The annual Key & Peele Halloween episode is both the funniest and freakiest of TV’s late October rituals, and I’m including American Horror Story. It’s a lavish party attended by the likes of Kumail Nanjiani and Lauren Lapkus that touches on how people celebrate Halloween in the real world, the tropes of season-appropriate horror movies, and bizarre twists into the absurd. The latest entry doesn’t match last year’s The Shining sketch for belly laughs or lingering weirdness, and in the spirit of the season (season four, that is, not autumn), it’s a little lighter on the laughs in general than years past. But it’s a risky hodgepodge that works over horror every which way, from broad lampoon to suspenseful silliness to warping into another dimension entirely. Given Key & Peele’s strengths of performance and visual panache, it’s so good at brewing up a creepy atmosphere and then undercutting it that I hope we get Key & Peele Halloween specials long after the series proper closes up shop.
The movie-making: The idea that actual cinema—using the camera and editing and lighting and everything expressively—comes at the cost of comedy is surprisingly persistent. If the production swamps the jokes, it’s not the existence of style but the calibration that’s the problem. What style brings is tone, the feelings of the creative team toward their story, and mood, the feelings of the characters toward their story. A slow spiral in on Jordan Peele in a Danny Torrance wig as he whispers about his wish to drown a man and bathe in the water nails the sense of watching a real horror movie with just enough self-consciousness that it encourages you to laugh. Comedy works a lot like horror. It builds tension and then releases it, either in laughter or fright, usually with a bunch of mini-releases along the way to either the punchline or the final scare. And they’re both visceral. A non-stop assault of jokes can be just as deadening as a relentless horror movie. At the tail end of a sitcom binge-watch, no matter how funny the joke is, the most it’s getting is a polite mental acknowledgment.
Naturally Key & Peele conjures up all kinds of fantastic moods for its horror sketches. The hall of mirrors lined in glowing red and narrowed to a widescreen feature looks like the fitting room from hell. The other widescreen sketch is the finale, in which a patient rips out his own heart after a successful transplant once he learns ACA, er, Obamacare is involved. So what are we watching? The widescreen and lighting suggest a movie, the subject matter and approach suggest an enraged political ad, the ending suggests the real world (Key’s matter-of-fact doctor has the heart put on ice for the next patient).
The endings: The answer is we’re watching a comedy sketch, but the genre confusion is part of both what’s (mildly) funny and what’s (mildly) unnerving about it. After all, the morgue sketch and the drugs sketch veer off into new genres too. The Obamacare sketch isn’t as funny as those, with its big twist coming in the middle, and it plays like a newspaper political cartoon about governors rejecting funds that could save lives because taxpayer dollars or principles are more important, a point that would be more trenchant if it were funnier somehow. But the twists in those other two sketches are perfect for Halloween. The morgue sketch starts out creepy—we slide out of the morgue cabinet (?) along with a dead guy, it’s dark except for the garage fluorescents lighting the action—and then it becomes the goofiest sketch in the bunch. Peele’s a blind detective feeling the body to confirm it’s the guy he thinks it is, and he builds up to nipple squeezing and a hand-job to know for sure. But then it turns out, as he rips off his sunglasses, he’s not really blind, and Key’s mortician rips off his eyeglasses to reveal that he doesn’t work there, and the dead guy’s not really dead, and they’re all just there for a circle jerk? It’s the most affable tone and the most adult material in the episode.
The funniest sketch: Best of all is the drugs sketch. It starts with Key and his two buddies getting back to their apartment or dorm room or wherever. It’s lit with a black light, and introduced in the background of a shot is a vampire-looking Peele. He seems to be tripping on a drug that sounds like agadra a.k.a. Elmo, cat vaj, and a number of other nicknames. He’s writhing physically and vocally, and he offers them some cat vaj in his big, slow drawl: “It takes all of your greatest fears and insecurities, and it gives them teeth and arms, and then it locks you in a room with them from which you cannot escape.” As the formula goes, they keep rejecting it, and he keeps taking another opportunity to drop a hilarious description of this horrible high. “You realize the face of God is somewhere inside you. But you can’t find it, and it hates you.” Dissolves fuck with the duration, Peele’s so out of it it’s creepy, and a ringing sound simulates physical damage. How do you take agadra? I’m glad you asked. “It’s a razor sharp crystal you tuck under your eyelid, and then when your ocular cavity starts bleeding it goes directly into your brain.”
Key assumes the euphoria must be extra strong to make up for the pain of the drug, so he jumps at the chance to squint on a razor to the protests of his friends (“Remember when you did mushrooms and you cried for three hours?”). I should point out that Peele has produced a bag of these razor-crystals, desperate to entrap these guys. “When does it start working?” Key howls in agony.
“How should I know?” says Peele. “I don’t do drugs.” Which is creepy enough as is, but just wait: He turns to the camera and loses the drawl. “Drugs are for losers.” The frame freezes and text comes up: “Partnering for a Drug-Free America.” “Just say no” would have been one thing, but “Drugs are for losers” is just hokey enough to make it that much more off, and the revelation that Peele was just a very cruel prankster adds to the horror. The twist is hilarious and horrifying at once, the perfect Key & Peele Halloween sketch.
- Good car scenes this week, especially Key and Peele breaking down what’s funny about black audiences yelling at the movie screen without it going hacky. It’s not that audiences are shouting at something that can’t hear them. It’s that their advice is “brutally practical.” As Key says about some hypothetical demon child movie, “Leave that kid! Stab that baby!”
- The drugs sketch reminds me of a favorite Saturday Night Live commercial. It’s from “Ben Affleck / Fiona Apple” in 2000, and late in the episode comes an ad for Trilocaine, a scalp medication that comes with over-the-top side effects.
- Peele’s hall-of-mirrors Jigsaw is another standout performance. He gets to play the silly (popping out and asking, “Does my ass look big in this jumpsuit?”) and the seriously funny (pretending he’s just a reflection when Key finally catches him but wincing every time the gun points directly at his face).
- Agadra: “Just when you can’t take anymore, you poop your mouth.” “You poop in your mouth?” “No. You poop out of your mouth.”