After two episodes, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what makes a Key & Peele sketch: Set up expectations that the scene is going to go one way, then seamlessly flip those expectations, usually to something much sillier than initially anticipated. That happens a few times on tonight’s episode (which is the fourth according to production order, though it’s airing as the third), and those scenes are the strongest. In one, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are yelling at the movie screen, annoying two white moviegoers; only instead of yelling about plot points, they’re yelling about the horrible cinematography and other film-school jargon. The other one involves gangsters pooping their pants.
The rest of the scenes are quite different fundamentally, dealing more with the whole fish-out-of-water comedy construct. The episode takes a few trips through time, first to the days of slavery and next to Germany in 1942, where Phil Dunphy the Nazi has expanded his Jew-hunting to include black people. In both cases, Key and Peele act like modern versions of themselves dealing with some ridiculous aspect of the world they’re occupying. In the slavery scene, the two appear shirtless on auction blocks, and get increasingly offended as lesser slaves are bought for much higher prices than they would go for—if anyone were interested in them at all. This scene feels relatively grounded; they only ask us to suspend disbelief that these guys would be allowed to run their mouths off without getting in trouble. The Nazi scene is much more troublesome, though. While it’s easy to get a kick out of Ty Burrell’s Christoph Waltz impression, it’s harder to buy into the “tests” he employs to suss out the “real” black people: measuring their head size, luring them with beets, positing that they can’t resist cat toys. The weirdest part, though, comes at the end when it’s revealed that Key and Peele—wearing ridiculous white face make-up—actually love cat toys.
One of my pet peeves in comedy is randomness for the sake of randomness. I like weird stuff just as much as anyone, but I do think that when you’re introducing a gag that’s completely out of the ordinary, it either has to fall into the convoluted logic of your comedic world, or you have to retroactively have it make sense. That Nazi scene does pay off by demonstrating that Burrell’s outlandish claims were, indeed, true, but the build up doesn’t include any variation in the way Key and Peele are reacting to everything. The scene becomes all about its ending, and if that’s the case it’s gotta have quite the ending. There’s also the opening bit where Key and Peele are shouting at what they imagine to be a fine-ass woman, only to discover that they’ve been eyeballing a giant orange rhino mascot. Sure, the mascot struts on by with its (her?) head held high, but the whole thing just feels a bit too random.
Still, there’s nothing about Key & Peele that I find flat-out “bad.” Even when sketches don’t hit, I never get the feeling that either of the stars is phoning it in, or has abandoned the sketch after saying his one funny line. And I still don’t sense that one is the weaker link. Both play off each other so well—a true comedy partnership where one builds the other up and makes them funnier, and vice versa. In fact, I’m so used to their rapport that I found it odd that this episode would include a scene with just Key, no Peele.
The interstitial stand-up bits particularly benefit from their onscreen chemistry. No one in the audience laughs harder at Peele’s “the black best friend from every movie” lines than Key, and no one can heighten Key’s inherent silliness—particularly when talking about an epic high five—quite like Peele, sometimes just with one look. It feels like they’re sharing one brain, and when I feel like I’m a part of that brainspace, I’m game for whatever wacky premise they want to throw at me. Too many left-field ideas kept me at a distance tonight, but that’s not to say I’ve given up. Far from it: Each sketch is a tool in the collective belt of Key and Peele, and it’s great to watch those tools sharpen.
- THIS JUST IN: The show’s been renewed. Hoorah for all!