Key & Peele ended its five-season run with a spot in the comedy pantheon secure. Its final two episodes, which aired back to back Wednesday night, were consistently hilarious and thoughtfully put-together, and the majority of the sketches were built to last, just like the rest of seasons five and four and three and two and one.
The show was always built to last; that’s a big part of why it made such an impression. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were often described as purveyors of “topical humor,” but given the small percentage of their stuff that concerned politics or race (the “anger translator” or “biracial penis”), that seems a forest-for-the-trees description, one that was based on color rather than an appreciation of what they actually did every week. “Topical humor” riffs on current or recent events; how “current” is, say, the South Park–worthy musical number “Negrotown” (originally released online in May), which saw Key being pinched in an alley by a bullying white cop (Justified’s Nick Searcy), then getting his head “accidentally” bashed into a squad-car doorframe and imagining himself in the titular magic land, where racism doesn’t exist because there are no white people? Not very.
You could connect this sketch to any number of police-brutality incidents in recent years, but you’d also have to connect it to other comedic targets of opportunity, including red-lined loan applications and intra-racial tension about cultural appropriation and dating across color lines. Bottom line: The sketch, a classic, is about as “topical” as racism itself (unfortunately). It’s doing what all great comedy does: It’s telling the truth, in a surprising, assured, and outrageous way. “Hanging out in a group doesn’t make you a gang,” Negrotown’s denizens sing. “Every word that you say ain’t considered slang / No one trying to get in on the latest trend / By making you their token black friend!”
In the end, Key wakes up and learns that he’s still under arrest, and on track for delivery to a different kind of Negrotown. “It was all dream” has often been employed to get comics out of a sketch, but rarely in such a devastating way.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Key and Peele went on to be as great a force in some other medium (cinema or print, maybe) as they’ve been on TV, but even if they do, their first masterpiece will be sorely missed — and it might be a while before everybody collectively agrees that they were as good at their chosen art as many of their heroes, including Kids in the Hall and Monty Python.
Seek out their best material from four or five years ago, and it won’t show any signs of age. The only exceptions might be their weirdly specific pop-culture in-jokes — like the ad last night for Ray Parker Jr.’s volume of “Never-Used Hits” (with lyrics like “Passion of the Christ /Get me up offa this cross!”), or the baby Forest Whitaker sketch — but even those might not date. For the most part, Key and Peele’s stuff feels evergreen because it tends to be more about the psychology of its characters. The Ray Parker Jr. and Baby Forest sketches are, respectively, about delusion in the face of failure and the adult caretaker’s reluctance to say no to a demanding brat. “Consequences” — no joke, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen — is an even better example of what I’m talking about. It’s outwardly a riff on Stand and Deliver–style inspirational-teacher dramas, and documentaries in the vein of Scared Straight! but the surreally volatile way that Peele plays the school’s guest-speaker lifts the sketch out of mere spoof territory and into the realm of Peter Sellers–style derangement. One of the great incidental pleasures of this show was watching Key or Peele not so much dive into a character as willingly become possessed by it. Every week there were moments like the ones in “Consequences,” where one or both of them seemed to be taking dictation from a character’s subconscious and pushing the concept of a sketch as far as it could go — to test the boundaries of invention or taste, or just to try to make the other guy crack up. (“Got into some real trou-BULLLLLL, boyeee! Stole from my mom and dad. Stole from my own SIS-turrrr! And then one day … a piano fell on my head! Consequence-sezzzzzz!”)
Key and Peele’s real legacy may turn out to be one of sheer craft. They and their co-writers were masters at devising sketches that were simultaneously about two or three things without relinquishing the simple pleasures of comedic character-building and storytelling. One of my favorite examples is “Scat Duel,” in which two jazz singers feuding over a woman bring their animosity onstage. The ensuing showdown is impressive in at least four ways: (1) Via scat-sung nonsense syllables and playground taunts, it tells a between-the-lines short story about a love triangle; (2) It shows off the fact that Key and Peele have musical as well as comedic chops; (3) It demonstrates their willingness to go beyond what was necessary to create a decent sketch, as evidenced by the time-and-date stamp (New York City, 1963) — both the scat style and the music are accurate-to-period (“Fee-fi-foe-fum / What do I smell but some fat next to me?”); (4) It proves that nobody in TV sketch comedy is better at ending a sketch in a way that’s at once surprising and inevitable. (“McFerrin vs. Winslow,” a sketch in the same vein as “Scat Duel,” is less subtle but more amiably silly.)
Key and Peele proved time and again that they knew exactly where to start and end a sketch — a lost art in a medium that’s been defined for too long by Saturday Night Live’s epic displays of half-assed cue-card reading, and by viral videos that tend not to know when to quit. Just look at last night’s sketch about the Nazi fetishist. It’s a marvel — a cleverly coded working-through of confederate-flag apologies that builds and builds and peaks, then signs off with Key casually shooting his arm straight up in the air, his hand out of frame. That’s Python-sharp.
And then there were all the brief, almost throwaway bits that were mainly about quirks of behavior, often male delusion; the penultimate episode kicked off with a good one — a deflating bit about how men rely on their buddies to “hold me back” during altercations so they get credit for machismo without having to actually fight anyone. (“I know that if I were to lunge at you right now, my friend here, he’d catch me at the last possible second.”) And then there were the sketches like “Make a Wish” and “Severed Head Warriors” that were about whatever they claimed to be about while also being about what it means for a comedian to go too far.
“We’ll go down like the Wright Brothers,” said Peele, near the end of that very long drive with his partner. “Am I overblowing it?”
Yeah. But not by much.