Two survivors crawl from the wreckage of MADtv and head to Comedy Central.
The suits at Comedy Central have spent the better part of seven years looking for a replacement for Chapelle’s Show. Mind of Mencia didn’t cut it (in more ways than one). Important Things with Demetri Martin proved too peculiar for mass audiences. Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time...well, that one needs no explanation. Key & Peele is the latest attempt by the network to create a hit sketch show, and it’s one of the best attempts. MADtv alums Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are the masterminds here, and they get off to a good start. These first six episodes are a bit lumpy, but the potential for very-goodness (if not greatness) is definitely there.
The show (the second season of which recently began airing) sticks to the expected template: Key and Peele appear before a studio audience; they crack jokes, rib each other, and riff on various topics. This leads into a prerecorded sketch, the content of which deals in some way with the topic the hosts had just been discussing. Repeat the pattern for roughly twenty-two minutes.
By their very nature, sketch shows are uneven. Always have been, always will be, there’s just no getting around it. The good ones give you enough funny stuff to make you not really care about what doesn’t work, and that’s what Key & Peele does. The ratio of what does work to what doesn’t isn’t tipped heavily in favor of the former, but the stuff that does work is usually incredibly funny. And it’s a hell of a lot funnier than I ever expected it to be. What little I saw of MADtv was painfully unfunny, and I was hoping this wouldn’t prove to be more of the same. I knew these guys could be funny, though, as I’d seen them bring the laughs in other venues. (Peele was good on Comedy Central’s criminally short-lived Chocolate News, and Key was great in his appearances on Reno 911!) They’re funny here, and they’ve surrounded themselves with a small writing staff that creates material that plays to their strengths.
As you might expect, some of the material here is of the “black people do this/white people do this” variety. But it gets something of a spin, as both Key and Peele come from a background of one white and one black parent. They say this has worked out well for them, as they believe they got the best of both worlds (they make a crack about knowing that somewhere out there is some poor bastard who got the worst of both worlds, and it’s one of the show’s best jokes), and it consequently allows them something of a unique perspective on each. It also means the humor isn’t the same old “black people do this/white people do this” stuff, and that’s a very welcome change.
What’s arguably the show’s most notable creation (so far, anyway) is Luther (played by Key), a loud, boisterous fellow who takes President Obama’s speeches (Obama is played by Peele, who does a credible job) and translates them for urban audiences. That means adding profanity, slang, and inflection that cares not for modulation. It’s a simple concept, but it’s also a rather brilliant one. There’s something almost cathartic in hearing a politician (or at least his proxy) referring to those on the opposite side of the aisle as “stupid motherf-----s.” And Key goes for broke, refusing to stay still, often losing control, which brings with it the added pleasure of watching Peele try not to crack up.
A couple more Obama-centric sketches are included. One’s a pretty good bit in which he teaches his daughter to drive, the other an absolute killer in which he turns the tables on Republican opponents by employing a tactic developed long ago by a certain cartoon rabbit. Some will undoubtedly see the latter sketch as stupid, but it’s probably worth trying just to see if it would work (and the way things often go these days, it just might). There’s also a very funny riff on Ancestry.com, and a sketch in which the idea of the “magic negro” is literalized and taken to its logical extreme may very well become a classic.
Some the sketches that don’t work do so because they’re allowed to go on far too long. A series of short bits chronicling Lil Wayne’s time behind bars starts off well but gets tedious and unfunny as it drags along. There’s also some stuff that simply doesn’t work at all. A skit in which Bobby McFerrin and Michael Winslow engage in an extended feud is both unfunny and outdated. Oddly enough, there’s even a sketch that starts off well, becomes terrible, and then saves itself with a punchline that is beyond funny. (When you see Ty Burrell, start paying close attention.)
The show saves its single best sketch for last. I won’t get into specifics, but it involves a certain Oscar winner and an understandably freaked-out babysitter. It’s one of the creepiest, strangest things you’re likely to see this year (the iffy visual effects make it all the creepier), but is it ever hilarious.
We’ll have to wait and see if Key & Peele does indeed have what it takes to do what no other Comedy Central sketch show has been able to do, but I honestly think it has a chance. If the hit-miss ratio can be pushed to the right end of whatever spectrum is used to measure such things, this could very well end up being a seriously good series.
Note: The episodes are presented here in uncensored form. If you don’t like hearing dirty words, you should probably stay away.
The show is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; the 1080p transfers have been encoded with AVC, and the six episodes are housed on a single 50GB disc. I went in thinking a series of this nature wouldn’t benefit much from a high-def presentation, but I’ll happily admit I was wrong. The studio segments, during which all light is focused on the stage, often look great, and the pre-recorded segments generally look very good. You’ll notice some banding and aliasing, and there’s some noise in a few of the darker shots, but overall this is a quite solid presentation.
It may come as something of a surprise, but this release has been tricked out with Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio. Sure, there’s not much to the mix here, and not even a lossless encode can create something that isn’t there, but the higher resolution gives the audio a fullness and richness that wouldn’t exist in a lossy track. There’s nothing here but dialogue, music, audience noise, and the occasional sound effect, and the mix has little to offer where the surrounds are concerned, but the quality is slightly more dynamic than the broadcast audio. A Dolby Stereo option is also included; English SDH subtitles are available.
Key and Peele provide four commentaries. These are surprisingly in-depth tracks, delving into sketch-specific writing, production, location work, etc.
All of the following are presented in high-def:
Outtakes (7 minutes) is a selection of flubs, alternate takes, and unused jokes.
Poolside Interview (5 minutes) is a quasi-promotional chat with Key and Peele.
Luther (10 minutes) is more with Obama’s anger translator. One of the clips included here actually made it to broadcast, while the rest went unused.
Live at the South Beach Comedy Festival (4 minutes) is a pair of clips recorded backstage at said festival. One shows Key and Peele preparing for their set, while the second is a post-show interview in which they discuss an on-stage mishap.
It doesn’t always work, but what does work is very, very funny.