Key and Peele: Identity, Shockingly Translated

February 7, 2012
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Obama TranslatedSo many original programs have come and gone in the brief history of Comedy Central that Daniel Tosh makes a joke of it in almost every episode of his show. “We’ll be right back with more Chocolate News”—or Sports Show with Norm MacDonald or Big Lake or some other show I hadn’t noticed isn’t around any more. In the last few years, many of these cancelled shows have been programmed right after Tosh.0 to take advantage of its lead-in audience. Still, despite its ability to both cater to and combine contemporary practices of online video consumption, social media commentary, and television watching, Tosh.0 still hasn’t quite achieved Chappelle’s Show-like status of “must-see” or water-cooler TV.

Some of those failed Comedy Central shows have attempted to create comedy with a satiric edge more akin to Dave Chappelle than Tosh’s frat-boy humor. Unfortunately, those shows have done a lousy job of it, amounting to uninspired clones. Chocolate News was the “Black” Daily Show; of course, Mind of Mencia was the “Latino” Chappelle’s Show. But these exhibited none of Chappelle’s talent for comically exploiting audience anxieties about race and identity politics, which, it turns out, is more difficult than it looks. However outrageous his sketches might be (the first episode featured Clayton Bigsby, “Black White Supremacist”) Chappelle was doing some complicated cultural work, making meaningful comedy if not outright satire for an audience that was “post-PC” not because it dismissed identity politics, but had largely internalized them.

I’m not sure what the success of Tosh.0 tells us about the “post-PC” status of the Comedy Central audience—at least I can’t speculate on it right here at the moment. But I am anxious to continue to watch the latest program to follow Tosh.0, Key and Peele, which appears to be tentatively picking up the mantel of satiric sketch comedy that Chappelle abandoned, largely due to his concerns about what meanings audiences were making from it. But if the premiere episode of Key and Peele is any indication, it will do so in a much more restrained way. That premiere contained nothing so shocking as Chappelle’s Clayton Bigsby, and one reviewer, in fact, described the duo’s comedy as “genteel.”

What I thought was both interesting and funny about the show was how almost every segment centered on the performance of identity. When Key and Peele appeared onstage after the opening segment, they immediately told the audience they were both biracial, and made jokes based on the notion that they routinely “adjust our Blackness” depending on the company they are in. Although the first of these jokes was that they do this to terrify white people, the segment ended by suggesting that the “Blackest” performances occur when “white-sounding-black-guys” get together. Rather than keeping the focus on race, (and this is wise given the 18-34 male demo) most of the segments focused on the performance of masculinity. In the cold-open, the two “man/Black up” their phone conversations to save face in front of one another; in another, they recount to each other arguments with their wives or girlfriends, culminating in calling them “Bitch,” but always in supreme fear they will be caught doing so. A recurring bit in the show parodied Lil Wayne in prison, where he becomes very self-conscious about putting on his tough guy act.

For my money, the best segment of the show had actually been circulating on YouTube prior to the premiere, and already has an ancillary Twitter feed: #obamatranslated. That segment featured Peele doing a spot-on impression of Obama while Key serves as his “Anger Translator.” The lines for Peele’s Obama must have come verbatim from an assortment of his real comments, but Key’s impassioned and physically animated translations (such as shouting “I am not a Muslim” through a megaphone when the Tea Party is mentioned) served as the kind of catharsis, for me at least, that I’ve been wishing to get from a caricature of the president but no one (including Fred Armisen) has been able to get a good angle on Obama. It takes two, apparently.

Maybe Chappelle’s Show was a program for the Bush era, when it took something really significant to shock and it felt good when it did so. And maybe Key & Peele is a show for the Obama era, not because—like Obama—its stars are biracial or “genteel,” but because culture that intentionally shocks has become so mundane. The comforting reassurance of the sitcom has morphed into every episode Family Guy meeting its quota of “bad taste” by offending enough different “interest groups” that audiences are sure none of it can actually mean anything or matter to anyone. And however much South Park’s creators might like us to believe there’s a qualitative difference between the comic irreverence of Family Guy and South Park’s satire, I have to confess that what had once seemed to me an air of indignant outrage, now seems more like studied insouciance.

There are some things that should remain shocking. A congressman shouting “liar” at the president, for example. The suggestion that there is actually a “War on Christmas.” The fact that Mitt Romney is worth more money than the previous eight presidents combined. I hope Key & Peele choose to satirize this stuff, because I’ll be watching, and I hope some of the Tosh.0 crowd sticks around and does so, too.


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