In January of 2012, Comedy Central aired the first episode of a new sketch show starring MADtv alumni Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Last Wednesday the show wrapped up its third critically acclaimed and commercially successful season of sketch comedy driven by a unique comedic perspective never before seen on TV, a keen understanding of social media and, of course, the hilarious chemistry of its two stars. And not only will a fourth season be on the way soon, Key and Peele recently signed a deal to write a feature film with Judd Apatow. In honor of the duo’s success, we decided to count down our 10 favorite sketches (so far) from the show that started it all.
There’s an unrivaled sense of camaraderie between Key and Peele. Because of their off-camera friendship and extensive improv training, it’s clear that they listen to each other, bounce ideas off each other and, as a result, always seem in sync. It makes their between-sketch banter pop with endearing goofiness, and it makes their recurring characters of action movie loving, constantly pluralizing, insanely enthusiastic valets a riot to watch.
One of the fundamentals of comedy is taking ideas to extremes and having fun with how absurd or illogical the results are. The idea is simple: if you’re going to reenact the Civil War, you should include ALL of the Civil War, right? Watching Key & Peele commit 110% to their minstrel shenanigans in the name of a fair representation of that era is a cringe-inducing but hilarious piece of satire, and the final button is a brilliant reversal. You have to appreciate the commitment of the supporting actors, too.
The creation of Luther, President Obama’s anger translator, captured the zeitgeist so fiercely that the President himself spoke about his experience watching it. It’s a brilliant take on our nation’s soft spoken, thoughtful leader, and it wrings out cathartic laughs in seeing the genuine anger bubbling just under the surface. The most recent sketch makes the list for taking this comedic idea to its logical extreme: our first family should get translators too, shouldn’t they?
Every character on Key & Peele feels real. They’re not caricatures that spew jokes and catchphrases; they’re fully formed humans with hearts, souls, and in Mr. T’s case, hurt feelings. Aping a fuzzy ‘80s VHS style perfectly, this sketch feels exactly like an educational PSA until Mr. T reveals that situations reflecting his personal anguish are a little more important.
Key & Peele recently appeared on Arsenio Hall to discuss the comedic roots of this sketch and deliver an impromptu live performance. It’s a classic game of one-upping, where each person wants to order a dish that has just a little more “soul”. With its nuanced performances, pointed framing of a real cultural phenomenon, and outrageous dish choices, this early sketch will have you jonesing for some donkey teeth.
The insanity of the post-game interview, oscillating from bored recitation of what you just saw to wild celebration and Kanye-esque posturing, is something any sports fan recognizes. Key and Peele have tackled both extremes, but the insane and misguided enthusiasm of Peele’s player here takes the slight edge. Kevin Garnett, eat your heart out. I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at an edit than when it cuts to his apology.
The hardest part of any sketch is the ending. Once you’ve established your comedic idea, explored them from all possible angles and must now wind down, how do you effectively surprise your audience with a strong final laugh without simply repeating what you’ve already done? This already brilliant sketch hits you with a surprise twist that deepens what you’ve seen before—an unpredictable and painstakingly rendered homage to a classic movie that is straight up hysterical.
Not enough praise can be heaped upon Key & Peele series director Peter Atencio. His outstanding visual work, with oodles of cinematically striking production values, elevate the sketches to a degree of panache unlike any other comedy on TV. When such intricate, detailed visual work is applied to something as purely silly as the old “what’s that on your shirt” routine, the result is a sketch that is not only improbably hilarious, but as energized and involving as any summer blockbuster.
Key and Peele know their audience’s expectations, and know how to sharply subvert them. This sketch, somehow both sharply satiric and broadly silly, touches on a universal human truth: we all want to feel important. Even when the situation is as despicable as a slave auction, even when the men in question should not, by any stretch of the imagination, want to be chosen, they can’t help but get jealous at those who do. The creative mission statement of Key and Peele’s silly approach to discussing real ideas of race in America.
The premise is simple: silly names are funny. So why does such a simple sketch take the number one spot? I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the key appeal of Key & Peele (sorry) is their sheer commitment. Anyone can write out some goofy names and call it a day; this sketch’s genius comes from the different shadings of character and humanity given to each player, beyond their wigs and facial hair. It’s a pitch-perfect parody of over-the-top ESPN theatrics. And the final, “normal” button? Pure comedic perfection from two gentlemen who I hope don’t stop making sketches anytime soon.