I’m a big fan of the moments Key & Peele goes dark. Both its lead actors are so effortlessly charming that when they tread uncomfortable territory, there’s an immediate disconnect and an automatic heightening.
Blah blah academic stuff… Look, what I’m trying to say is that I could not stop laughing during the sketch where Key masturbates wearing the Kinect bracelets and his guests have to watch his avatar from the other room. Keegan Michael Key is so upbeat normally that I already reveled in watching him play such a downtrodden character. Then there’s the added layer of cutting to his avatar, with its bright googly eyes, wriggling on the ground holding itself. Plus, Key puts his feet up when he jacks off? This’ll find its way onto the “Best Of” DVD the two put out.
Darkness leads to desperation and a sense of urgency. In the LMFAO sketch, Key and Peele come to the realization that their nonstop party lifestyle is going to destroy them, and we get to sit back and watch them jump through hoops. When they spell out “Help” with the Jell-O shots, it’s all the more funny that they’re immediately scooped up. When they open the door and see a reflection of the exact same party happening in the other room, their masked frustration reads as totally unique. The stakes are high; the party must stop at all costs. A later sketch has Peele playing a very self-aware bully—and Bubs from The Wire playing his very self-aware dad—and the more heated the sketch gets, the more its specificity (namely Peele identifying his motives) can be a punchline.
Specificity is really the name of the game, here. I love the little touches the show tosses in. Key is wearing a golden Super Nintendo controller around his neck in the LMFAO sketch. In the one where Peele plays the silent, menacing guy, he eats a sandwich with the crusts cut off. The guys have obviously thought a lot about their sketches, and it shows.
It’s tough, though, when their dead-on comedic instincts don’t play out in sketch form how they’d probably liked. Their explanation of the drunk Chicago girl is a fun little anecdote to tell the audience, especially because Peele is ready to jump in and support Key’s retelling. But when that character transitions into the sketch, they choose to manufacture a scenario where the girl, and the guy chasing her, don’t evolve. Instead, the joke becomes just how long this guy is going to follow her, demanding she come back to the bar, ending in a desert where skeletons grasp coats of long-dead girlfriends. The story was about the girl, but the sketch was about the location, and that disconnect didn’t do that sketch many favors.
As an episode, though, this one holds up nicely. It starts with the obvious Obama/Luther sketch we were probably all expecting—a celebratory sketch that’s well deserved by these two guys, who have to respond instantaneously to the news while maintaining a sketch show that, theoretically, can be viewed any time. Then, after a cursory mention of politics being over, the episode continues with said timeless material. Some of it has a nice arc, like when an incompetent Peele maims Key instead of killing him, then warns him that if captured, he’ll be tortured. Some of it’s cringeworthy, like having to watch Key clean himself off with a sock on a video game screen. Some of it has freakin’ Bubs from the freakin’ Wire. No matter how good or bad an individual sketch is on this show, there’s always a good balance per episode of weird, smart, and silly. And, because these guys can spin comedy out of anything, there’s some sad in there, too.