I hate to say it, but Key & Peele is seeing diminishing returns on its investment. It’s nothing to really worry about yet, but where the sketches in the first two episodes were sneaky in the ways they flipped sketch expectations (sketch-pectations?) on a dime, the sketches in the fourth episode broadcast their twists from a distance.
I still think about the sketch where Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key played husbands sneaking away from their wives in fear of being caught calling them bitches. Or the one where Key and Peele play Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., respectively, in a play. Both set up scenes where Key and Peele would be forced to behave a certain way, and completely abandon those expectations. In the first scene, Peele has to head to space just so he can say the word “bitch” without fear; in the other, Key does the worm on stage just to get a rise out of the audience.
The only sketch from tonight’s that contains a comparable surprise is one in which a nerdy Key is forced to let his cousin (Peele) play Dungeons & Dragons, even though the cousin clearly has no interest. When asked to create a character, he chooses Kanye The Giant, a guy who rolls up to the club, orders fancy booze, and tries to pick up women—or just slap them. It breaks all the rules of D&D, and the further along he gets, the more agitated Key becomes. Of course Key would relent, and of course the other players would eventually side with Peele and want to join him on his quest for bitches. The sketch wouldn’t work unless most of the people agree to go with the flow. But I like how even in the unfortunate world where Peele becomes the dungeon master, he decides to roll the 20-sided die to determine how many titties magically appear, and everyone rejoices. It’s these little touches that keep Key & Peele fascinating.
Sadly, most of the prominent sketches in the fourth episode are far too straightforward to elicit more than a chuckle. In one, Key uses a branding iron to sear the letters of a fraternity onto Peele’s chest, and accidentally makes the combination look like a penis. And speaking of penises, another sketch involves Peele as rapper Tha Incredible Mack, performing a song about how he was shot in the dick and has to wear a tiny dick cast. In both sketches, the joke becomes clear as soon as it starts, and there are few lines or actions that deviate from the direct delivery. Same in a sketch where Peele receives a phone call that his record contract went through. Everyone in the neighborhood comes out to congratulate him, and remind him not to forget about the little guys when he makes it big. It builds to the point where they’re carrying him around on their shoulders. He receives a call that the contract has been canceled (I’m not sure how the music business works, but hopefully it’s not that fickle) and suddenly everyone is gone. Wah waaaah.
I worry sometimes that sketch comedy on TV, across the board, waters itself down because nobody at the networks thinks a general audience understands the format all that well. That seems to be the reason why many Saturday Night Live sketches involving political figures are more an excuse to do an impression than to actually do something with said impression. I remember when John McCain had that senior moment during a debate, where he wandered around behind the camera as Obama spoke, and SNL merely repeated that debate later that week without adding anything humorous or finding the game in what happened.
I don’t think that’s what’s happening on Key & Peele, though I’m starting to wonder if the consistency of the pilot episode will ever be repeated, given just how many sketches Key and Peele have to write. But what I’m noticing is that while not every sketch has an interesting or novel twist, both Key and Peele are sharpening other tools. Tonight’s episode contains an extended bit near the top, during one of the stand-up segments, where a riff on specific kinds of hate speech has the stars saying the N-word over and over. This leads to a video sketch advertising an iPhone app that tells you whether or not it’s acceptable for you to say that word while out in public, using only your skin color as a barometer. It’s a very simple sketch that repeats its main joke—that, obviously, only black people can say it. But the repetition itself becomes the joke, and it even comes back later in another “Obama anger translator” sketch (though the sketch itself was a weaker version of the first one). The longer Key & Peele remains on the air, the greater the sketch variety is going to be. Rather than try to replicate the success of the pilot, both Key and Peele can expand their world, hopefully without sacrificing the complex laughs the series is so good at.