Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key (Comedy Central)

The first sketch of “Severed Head Showcase,” in which a church choir tries to warm up without the guidance of their leader, shows Key & Peele doing what they do best: creating highly specific characters and dynamics playing out a near-universal experience. With Charles stuck on the wrong bus clear across town, a power vacuum opens. As choristers keep up the tempo behind him, one singer (Keegan-Michael Key) zeroes in on another (Jordan Peele), trying—first gently, then insistently—to nudge him into a lower key.

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Neither character is named, and the audience knows only two things about them: They sing in a choir and neither of them is Charles. That doesn’t prevent Key and Peele from investing them with specific character and emotion as the conversation, carried on within the song, escalates from “I think you’re off of your note” to “I’m pretty sure this is my note” to “In fact, I’m positive this is my note” to, inevitably, “You are not Charles.” Tensions rise until the entire choir is sniping at each other without missing a beat or (depending on whom you ask) a note.

Anyone who’s tried to pull rank on a co-worker, friend, or peer—or who’s had a co-worker, friend, or peer try to pull rank on them—knows this feeling. Small presumptions snowball and soon the whole group is bickering, ready to unleash frustration on anyone who speaks up. “Everything isn’t about you, Gina!”

That specificity, the ability to invest every character and situation with a precise identity, is the particular genius of Key & Peele. Paradoxically, the more idiosyncratic their characters are, the more relatable they become.

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As the next sketch shows, even words aren’t necessary to create that precision. In a clash between wordless warriors, Jordan Peele’s champion (again unnamed, because, hey, names are words) beheads his opponent, then holds the severed head aloft to the cheers of his comrades. When their attention wains, he tries recapture it with comical gestures. Running around waving the enemy’s dripping head? Boring. Using the head as a puppet? Hilarious! Spinning the head on one finger, basketball-style? Fantastic! Pantomiming himself humping the head? Whoa, dude.

Even with grunts and cheers replacing dialogue, the central questions of this episode come into focus in “Severed Head Warriors.” Who’s in charge here? Who shapes culture? What do we reward, and why? Peele’s conqueror figure is arguably the alpha, but he bows to the will of the crowd, whose response doesn’t follow any discernible logic. Why does putting the dead man’s head on his left shoulder get cheers and applause, but switching to his right shoulder earns scowls? Why is placing the head on sandals and walking it around a showstopper?

There’s no answer; it just is. Peele pulls notes from his armored belt as he runs through his repertoire of bits, in what looks like a nod toward comedians wrestling with the ineffability of laughter. But “Severed Head Warriors” is just easily read as a reflection on politics, mainstream media, or any industry that swerves to align itself with polls or public opinion.

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The argument spurred by comic book adaptations also explores how easy it is to hand over authority to society. When one friend (Keegan-Michael Key) chimes in that The Dark Knight franchise is “overrated,” another (Jordan Peele) withdraws into conversational clichés, using deflections like “okaaaay,” “awkward,” and “annnnyway” to avoid giving an opinion. He’s so immured in the cultural consensus that confronting his own uncertainty reduces him to shamed weeping.

Forced to speak, he wails, “I don’t have an opinion, that’s why I just like everything that everyone else likes in pop culture!” Or is it “that’s why I dislike everything that everyone else likes”? It doesn’t matter: Either way, he’s surrendered, liking or disliking only in response to other people’s preferences. Like the choral member policing other people’s pitch, he’d be happier taking care of his own note.

“Prison Escape” upends the expected order of command and asks who’s in charge. A Bloomsville Penitentiary prisoner (Peele) idly entreats his guard (Key), “You got to let me out of here,” and he’s shocked when the guard complies with a breezy “Oh, okay.”

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The other guards retrieve the escapee quickly, but between 2:30 and 2:50 p.m., the most credulous guard in the prison system releases him again and again, until the prisoner warily closes the cell door on himself, saying, “It doesn’t seem like you understand what your job is.”

He doesn’t; he doesn’t even understand who’s in charge. He takes the inmate’s word as gospel, even though he’s been warned not to listen to the prisoners, even after he’s threatened with docked wages and severe punishment, even after he wises up to the possibility that he’s being manipulated.

“You need to think about this long and hard. Weigh your options and consider the ramifications of those options.”

“Like heck I will. Let’s go. I’m busting you out of here!”

The details of performance and costuming are as powerful as the premise and writing. Key’s breathless eagerness as he leans in to touch the bars of the cell separating them, his big gullible eyes swimming behind enormous glasses, his swallowed “I ’unno, I ’unno” as he ponders the foolishness of locking up a man who says he should go free: This is what closes the gap between a good sketch and a great one.

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“Teaching Center” asks who’s in charge by asking who and what we value. Here, news reports and entire channels analyze and celebrate the achievements of teachers. A history teacher’s nuanced grasp of classroom dynamics, and her encouragement of a reticent student, wins her national acclaim. A “natural mathlete” selected first in this year’s draft is a Cinderella story. No longer will his family scrape by on his father’s salary as “a humble pro football player.”

It’s not just teachers who are valued here; trades include a support system of librarians and lunch ladies, but teachers are the superstars. Celebrity English teacher Ruby Ruhf (“The Ruhf is on fire!”) commands a record-breaking $80,000,000 over four years, with a $40,000,000 incentive if she raises test scores, and rakes in endorsement packages like the BMW spot that sponsors Teaching Center. “I am the gateway to what is possible, the path to the future,” she intones in voiceover, “I am the future.”

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It’s a note-perfect rendition of an old chestnut, showing what the world might look like with different values, different priorities, different power structures. And like every sketch tonight, it asks who’s in charge, and whether we understand why.

Stray observations

  • Jordan Peele’s delivery of “That has never been my note” is going to stick with me as a retort that should (but won’t) stifle impertinence.
  • The easy rhythm of the opening segment is a good reminder: The broken meter of “Pirate Song”’s feminist pirate chanties was a shrewd choice, not a sign of inability. These writers and performers know exactly what they’re doing.
  • “Jordan, would you say I’m gullible?” “Mmm, no.”
  • “Best comic adaptation to film, hands down, no argument.” “See you later, girls.” Because I trust Key & Peele, I hear that juxtaposition of lines not as a joke about women eschewing nerd culture, but as a joke about these specific women knowing this specific conversation with these specific nerds isn’t worth listening. That trust is just one benefit they reap from their consistent, thoughtful specificity of character and situation. To sum up: specificity, baby!
  • “There is no yikes and the reason why there’s no yikes is there isn’t anything scary about this situation. It’s a very low-stakes situation.” When a critically lauded and widely adored show announces its end is in sight, there’s no such thing as a low-stakes situation, but I’m looking forward to the remaining episodes of Key & Peele and to whatever the two of them have in store, together or separately, in the future.
  • Look, I know that I’m not LaToya Ferguson (here’s your cue to sing “You can say that again!”), so thanks to her for letting me sit in on this episode.

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