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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Key & Peele, “Season Four, Episode Three”

Illustration for article titled Key & Peele, “Season Four, Episode Three”
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The funniest sketch: I hate to say it, but I didn’t laugh too much in this episode. Comedy’s subjective—if you don’t laugh, it’s not funny to you. But so are other genres. Horror’s not scary if you’re not scared. Mystery’s boring if you’re not hooked. Tragedy’s dismissable if you don’t care. So I don’t think subjectivity is an excuse, but I do think it’s fair to say your miles may vary.

The “donate to save a child” opening is a funny start, but the way it ends invites just a bit more speculation that it can bear. The whole episode is full of outsized endings that let the air out. The church ladies sketch has a funny idea and just keeps repeating it. I also think it’s funnier to imagine Peele’s Esther describe riding Satan to the point of climax and then snapping his dick off with a divine kegel than to see her actually doing it. The texting tone sketch gets back on track, although again, the over-the-top ending is an awkward fit for such a mundane premise. The mattress store sketch threatens to go over the top, too, but the ending brings it down to earth beautifully: In fact, Peele’s nerdy mattress shopper is not the one loudly asking his conquests, “Who got that good D?” every night, but rather he needs a mattress to survive the rocking coming through the walls. On another day, that would be the funniest sketch to me.

But I laughed the most at the club sketch. It’s just Key and Peele dancing with some women as the DJ makes a statement. “If you’re an actual pimp put your hands up.” Every player puts his hands in the air. “If you own a bunch of women put your hands up.” Suddenly everyone’s confused. The sketch keeps calling out bluster. “If you a real, live gangster, put your hands up / If you kill other people put your hands up.” It’s like a macho to English translator, and the awkwardly specific phrasing makes it even funnier. “If you run an actual drug ring, put your hands up.” It’s also nice that it’s not just Key and Peele standing around confused. The other men in the club steal some spotlight with their confused faces, and the women are all hesitant about their partners’ responses.

The ending—a single line, thank god—puts too fine a point on it: “If you just realized that you’re full of shit, put your hands up,” to which every single guy in the club gets his groove back. It’s unnecessary as a thesis statement, but it’s a smaller step down than some of the other endings in this episode. And it is funny to see the guys admit they’re full of shit. But as good as the premise is, there has to be a way to put a button on things without just flat-out explaining the sketch. Like the “save a child” sketch and the “church ladies” sketch, the twist is to literalize the premise. You can literally save a child from the van if you donate a dollar, the church ladies physically carry out their threats on Satan himself right there in the first pew at church, and the DJ explains the joke. Not that they’re not funny a little bit—whether the conceptual twist of the van pulling up or the physical comedy of the pantomime at church—but none quite land a sketch the way they mean to.

The weakest sketch: The café sketch had me smiling just through Key’s ebullience. (In fact, this is quite a showcase for Key’s reactions: the jump off the counter while texting, the diplomatic handling of the mattress store customer, the way his voice starts to crack as he gets worn down through that sketch.) But then it’s just so mechanical. Key laughs all the way through Peele’s joke and abruptly stops at the punchline. Then he keeps laughing when Peele continues it. The laughter isn’t modulated, though. Key starts high and stays high. If it built, it might have pulled us in more, seducing us into the conceptual premise. Peele flatlines as well. His exasperation never really gets the better of him. If he went anywhere, that might have pulled us in, too. Given the actors’ strengths, I wonder if this sketch might have been more effective with the roles reversed.

The movie-making: A strong director comes in handiest for a sketch where the joke is the twist, like the “save a child” opening. The way the camera swirls around them like it’s a moment of truth in an action movie beautifully heightens our feeling about what’s going on. But a sketch like the mattress store sketch could have worked live on a multi-cam stage. It’s got the three-part escalation and the hilarious performances. What Peter Atencio adds to it is an unsettling vibe. The camera starts out on the ground between two mattresses slowly sneaking up on Key, the owner in his orange track suit, and Peele, the customer in jorts and socks with sandals. It’s widescreen, too, so we get even more of the mattresses in our field of vision. And the colors are tannish, a little dingy maybe. Something’s off, and you think maybe it’s just that Peele’s character isn’t getting laid and wants to make sure Key’s thinks he is. But really it’s all mood-setting for the moment when Peele’s nerdy voice gives way to his deep, loud impression of his neighbor. The disturbed reactions get close-ups. There’s an overhead shot Peele’s performance in all its glory. That’s part of the show’s single-camera brilliance. Sketches like this aren’t just wonky technical masturbation. They serve the performances, expressing them best. We see what Peele’s one-man show would look like from an audience, but seeing the look in his eyes from above as he gives way to possession, now, that’s how you milk a sketch.

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Stray observations:

  • One thing to note about the texting sketch: It’s between two male friends. So rather than the sitcom battle of the sexes, the needy girlfriend all pissed at her clueless boyfriend, it’s just a clash of personality and mood.
  • Peele freestyles on their way to Carcosa: “I’m a monster, I grant wishes, like a genie, I Dream Of Jeannie, I’m a meanie.”
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