Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Key & Peele: “Season Three, Episode 11”

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Opening with a sketch explicitly about stereotypes before indulging in a few is an interesting approach, like the first sketch is the premise for the rest of the episode to escalate, complicate, or pervert as needed. Naturally it begins with a Game Of Thrones discussion between the actual Key and Peele; a couple sketches later Game Of Thrones will signify loserdom for one of Peele’s stereotypes. But as the night winds down, their lull in conversation makes room for the sounds of two women (played by Janet Varney and Natasha Leggero) loudly discussing how much they want to sleep with a black guy. One notes that black guys have way bigger penises. “I guess that’s because of Africa?” suggests the other in an Olympic-level non sequitur. At least going from “good dancers” to “sexual rhythm” has a semi-logical flow to it. Varney’s character speaks in that valley-girl tradition of question-statements. Leggero’s chalks up  black men’s sexual prowess to them knowing they don’t have a future? “Think about it!” she says. Think about it.

The whole time Key and Peele are ambivalent. These women are extravagantly racist, like, Liberace if he could dress in black stereotypes, but some of their magical thinking works in favor of the guys. So when Varney’s character goes to the bathroom, telling Leggero’s character that she’ll blow any black guy she sees in there, Key goes to take her up on her offer. The argument is so clean it could pass military inspection: Stereotypes can assert virtues or flaws, but they’re all invalid. However, if people are going to act on the latter, you may as well take advantage of the former. Then again, the sketch actually concludes with Peele approaching Leggero. “I almost hit my penis there,” he says as he takes a seat in her booth. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money, sir,” she says, barely looking up from her phone. We don’t get to find out how Key’s proposition works out—Schrodinger’s blow-job—but ending the sketch with that bit of debatably just desserts is a nice wrinkle.

“What was that?” is usually a sign that a sketch was great. Case in point: Wendell Sanders’ music video. But I’m less convinced about the Arabs at the gym, although I have to recalibrate given the deliberately off-putting material. It’s a “two wild and crazy guys” kind of riff that involves a lot of “Oh, what I would do to her” as women parade by the camera. The types here—and a metric infinity of comedy begins with identifiable types, so let’s not throw it out summarily—aren’t exclusive to Arabs, and neither is the joke of these two obnoxious guys sending the wrong messages by role-playing sex with each other. It could have just been two clueless Americans, although that would have undercut the bit where they give the homosexual American infidels the whisper of shame (a wolf-whistle). The joke is pure strawman goofiness, not that that makes Key’s wrestling singlet/fanny pack/tube socks ensemble any less funny.

There’s a certain amount of straw in Wendell’s vanity video for “The Power Of Wings,” too. The video entails Sir (Ser?) Wendell riding a knockoff Pegasus to face a dark wizard and rescue a damsel. Lately Key & Peele has a real knack for resurrecting characters without simply repeating old premises, like when the Liam Neesons guys see Shakespeare or when Hingle McCringleberry can’t resist celebrating in the end zone. Apparently a common theme for vanity music videos is cheesy Game Of Thrones-esque live-action role-playing. It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. The joke plays because of Wendell. This is exactly what he would choose for his video. Key & Peele doesn’t leave it at that, though. When the money runs out, Wendell has to finish the video in his backyard courtesy of a seamless (read: extremely seam-ful) cut from Wendell astride a shiny white stallion whose CGI wings are spreading in a park to Wendell in a low-angle optical pseudo-illusion that makes it sort of look like he’s sitting on a tan toy horse with cardboard wings taped to its sides. Wendell is still a legendary loser, the socially awkward butt of the joke, but in a certain light this is the best he’s ever come off. He’s not creepy until he gives his Barbie replacement damsel a quick lick while staring into the camera, but even then he’s not being creepy at another human being, so let’s call it a win. And if the point is to mock his vanity, the production oversells it, because this thing is charmingly ridiculous. Imagine how much energy and creativity went into completing the video with nothing but a digital camera and a Barbie that can’t turn away.

Again goofiness meets stereotypes in the gun-nut sketch, but it pivots into “what in the world” territory almost immediately. This isn’t about The Kind Of People Who Buy Guns. It’s about a very specific individual who wants to buy a bow and arrow and a suit of armor top to rob a bank. In other words, it’s brilliant. No matter how obviously Peele’s patient salesman is onto him, Key’s lunatic just keeps writing his own arrest warrant. “I’m not doing anything. I’m just doing some Christmas shopping, trying to get it out of the way… The bow is for my nephew. The zip line’s for my… grandmother, et cetera and whatnot.” The sketch progresses like Key’s plan, just barreling through this comic-strip universe. He even wants a cartoon money bag, so it’s no wonder the newspaper reads, “Thwarted Terrorist Attack” as Peele preemptively thwarts Key’s attack.

Conversely, the complications in “Thug English Actor” are what elevate it. The joke isn’t just on Peele’s Antoine, a guy who grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, joined a gang, and was told to kill his cousin, only to grow up and star in a movie about that situation and have the director (Colin Hanks) tell him he doesn’t buy his performance. At first the sketch does seem simplistic, as if having lived something is the same thing as expressing it now. But with the revelation that the other actor, Nigel, is actually English, it becomes about how transformations like Christian Bale’s dozen physiques or Meryl Streep’s thousand accents are perceived as more impressive than more low-key performances. And then it escalates that idea, with Hanks putting his body where his mouth is, letting both Antoine’s real-life gangster and Nigel’s posh actor playing “an American tough” take turns punching him just to see whose is more convincing. On Antoine’s: “Okay that hurts, but I don’t feel that it comes from the right emotional place.” The sad thing is, Antoine does get a little bit fiercer with each take, whereas Nigel hands over his prop gun with his fingertips like it’s dirty. But the director has already made up his mind, and if there’s one point to this episode, it’s that there’s just no discouraging some people.


Stray observations:

  • Ever since Nigel started speaking, the voice has been driving me crazy. Who does he sound like?
  • German is Key’s least convincing accent/the one I’m most familiar with, but the delivery still had me laughing: “Ze German is very exzact!”
  • I’m still laughing about Wendell trying to get on the horse and then just walking beside him instead.
  • “I feel like I have to tell you that a suit of armor will not reflect bullets.” Beat. “I’ll take my chances… with Christmas.”