Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are the brains behind the successful sketch comedy series on Comedy Central, Key and Peele. Both of them are biracial. They both have a black father and a white mother. This distinction has created a comfort zone for them, where they can be satirical and make fun of both white people and African Americans. This does not mean that they spare anyone else either. It is not easy to create comedy on issues like race, and still make people laugh, while sending a message to the viewers at the same time. But the duo has achieved this, doing the difficult job with extreme ease over five seasons. Here is how they tackled some of the most taboo issues with a sprinkling of laughter.
Their first sketch of the show set the tone of what the show was trying to achieve. The scene was set in a street corner in Los Angeles. A well-educated and sophisticated looking Key is talking to his wife on phone about his plans to watch a movie on her birthday. He is dressed in casuals and talking gently to his wife, when all of a sudden Peele comes out of a nearby store. He is dressed in a hoodie and a vest. Peele gives him a hard stare and Key transforms into this completely different man altogether. His accent changes, his tone changes, and he tells his wife – ‘I’m a pick yo ass up at 6:30 then’. This is, according to him, a rendition of a ‘real’ black man. His wife on the other end knows that he must be passing by another African American guy. Key is then seen talking to his friend in the same tone and all of a sudden there is a visible change in light and Key is back to being his regular self.
This is what he says to his friend on the phone then – “Oh my god, Christian. I almost just got mugged right now.” The entire joke took only a total of 45 seconds. But, it touched upon so many controversial topics that it could have caused a wild hue and cry on a serious platform. Their antics do make you laugh, but, at the same time, shed light on a lot of issues as well. One is stereotyping black men and what the people think of them. You have to speak in a certain way to convey your ‘blackness’ and also the probability of being mugged increases when you are around them. It also highlights an issue that an average African American person can easily relate to – being unsure of your own identity in a white world. You do not know where you fit and making your niche is easier said than done.
There was a bar scene in season three, where Key and Peele are just chilling out. This is when the guys eavesdrop on two white women having a conversation about having sex with a black guy. All the while they are hearing the conversation they are appalled by the racist comments that the girls are blurting out like black guys may be good lovers because they never had their fathers around. At the very same time, they are also aroused by all the appreciation they are getting for just being black and for their thing. After mustering some courage, when one of them approaches the gossiping woman, the woman just blurts out one sentence, ‘’I’m sorry. I don’t have any money, sir.” The piece showed how black guys still approach white women. Even racism is not enough to hold them back. Do you see what they did here? It was so subtle that it would take you time to process what they were trying to say. You would laugh first, might think on it a little, maybe get offended and eventually, if you understand, chuckle at the subtlety of it all.
However, the show is not always under the radar. Most of the time, it hits right in the eye of issues. A sketch from Season 4 took up a typical scene in a retail store with a black man thrown in a rather white neighborhood. Well, it is an open secret that retail store workers keep an eye on their African American customers, especially those dressed in a ‘certain’ way to avoid any untoward incident. The practice is so common that there is, in fact, a word that describes it and it is called – Shopping While Black. There are
also other issues like black kids being picked up by the police for just roaming around. In the Key and Peele sketch, they take it a bit further. Peele is walking in a deluxe sub-division with his hoodie on and the police stops him. There is some powerful background music and drama built into that silent scene. Policeman’s eyes then see what is printed on the hoodie and it is the description of a white blonde kid. The officer lets him go. Don’t fret, everyone knows its fake, which is the satire. It is okay to be a fake white kid any day over a real black person.
Apart from all the sketches the duo has done over the years, their finale performance takes the cake. They titled it Negrotown, which is more like a dream that they have for the world. They want a utopian society, where no kid is picked up by the police just because he is wearing a hoodie, people will not be followed while shopping because of their skin color, and neither will anyone get shot just because they dress in a particular way, and so on. They came in with a bang and undoubtedly went out on a high.
Racism is a multi-layered issue. By just having a non-white person present in the scene and speaking a few lines is not remedying the monstrous issue. Many shows portray black characters only talking about the ‘important’ white characters, being their best friends, driving them around, being the all-important side-kick. Such things are clearly visible to a non-white person. What Key and Peele understood was the fact that there is racism in everyday situations, which may not be apparent to the person spewing it out, but it affects the one at its receiving end. Key and Peele did not create racial issues that are not there, but explained them using everyday situations, and that is what made the difference. Check out reruns of Key and Peele on Comedy Central, which is included in most cable television packages and bundles.