Both Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are biracial, and the pair has mentioned in interviews how they hope Key & Peele reflects what it’s like to feel trapped between the white and African-American worlds, and comment on all the expectations that situation carries. There are times, they’ve said, where they need to “act black” to fit in, and there are times when they dial up their argyle-wearing instincts and act white. Their show has demonstrated this dichotomy in each episode, but none have been as overt as “Episode Eight,” the closer to Key & Peele’s excellent first season. And none have pulled it off as well as this episode, either.
The finale begins with an Obama sketch, which is a concept that after a rocky start (doing the whole “anger translator” schtick a few too many times) has become of my favorites. Key and Peele are able to heighten the silliness of everything around the president, letting Obama play the straight man in these sketches. A few weeks back, they did that sketch where Obama uses reverse psychology to get every Republican Congressman to comically run around and torture themselves, ending with the president looking directly into the camera and saying, “Ain’t I a stinker?” This time, Obama is once again the source of chaos in the sketch, but also bears the brunt of the chaos.
So… the sketch: Obama is teaching his daughter how to drive, and she accidentally runs a red light. The cop pulls them over and is shocked to see the president of the United States sitting in the passenger seat. He’s willing to let them go, but Obama wants to teach his daughter about responsibility, so he asks the cop to give him a ticket and treat him just like he would any other law-breaker. Cut to Obama being pinned against the car, since cops are always rougher on black people. Yeah, we all see it coming, but the shift happens in an instant—yet another example of savvy editing on Key & Peele. Later, Obama is teaching his daughter how to use the ATM, and a huge line has formed behind him. Upon turning to face the crowd, they realize it’s the president and immediately hush up, though once again Obama encourages them to treat him like a normal person. They suddenly snap back into anger mode, proving Key & Peele doesn’t even need to cut away to edit savvily.
One of the interesting things about Key & Peele is that there aren’t really any villains in its sketches. Nobody is made to look like the bad guy; there are only varying degrees of how weirded-out people get. In the sketch where Peele sings a friendship song to Key, sure Key runs away as fast as possible when the song becomes uncomfortable, but Peele isn’t portrayed as a psychopath, just a well-intentioned guy who made a mistake—of which he’s naïve. There’s also the sketch where Key and Peele play “Gefilte Fresh” and “Dr. Dreidel” respectively, a duo that attends bar and bat mitzvahs so that these privileged Jewish kids can become comfortable with being around black people. Not only are the parents thrilled with this prospect (note the dad played by former Colbert Report writer Peter Grosz—hi Pete!), but both Key and Peele are totally game. They love it; they have found their calling. Their blackness isn’t being exploited, it’s being celebrated.
Therein lies the core of Key & Peele’s success. It’s sketch comedy written from an optimistic perspective, even though it does cover issues of race equality and norms. Hell, even the sketch where Peele and his wife are confronted with a hostile landlord and a decrepit apartment ends with a cause for rejoicing—and a reason to smoke some crack. When baby Forest Whitaker comes into the show’s final sketch, sure he’s creepy as crap, but he’s so over-the-top that even Key, the babysitter, can’t help but go along for the ride. There isn’t a single sketch in this first season that seems like one the duo wasn’t excited about filming, and it shows in the way all of the characters portrayed are all-stars in their own little way.
It’s been a pleasure getting to know both Key and Peele throughout this season. Both were on MADtv, obviously, but other than hearing their names floating around the Chicago comedy community, I didn’t feel much of an individual comedic connection to either one until recently. It started when Peele showed up on Childrens Hospital, and culminated with the excellent work of the Key & Peele pilot—one of the best pilots to come out of Comedy Central in a long time, simply because, even though I didn’t really know Key or Peele yet, it felt like them. It stood out as a piece of television and my guess is it’ll hold up for a while; Key and Peele put the work into making every line of every sketch count. Watching the standup portions of “Episode Eight” feels like watching old friends hang out: The smallest things—the way Peele says “I put my balls on the bookshelf”—are so personally affecting and rich. This is as much a show about friendship as it is about anything else, and comedy could always use more friends.