Judge Clark Douglas would like to order a human foot with gravy.
"It's pretty good stuff."—President Barack Obama
Is there a more inconsistent lineup on television than the one offered by Comedy Central? The gap between the giddy comic heights of their best programming and the unbearable lows of their worst is preposterously huge. Even so, I've grown to admire the network for their willingness to let just about any sort of comedian do whatever they want—for a while, anyway. While the cable network is quick to pull the plug on programming that doesn't generate satisfactory ratings, in general there seems to be considerably less creative interference from the network than one sees almost everywhere else. As such, over the years we've gotten such diverse, entertaining works as The Daily Show, The Sarah Silverman Program, Chappelle's Show, Important Things with Demetri Martin, The Colbert Report, South Park, Strangers with Candy, Upright Citizens Brigade and Sports Show with Norm MacDonald. All of these shows (along with quite a few less entertaining ones) have essentially been built around the idea of letting talented comedians do their thing. Of course, there are plenty of unwatchable Comedy Central programs built around the same idea, but the "anything goes" approach to programming has led to some creatively adventurous programs that probably couldn't have existed anywhere else (even if some of them prove incapable of generating the ratings required to last more than a season or two).
Fortunately, it looks like the new sketch comedy Key & Peele is quite capable of earning a prominent place in the Comedy Central Hall of Fame. Starring biracial comics Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (both formerly of MADtv), the program quickly establishes itself as the most inventive, exciting, side-splitting sketch comedy television since Chappelle's Show. Like that program, the show seems particularly interested in exploring race in the modern era, but the show certainly has its own identity and vibe. While racial subjects are explored frequently and from a variety of compelling angles, they often prove a springboard for the exquisitely odd ideas Key and Peele have up their sleeves.
For instance, one sketch opens by parodying the "Magic Negro" stereotype, in which an eternally wise black man will devote a great deal of time and energy to improving the life of a white protagonist. There are some fun jabs made at the preposterous nature of these characters, and on a sketch comedy like MADtv or Saturday Night Live the sketch would continue in this vein until it just ran out of steam and gave way to the next one. However, Key & Peele almost always takes a left turn. Sure enough, eventually a second "Magic Negro" appears and begins competing with the first for the white man's favor. Before long, the two find themselves engaging in a Highlander-style spell-casting battle with each other, wrecking the hapless white man's office as they fling lightning bolts across the room. It's a great punchline, but there's yet another stinger waiting at the end of the sketch that brings the whole thing to a perfect finish. The art of ending a sketch is clearly something these guys value.
While the episodes never seem to follow a predictable path, the show does a rather masterful job of weaving running themes and gags through each episode (indeed, through the entire season) without ever becoming repetitive. Sure, there are occasional missteps along the way (a sketch about a rapper who has been shot in a particularly tender area stands out as a thin idea that goes on too long), but overall the hit-to-miss ratio is excellent. Though there are a few recurring sketches, for the most part the guys seem interested in exploring new territory each time around. The show is never lazy and the stars always seem delighted to have the opportunity to do what they're doing. Those qualities may not seem like much, but they go a long way towards making Key & Peele the joyful viewing experience that it is.
Perhaps the show's most significant accomplishment is that it's managed to do something SNL still hasn't figured out: making President Obama funny. Almost everything the duo does with the President sticks the landing, whether it's the entertaining encounters with the President's "anger translator," the sketch in which Obama confronts a boastful rapper or his all-too-successful attempts to get people to treat him like a "normal guy." The best is a masterfully constructed piece in which the President decides to use the relentless contrarianism of his Republican opponents against them, employing some Bugs Bunny reverse psychology to send them into fits of self-defeating rage. At the conclusion of the sketch, Obama turns to the camera and smiles. "Ain't I a stinker?" he chuckles. Casting Obama as Bugs Bunny and the Republicans as Elmer Fudd is a terrific angle, but it's only one of the many entertaining shades Key and Peele apply to the President.
The only part of the show that consistently feels a little forced is the banter the guys offer between sketches. It feels too rehearsed and clumsy; there's a distinct sense that they've practiced this chatter a few times when they should just be casually talking to each other and the audience. These interstitial bits were often a highlight on Chappelle's Show, but they tend to slow the comic momentum on this show. Some minor fine-tuning could easily fix this, as it's clear the two guys have a good rapport with each other.
All eight episodes of Key & Peele: Season One (Blu-ray) are housed on a single Blu-ray disc and have been given a satisfactory 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The show is fond of engaging in big, cinematic moments from time to time and there's a lot of visual gags to catch, so the strong detail, deep blacks and vibrant colors are appreciated. It's a stellar transfer which doesn't have any noteworthy defects. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks are busier and more aggressive than you might expect, as quite a few sketches employ some rather heavy-duty sound design. It's not Transformers, but it's impressively mixed. Dialogue is consistently clean and clear throughout. Supplements include a quartet of commentaries with Key and Peele, an outtakes reel, a handful of unaired Obama/Luther the Anger Translator sketches (fun, but it's good that the show ultimately chose not to overdo things in this department), some clips from the South Beach Comedy Festival and brief, silly interview (4 minutes) with Key and Peele.
Key & Peele is a terrific new sketch comedy that is well worth your time. Here's hoping these two can maintain the standard of comic innovation they've set for themselves as they head into their second season. In the meantime, have a blast with this collection of episodes. This show is really something special.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Comedy Central
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