The funniest sketch: “At my lowest point, I would sneak into a horse’s stable.” Somehow it’s the sequel sketch that gets me. It seems like a throwaway: It’s one joke, we’ve seen it before, and the sketch refuses to end. But those aren’t quite true. For starters, if it’s one joke, Key & Peele does a lot with it. The premise, the elefante in the room, if you will, is that Peele’s Rafi is back from treatment for his slap-ass addiction. His teammates are trying not to trigger him, but you can’t account for everything. So the joke is, at its core, treating this silly addiction with the gravity of a rehab reality show. Already that’s more than one joke: the black-and-white opening montage, the sight of Peele struggling to resist and Key talking him down, the final title card revealing Ruben Ramirez’s death by ass-slap. But it’s also a joke about silly voices, funny lines, and pop-culture references: “I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so, so scared!” And the funniest beat of all is when Key drops his glove and suddenly the score starts dropping an electronic beat every so often to signal an imminent attack à la Halloween or Jaws. During another urge, a panicking Peele says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” We have seen it before, just not like this.
And the fact that it keeps going is a big part of its charm. First you think it’s just about Key dropping his glove. Then a new player who doesn’t know about Rafi’s condition walks in. Rafi resists them both, but at the end, the new player starts shaking his ass right in Rafi’s face, and he can’t help it anymore. We know where it’s going in the end, but it tricks us twice before it gets there. The longer it successfully postpones the punchline, the funnier it is when it comes. That’s why I talk so much about sketches letting the air out before the end. Whenever something goes a little too far or sits a little bit too awkward and it takes you out of the reality (even if that reality is Jaleel White having superpowers), there’s less tension built up for the finale. “Slap-Ass 2” reels me in like a pro.
The weakest sketch: The final two sketches are in competition here, neither that funny, but neither that dead either. While the mob sit-down has a leg up on the French restaurant in the style department, the latter’s a chuckle while the former’s just a tip of the cap.
It feels like a sketch they’d do on The State, a decked-out scene of mob violence that’s really just silly pranking with one cast member commentating the whole time while feigning surprise. Funny concept, decadent style, and some good moments (“Put a little zhuzh in his hair!”) keep it afloat. The reversal where Key starts cleaning up—aggressively sweeping up around the mobster even—is the high point. But Peele’s impression of a mobster starts to get a little Gilbert Gottfried well before the end, and he doesn’t stop talking. The physical performances could take over this sketch and milk it for everything it’s worth, but they don’t. The thing about The State is that cast was fresh out of acting classes and stage work, and their performances in a sketch like this would be very stylized and theatrical, endowing every object, goosing every moment like it’s a pantomime exercise. The physicality in this sketch is just too understated as is.
The runner: While we’re at it, these car segments are finally wearing me down. It’s always nice to see a glimmer of honesty, some recognizable expression of real life, usually from Key. And each of these ideas are solid: bad Little League experiences, gleefully fantasizing about insulting directors (Key and Peele’s vision of having made it), and a demonstration of wine-tasting complete with swirling aromas like “ashtray.” But in the context of, what, holding our hands and walking us to the next sketch, it only slightly improves on the stage bits. Can’t they, like, get to Carcosa and face death together or something?
Fly-Bys: More of these, please! They’re probably a lot of work for a little payoff, but when you cram a few quickies in between the main sketches, it makes the episode feel like so much fuller. I loved the opening sketch, which is mostly a single take of Peele at the dentist counting backward from five as the camera approaches him, and then when Peele doesn’t pass out, the camera swirls around as he asks the dentist for more gas and instead catches his dentist in a lot of leather, mesh, and nipple rings. It being one take gives us some of that live energy, with Key’s costume change from dentist to dom happening just in that five count, and then we’re out. Also notable: Same ending as the French restaurant. “Well, it was fun being a dentist.” Well, it was fun being your boyfriend. Hey, it works.
TV: The Family Matters sketch is one I liked more than I laughed at, but it’s a miracle nonetheless. Peele’s Reginald VelJohnson arguing with Key’s coked-up executive over the way Steve Urkel has taken over what was supposed to be “the blue-collar Cosby” is a blast. Both performances are hilarious, the mood is L.A. Confidential, and the message is on point. Family Matters got weird. “Last week, Steve used his transformation machine to turn Carl into a car and drive him around the Monaco Grand Prix!” TV sketch comedy is a great medium for TV criticism, and this is as much about resisting the pull of a breakout character (Luther, say) as it is about Family Matters selling out. And the mood is so heavy that the twist into the supernatural with Jaleel White, excuse me, Steve using his powers for evil doesn’t puncture the reality at all. It clarifies it. The world of this sketch is one in which Jaleel White has been driven crazy and the cult of Steve Urkel has dominated television. Moderation is the lesson, but I’m starved for sketches like this.
- After Key’s agent goes robotic and shoots himself, Jaleel White appears in the doorway. “Did I do that?” “Jaleel!” “Jaleel? There is no Jaleel. Only Steve. It’s always been Steve.” “Yippee ki yay, mother-fuckeeeeer!” Reginald keeps pulling the trigger but no bullets come out.
- “Family Matters continued for six more seasons.” Good news for Harriette 2, at least.
- Best thing about the French restaurant sketch is the subtlety with which Peele gets flustered by Key’s Frencherish while trying to impress his date.