Great sketches on Key & Peele can be distilled to a one-sentence description that, even in and of itself, is funny. In keeping with the retro video theme started last week with the Barack Obama home footage, this week, the duo produces a trio of grainy videos telling the story of Reverend Robert Jones. He’s giving a speech—a motivational speech. The problem is, he’s the guy who had to follow Martin Luther King Jr.
I imagine Keegan Michael Key or Jordan Peele came into the writer’s room one day and simply said, “I wonder what would happen if somebody had to follow this, one of the most iconic speeches of all time.” At which point the other, because they’re an incredible writing and performing duo, probably started riffing about how it would be ridiculously awkward. Jones might call out just how good the previous speech was. Maybe he had some remarks prepared that touched on a lot of what MLK said, but his weren’t as powerful. People would probably hate him, right? They’d boo; he’s not MLK. Then the original idea-haver, be it Key or Peele, probably said, “Well let’s make the audience really hate him.” So now he’s up there on the podium, suggesting that white people and black people hug each other, and the audience is getting ready to riot.
They can take this idea as far as they’d like, and to their credit, each revisit to this world feels like it adds something new to the story. But at its core, it’s still a very simple idea: Who followed MLK? The more complicated the seed of a sketch, the harder it’s going to be to get the audience on board, and the more desperate it’s going to feel. There’s a false notion in comedy that pandering to an audience is a bad thing. Yes, that’s true—in the wise words of Del Close, you should always play to the top of your intelligence. But as esoteric as your idea may be, it won’t work one bit if you don’t bring the audience along for the ride. Hook them, then fuck with them. And in comedy, speed is almost as important as simply being funny to begin with.
“Episode 202” continues to demonstrate that Key and Peele have a deep understanding of how to do comedy right. The episode plays with these very simple conventions, taking them to unfathomable extremes. In perhaps my favorite sketch that the show has ever done, we see a segment from the fictional CSEN where they introduce the college football players in the annual East/West Bowl. It’s just a series of shots going back-and-forth between Key and Peele, each time sporting a wild look and an even more wild name. That’s it. Just Key saying “D’Jasper Probinclux, The Third” with a heavy lisp, or Peele as “Swirvithan L’Goodling-Splatt” sporting the hair of an unkempt teenage girl. What a simple idea, which I’m sure aided in the excellent execution. (As the two later explain in the banter segments, it was inspired by discovering a real player named D’Brickashaw Ferguson.) And I can definitely say the same about a later sketch, where Key and Peele sit on a stoop, smoking weed, and Peele leans in to ask a very serious question: “Where my dookie go?”
There’s only one sketch the whole night that I feel is a misstep, but only because the clarity of everything else shines. Peele comes over to help Key move, and asks if he can play some music—some dubstep. It freaks Key out, and he starts throwing his stuff around and, eventually, pulling out his own teeth. This is a pretty simple idea for a sketch as well, but I’m not quite sure the idea of, “Key freaks out when he hears dubstep” is as immediately compelling as “Who follows MLK?”
But the bread-and-butter of Key & Peele remains the Obama/Luther sketches, which were conceived with the pinpoint accuracy of their most basic and successful sketches. “Obama can’t say exactly what he wants, so Luther does,” is all you need to know, and this iteration doesn’t fail to disappoint. Obama gets some great jabs in against Romney on this, the night of the presidential debate, properly setting up the expectations for the legions of comedy fans who find inherent ridiculousness in the unnecessary pageantry of this whole political process. “I’m like the motherfuckin’ love child between the Old Spice guy and the Dos Equis dude, and you are literally the blandest, whitest man alive today!” Luther shouts, distilling the essence of the impending election down to a single sentence.