By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, veterans of Fox’s sketch comedy “MADtv,” have a new series of their own, the self-titled “Key & Peele.” Premiering Tuesday on Comedy Central, it is a genial, at times almost genteel half-hour in which the pair’s obvious niceness shines through even their more pugnacious characters. (Key’s version of road rage is to shout, “Selfish!”) In a roundabout way, that’s the point.
Peele is the short, younger one you may also have seen in a recurring role on Rob Corddry’s “Childrens Hospital”; Key is the tall, bald one who once hosted Animal Planet’s “The Planet’s Funniest Animals.” Both have white mothers and African American fathers — a fact they raise immediately and will return to — which is to say that the world sees them as black, like the president, of whom Peele does a particularly deft impersonation, the difference in their heights notwithstanding.
At the risk of sounding highfalutin about a show whose main purpose is to make you laugh, there are repeating themes here that have to do with false fronts, with language as a weapon or a shield, and with the way people are trapped inside behaviors they think the culture demands. Given their mixed background, Key says, “We find ourselves particularly adept at lying, because on a daily basis we have to adjust our blackness.” (“You never want to be the whitest sounding black guy in a room,” adds Peele.)
In the very first sketch of the very first episode, strangers wait at a corner for a traffic light to change and, mutually misjudging each other as a threat, toughen their talk accordingly.
Key, into his cellphone, making a date to take his wife to the theater: “Unfortunately, the orchestra’s already filled up, but they do have seats that are still left in the dress circle, so (seeing Peele) if you wanna me to get them thee-ay-tah tickets right now I’ma do it right now. … They got that one dude in it that you love, man, he gonna be in it.”
This tension between mildness and wildness runs all through the two episodes I’ve seen. In a piece that, broken out as a YouTube video, has already garnered more than 2 million hits, Peele’s preternaturally understated Obama employs an “anger translator” to convey the aggressive intent his polite remarks mask.
In another, two friends — afraid of being overheard by their wives as they recount, in increasingly cocky terms and tones, arguments over what movie to rent or where to eat dinner (“Darryl, I named seven more restaurants”) — retreat to safer and safer territory until they wind up in deep space. What makes the sketch more than just another wheezy turn on the henpecked husband is the way the men can’t help enacting a version of masculinity that even they find embarrassing. It also takes the air out of that overused word “bitch.”
The filmed sketches are linked by segments taped before an audience that bring in the sound of laughter and applause to create an atmosphere of capital-F Fun, as if to demonstrate to viewers who might not know them — “MADtv” ran for a long time, but it was largely under the radar — that the stars are hilarious fellows worth watching. But these bits feel a little forced compared to the sketches, which are consistently smart and smartly acted and flow easily from ordinary premises to weird conclusions.
And they really don’t need the help.