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TV Tonight: Key and Peele

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The very first , pre-credits sketch (video above) in tonight’s premiere of Key & Peele on Comedy Central may have been chosen because it’s short and very funny, but it’s also a kind of theme and mission statement. A man is talking on his cell phone to his wife about some theater tickets, when he sees another man—another African American man, specifically—walk by talking on his cell phone. Instantly the first man starts to street up his manner of speech to match the other guy: “I’ma pick your ass up at 6:30 then!” The second man walks away to the intersection, and the punch line… well, watch it.

Given the performers and the channel, Key & Peele may seem like the next show to fit the “black sketch comedy” slot, after the late, lamented Chappelle’s Show and the late, less-lamented Chocolate News. Which is true in a way, but Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are playing a more specific angle. Introducing themselves, they note that each is half-black and half-white, and so, Key says, they are “particularly adept at lying.” Put another way, they, like a lot of people in multicultural America, are in situations where they can, and/or have to, modulate their identity to fit their situation—to “adjust our blackness,” as Key puts it. Left to their own devices, Peele says, “We sound whiter than Mitt Romney in a snowstorm.”

The quick credits sequence underscores this: we see Key and Peele, in quick order, as two guys watching TV, as suspects getting cuffed by police, as doctors performing surgery, as gunmen shooting zombies. It’s a different dynamic than the “passing” stories of 100 year ago: not, “Should I tell people I’m white?” but “How black or white am I in this particular room, with these particular people? What face do I put forward in this situation?”

It’s about race but not just about race, and some of Key & Peele’s best sketches, in the early episodes I previewed are riffs on the idea of calculating your identity depending on who’s around. Also in the first episode, they play two husbands trying to impress each other with stories of how they told off their wives using the word “bitch”—but, with increasing exaggeration, crane their necks around to make sure their wives are not anywhere in earshot when they say it.

What makes the sketch work is not just the running joke is a subtler touch: each time one of the guys tells the story, the other asks, “You really did that? You called your wife a bitch?” And his friend answers yes,  in an awkward way that makes it clear he’s totally lying to show off for his friend. Each character has two personalities in the sketch—one for his wife, one for his buddy—and neither, probably, is really him.

It’s the kind of larger, almost existential point that good race-tweaking humor can make (as opposed to “White guys dance like this” jokes). I don’t want to make too much of what is, essentially, just a pretty good sketch show so far—there are also plenty of skits about, say, reality TV—but this is even what much great African American literature has done: Invisible Man, say, is about being black in America, but it’s also about choosing an identity versus having one chosen for you.

And not to put too much social significance on, again, a pretty good sketch show, but it’s timely that it comes along when America has a biracial President, who has drawn attention for how he’s represented himself racially: on the one hand dealing with stereotypes of the Angry Black Man, on the other, getting criticism from the likes of Bill Maher that he’s been too passive and thus not “black” enough. Hence this viral Key & Peele sketch, in which President Obama (Peele), hires an “anger translator”:

Give Key & Peele a shot; I think both halves of you will find something to like.