Comedy is the most subjective of mediums, and one man’s hilarious genius is another man’s desperate hack. Widely successful comics often water down their material in order to appeal to the broadest possible demographic, while niche comics tailor their message to much that they can’t break out of their established audience. Key and Peele seem to have avoided that fate by finding the right mixture of intelligence, critical thinking and personal passion with their Comedy Central series. The jokes feel like they come from your clever best friend: accessible without being so bland that they fall flat. Their new Blu-ray set – covering the first two seasons – puts some of their best routines on display, which are more than enough to excuse the occasional failure. Hit the jump for my full Key & Peele Blu-ray review of seasons one and two.
Their partnership plays a huge role in their success. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele first came to public attention on MADtv, where they were initially competing for the “token black guy” job. Their chemistry proved so potent that the producers partnered them together, and their stand-alone show thrives on their ability to feed off of each other. You can see it most readily in their best-known routine, with Peele doing a spot-on impersonation of President Obama and Key bouncing off the walls as his “anger translator” Luther. But you can see it in other sketches as well, such as the Halloween guest who doesn’t realize that Michael Jackson is dead or the various travails of various hen-pecked boyfriends.
The material helps too. The pair are keen observers of pop culture, as most comics need to be, but their ability to find unexpected humor gives them an extra something special. They’re huge movie buffs, but their parodies tend to focus on broad genre conventions rather than the knee-jerk mocking of the blockbuster du jour. Horror films are a popular target, and indeed some sketches actually scare us better than many genre directors do. I’m also fond of a terrific riff on John Woo — complete with slow-motion doves — that descends into brilliant slapstick with deceptive ease. Sports too, remains a potent target, bolstered by a guys’ guy enthusiasm that doesn’t blind them to the more ridiculous aspects of jock posturing.
Perhaps more importantly, they manage to bring what we delicately refer to as an African-American perspective without becoming pigeon-holed. They note the hypocrisies of institutional racism and charge us to do better, but keep the tone inclusive: inviting a change in perspective rather than dismissing non-black audience members out of hand. It’s not always as savage as it might be, but it also retains a certain timelessness that “edgier” material might lack. They rarely rely on shock tactics, and they have no interest in an easy laugh. Even sketches which seem to have run their course get redeemed by an eleventh hour twist that results in a big laugh. And they take the same approach to “safe” material that they do to more sensitive topics, establishing a high standard of quality that helps them stay focused.
Not every sketch works, of course, and the first two seasons of Key & Peele carry their share of misfires. But at least one good piece accompanies every bad one, and even the worst episodes have a few moments to justify twenty-two minutes of your time. Their success has been enough to make them a staple on Comedy Central, and while subsequent seasons may eventually lose their spark, the first two are definitely worth paying attention to. The pair show freshness, smarts and a keen ability to make people laugh while staying true to their own sensibilities. You can’t ask for much more from a couple of sketch comics, a fact which this new set makes readily apparent.
As you may expect, the discs themselves are pretty no-nonsense, Sound and image are decent, but if you’re looking for sterling image quality, you’ve missed the purpose of the exercise. Additional material is absolutely minimal — some outtakes, a few bits of ancillary foolishness, a smattering of audio commentaries — and as you may have suspected, finding particular sketches can be fairly difficult. The good news is that the material makes its own gravy, and you can find something worthwhile no matter which episode you watch. It’s a good introduction to the duo, as well as an apt way to give more devoted fans their fix.