Monday, July 27, 2015
Shows I Miss (Already): Key & Peele
Since 2009, the AFOS blog's "Shows I Miss" series has looked back at highly entertaining TV shows that were gone too soon and were too clever to last on commercial TV, from 2003's Keen Eddie to last year's Selfie. Comedy Central's hilarious Key & Peele is the first "Shows I Miss" entry in which the show closed up shop not because of the network but because the stars (who, in Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele's case, also doubled as the lead writers) wanted to move on: over the weekend, Key confirmed that the show's current season, which wrapped up filming last November, is also its last in an exclusive interview with The Wrap, and Peele did the same thing on Twitter.
It's not surprising that Key and Peele are eager to move on and concentrate on film projects like Keanu, which will star the duo and will be directed by Peter Atencio (the same director who brought so much cinematic flair to Key & Peele's sketches in the first four seasons and helped change the perception that sketch comedy should be cheap-looking and visually uninteresting). Last year, Peele told L.A. Weekly, "If our show is to have any kind of legacy, it should be that it didn't go on too long."
Last Friday's series finale announcement is the biggest thing that separates Key & Peele from the sketch comedy show it's often (and sometimes rather unfairly) compared to, the groundbreaking, no-holds-barred Chappelle's Show. Unlike Dave Chappelle, whose "I'm going out for a pack of cigarettes"-style departure from his own hit show was one of the most bizarre exits from a TV show ever, Key and Peele get to end their hit show on their own terms.
If you don't remember the whole controversy over the demise of Chappelle's Show, Chappelle became so upset over seeing white fans of the show laugh at his sketches for the wrong reasons that he didn't come back to finish work on what became known as "the lost episodes." I have a theory for Chappelle's meltdown and subsequent escape from Comedy Central to South Africa: they were actually a cover for himself to go off the grid and do secret agent work nobody--not even his former writing partner Neal Brennan or his family in Ohio--knows about. Chappelle's a secret agent when he's not doing stand-up, which explains why he now has the physique of a black Daniel Craig.
Chappelle's Show became unwatchable without Chappelle's approval on the final cut (one of the lost episodes was a non-comedic, town hall meeting-style--and rather pointless--episode about whether or not Chappelle's opinion that the "Stereotype Pixies" sketch, which triggered his exit, was reinforcing racial stereotypes was right: re-fucking-ally?). Meanwhile, Key & Peele's final season is, fortunately, far from an abomination like that aborted third season of Chappelle's Show was. Some Key & Peele fans might not agree--particularly those who miss the segments where Key and Peele would interact with a studio audience and have also grown tired of the antics of some of the show's few recurring characters, like Peele's Meegan, the petulant millennial afflicted with both vocal fry and lousy movie theater behavior--but Key & Peele is still one of the most consistently funny sketch comedy shows on the air. Last week's ChildFund International commercial parody with Peele as a social worker loosely based on the bearded ChildFund guy, asking viewers to donate fake beards to Third World kids, and the latest Meegan and Andre sketch (is it me or did Peele model Meegan's voice after Mindy Kaling, the current boss of Key and Peele's old MADtv pal Ike Barinholtz?) were both absolute riots.
To the viewers who say they miss Key & Peele's studio audience segments, you do know those segments were sort of a compromise between the show's crew and Comedy Central, right? A behind-the-scenes battle that not many of those Key & Peele viewers seem to be aware of is the battle over the inclusion of studio audience laughter in every sketch: the network insisted on a laugh track, while Key, Peele and Atencio didn't want laughter. In 2013, Atencio discussed on Tumblr his past disagreements with the network over the laughter and said, "Our feeling was that because the sketches had a filmic quality to them, the laughter was distracting, and in a way cheapened the effort we had put into making the sketches work as individual short films." He added, "A lot of our sketches rely on setting up a believable world in often very serious genres and then subverting them, and so having that laughter cut in during an action movie or sci-fi style opening was like pouring ice-water on the viewer."
Key, Peele and Atencio had to continually persuade the network that a laugh track would get in the way of, as Atencio pointed out, "the dialogue, music, and sound-effects, all of which play a role in the comedy in most of our scenes." They ultimately won the battle and came up with a way to include audience laughter without having it intrude on the sketches: laughter would be present only during Key and Peele's hosting segments in front of a live studio audience. But the show actually got even better when it completely did away with the studio audience segments and replaced them with True Detective-style fake road trip scenes between Key and Peele as themselves (ad-libbing to each other just like in the studio audience segments), and it became clear that what Key, Peele and Atencio really wanted to do with the show this whole time was to channel the laugh track-less vibe of sketch comedy movies like Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and the John Landis flicks Kentucky Fried Movie and Amazon Women on the Moon.
To me, Key, Peele and Atencio's preference for the absence of often annoying audience laughter is as great a legacy as the show's smartly written satire about racially motivated police harassment of black men and other racial issues (like the "Negrotown" musical number, which bashes everything from racist bankers to cultural appropriation) or the unique--and unapologetically nerdy--comedic voice of two biracial comedians. Key & Peele's experiment of abolishing laugh tracks from filmed sketch comedy has caused other Comedy Central sketch shows like Kroll Show and Inside Amy Schumer to follow suit, which is a thing of beauty. I hate laugh tracks. Why do I need to be told when to laugh? They never made sense when Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne and Velma were getting chased around by ghosts to the sound of canned laughter, and they never made sense now.
Another one of Key & Peele's charms was that it wasn't trying to be Chappelle's Show (speaking of which, here's why some of us former Chappelle's Show viewers are still a little frustrated with Chappelle's abrupt exit: his departure was responsible for the increased presence of the unfunny and racist Mind of Mencia on Comedy Central's schedule, as well as the network's annoying attempts to market the neo-conservative Mind as the next Chappelle's Show). I like the film writing of Kartina Richardson, but her complaints during Key & Peele's first season that Key and Peele are "black folk who want to move past race" and that the show's writing is tepid in comparison to Chappelle's no-holds-barred material and it "makes fun of blacks in a way white liberals will allow themselves to enjoy, under the guise of 'talking about race'" were really weird complaints, especially when race is frequently on the minds of both Peele, who's been working on a script for a horror flick he wants to make about "the fears of being a black man today," and Key (Richardson's negative review of Key & Peele is over at Salon, but I don't want to link to Salon because that site is as slow and laggy as Wendell trudging through a brony convention). In those earlier seasons, Key & Peele was interesting precisely because it wasn't another Chappelle's Show: the obsessions of Key, Peele and Atencio ("Labyrinth. That's my world. NeverEnding Story. Willow," said Peele to White Teeth author Zadie Smith in the New Yorker) are mostly different from those of Chappelle and Neal Brennan's. But Key & Peele eventually did dive into the kind of edgier material about race that Richardson felt the show lacked--like "Negrotown" and the Trayvon Martin-related sketch that opened "Les Mis," the show's third-season premiere--and it ended up excelling at that kind of material.
There is one area where Key & Peele definitely surpassed Chappelle's Show (besides the five seasons Key & Peele will now have amassed), and that would be the fact that it got a few non-black comedians of color some extra screen time on largely vanilla Comedy Central. For instance, Filipino American improv comic Eugene Cordero appeared a few times on Key & Peele, which is better than Chappelle's Show's weird casting of either extremely wooden Asian non-actors or what I assume to be relatives of Chappelle's Asian wife as Asian characters and SNL's continuing practice of casting white actors as Asians. You bet your ass it's offensive and lame whenever the white comedians on SNL play Asians, even without yellowface or brownface makeup. Occasionally, Key has played South Asian characters on the show--like that Indian pediatrician in the unsettling "Make-a-Wish" Halloween sketch with Lauren Lapkus--even though he's neither South nor Asian, but he's actually convincing and non-offensive as an Indian guy (perhaps the reason why Key doesn't sound like Hari Kondabolu's priceless description of Apu as "a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father" is due to help from his wife, a dialect coach).
Key & Peele did a few other things better than SNL, like any of Key & Peele's sketches about Barack Obama, which wouldn't have existed had Lorne Michaels chosen Peele to bring his impression of the President to SNL (Peele once said, "I had some good friends over there, and a great meeting with Lorne and they asked me to do it, but I couldn't go for contractual reasons. I was on MADtv... It was a whole fiasco. It was such a shame, SNL is one of my favorite shows of all time"). The sketches with Peele as Obama and Key as his "anger translator" Luther may be viral sensations, but my favorite Key & Peele Obama sketch is "Obama: The College Years," mainly because of the way it makes fun of terrible, subtle-as-an-anvil dialogue in historical dramas like that cheesy line Joely Richardson had to say in The Patriot (Mel Gibson: "May I sit with you?" Richardson: "It's a free country. Or at least it will be").
The little visual touches Atencio came up with for the degraded early '80s videotape look of the fake footage of young Obama are a good example of Atencio's visual flair. That flair and Peele's nerdy love of horror movies were integral to another highlight of Key & Peele's run: the show's ability to pull off horror genre parody sketches that were genuinely unnerving in addition to being funny. The aforementioned "Make-a-Wish" sketch is especially unnerving. It features a creepy performance by Peele as an evil kid whose dying wishes are more elaborate than "I wish I could be Batman." Peele seems to be particularly obsessed with Thomas Harris adaptations like Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs and the Hannibal TV show, which explains why the Harris Cannibalistic Universe inspired not one but two sketches: "Hall of Mirrors," featuring Peele as a serial killer who's got Francis Dolarhyde's cleft lip, Ted Levine's voice and Joe Isuzu's inability to lie effectively, and "Sex Detective," which has Peele playing a brooding, Will Graham-like criminal profiler in a dead-on spoof of the masturbatory overtones of loner detectives like the occasionally Graham-like Fox Mulder, whose love of beating the meat was hinted at on The X-Files (extra points for the casting of former Criminal Minds star Paget Brewster as another detective).
"Sex Detective" is so dead-on that it's forever ruined the HCU for me. Thanks to "Sex Detective," Hannibal's pilot episode remains the only Hannibal episode I've watched because I know I won't be able to watch the rest of Hannibal without thinking of Peele's MacGruber-ish moans from "Sex Detective" and chuckling. That's how terrific a Key & Peele genre spoof like "Sex Detective" is: it has the power to ruin whole genres, just like how Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was so brutal in skewering musician biopic clichés that it caused me to be unable to take any musician biopic seriously anymore.
The intensity of Key & Peele's horror sketches, whether that sketch is "Make-a-Wish," the explanation for Steve Urkel's dominance on Family Matters or either of the Thomas Harris spoofs, sheds light on one last standout thing about Key & Peele: the two stars are excellent actors in addition to being great comedic minds (Zadie Smith points out that "If the depth Key brings to comic moments is unexpected, the bigger surprise is that he's doing comedy at all: he intended to be a classical actor"). So many of last week's negative reviews about the Adam Sandler blockbuster Pixels have noted that Sandler sleepwalks through the movie. In other words, the energy level Sandler once had in his earliest comedic vehicles--and in more challenging and risky movies like Punch-Drunk Love, in which Sandler movie fan Paul Thomas Anderson got a career-best performance out of Sandler--is completely gone. On Key & Peele, neither Key nor Peele could ever be guilty of such a thing. They acted their asses off in every sketch, and that sort of commitment to whatever material comes their way is something studio comedy filmmaking could really use right now. Comedy Central's latest loss is now studio comedy filmmaking's gain.