Just as Key & Peele abandons the direct audience address, here I am starting it. That’s because we’re changing things up this year to better suit the sketch format. Instead of the usual essay review, we’re going to break things up into a handful of different focal points—the funniest sketch, the filmmaking, America’s number one Barack Obama—in short, the things that make Key & Peele what it is. I may still come up with an essay for a particularly unified installment, like another Halloween episode. But for now, let’s talk about the highs and lows of the season four premiere.
The funniest sketch: This week, it’s “Gay Wedding Advice,” which debuted early online for good reason. The premise is that cousin Delroy is marrying another man, and so Peele’s character has drafted a gay co-worker to come answer any questions the family has about how to behave at the wedding. So we get the obvious jokes like “When in the ceremony do we sing, ‘Over The Rainbow?’” But what really makes this sketch so great is the performances. Everyone has a character. Gary Anthony Williams is genuinely curious and excited about this cultural event, always piping up with a fun question. Lance Reddick is stuck on the question of gay hymns. Romany Malco’s disgruntled to the point that he avoids eye contact and phrases his questions as sentences. Meanwhile there’s Peele playing liaison, trying to answer his family gently and affirmatively even though Key has just told them all that they have misperceptions. One of Key’s greatest strengths as a comedic actor is exasperation. There’s even background stuff like Reddick’s reaction to Daniele Gaither’s anal sex question or Vernee Watson getting on his case about a dumb question. The writing and the cast take this sketch from a single, worthy joke to the richest, fullest scene of the episode. And I think Williams is onto something with the sexy boat captain idea.
The weakest sketch: Much as I love a good drag character, and much as I sympathize with Key’s delicious critique of pop idols at first, “Hits Countdown Live” can only squeeze two questions in before that endless final gag? The gag is that Mother Majesty is actually a cis straight man encouraging young women to be more sexual for his own gain. Which is sorta funny, very obvious, and most of all lets actual irresponsible pop stars who aren’t secretly cis straight men off the hook. But it’s also a failure of comedy, letting all the air out at the end. Personally I prefer a good polished delivery to the awkward humor of hanging in a strange moment—which can be convincing with the right performance—but if anyone buys the tail end where Mother Majesty starts coughing and then burps and then questions the burp out loud to himself, I’ll eat my hat(-shaped cookie). It’s almost counterbalanced by Peele’s on-point work as Scratch Jackson. When things build to an audience member revealing she has herpes, Scratch takes back the mic and says, “Okay…,” in a softer voice from the one he’s been using, and then he recovers and gets back to his strong, stiff demeanor. In that one moment he reveals his entire macho VJ personality is a front.
The movie-making: While the alien invasion sketch goes blockbuster with the long blue Super 8 lens flares and an art design that really savors the destruction of a major American city, the opening sketch is where the movie-making is half the comedy. It has two jokes—the getaway driver stopping past the robber and the robber holding the door handle so the driver can’t unlock it—yet the quick editing and the barrage of close-ups had me laughing hard from the get-go. What a way to start a season.
Obama sighting! Nothing topical unfortunately, although there is a quick, weird Army sketch about what a raw deal military service is. As for Obama’s appearance, the gist is just that the president has a habit of greeting white people like this (cold-fishing a baby) and black people like this (flamboyantly dance-hugging while quoting Drake). It sounds like a single joke but the different spins Key & Peele puts on it keep the laughs coming.
Race: For starters, there are the two white rednecks getting drunk and then expounding on their views about race. The twist is that they love everyone. For instance, Mexicans—watch out!—are essential immigrants because they work hard and have strong family values. (You hear that one a lot in the South actually.) The joke that they’re positive racists is a funny surprise, as is the fact that Peele’s big, cartoon redneck just adopted his 11th child, but it’s disappointing to soft-pedal like this. On the other hand, the alien invasion has a few good jokes. To test a black man who may or may not be an alien imposter, they ask what he thinks about the police. “I love their third album.” Wrong answer.
The runner: The host concept has been the vestigial tail on the Comedy Central New Wave. It can be funny and illuminating seeing Amy Schumer’s stand-up or Key and Peele’s chemistry, but it’s never as funny or illuminating as the sketches themselves. They’re crutches on Key & Peele. Whenever one sketch isn’t much related to the one after it, we’ll come back to the “real world,” and Key and Peele will try to lead us from our seats in the audience into the headspace behind the next sketch. That still happens in a way, but it’s more subtle. This week Key and Peele talk country music before the redneck sketch, and they argue about who’s less homophobic—finally, the reverse “You know how I know you’re gay?”—before the gay-wedding sketch.
The idea of the host must be important to Comedy Central. So now that the hosted bits on all these shows are routinely criticized for being at best unnecessary and at worst unfunny, the response is to change things up rather than abandon them altogether. Broad City gets away without a host, because it’s a sitcom. Nathan For You gets away with a host, because it’s a reality show. The sketch shows are a gray area. Kroll Show started taking us behind the scenes in the least funny bits of the show. But Key & Peele looks like it’s going to do these improvisational-feeling runners where Key and Peele are playing themselves. Where there used to be a firm boundary between when we were watching Key and Peele and when we were watching them perform, now it’s much softer. They’re clearly playing, but it’s informal and unpolished.
This week we get a True Detective riff that begins with Joshua Funk’s chicken-fried arrangement of Reggie Watts’ theme song, backing an ink-blot credits sequence showing ridiculous Key & Peele characters. The bits themselves are just two guys in a car all day, driving out to the middle of nowhere, killing time by shooting the shit. So right on top it’s taking the piss out of True Detective, trading self-seriousness for goofiness, swapping “I can smell the psychosphere” for “You’re talking about a hedgehog!”
These sketches are so fast and furious—four True Detective bits, two bank-robbery bookends, and six whole sketches besides, all in 22 minutes—that the jokes are often funny glosses on a single, surface-level take. For instance, a gay wedding is just like a straight wedding. But this runner has moments like Key taking his hands off the wheel to demonstrate the size of the subterranean alien he saw as a kid, as well as really casual country song improv, moments that seem to show us the real personalities of the performers filtering through the performances. Whether it’s funnier than any scripted stage banter is up for debate, but it’s way more exciting.
- After an overly friendly redneck and a progressive middle-aged white guy, a young blonde woman stumbles across an armed Key and Peele: “Please don’t hurt me! Uh, my best friend is black, and I love Jay Z, and, uh, my favorite movie is Think Like A Man.”
- Romany Malco, to no one in particular: “I’m a little nervous because I can only do jazz hands for about 3 minutes before my hands start to cramp.”
- Daniele Gaither: “Now, do we have to participate in the anal sex, or can we just watch and cheer in a fireman’s hat?”
- Trying to quote Peele’s redneck as accurately as possible, here he is on The Blacks: “goddamn victims of institutionalized race-nismy.”
- Mother Majesty throws a fan an unsolicited compliment: “I think you’re beautiful just like that.”