Here’s the rundown of tonight’s episode. First up, a bumper sticker about how America’s interest in developing countries is exploitation in humanitarian clothing. Next a fat guy badly disguises his overeating as sex addiction so he can get laid at a support group. Then an unruly student exposes the limits of hippie authority, and a plainly pretentious art performance gets a rapturous reception. Finally, two scat musicians insult each other in “doo ba dop” syllables. It’s got politics, silliness, a recurring character, and it swings in every direction. In short, it’s a representative sample of the season, and it’s never been clearer that Key & Peele is coasting.
First off, the African joke. It’s a well-done little scene. Richard Schiff plays the Yank. Key and Peele walk him through the forest around their village with a gaggle of schoolchildren, earnestly imploring him to help protect their humanitarian aid from local warlords, but Schiff’s hands are tied. And then Key says he’d hate to see the local oil fields fall into the wrong hands. Suddenly Schiff whips out a phone, and says, “Operation: Golden Eagle is a go.” It’s all one shot, and the camera pans up to see an armada of air support flying overhead, and then back down for Schiff’s line, “Welcome to democracy.” Yeesh. The punchlines have no punch because we know exactly where it’s going. You don’t even have to keep up with the news to know what’s going to happen as soon as the word “oil” rings out. Maybe there’s some humor in how suddenly the fleet arrives, but they’re moving slowly enough from our perspective that the illusion dissolves; they’ve been visible a while. And it ends with the Africans exploiting America right back, which makes them seem clever for a moment, but doesn’t stand up to much consideration. They don’t stand to gain anything really; they just get to display their own exploitative instincts and pretend this is a two-way street. That’s Key & Peele nowadays. The names play every race, they punch up and down, and they are suddenly very hesitant to get more political than a decade-old sound bite.
Somehow the most complicated sketch is actually the one with Wendell. As usual, it’s partly about making fun of the fat loser (“Just like any other night, I had ordered a large pie”). Apparently he’s passing for a sex addict at this meeting, even though his story is clearly about a sloppy, Shame-level pizza dinner. There’s comedy in the dissonance. He has to keep correcting his story, like clarifying that being covered in “sauces” is a euphemism for ejaculate. And you can always count on Key and Peele for a funny way of speaking. Wendell slowly milks each phrase in his nervous drawl: “With me, the nastier the better. I’m a dirty dog. Try everything. All the fixin’s. Tantric, much like Sting. All the bells and whistles. You name it, I’ve dunst it.” So the sketch is also making fun of him for not getting laid and pretending to. As if that’s unusual. Still, Wendell is the transgressor in this sketch. He’s preying on sex addicts and violating a safe space. He’s harmless, but the fact remains. “I just feel like anyone could take advantage of me right now,” he says, “A-ny-one.” His neighbor puts a reassuring hand on his leg. He moves her hand and mutters, “Let’s see what the blondes have to say first.” Wendell’s no pure victim, but let’s not pretend like Key & Peele isn’t punching way down with this character. Loneliness makes people do strange, sad, and funny things, and to Wendell sketches, the only response is mockery.
But the sketch is also complicated by the addiction angle. Wendell is pretending to be a sex addict—acknowledged, gross—and he’s covering with his actual stories about his relationship with food. The food angle is incidental to his reason for being there, but there’s nonetheless a trace of addiction hierarchy. Sex addiction is like getting a “good” cancer (just get a load of that opening where an actress spills her guts about not being able to find her underwear), and food is disgusting (I repeat: covered in sauces) and a sign of weakness. Wendell’s story is funny (“Ate the tip of that bitch first…Then I got nasty with the cheesy bread”), but it’s also inescapably sad. He may not even realize that he’s talking about an actual addiction. He’s just trying to get someone else to touch his penis for a change, but what he’s doing is confessing to the damage addiction has caused to his life. The longer he talks, the funnier it gets, and the more uncomfortable the fat jokes are. Maybe it’s just because it’s muddy, but the sketch gets you to laugh at him and feel for him at once. Yes, it’s problematic, and it’s all the better for it.
There’s a similar phenomenon in the student sketch. Does anyone laugh when Key’s teacher breaks down making fun of the kid? I didn’t. Key went full breakdown. There are little moments, quirks of behavior, like when he makes one student hold out a hand for a high five, but on the whole, I’m with Jimmy: This is sobering. The first part isn’t funny, either, beyond the voices, Key beachy and Peele squeaky. What fills the void is the feeling of seeing Key’s philosophy handed to him. When push comes to shove he’s a hypocrite and an unfit teacher, and we’re here to witness the failure of his high-minded refusal to exert power. Meanwhile, as the closing titles tell us, “Jimmy went on to accomplish every goal he ever set out to achieve.” “Life isn’t fair” is as vital a point as any, I guess, but that doesn’t make the sketch any less simplistic.
I was going to say Key & Peele (picking up after Nathan For You and The Eric Andre Show) can point out the emperor’s new clothes in the art world when it starts making sketches that aren’t just as empty, but Wendell saves it. Still, this joke is a dinosaur, and this sketch can’t compete with Jed Perl on Jeff Koons. Anyone want to argue that the end complicates it? After putting on a performance that involves periodically kicking each other in the nuts, it turns out both artists are punished with “exploded nuts syndrome.” So, joke’s on them! It’s as clever as the rest of the sketch.
The scat battle, however, is divine. It’s a vividly realized night club in 1963 New York City—think Inside Llewyn Davis—and it starts with Key pushing Peele out of the dressing room, mad at him for having his hands all over “her.” But seeing the men, the audience applauds, so they’re forced to table their fight and begin their show. With that we’re in for a whole sequence of trading vocal burps for insults, like so: “But but but but / but but but but / wa da doo ba doo ba da / your breath smells like a butt.” They go after each other’s weight, their dicks, their looks. It’s a delight. And then Retta saunters out to her own applause to low-key sing about how she has enough vagina for both of them. And that’s how my faith was restored in Key & Peele, such as it is.
Every sketch comedy has dud sketches, and every show has low periods. Key & Peele does settle for old jokes and fat jokes. One interstitial segment in this episode is some gay panic nonsense. And the show is clearly reluctant to make any serious points anymore. We can stop waiting for Luther to weigh in on Ferguson and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, much less any other news. But Key & Peele is still cranking out silly sketches like this on the regular. I’ll take what I can get.
- Wendell gets to the point: “I touched her on her genitalia, she touched me on my manitalia, and that’s when I hit it, of course.”