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

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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