Key & Peele: Standing in the Shadows of Chappelle's Show

By Price Peterson

Feb 01, 2012

We all—but especially Comedy Central—live in a post-Chappelle's Show world. Dave Chappelle's surprise 2003 blockbuster sketch show was a rare left-field hit that not only brought huge ratings for the network, but reignited a sense of danger and excitement on Comedy Central not seen since South Park's debut. Because TV sketch comedy hadn't given much due to the black experience post-In Living Color, Chappelle's mix of observational racial humor and joyful absurdism felt new and important. Since Chappelle shocked the world by closing up shop after three seasons, there's been a void—ratings-wise and excitement-wise—that Comedy Central is still trying to fill. While its newest attempt, Key & Peele, never truly steps out from the shadow of Chappelle's Show, it's definitely Comedy Central's best effort yet, and given time could become something much better than its premiere episode suggested.

Stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have been knee-deep in comedy for awhile now. Both were longtime cast members at MadTV and between them their credits include Childrens Hospital, Reno 911!, Chocolate News (an earlier Chappelle replacement attempt), and various sitcoms and films. Because they have so much experience as actors (as opposed to mere standup comedy), each of them seems at ease on camera, despite not having particularly electric presences. As both men point out in the show's introduction, they're each half white, and this fact informs how they view society. It's a promising offer: biracial-ness as credibility builder, allowing them to move between the white world and black world as observers and commentators. Unfortunately, based on last night's premiere episode, their sensibility is strictly middle-of-the-road racial stereotypes, the sort of "black people talk like this" and "white people talk like this" schtick that people used to associate with BET's bad standup showcase Comic View.

It doesn't help that Key & Peele uses an almost identical format to Chappelle's Show—the hosts chat with a live audience and then throw to a related sketch. The premiere also featured a super underwhelming impression of Lil Wayne that served to invoke the ghost of Chappelle's Lil Jon character, not to mention a sketch about President Obama's "anger translator" that again reminded me of Chappelle's angry black president sketch (prescient!). Sure, it's probably not fair to continue comparing Key & Peele to Chappelle's Show, as any comparison serves to make K&P; look bad. The problem is, by aping Chappelle's Show's format and emphasis on racial comedy, it's like Comedy Central is openly inviting the comparison. Another unfortunate similarity between the two shows is the noticeably misogynist tone. Chappelle's Show wasn't exactly well known for giving the female sensibility equal time, but Key & Peele's premiere began with a sketch about whipped husbands struggling to call their wives bitches out of earshot. Cool observational humor!

Anyway, this isn't to say the whole thing was a disaster. It wasn't. There were certainly some bright spots, and enough weird moments to suggest Key & Peele has more up its sleeve once the introductions conclude. For one thing, the cast was filled out with some recognizable (to L.A. residents, anyway) faces from the UCB theatre, including Breaking Bad's Matt Jones (Badger!). Plus I love any punchline involving Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Plus a later sketch involved a man claiming to have Victorian illnesses in order to get a pot prescription; I love a good consumption joke! The show's best moment, however, was an ad parody for one of those ancestry websites, wherein a dozen people discussed tracing their roots to famous ancestors but each black person only traced his or her heritage back to Thomas Jefferson. Just a simple joke executed perfectly. Also—and this feels like a weird compliment to pay a sketch show—Key & Peele LOOKS great. It's handsomely filmed and even appears expensive. That's definitely something Chappelle's Show couldn't claim.

Ultimately Key & Peele needs to find a different and weirder voice if it ever hopes to become its own thing. It's definitely watchable and seems to have legitimate things to say about pop culture and manhood and race and society and serious junk like that, but it'll have to be way gutsier about it if it wants to be the watercooler discussion starter Chappelle's Show was. Right now it just seems like a couple of nice guys working with a big budget to create merely amusing TV. It's not the worst thing Comedy Central's tried to pass off as the next big thing, but it's definitely better than rickets.

What did you think of the debut of Key & Peele?

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  • joenamherst Feb 11, 2012

    Didn't watch it.

  • Leiniedrinker Feb 09, 2012

    I thought it was great, I caught myself laughing about some of the skits days later, "I looked here in the eye and said.............b****."

    Good stuff.

  • mac94102 Feb 03, 2012

    I laughed out loud at the Obama sketch (but I'm a political nerd).

  • WavSlave Feb 03, 2012

    I've enjoyed both of these guys' performances for several years. I'm glad to see them get a chance to do their own thing. And laughing out loud more than once during the pilot pretty much ensures that I'll come back for more.

    IMO, Chappelle's Show had some truly great moments but it seemed to run out of steam pretty quickly. By the time the entire fourth segment had become nothing but a showcase for one of Dave's favorite "musical" acts (NOT part of the original format), it was occasionally an actual chore to watch.

  • inko8 Feb 09, 2012

    yeah. just dvr snl and you know there are 2 places where you can chapter skip 6 minutes. unless gary numan comes back.

  • fatimavh Feb 03, 2012

    I love Keegan-michael Key even when he's commenting on "funny animal antics".

    Wish him much success with this show!

  • Whedonrules Feb 03, 2012

    Isn't the bald guy the dude that played "Carmenjello" on "The League"?

  • Faithin1 Feb 02, 2012

    I thought it was funny. Sure, there should be comparisons, the shows are on the same network, have the same premise, but I thought it was funny, and I laughed. It isn't like I had to watch Are You There, Chelsea?

  • Mate Feb 02, 2012

    I liked it. It might be because I am desperate for something, anything to even be a little bit like the Chappelle Show. Even just a little bit. And at its conception Key and Peele is a little bit like the chappelle show. I wanted something that was at least a 1/4 of what Chappelle was and right now I think they are at least at that threshold. Now they will never live up to the formidable presence that was the Chappelle Show? They just can't, his was first, his was best and anything else will only be a close facsimile.

    Did they do the show well. For the most part yes. Of course their is going to be comparisons to Dave's sketches which can be attributed to copying or it can actually be attribute to the circularity of pop culture. When Dave's show was on air Lil Jon was popular, he was a crappy rapper and made club songs. He must be made fun of. Fast forward to now Lil' Wayne is a crappy rapper that makes ring tones and makes suburban white kids feel hard for listening to him. He should be made fun of. And just on a personal note I wouldn't mind if he was stabbed while he was in prison so he can stop lowering the bar and be associated with hip hop. But my current views of rap/ hip hop aside, it did make me laugh. The angry translator for Obama I thought hit it out of the park. Mostly because I think Obama has been wanting to say some of those things over the past three years but can't because the right would label him as an angry black man. I thought it was funny. Peele's Obama impression is so much better than any current one. What I didn't like was how long the biiiiiiiiiii*ch sketch went. It was funny the first two times, they may need to watch a lot of SNL and see what happens when sketches run on way too long.

    Now I think it has a lot of potential. Both Key And Peele were hilarious on mad TV I can quote some of their sketches as much as I can quote Chappelle's. Key's WHOLE NUHVA LEVEL sketch I still quote and it still makes me laugh. I think they need to realize the that success of Chappelle was the willing to just be ostentatious. To not really care if something gets bleeped or if people find it uncomfortable or even mildly offensive. Some of his best stuff pushed the boundaries of both the censor and what people might or might not like .The "Niggars" white family sketch comes to mind for that one.

    But Key and Peele do have that potential to be close to Chappelle. I think they are going to be the closest one. However I think they need to embrace the raunch and the controversiality that they can bring and have brought in the past. They are following Daniel Tosh who doesn't care if people think it is funny or gross or inappropriate which makes him hilarious. You can't follow that with safe comedy. It will appear lacking more so than it actually is if it was standing alone on a weeknight. Madtv wasn't safe, it was the antithesis of the safety of SNL. And that is what made it better. They need to embrace that and feed off it of and expand it.

  • inko8 Feb 09, 2012

    right on the b. sketch. at first it was like they were making fun of misogyny, then it was like hearing a white guy who's just a little too comfortable saying the n. word. over. and over. and over.