Key & Peele Knew How to Tell a Race Joke

Jordan Peele (middle) and Keegan-Michael Key (right) in season one's "Auction Block."

It’s an unnerving moment when Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele show up to a Civil War reenactment as slaves in the season-two premiere of their sketch-comedy show. “I know what you’re doing,” grouses a Confederate general as they approach. Keegan looks at Jordan, eyes bugging, shoulders hunched: “What we doin’, suh?” His voice squeaks like a creaky violin. The reenactor sputters a defense: He has the right to celebrate southern history as he pleases. The exchange continues to escalate in classic Key & Peele fashion until he almost calls them “nigger” — at which point the jig is up. They’ve won. Peele looks at Key and asks, “Is that good enough for you?” “That is all I needed to hear,” he replies. Then they pull out guns and rob the men of all of their valuables.

On its face, “Civil War Reenactment” is a sharp critique of white nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” of the antebellum South. Beneath that, it’s a satire of minstrelsy, a performance aware of the fact that everything is performance. It’s a sketch I’m reminded of whenever questions of racial mimicry arise in comedy. This year has had its share of controversies: Amy Schumer defended her jokes about Latino men; Wyatt Cenac told a story of the time Jon Stewart blew up at him when he said Stewart’s impression of Herman Cain made him uneasy, reminding him of Kingfish on Amos ’n’ Andy. But the more salient example came before all of that: Margaret Cho’s bit as an unsmiling North Korean general at the Golden Globes ceremony in January. She defended the impression as a right she had as a Korean-American, which sorely missed the point. It was a bad joke, one that relied on the accoutrements of the impression — the accent, the pancake makeup, the outfit. Like Key and Peele, she was participating in a form of minstrelsy, but to very different effect. There was no deeper truth illuminated; you laughed because you thought it must, on some level, be true. That she told the joke at a predominantly white awards show only reinforced the existing power dynamic: It started to feel like actual minstrelsy. Meanwhile, when Key and Peele go from playing slaves to robbing Confederates, it’s a smart turn. They’re performing yet another, more modern stereotype — that of the black criminal — and mocking the idea that there is any inherent truth to that stereotype.

The joke of authenticity — that is, the idea that anything is “authentic” — has been at the philosophical core of Key & Peele, which ends its five-season run tonight. This was clear in the cold open of their very first episode, back in January 2012. Key is on the phone with his girlfriend, talking about the theater in his familiar, conversational affect. Peele steps outside, also on the phone, and as the two approach one another, they slowly begin to escalate into a “black” manner of speaking before giving each other head-nods. Peele, from a safe distance, says in a high, fey voice, “Oh my God, Kristen, I almost just got mugged right now.”

In another sketch, Key is on a date with a white woman at a fancy restaurant, where she wants him to act appropriately “black” or “white” depending on the situation. The sketch climaxes in breakneck code-switching. Key and Peele have acted out variations on this theme in number of sketches — as actors shooting a “gangsta” film and diners at a soul-food restaurant — and it’s part of why they’re able to inhabit so many characters with ease. All of these identities exist in scare quotes — there is no authentically “white” or “black” affect, just as there isn’t a “straight” or “gay” one.

In understanding what makes Key & Peele’s race jokes work, it’s also worth looking at what didn’t. I spoke with Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, two of the head writers and executive producers on Key & Peele, about which sketches never made it on the air. One that was nixed from the first season was called “Plantation Makeover” — a spoof of the reality show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in a world where the Confederacy was alive and well — with comedian Stephen Root as the host. Instead of the host introducing the project with, “We're going to sand this thing, and we're going to move this beam over here, and build this new wall,” he just told the slaves, played by Key and Peele, to get to work, Roberts and Martel explained. “So how you did something was just to tell the slaves to do it,” Roberts said.

“Jordan never liked it, and then he was vindicated, because we showed it in front of a live audience — to crickets," Roberts said. "What we took away was that if we did something that dealt with racism, Keegan and Jordan need to be empowered. It just became kind of uncomfortable and weird. They didn't even speak.” Martel added. “This was part of our learning curve, figuring out how we deal with race as a show.”

Key & Peele’s best sketches are subversive, but still sensitive to the fact that if you joke about a marginalized group, you don’t do so in a vacuum. They’re aware that comedy can either “punch up” against the established hierarchy or “punch down” against people who are already vulnerable. “Plantation Makeover” simply reinforced the idea of what it means to be enslaved without any added insight. In a similar sketch from season one, Key and Peele are slaves on the auction block, but they provide the commentary. Eventually, they get miffed that they’re not getting bid on. “They’re still being auctioned, but they’re controlling the discourse,” said Martel. “They have to control the action and come out on top in some way.” The sketch has contemporary relevance, too, in the way that black bodies must often put themselves on display for the approval of white people. It’s a critique of modern entertainment.

In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” Peele said, “It cannot be a coincidence that I decided to go into a career where my whole purpose is altering the way I speak and experiencing these different characters and maybe proving in my soul that the way someone speaks has nothing to do with who they are.” Key said something similar to Zadie Smith in The New Yorker: “My brain said, Oh, I get it. It’s all cultural. None of it’s about melanin.” And yet, the show doesn’t dismiss cultural difference or political realities. Key & Peele has been attentive to the violence experienced by black men at the hands of police, the law, and the culture at large. But their willingness to skewer racial expectations is always accompanied by an optimism that we can be more than how society sees us. Key & Peele was the preeminent show for our post-post-racial landscape because of how deftly it was able to hold contradictions — where a black president could preside over the same country that produced daily, systemic violence against black people. The show may be over, but it will long be remembered for its ability to reflect the great berth of blackness, for its ability to contain multitudes.