In addition to being one of the most consistently funny sketch shows on TV, Key and Peele is also praised for its highly stylized, cinematic look. That look, which contributes greatly to the success of what Key and Peele tries to do, is the work of Peter Atencio, who directs every episode. This is a unique arrangement in sketch comedy and in comedy television in general, where the primary auteur is often considered the writer. However, having a talented director as the de facto third member of the troupe allows creators Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele flexibility in coming up with material and contributes greatly to the success of the show’s comedy.
The show is commonly said to have a “cinematic” look to it that other sketch shows lack. That look certainly comes from have a director with a talented eye for crafting an image, but it also comes with having that director specifically focused on the overall look of the show at all times. With his directing ability, Atencio also brings focused production design, costume design, cinematography, editing, and visual effects to every Key and Peele sketch. He successfully creates the world of the sketch with a sense of realism and authenticity that is uncommon for the format.
Of course, this would all be a nice but unnecessary bonus if it wasn’t also a huge reason why Key and Peele is incredibly funny.
Many of the most popular K&P sketches are genre parodies, which play on our collective cultural understandings of the signifiers of a particular genre. In perhaps their most famous sketch, the East/West College Bowl, part of what makes us laugh immediately is the recognition of the codes of the sketch. Giving the viewer this comfort of recognition then allows them to play within the genre. As the names and characters get more and more ridiculous, much of what works about the joke is that it’s still rooted in an extremely familiar framework. Atencio’s ability to appropriate semiotic codes as a way to build a frame for a sketch sets up K&P’s writing and performance perfectly.
What genre signifiers can do is build a scene in a single shot, before a word is spoken. No words need be wasted on setting a scene or tone because that work is done in advance by the director. All K&P need to do is inhabit the scene and build their characters and jokes. We’ve all seen many beginning level improv scenes fail because the actors spend too much time talking about where they are and what they are doing before they work to find what is unusual. Atencio gives K&P the ability to immediately go for what is unusual through creating authentic and real-feeling genre beats. Seemingly counterintuitively, because of Peter Atencio’s thoroughness in his direction and the creation of the aforementioned cinematic look, the performance is able to be the most tangible element in a scene because it’s the element that feels the most uncomfortable or unusual to a viewer. If it looks like a horror film, and sounds like a horror film, then it’s funny when people don’t act like they are in a horror film.
This trick of using visual signifiers to subvert audience expectations is also applied by Atencio to one of K&P’s favorite topics to explore, racial and socioeconomic stereotypes. In an article on the nature of criticism by FILM CRIT HULK (who, to the surprise to some because of his moniker, all caps typeface, and hulk-speak, might be the most thoughtful writer of film and television on the internet at this moment), HULK argues that people who know less about film and its construction tend to grasp on to tangible details in their critical analysis. For example, one might cite an actress being too blonde to play one’s favorite superhero rather than understanding why her abilities do or do not serve the character, or the Oscars giving out “best editing” to the film with simply the most editing. The K&P team knows this, and they know it’s particularly true of sketch, which often thrives in simplicity, and they know it’s even more true of sketches that are viewed primarily on the internet, as theirs are. Therefore, the most tangible element of a Key and Peele scene is often also the crux of the commentary they hope to develop around the sketch.
In the sketch “Auction Block”, Atensio visually commits to an authentic feel, and largely succeeds in creating a scene that in its appearance would not feel out of place in a hollywood slave story, from the auction block to the shirtless slaves, to the way the slave owners bid on humans based on size like animals. Since the situation in the sketch is established in a straight-forward fashion, the most tangible element of the sketch is the racial-commentary-based comedy of K&P; there is no way to ignore it or miss the point because it is so out of character with the inherent meaning created by the visual choices. Two-person sketches often rely on finding a pattern and then breaking the pattern or driving the pattern towards the absurd as the sketch goes on. In this sketch, the pattern is established by Atensio before a single word is spoken, which allows K&P to break the pattern immediately by being slave characters who speak in a modern vernacular and then break it again by essentially ending the sketch begging to be bought on the auction block. A lesser show without such a firm grasp on the visual cues of genre, period, and culturally stereotypical cues would only be able to get as far as the first joke in this sketch.
It is K&P’s unique energy and drive towards taking sketches to the absurd that proves the tangibility-as-commentary theory to be true. The punchline, both in its humor and in its larger cultural comment, hits the viewer over the head so hard and so many times that it would be impossible to miss what they’re trying to say or the joke they’re trying to make. By structuring their team and show this way, Keegan Michael Key, Jordan Peele, and Peter Atencio succeed in making not only a totally hilarious sketch comedy show, but also something more important that strives for both greater cultural and artistic meaning. In a way, Atencio is Obama and K&P are Luther the Anger Translator, with Atencio grounding a sketch in a place of cultural familiarity and Key and Peele taking that familiarity and running with it as only they are capable.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.