When Key & Peele hit TV on January 31, 2012, it brought sketch comedy that was both universal and specific. There was something that everyone could laugh or relate to, but there was a distinct connection to the Black community. Not every sketch knocked it out of the park; however, enough memorable sketches point out real-life inanities and exaggerate them. From toxic masculinity to racism in all aspects of our lives, they took the time to craft hilarious yet familiar comedic skits. Ten years later, Key & Peele still resonates with sketches that are inherently Black.
The first episode, “I Said Bitch”, showcases two Black men (played by Key & Peele) complaining about their respective wives. Both end their rant claiming they called their wife a “bitch,” but they are sure to make this claim when their wives are nowhere near them. Toxic masculinity forces men to preen and strut among their community. But, at the same time, both of them leave those stories with their friends. And they don’t demonstrate that toxic behavior in the company of their wives. This could apply to any man married to a non-Black woman yet, because they are Black, the clear message is that you don’t mess with Black women.
“Manly Tears” flips the script on a group of men in a gang. The odd one out is not the member mourning the loss of a friend, but the member laughing at them. It is universal in discussing how toxic masculinity derides men for showing emotions like sorrow and pain. However, the skit focuses on Black gang members, who are often stereotyped as callous criminals. It brings the comedy back to how our communities sometime socialize Black men and boys in terms of their emotions with a twist. This is what makes Key & Peele so dynamic. The main cast is almost always Black and our stories and experiences are the focus, not a seasoning added to spice up a white sketch.
Key and Peele understand that reversing the roles is sometimes the best way to show how ridiculous certain behaviors or attitudes are. In Key & Peele’s “Substitute Teacher” sketch, we get a city substitute teacher berating his students for how they pronounce their names during roll call. Black people frequently experience this in the United States when they do not have a “white” name. People mispronounce it, often getting annoyed or giving up when they are corrected by the one with the “hard” name. And, like the students in his class, we refuse to fight for the correct pronunciation sometimes. It is often because of the energy it takes or a power difference that makes someone else’s mistake our punishment.
The show also delves into facets of racism, such as microaggression and overt racism. In their “A Cappella” sketch, a group of seven white men sing a cappella. The group also includes its one token Black member (Peele). When a prospective Black member (Key) arrives, Peele feels threatened, and they proceed to argue after the white men leave. There is a mindset in many jobs and groups that there is only room for one Black person—a token. Anything more garners a raised eyebrow, sometimes from the token person who feels “special” in some way.
In “Black Ice,” Peele is a reporter talking to the newsroom about the weather. Key is a weather reporter at the same station arguing with the white reporters about the way they discuss the dangers of black ice as a euphemism for Black people. Later the racism is blatant and this is often our experience.
Continuing to combine comedy and commentary on racism, season three’s “High on Poteneuse” highlights people’s double standards regarding rights and equality. During an office meeting sketch, an employer runs his speech by a trio of employees—a Black man, a woman and a gay man—to ensure his speech is not sexist, racist or homophobic. They argue with him before the speech begins about his use of words that show implicit biases; however, when his speech starts with a joke at the expense of Arab, Chinese, and Polish people, they are excited to hear the punchline.
In reality, the battle for equality and rights falls short when people only fight for their group while allowing other marginalized groups to suffer. In “Alien Imposters,” Key and Peele are in a dystopian world where aliens look like people. So to unmask them, they ask questions like “Would you let me date your daughter?” to a white man and “What do you think of the police?” to a Black man. These questions point to larger biases and social challenges that Black people face.
Finally, there is “Power of Wings” with two actors pretending to be gang members in the United States. One is actually in a gang while the other is a British actor. The white director feels the British actor is playing the role well, while the one with real-life experience needs to step it up. There is a continuing debate about whether it is acceptable for Black British actors to play American roles. Especially when some exhibit contempt for Black Americans. This buys into the same stereotypes that plague Black people in any country. People want to be us but truly do not like nor care about us.
Key and Peele made the sketch funny and relatable, because there are white people that have an image in their mind of how Black people who grow up poor in cities should dress, talk and behave overall. And when our image does not match theirs, the problem is us, not them.
Key & Peele’s comedy did not feel like it was at our expense for the sake of white audiences, which increased the hilarity. The sketches were varied, lighthearted and yet did what the best comedy does. It points out what doesn’t make sense in this world in a “truth is stranger than fiction” fashion. They both went on to new heights, with Keegan-Michael Key moving on to films like Keanu and the new Christmas classic Jingle Jangle.
Of course, Jordan Peele moved on to writing and directing stellar films like Get Out and Us. They both cemented themselves as talented individuals and showed that comedy sketches about Black people can resonate with a wider audience and still be tailor made for us.