In one sketch on tonight’s Key & Peele, a play exists in which Martin Luther King Jr. (Jordan Peele) and Malcolm X (Keegan-Michael Key) talk about the real issues facing the African-American community. The two are on stage and notice that whenever they say some platitude, the audience lets out a quick “mm hmm.” This builds for a while until Key starts saying his lines out of order just to get the audience to react with a raucous “Amen.” Peele counters by launching into MLK’s famous “I have a dream” speech, and the sketch ends with both parties dancing on the stage and the audience up on their feet, just so happy to be alive. It’s a perfect example of Key & Peele done right: You think it’s a sketch about racial issues or the history of injustice, but at the last second, the writing duo flip it into a simple pattern game taken to an outrageous conclusion.
The degree to which Key and Peele are able to hone in on their satirical targets adds an extra surprise to each sketch. It’s difficult to tell what’s going to happen, even when they telegraph a whole lot of information right at the top. In the opening bit, Key is in the middle of a rap battle on the street, and it goes on for about 30 seconds. A limo pulls up and Obama gets out, picks up the mic, says “I’m the commander in chief,” drops the mic, and leaves. The punchline exists for about one-eighth as long as the setup, making it even more surprising.
It’s as it should be. The second episode of Key & Peele is a little more all-over-the-place in terms of content, but maintains the same sensibility as the première: finding goofiness even in very serious situations, then playing to that as much as possible.
And sometimes the goofiness means sketches are best served with anticlimactic endings. When a doctor (Key) tries to deliver bad news to a gangster (Peele) about his sick mother, Peele thinks he’s suddenly in the middle of a “Yo mama” contest, and happily plays along. The doctor gets more and more frustrated, until Peele finally breaks down, and admits that the humor is actually what’s getting through this difficult and trying time. He drops his guard and starts answering the doctor’s questions in a straightforward way—at which point the doctor slips in his own joke at the mom’s expense. Without so much as a smile. Peele sits there in silence, at which point I’m just waiting for him to start laughing to make the situation okay. He doesn’t, and Key just breezes on through the joke and onto the next topic. End of sketch.
The understated nature of the conclusion makes that final moment linger even longer—it’s just so different from everything that came before it—and lets the setup stand as just as interesting as the punchline. The same thing happens in a sketch where Key is playing a news reporter subbing for his colleague in the traffic helicopter, but terrified that he’s going to die whenever the chopper moves. He screams and swears, abandoning any chance of keeping his composure; and about two-thirds of the way through, the camera cuts to Peele the pilot, who has a completely stoic expression on his face, as he does later when he tells Key that they’re about to crash. In the pilot of Key & Peele, it was really fun to watch the two play at the same energy level as one another (kind of like the sketch this week where they play girls at a bar trying to get their picture right). This time around, they take care to ensure they’re always supporting each other with as much contrast as possible.
The final sketch, where two Boys II Men-type guys sing to ladies while Peele tries to confess his love for Key, was masterful in the way it turned a premise-heavy bit into a purely physical gag, where the words barely meant anything. But then it turned into a sketch about the words themselves, where Peele tries to cover it up and sing about how much, in fact, he loves ladies. My favorite sketches play a single game, and while I liked this one a bunch, I wonder if it would have fared better separated into two bits.
The richer the sketches become, the more it highlights that the stand-up portions of the show are vastly underserved. Comedy Central has a major problem in the editing room, and it’s apparent with every single stand-up special they’ve ever produced. Jump-cuts edit out moments of applause or even silence, making the comedy feel frantic but disingenuous. It’s especially glaring on this show, because the stand-up is there specifically to serve the sketches, and it happens so fast that by the time the sketch starts it’s hard to remember what Key and Peele were even talking about. I would much rather they cram all those stand-up segments into one or two moments in the show, letting them take a bit longer and include a lot of the repartee that seems to be lost in the editing room, and let more of the sketches speak for themselves. They already do anyways.