For nearly four years, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have been among the best at dishing out incisive racial comedy to a generation that sorely needed it. Whether making lighthearted jabs at pop-culture trends or tackling serious political issues, their sketches were at their best when they were at their bluntest. Obama’s signature resolute calmness inspired Luther, the president’s “anger translator,” a character so cleverly executed that he was eventually invited to appear alongside Obama himself during the White House Correspondents Dinner. The pair broached feminism in sketches that imagined a “cunnilingus class” and turned a “pirate chantey” into a guide to respecting women. Biased policing was tackled head-on in sketches that paid homage to Trayvon Martin and bluntly addressed the Walter Scott shootings. As biracial comedians, Key and Peele poked fun at every idea about perceived blackness or whiteness, and called out everyone for every polite racial faux-pas imaginable, even if that meant calling out themselves.
In honor of tonight’s series finale, we’ve asked some of our staff writers and friends to share their favorite sketches from the show. Enjoy.
My first name only has six letters, but the way they combine is not familiar to white people. I didn’t know this before I came to North America for college; until then, most of my friends’ names were multisyllabic, with consonants stacked against each other. Even if you had never heard it before, you knew a person’s name could be the Michael or Jessica of wherever they came from. Here, I discovered I didn’t have a “normal” name.
“Substitute Teacher” is one of my favorite bits of comedy from the past five years; Key playing a tough substitute teacher from the “inner city” placed in a white, suburban high school is a three-minute-long “100” emoji. It’s not perfect—you could probably argue with some success that the duo’s punchlines too often rely on racial tropes that perpetuate anti-black stereotypes—but it lands. When he butchers traditional Western names, playing with emphasis to turn Jacqueline, Denise, and Aaron into the more stereotypically black-sounding Jaquellan, D-nice, and A-A-ron, it’s a casual subversion of the concept of “normal.” Everything is normal somewhere.
It’s probably their most popular sketch, and for good reason. Not long after I first saw it, I abandoned my coffee name, Sara, and started spelling out the one my parents gave me, R-a-w-i-y-a. -Rawiya Kameir
“East/West College Bowl”
This surrealist ode to college football player intros could’ve been 48 hours long. Should’ve been, really. But in a mere 3:31, it conjures a vast, panoramic, Dickensian universe full of the richest and most vivid characters in American fiction: the oceanic calm of L’Carpetron Dookmarriot, the frightening intensity of Hingle McCringleberry, the stoned grace of the Player Formerly Known as Mousecop. The first time through, I held it together pretty well until I got to Xmus Jaxon Flaxon-Waxon; I have cried laughing at this sketch at least three times, spread over six months.
You could coast on this premise for years, run it into the ground SNL-style for decades. Key & Peele did it twice more fairly straight and kept quality control high (“QUIZNATODD BIDNESS”), but the best spinoff is actually the East/West Bowl Rap, a deeply insane and totally committed “Super Bowl Shuffle” knockoff that is also essentially jokeless, unless the fact that the white guy (shouts to Dan Smith) gets the most bars counts as a joke. (It does: “BYU / Y-U-B / Jealous ‘cause these bitches wanna get with me.”) Like much of this show, the bit is more concerned with being Weird than being Funny, but succeeds so thoroughly in its embrace of weirdness that it’s actually hilarious. I am sorry to see these guys go, but we’ll always have D’Glester Hardunkichud. -Rob Harvilla
We must forgive “Dueling Hats” for needing to exist more than a decade ago to be truly relevant. People don’t keep all the tags on their gear anymore like that, do they? Regardless, this is an incisive, blown-out lampooning of one of the ugliest urban-couture phenomenons of all time. This sketch should have been a government-funded PSA screened at high schools 15 years ago to educate and protect the children from this trend. This also prompted my “missed opportunity routine” with regards to my own sketch writing, which I will now describe.
Once I recognize the sketch’s premise, a mind resentment kicks in; if it plays off something I’ve ever spoken or even thought about, however briefly or unintelligibly, I start getting antsy. If the sketch is of a repetitive, building nature, as this one is, I start hoping that the whole thing goes off-course, that a gag misfires or an impression doesn’t land. Then the idea (which is, of course, “my” idea) can go back into the “pool of general ideas” (which, as a writer, is always floating above our heads, waiting for us to be sleepy, high, or thirsty enough to snatch the shit out of). If the botching doesn’t go down and the thing is building up steam, I can only hope for a bad ending. A bad ending forfeits the sketch creator’s right to that idea, and up it goes, back into the pool. If that doesn’t happen, and the sketch is funny all the way through, it’s a wrap. I can’t really begrudge them because they did the idea justice, which is what Key & Peele certainly did here.
YO, HE HAS A LITTLE SWEATSHOP HAT ON HIS HEAD! -Ashok Kondabolu
One of the defining characteristics of Key & Peele, though it’s perhaps not instantly recognizable, is the show’s cinematic quality. TV’s renaissance finally came to comedy with this show. Not only did it have beautiful cinematography (L.A Vice) and excellent texture and mood (Das Negros, Flicker), but it also elevated the genre of sketch comedy to something far more ambitious. And that ambition, I believe, is what makes sketch shows like this far funnier and engaging than most comedy movies I’ve seen in the last five years. So much of Key & Peele is like a dazzling hybrid of Richard Pryor and Bob Fosse, and this Les Misérables remix, I think, sets the bar for what a sketch show can achieve. -Natasha Vargas-Cooper
The writers of Key & Peele recently said that the inspiration behind these skits—wherein a pair of goofy valets recount their favorite movies/TV shows/whatever with a level of enthusiasm generally exhibited by tiny children on Christmas morning—came from Key’s trips to the movies as a kid in Detroit. He realized that the fact that the audience couldn’t sit still during the most tense or exciting parts of a movie—that people were so overcome that they’d have to jump up and walk down the aisles, or literally shout or cower alongside the fictional heroes onscreen—ultimately created a loony sense of togetherness. It’s what makes great comedy, too: watching people feel the same things as you, out loud, right there next to you.. To hell with nervous laughter or quiet engagement. If something’s exciting, go ahead and squeal. If you’re gonna laugh, might as well do it loudly.
“Liam Neesons” is the best of the valet sketches, if only for the ridiculousness of its subject matter. There are other instances where they talk about Batman or reenact Ned Stark’s beheading in Game of Thrones, but the idea that these two grown-ass men would be This Freakin’ Amped about this particular actor is something else entirely. In the span of three minutes, they cover Neeson’s full body of work (including “the one where he fucked up them wolves” or the one where “the Russians come after him and he fucks them all up” or “the one where they jacked his daughter”), recreate a memorable (LOL) fight scene, and are genuinely affronted by the fact that he hasn’t won an Oscar. It’s hard to tell what parts are scripted and what parts rely on two people so comedically in tune with one another that they just naturally finish each other’s jokes, but it’s better not to know. -Puja Patel
“I Said Biiiitch”
Many of Key & Peele’s most trenchant, memorable, and hilarious insights came from the pair prancing both around and upon the white/black cultural fault line. “Substitute Teacher,” “East/West College Bowl,” and “I Said Bitch”—which make up three of their top five most-viewed clips on YouTube—all share that trait.
What makes “I Said Bitch” unique is how it depicts two black men navigating two different cultures firsthand. On its face, it’s about a couple of whipped husbands trying to project an illusion of masculine dominance in their domestic relationships, knowing full well how much of a put-on the whole thing is, as shown by the absurd lengths they go to avoid their wives’ ears.
But it’s also about two black men steeped in a black cultural vernacular that uses words and phrases like “ain’t” and “we goin’” whil referring to “their women” as “bitches,” all in a stereotypically suburban, upwardly mobile, upper-middle-class environment. Check out Peele’s dress shirt complemented by a nice diamond-print sweater, while Peele’s wife shows off their new sunk-in bathtub and Mrs. Key pines for Mrs. Peele’s kitchen island. You can almost hear the NPR on the radio cut off when the Keys pull into the driveway.
This juxtaposition in cultural allegiances is something experienced by an ever-growing swath of Americans, and is obviously something Key and Peele themselves are very familiar with. All of which combined to make Key & Peele and its perspective so refreshing and, most importantly, so funny.-Billy Haisley
How else is a comedy duo going to respond to prolific documentation of black people being killed by police than with a musical sketch called “Negrotown”? Here, Key is pulled over by a cop, gets his head banged against the car, and wakes up to Peele whisked him away to an otherworldly land. Negrotown, a utopia for black people—no, it’s not Atlanta—is their final destination.
It turns out that Negrotown is a city free of cultural appropriation, cab-driver racial profiling, unsolicited requests to touch one’s hair, and the fear of wearing a hoodie in broad daylight. Which is to say, it’s completely free of white people. Consequently, no one is arrested for driving while black, walking while black, or simply breathing while black. What is a utopia for black people is simply every small town and big city for white Americans, where they’re the standard by which all people are judged. The skit snaps back to reality, revealing Peele to be a homeless man and Key on his way to jail, the real Negrotown implied by the cop who appears onscreen before driving off. Instead of utopia, we get the prison-industrial complex. -David Turner
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