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on the set

Key and Peele Enters Season Two on an Obama High

Key & Peele, Comedy Central's breakout sketch show, quickly became a hit last year with its hilarious, surprising takes on race and racism. Of course, the show isn't all sociology and social commentary. For example, when Vulture visited them in July on location at a Baldwin Hills, L.A., house, writer/stars Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key were wrapping up something Peele calls "the silliest sketch ever" for their second season (which premieres tonight at 10:30), about a group of prim, well-to-do friends whose last names are all fart sounds. (Peele later says that he had to record a dozen "names" to be inserted to the bit, which took "three hours and a bowl of chili.") President Obama is a fan of the show, and has personally told the two leads a couple of months ago that he loves Key's recurring character of Luther the presidential anger translator, who delivers the apoplectic subtext to the cool addresses of Peele's Obama. However, today's installment may have eliminated the option of the commander-in-chief ever showing up for a cameo. “The more he aligns himself with us," says Peele, "the more people could be like, ‘Really? So you approve of the fart sketch?’”

In its first season, Key & Peele averaged more than 2 million viewers an episode (and ranked fourth in Comedy Central’s sweet spot of men 18–34) with sketches both sophomoric and salient. The partners, who met working on MADtv, specialize in turning African-American stereotypes on their head, picking apart perceptions and degrees of blackness. Three examples from season-one sketches: Two black businessmen having lunch begin throwing down over who can order the souliest soul food (“Oh, and can I get a Dixie cup of lard with that?”); an all-black flash mob is mistaken for the beginnings of a riot; and a guy getting some bad news from his doctor about the health of his mom thinks the doc is challenging him to a Yo Mama competition.

The show's keen observance and deconstruction of racial behavior is no doubt informed by the fact that both describe themselves as biracial kids raised by white mothers: Peele, 33, grew up with his single mom in New York, and Key, 41, lived in a suburb of Detroit with his adoptive mother and African-American father. Key and Peele’s corner of the comedy world is what they call “bilingual,” as in they’ve mastered the ability to speak to both white and black audiences. 

It’s a unique skill they suspect earned the show raves among critics, and put them on the president’s radar. When they met with Obama a few months ago, he revealed that one of his favorite sketches was a short one in which Key and Peele played two strangers speaking on cell phones. When they see each other, they begin fronting loudly for the other’s benefit until Peele crosses the street, drops the street talk and effeminately squeals to his friend on the phone: “Oh my God, Christian, I almost totally just got mugged right now!” Peele says he thinks its appeal to Obama was “the code-switching thing,” which is something both comedians say they’ve seen the president himself do oh-so-subtly on occasion. “I think we really bonded when he said to us, ‘Hey, I know it’s hard for a brotha on TV,’ and then gave us bro hugs,’” Peele says.

Or perhaps the president is just flattered that Peele does one of the best, if not the best, Obama impressions around. On set, Peele slips into his presidential voice several times throughout the day, riffing on the president telling them that the First Lady also likes their show (“If Michelle’s in, well that’s just the final say,”) and how one time Obama pretended to be poisoned in front of the Secret Service. Walking up to the show's premiere, the pair have recorded some standalone Luther bits to capitalize on the election season (Most recently, the president and Luther reacted to Mitt Romney’s captured comments about the 47 percent of the country he apparently can’t reach: "Hey, Mitt, 47 percent of the country called and they say you get to be president … of jackshit.”) In season two there will be more Luther, and he and Obama will leave the Oval Office to visit a charity basketball game at a middle school. Says Key: “Luther will be taking the game very seriously. ‘Don’t let that little muthafucka foul you! Do you wanna get shot by Seal Team Six? Well, keep foulin’ then … 

Peele also touts/warns that next season will see a new character, Puppy Ice-T, a variation on last season's creepy-funny Baby Forest Whitaker, in which Peele's head (doing a Whitaker impression) was CG'd onto the body of a toddler. That sketch played like a scene out of a horror movie — which is another difference between this show and SNL. Key and Peele sketches are shot like short films, making the show look, well, expensive. “We’re fans of HBO and AMC and these places that do real, quality shows," says Peele. "With the cameras and technology readily available now, it’s easier to strive for that. If it’s a zombie movie spoof, we want it to look like a zombie movie.” Key adds another of their personal rules: “When it looks like a movie, it has to have a beginning, middle, and end. Sketches notoriously don’t have an end. It’s the hardest part to write, but we force ourselves to do it. No one’s ever done it like this before.”

The new season will also have plenty of pop culture send-ups. There's a sketch about the Xbox Kinect and what happens when a player goes into another room to weep and their sobbing avatar stays on the screen. They also wrote a scene in which Darius Rucker gets mighty annoyed with a fan’s chants for "Hootie." This one raised a red flag from the network, but not because it was touchy or legally tricky. “Comedy Central was not cool with that,” Peele says, as they worried, “‘Will the kids get the reference?’ We assured them there’s plenty of stuff they will get.” Sounds like the network will be getting no shortage of topical jokes. And if that fails, there's always flatulence: That's timeless.

Photo: Ian White