Key & Peele: Moving On From the Back of the Bus

Comedy Features

Because the camera faces the sunlight from indoors, shadows almost shroud the boy’s entire face. No worries, though. After all, he’s on the hunt. “Heil Hitler,” he says, as Ty Burrell did in Comedy Central’s Key & Peele. “As you know, we were combing the area for Jews, but it has come to our attention that two Negros have escaped, and they are hiding out in this area as well. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about this now, would you?” He nails his German accent.

The camera cuts to two girls—one white, one Asian—playing Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s parts: African American dudes who covered their faces with chalky white powder but forgot to touch up their ears and necks. In fact, they’ve painted their faces white, but they’ve also painted their ears and necks brown. “There’s an adorable factor to it, because they’re teenagers and so they’re doing it in earnest,” Key says of this YouTube-clip tribute. “What I find so fascinating is that this is the 21st century. These kids don’t know anything about black face. They’re trying to execute the scene the best they can, within their means.”

Introducing Key and Peele

In the actual Key & Peele Season 1 sketch, “Das Negros,” Burrell invites himself inside the pair’s home, then casts out bait—beets, a cat toy—as if he were hunting for animals instead of—incredibly nervous, despite themselves—humans. Since I had seen the original sketch multiple times online, I only watch a few seconds of the remake, mostly to see whether or not these girls were black. They weren’t.

Key & Peele has churned out plenty of sketches worthy of high schooler-directed remakes. In “Pizza Order,” a lone customer justifies his three-pie request with a headcount of his action figures. In “I Said Bitch,” two husbands try to discuss their wives, but as far out of earshot as possible. “Just Stay for the Night” is a necessary Christmas song parody—as director Peter Atencio said on Tumblr, “’Baby It’s Cold Outside’ is a rapey song and it’s time we acknowledged that.”

Because of its premise—“growing up biracial in a not quite post-racial world”—and sketch-comedy format, Key & Peele has earned comparisons to Chappelle’s Show. And, because of a killer President Obama impression, the half-black, half-white comedians have become approachable spokesmen of the mixed experience. On their show and in interviews, they talk of how strange it felt to take standardized tests, when they’d check “OTHER” under “RACE.”

Going into its third season, however, Key & Peele now has to prove that it matters not merely because of the people its titular creators represent, but because of who they are as individuals—that their humor isn’t just skin deep.

Two White Guys, The Black Version

When Key, 42, and Peele, 34, started to write together, the MADtv costars knew they wanted to choreograph their own step routine. To pitch the scene, they performed the actual routine. As Peele figured, “You can’t tell us that we didn’t get it when we can perform it in front of your face.” It worked. Portraying the superstitious Ty and Gray, whether at the casino or on Deal or No Deal, Key and Peele would high-five, step, chant and launch each other into somersaults.

Key and Peele first met through Chicago improv club The Second City. A few years prior, Peele was taking classes and working there with his friend—and now Key & Peele writer—Rebecca Drysdale, before Second City sent them both to Amsterdam. Drysdale met Key when she returned to Second City a year later, and she kept telling him, “You gotta meet my friend Jordan. I can’t wait for you to work with Jordan.”

Key loves Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, while Peele admires Ricky Gervais and Martin Lawrence. They love to talk about comedy, but they have also learned to segue quickly into these discussions of race and culture. Peele cites Psy’s “Gangnam Style” as an explanation of how the Internet has made the world seem smaller, for the better. (“Even though it’s the stupidest thing that’s uniting us, it’s something that’s uniting us,” he says.) Key recalls research by his alma mater, the University of Detroit, to explain that race is nothing more than melanin count—in this particular study, cited as an “equatorial phenomenon.”

Such discussions, this intricate routine of bouncing ideas off each other, are now an integral part of their comedic identities. Key and Peele do all of this now, whereas when they started pitching a show together, they thought that writing and performing a few sketches would be enough to convince networks that they deserved a pilot. For several months, it wasn’t. “That was the hardest part of pitching to them, was convincing them that we had a point of view,” Peele says.

Change Comedy Central Can Believe In

By the time Comedy Central greenlit the pilot, and Peter Atencio (UCB’s The Midnight Show, Funny or Die) signed on to direct, Key and Peele had already embraced their new, recurring roles. Peele played President Obama, while Key acted as Obama’s anger translator, Luther. In preparation for the 2012 presidential election (and the hours of nerve-wracking uncertainty that only Nate Silver managed to avoid) they had filmed three videos, one for each potential outcome and one for a stalemate.

While most Obama impressions fixated on his politeness, Luther’s freakouts over his birth certificate and Mitt Romney’s criticisms were cathartic to watch. Comedy Central proposed to set these smart and timely portrayals to a sketch-comedy format similar to Chappelle’s Show—a decision that helped the show feel bold but familiar, but also set a daunting standard. “There was a bit more pressure to focus on race, specifically in the first season,” Atencio says. “I think that’s what the network wanted the show to focus on.”

In ending its first-ever episode, Chappelle’s Show introduced Comedy Central audiences to black-white supremacist Clayton Bigsby, as if to say, “If you hate Bigsby, you will hate Chappelle’s Show.” For Key & Peele’s first season, Drysdale wrote a sketch in which the duo play slaves who claim they don’t want to be sold, only to grow insecure when owners pick other slaves over them. (“Look at him! What can he pick?” Key says in disgust, referring to a fellow slave who is a full head shorter than his 6-foot, 1-inch frame.) “The president and Comedy Central, they wanted that to be in the first show of the first season. We were a little more like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to come out of the gates like that,’” Peele says. “So that shows you where they are creatively—as opposed to being afraid of that scene, they really wanted to get it out there.” Drysdale’s “Auction Block” sketch was saved for Key & Peele’s fourth episode, but the comparisons were drawn nonetheless.

Reviews were mostly positive and hopeful, like The Atlantic headline to contributor Alyssa Rosenberg’s review: “Finally, A Worthy Successor to Chappelle’s Show.” A rare few were negative; the headline to Salon’s review by contributor Kartina Richardson read, “Key & Peele’s edge-less, post-racial lie.” Regardless, critics immediately thought of how, in its rich history, black comedy is often rationalized if it either raised awareness of deeply rooted oppression (Dick Gregory’s From the Back of the Bus) or opened up mainstream opportunities, in spite of all that (Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live).

Richardson wrote that, as a biracial person herself, she felt tempted to support the show’s efforts if only to “hear about the mixed experience” and “the complexities of navigating the often tricky multi-racial road.” Here’s the thing: Just as there isn’t just one type of black experience, there isn’t just one type of mixed experience, not to mention the varying degrees of how much racial identity can mean to any given human. Additionally, Key & Peele is a first; in Darryl Littleton’s Black Comedians on Black Comedy, published in 2006, the only biracial aspect was the black-white comedy duo Tim & Tom. “Jordan has more ‘black’ features, what we scientifically call negroid features, and I don’t,” Key says. “When I look in the mirror, I see this weird, amorphous person.”

State of the Union

While Black Comedians on Black Comedy dedicated pages to Chappelle’s career, it omits the man who made for Chappelle’s Show’s best moments. After Paul Mooney declared, “White people like Wayne Brady because he makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X,” Brady himself made an episode-long cameo in which he shoots a man dead and visits his ATM—his hookers—as Chappelle pleads for him to calm down.

But on Key & Peele, Brady and Peele run into Key and, to Key’s dismay, reminisce over a traumatizing time they spent together—as a Human Centipede. (“He was in the front. No one shit in his mouth,” Key says. “That is true,” Brady says.) Wayne’s Chappelle’s Show appearance tore down society’s stringent ideas of blackness, while in his Key & Peele cameo, blackness doesn’t play a role whatsoever. “Key & Peele represent the people, but also people like myself—‘You’re not black enough,’” Brady says. “I think the reason why I’m so proud of Key & Peele is, as the guy who started as ‘the black guy’ on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, having to hold down that spot and become known for improvisation and finally making a name of my own, I’m part of that family,” Brady says. “Key and Peele and guys like them, they were chosen for Second City for owning their craft. Now, 10, 11, 12 years later, you get to see those guys get their own show, starring in their own show and doing their thing.”

To the minds behind Key & Peele, the third season—which begins in September 2013—entails a reintroduction of sorts. As of late March (Which is to say: just a few weeks before shooting), they would not give away specific sketches but were eager to talk about their overall hopes. Key says he wants to further explore recurring characters. Atencio and Drysdale are excited for the show to start focusing less on race and more on who Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele are as individuals—the main reason why this season may be its best yet, they say. “Jordan is the most laidback human being in the entire world, which is a lesson I learned from having him as a friend,” Drysdale says, adding, “… and Keegan is a maniac.”

“[Keegan] is extremely erudite and extremely scholarly; he will pull out these references to Greek tragedy and all these references to Shakespearian concepts that fuel the entire notion of storytelling,” Atencio adds. “Jordan plays most videogames that are released.”

Das Negros, In Reality

On March 25, Key and Peele visited The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. They talked about their New York Times Magazine cover shoot. Their task? Illustrate the work of Wharton professor Adam Grant and his book on workplace altruism, Give and Take. They also weighed in on President Obama’s March Madness picks. Then, they showed a snippet of “Das Negros,” the Season 1 sketch written by Drysdale. Fellow Tonight Show guest Gerald Butler doubled over in laughter at one of Key’s first lines: “And I am Baron Helmut…schnitzelnazi.”

Then, they showed the YouTube remake with the two girls. As I did, the audience only saw a few seconds, which is just enough time to catch their “brown” necks and “white” faces and chuckle. The next morning, though, I wanted to see more. But when I searched on YouTube, I could only find the original sketch. Then I remembered I’d sent it to a friend. I opened the email and clicked. The video was made private. Was it found? Did people comment? Had someone told them what blackface was?

Before their Tonight Show appearance, Key and Peele were thinking of putting together a remake contest, airing the winning entry in a future episode. The “Das Negros” remake was the first that came to mind. “Something that would offend a 50-year-old black man might be a 14-year-old black kid’s favorite thing in the entire world,” Key says. “So, if you’re a 14-year-old black kid, it just doesn’t even occur to you that there’s a situation. To me, in a way, it’s the kid’s reality that is more interesting.”

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