Back when this current season of Key & Peele was supposed to be the second half of season four, “The 420 Special” was to be episode 20 of season four. It was definitely a “get it?” situation, which you really can’t fault the show for trying. With the shift to separate seasons, the episode instantly lost a part of its purpose and identity, even though it continued to be called “The 420 Special.” Luckily, that minor change in plans doesn’t change the fact that the episode is cohesive enough to work (just on its name and content along) without really being episode 20 of season four.
To commemorate this special 420 (sort of) occasion, Key & Peele’s typical on-the-road shenanigans start off as casual drug conversations—with Peele wanting to get Key high on pot—only to escalate with every new segment. Even in the initial on-the-road segment, Peele wants to escalate with regards to the drugs he’d give Key. First marijuana, then ecstasy, then heroin, and if that’s not enough, he’ll lace the drugs with acid. Funnily enough, by the end of the episode, it’s revealed that this particular version of Peele, the road trip version, is the one that’s already on acid and “none of this is real.”
It’s fun when the show actually uses these segments as their own parts of the story as opposed to set up, just like the sketch back in season four that explained the guys were on their way to Vegas all this time. Key & Peele isn’t praised much for its comedy coming from a place of cohesion and narrative consistency—that was more Kroll Show’s expertise—but it’s not as though the show doesn’t or can’t do that. The concept of the road trip actually being a figment of Peele’s imagination due to a bad acid trip is the perfect ending to a pretty funny episode because of Key & Peele’s decisions to change it all up.
But that’s not the only narrative thread in the episode, as Peele’s version of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson starts things off and then continues to weave his way in and out of the episode. As just the opening sketch, it’s a really solid start; Peele’s searing gaze as he cuts a Cosmos-like monologue to get out of the doghouse and Key’s confusion as Tyson’s wife in the background work together to get the proper mileage out of the bit. It’s funny, especially since the obvious direction just there is for Mrs. Tyson to see through his bullshit. Instead, Key & Peele says “not yet.”
As the episode continues, each return to this world is a welcome one. Part of that is because it’s proof of Key & Peele not being afraid to do something different so late in the game. But another part of the equation is that both Peele and Key are so on top of their games in these sketches that it’s hard not to want more, and most of that is just because of their facial expressions. There’s a different experience in watching these sketches depending on whether you focus on Peele in the foreground or Key in the background, and that’s exciting to see. And that’s all from a premise that’s basically: “What if Neil deGrasse Tyson is always on, even at home?” Ending it all with Mrs. Tyson having slept with Bill Nye (after an on-the-road segment with Peele pointing out Nye tried to steal his girl) answers that question and then some.
The episode’s end also makes you think: It’s not just the road trip that is a figment of Peele’s imagination, it’s possibly all of the sketches in this episode, especially the Tyson ones. This is coming from a season that has already acknowledged with an actual wink that Key and Peele’s road trip is just a fake experience in front of a camera. Intentional or not, the universe of Key & Peele is imploding—next week’s episode is titled “Meegan and Andre Break Up,” so no one is safe—and the audience is reaping the benefits of that.
Keeping with the drugs theme, Peele’s Tyson has his own addiction to scientifically explaining every little thing (that happens to be not so little after all) and cheating with white women. But it’s the first real sketch of the episode, the marbles sketch, that best captures the power of addiction. The marbles sketch is the best type of weird for Key & Peele, where there is just so much to latch on to that’s it’s hard to focus on what exactly is the funniest—or weirdest—part of it all. The basic concept of the sketch is Key’s Mr. Wise having a childlike fascination with having marbles in his mouth, and that alone is able to sustain a couple of chuckles. But the sketch isn’t content with a couple of chuckles.
Peele’s Winslow Thachet provides just as much to the sketch in the background as Wise does in the foreground, in what would otherwise be the straight man role. That’s actually a recurring factor in nearly all of these sketches in “The 420 Special.” As Wise gravitates to the marbles, Thachet is in his own world, ogling Lady Justice as though she were a real woman. “Lady Justice is a committed woman…Once in a while she will turn a blind eye.” There are really two sides to this story, the same with the Neil deGrasse Tyson sketches, and the episode is better for it. Key and Peele deserve to both have the time of their lives in these sketch, not just trade off, and that’s what you have here.
While Thachet has Lady Justice on his mind, Wise’s fascination with the marbles also goes from childlike to oddly sexual pretty quickly.
Wise: “I was wondering what the marbles would feel like if they were in my mouth. You know.”
Wise: “Just, you know. You know, just, what would if feel like if there were kind of a whole ton of marbles in my face.”
Thachet: “Well don’t do that.”
Wise: “They’re just so beautiful…It’s just these particular marbles. I needed to feel what they felt like in my mouth.”
Based on the set-up from the on-the-road segment, this sketch sees this marble situation as a deadly addiction—even in the literal sense—but the joy of seeing Wise constantly trying to get his fix, despite Thachet’s objections and as the marbles basically call to him, kind of eliminates that darkness. The image of Key spitting out the marbles like one of those never-ending scarves is one the viewing audience probably didn’t realize it needed until now, but Key & Peele is committed to providing them with it. As the suspenseful score plays throughout the sketch during the marble gaze, it’s a reminder that weight can be given to just about anything if you do it well enough. Which is why a telemarketing sketch is also such a hit.
Key & Peele’s sketches about games of one-upmanship are often fun, because their conclusions are always disproportionate to their humble beginnings. Here, a telemarketing firm basically changing its scripts to utilize tips from The Game leads to Key’s character going mad (mentally and emotionally) and buying five travel packages to Vegas to prove a point. The adrenaline starts pumping, and Key just can’t let any of it go, which is his demise. The sketch is really a reminder of how cinematic of a show Key & Peele is, especially for a sketch comedy. The direction and the score of the sketch, particularly in the parts with the unseen Peele, are just so full of suspense, in a different way from the marbles sketch. That sketch was built mostly off the tension of what Key would do with the marbles and when. Here, it’s a suspense that makes you worry about Key, even though the only thing to worry about is the fact that he’s going to blow a bunch of money on a trip he doesn’t want or need. That’s ridiculously impressive.
The remaining two sketches of the episode are the weakest of the bunch, for very different reasons. There’s the tailor sketch, which is mostly on the side of too weird, especially for what ends up being a simple fart joke (foreshadowed by Peele’s character’s initial trip to a “trashy Indian restaurant in a strip mall”). The actual content of the sketch isn’t great, especially for such an obvious joke: Peele’s body is literally making ungodly sounds (“THE END IS NEAR”) because of gas! But much like with the marbles and Neil deGrasse Tyson sketches, there’s still something in the background to pay attention to. Peele’s character’s—who might be the “sociopath” from the car accident sketch in “MC Mom”—background phone call musings are the highlight of the sketch. The more he speaks in his “woe is me” tone about how terrible of a person he is, the funnier he is (see: “ginger broad”).
The valets sketch is mostly a victim of circumstance. The valets just recently made a return in episode six of this season with the Val Kilmer/Robert Downey Jr. sketch, which I praised for being an example of comforting familiarity. Now to return just three episodes later, the sketch falls right back into the exhausting aspect of the constant return to this comedic well. But the biggest problem in this instance is that this particular valets sketch (about Game Of Thrones and the number of deaths that happens on it—spoilers, I suppose) first dropped and went viral back in April. If the internet never forgets, then the realization that that sketch from five months ago is now being treated as new material isn’t all that laughable, on a couple of levels. In this context, the sketch is dated, both because of when it was first revealed and the fact that Game Of Thrones isn’t even on the air right now. Surely some fans of either show might have missed it when it appeared online in April, but for those who didn’t, the interest from there being another valet sketch so soon quickly disappears at the realization that it’s technically not even new. It’s not the same as having the sketch online a day or a week in advance. Plus, the sketch itself—while delightfully landing the valets in Westeros—isn’t as funny or entertaining as the Val Kilmer/Robert Downey Jr. sketch, as amusing as it is for a Game Of Thrones fan. It’s just a strange misstep for the show, especially in an otherwise strong episode. What would Neil deGrasse Tyson say about that?
- Peele’s impression of Neil deGrasse Tyson might honestly give me nightmares. In that opening sketch alone, I felt like he was looking through my screen and into my soul.
- Wise: “You were saying that justice is a dumb, blind old lady.”
Thachet: “[…] She’s not dumb, but she is blind. She’s reminiscent of a Kerry Washington.” If this isn’t a Fantastic Four reference, I don’t know what is.
- Despite the fact that Thachet keeps addressing them being in the state of Arizona, I’m fairly certain the accent Peele is going with has a lot more in common with Alabama than it does Arizona. But that doesn’t stop him from reminding Wise that they are in Arizona, the Arizona states attorney’s office, no less.
- Telemarketee Key: “Did we get disconnected?”
Telemarketer Peele: “Yeah, I hung up on you.”
- As someone who has worked in telemarketing in the past, I can say that I wish the scripts had been a lot more like the one from this episode of Key & Peele. I can play aloof a lot better than I could ever play happy to have a job in telemarketing.
- The word “pussyhound” was used to describe Bill Nye the Science Guy. This episode is actually an attack on its audience.
- Mrs. Tyson: “I fucked Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson: “You bitch.”