before taking it further. Follow your dreams, he says, even if you want to fly. “Literally, you can fly,” he tells kids. We suddenly cut to a press conference where Peele, in the same unaffected tone of voice, apologizes for not understanding what the words “literally” and “metaphorically” mean. Key & Peele can say a lot with very little, and come off looking cool and savvy no matter what.