The Liam Neesons guys visit Shakespeare, and Key pelvic thrusts people to death, and still, all I can think about in this episode is a disbelieving Peele saying, “Man, quit pulling my dick.” It’s set on a stoop in that blue-gray desaturated hood style as Key comes to visit his friend and slowly discovers he has the words “dick” and “leg” confused in popular expressions, words, and possibly his own anatomy. It’s a simple premise with almost no extraneous lines. Key gives him a prompt, Peele says “dick” in a new and ridiculous context. Even Key getting fed up and walking away sets up a new one. “You gotta leave now, huh? Just ‘cause I got a dick up on you?” A little forced, maybe—he practically put his whole dick in his mouth—but still hilarious, just the touch of goofiness that recalls another great sketch show: This episode screams The State louder than an anarchist rally. Structurally, I mean. There are a variety of sketch subjects from recurring characters to simple wordplay; one sketch just exists to play with a highbrow cultural touchstone, and there’s a surprising runner that pops out of the blue at the end tying a ribbon around the episode.
The content is the distinction. Key & Peele characters are dealers, athletes, and Moors. In Living Color has that feature as well, but its biggest contribution to Key & Peele is the inescapable “X but black” premise, and there, it’s more often “X but ghetto.” Key & Peele is a lot quieter, an advantage of the single camera but also the writing that builds whole sketches around one big punchline. The Shakespeare sketch could maybe be done on Saturday Night Live—it really only takes one black person, after all, so SNL’s a natural fit—but it wouldn’t have nearly the same zip because of the audience. The excessive celebration sketch is a maybe, but it would have to be a predominantly white football team, and you’d never get that television broadcast style with the camerawork cutting from huge wide shots of the field to isolated groups of players. But what is the SNL white-bread version of the “pulling my dick” sketch? Would their “Now high-five me and say, ‘Drugs!’” sketch basically be Frog from The Wire? Key & Peele has a more urbane (and urban, in the Michael Scott sense) sensibility than SNL in general, but it’s amazing how the simple fact of having two black actors opens up Key & Peele to a basically untapped market.
And as one of the only majority-black series on a network not explicitly aimed at a black audience, Key & Peele occupies this unique position on television to address racial issues for white folks. Strikingly, its main position on race is for everybody to just chill out, give or take a Trayvon sketch that should be shown instead of the Inaugural Address. The Office can show Michael Scott making exaggeratedly off-color remarks, or The Colbert Report can flash to that clip of Stephen saying, “I ruv tea!” and even when it’s funny, all it does is satirize ignorance. When JD on Scrubs or Max on Happy Endings asks his best friend if he can say the N-word, the response is an unequivocal no, because duh. There isn’t much room for discussion on these whiter shows. They’re the white writer’s assistant stuttering and saying, “My nuh.”
But Key & Peele’s “everyone’s a little bit racist” sketch has room for nuance, even if the punchline comes with a little (Paul) Haggis. A company vice-president tasked with giving a speech brings in a black man (Peele), a woman, and a gay man (Key) to vet his “material.” Those white shows would get right to the material and show the Biden falling on his face, gaffe after gaffe. But there’s more to political correctness than oblivious white guys retreating to implicit discrimination. On top of the obvious offenses of casting cultural ambassadors in the first place and the material in the second, the sketch depicts overplayed outrage, gun-jumping, self-satisfaction, hypocrisy, and tribalism at the end. The point is to cultivate inclusion, but this is all exclusion: The minorities are concerned only about their own social betterment, and the Biden’s shocked that people are taking offense to what he says. As if any of them has a dick to stand on.
The opening drug deal ends with a pure Silly White Guys bit, hilarious though it may be to see a cop tackle an old woman and tell her friends, “Hands where I can see ‘em, sluts!” The rest of the sketch is just as ridiculous, but in a more inspired way: Dealer Peele instructs buyer Key to just be cool during the deal. “Just take out your money. And fan it… Good, now give it to me. Good, that’s all there is to it. Here come the drug machine. All right. High five and say, ‘Drugs.’ Drugs!” Which is to say, it’s not just that Key & Peele stars black men. It’s also that the writing led by Ian Roberts and Jay “Principal” Martel is so weird, and that the performances are so funny, and that the direction and production design and editing are so sophisticated. Having black actors isn’t everything, but it’s a pretty big advantage in this television landscape anyway.
- Speaking of these actors, have I mentioned how much I love their stage pantomimes? That cowboy bathroom bit is immaculate—Key spinning his spurs at the urinal especially—and now I’m just dying for a proper Western sketch for Key to exercise his Eastwood.
- The guest actors, too: The woman who plays the teacher kills me when she suddenly snaps, hair all Naomi Watts in Funny Games, shouting, “JOEL, STOP IT! YOU WILL NEVER BE TROY!”
- In lieu of this review, I could have just written every line of the Shakespeare sketch, but I’ll leave most of that to you. “Moor, please” was particularly unexpected, but my favorite bit was a one-two punch: “Where Shakespeares at?” “Begone, sirrah!”
- Also I can’t overstate how much I enjoy the football sketch: Key’s inability to restrain himself, Peele side-eyeing his crotch with the whistle in his mouth, the commentators circling the three thrusts. Just hilarious.
- The vice-president opens his sketch by intercomming, “Marjorie, I’d love a cupcake,” which is basically why I love Key & Peele.