Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are, they proclaimed on the debut of their Key & Peele half-hour on Tuesday night, biracial–”half-black, half-white”–and therein lies the source of their comedy. They play with the contrasts in tone, if you will, that blacks and whites use in comedy, and in everyday life.
The premiere had a couple of strong sketches. In the first, the two men played suburban husbands who wanted to prove their macho bona fides by boasting that they weren’t intimidated by their wives–each asserted he has called his better half a “bitch.” Except every time they started to pronounce that charged word, one of the wives popped into the scene to say a cheery hello, and it was obvious the men did not want to be caught uttering the epithet–indeed, it was pretty clear neither had ever called his wife such a thing. The men moved farther and farther away from their wives, trying to find a place to utter the B-word (up a tree; in a meadow; finally, in outer space), but to no avail. This worked on a few levels: It was funny to see these meek hubbies trying to get down and funkily abusive, and funny to see the lengths they had to go to try and achieve this pathetic goal.
The second strong sketch found Peele doing a fine President Obama impersonation, with Key as Luther, the president’s “anger translator.” That is to say, Obama-Peele made a few innocuous remarks about working in the spirit of bipartisanship and his accomplishments in office. Meanwhile, Luthor-Key went off on the audience, expressing all the supposedly bottled-up rage and frustration Obama keeps tamped down in the face of repeated attacks and false rumors about him.
These moments proved that the former MADtv contributors have a take on race themes that distinguishes them from most TV comedy. Call it the “black nerd” effect–Peele has, in interviews. As black nerds mining comic influences ranging from Wayne and Shuster and Rowan and Martin (as a fan of the endangered comedy-duo act, I’m pulling for Key and Peele to succeed) to Dave Chappelle (their clear Comedy Central predecessor in the way their half hour is a mix of studio-audience stand-up and taped sketches), these guys have created something fresh.