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'Key & Peele': The color of funny
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele plumb the depths of race, stereotypes and silliness in their "Comedy Central" show.
February 24th, 2012
03:32 PM ET

'Key & Peele': The color of funny

By Stephanie Siek, CNN

(CNN) – Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are self-deprecating and triumphantly nerdy, and in the first season of their Comedy Central show, they're proving there's not just one way to be black and funny.

"Key & Peele," which airs at 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays on Comedy Central, combines elements of stand-up, sketch comedy and improvisation. It was  just picked up for a second season on the cable channel.

Peele, whose father is black, was raised by his white mother in New York City. Key is also biracial, and was adopted by a black man and his white wife and raised in Detroit. And being biracial has definitely influenced their comedy.

Although Peele remembers growing up in a cosmopolitan, multicultural environment, Key grew up in one marked by segregation and white flight; a black city that had been a white city not so long before. He was sometimes ostracized by black classmates when they learned that his mother was white.

"For me it was very hard and rough. When you're a child, the most important thing is to be able to live a life of comfort. You want to be sure that the moon goes up at night and the sun comes up in the morning and dad comes home from work. At school it was not comfortable," Key remembers. "My mom would come by my school to bring me lunch – my mom is a cute, ruddy little white woman, and there's no category for that – the kids don't know how to respond, and so they tease: 'That ain't your mama!' 'Why you talk white?'  It's not to say that every child in grade school talked to me that way, but that's what I remember.”

Their comedic work stretches and tests the limits and definitions of what it is to be black, to be white, to be both - and to be neither.

"Since a young age, we’re asked to categorize ourselves on these standardized tests, to mark a box: white, black, other," Peele said. "To make me ponder that as a child, and make somebody put me in that category and say 'That’s what you are' – what could possibly be so important that we're ingraining upon a 7-year-old that 'This is what you are and you can’t be anyone else?'"

It's only recently that Peele began to self-identify as biracial, and to define for himself what that means. He says it's an identity that recognizes his black heritage as well as the white mother who raised him.

"Growing up, until really last year, I don't know that I would have readily brought up my white mother to anyone," Peele said. "It was not something I'm embarrassed by, but to announce that was synonymous to some black people to saying, 'I think I'm better than you.' This whole thing has felt almost like a coming out as biracial – saying this is a thing, we exist, and this is a future."

Both honed their comedic craft in various sketch comedy troupes – Key with Second City Detroit and Second City Chicago; Peele with Second City Chicago, ImprovOlympic and the Boom Chicago Theatre in Amsterdam. Each eventually ended up on MADtv, a sketch comedy show on the Fox network, where they performed for several seasons before the series ended in 2007. They bonded over their similar backgrounds, and birthed some of the series’ more memorable characters: Coach Hines, Sad Fitty Cent, the Superstitious Knights.

"Key & Peele" is inevitably compared to Comedy Central’s most successful sketch comedy show fronted by an African-American – "Chappelle’s Show." Standup comedian Dave Chappelle also tackled race and racism, and Key and Peele say they are inspired by his work.  But where Chappelle’s skits on race are overtly from the perspective of a black man, Key and Peele’s play on the idea that they are men who society perceives as black who are also in the position of proving their blackness. At the same time, they question the definition of blackness.

Their work often aims to turn stereotypes on their head. For example, one sketch shows two black men sitting in a darkened movie theater, yelling at the screen – a reference to stereotypes of black people talking too loud during movies. But the hecklers are actually making learned critiques of the movie’s cinematography and directorial choices.

In one stand-up routine Key and Peele talk about situations where they have to "adjust" their blackness – dialing it up or down depending on whether they're going to be judged by whites or blacks. But they also subtly call into question the idea that speech patterns should correlate one way or another with skin color.

Key and Peele see their work as deconstructing stereotypes

"You never want to be the whitest-sounding black guy in a room," Peele tells the audience.

The show has been well- received critically, with The Atlantic calling it "a worthy successor to 'Chappelle's Show.'" But it has its critics. Kartina Richardson, writing for Salon, said the show lacked Chappelle’s edginess and tried too hard to appeal to the "white liberal" view of a post-racial world.

"Key and Peele fail to ever address the violence of racism, literal or figurative, and this timidity leaves their material lifeless," said Richardson.

Other critiques, like those expressed in a recent Loop21 article by John S. Wilson, position Key and Peele as outsiders, trying to make their money off making fun of black people while reminding white viewers that they’re not really black, but half-white and therefore more acceptable.

It's an accusation that bothers Key, who resents the implication that their biracial identity means they  are somehow not black enough to do "black" comedy, or that in writing sketches with black characters they are co-opting a culture that isn't wholly theirs. Including a stereotype in a sketch gives viewers a chance to examine it, he said.

"If you laugh, then you cannot deny that this just took place, and you have to examine what just happened in the sketch," Key said.

"I love dishing it out to everybody, and I love doing that on the show.  But Keegan and I are usually perceived as African-American, and those characters are our bread and butter," Peele said. "Yes, we make fun of a lot of black people, but we make fun of a wide variety of black people because we don't like this idea that black people are a monolith, that there’s only one type of black people."

Key and Peele’s comedic alter egos – or is it opposites? – are Vandaveon and Mike, two crude everymen who respond to Key and Peele episodes with YouTube suggestions for making them, in their mind, funnier. The usual suggestions involve making the show more lowbrow – going for jokes that exploit stereotypes rather than deconstructing them (like having the South Asian doctor character in one sketch reach into his filing cabinet and pull out a plate of tikka masala for no apparent reason, and using it as an entry point for fart jokes.)

"With Vandaveon and Mike, it brings certain paradigms into the light for us to discuss," Key said. "If you think that what Key and Peele are doing is like what Vandaveon and Mike are doing, I would say that you have not watched the program."

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Filed under: Black in America • Pop culture • Race • Who we are
soundoff (77 Responses)
  1. Earthwoman

    Aloha, I love these children...I am an educated 'white' mother of half African children...raised in Hawaii...I am afraid some of Keegans' and Jordans' material... does take a well above average IQ or at least EQ to taste the 'full' flavor...luckily they are so frickin gifted...one doesn't have to be college educated to rflol at these kids...I knew Richard since he was 19...He would have absolutely loved these guys...Chappelle...(I miss this kid)...probably tvo's them regularly...(if he still watches tv)...I have enjoyed them all...and still do...These guys inherited a rich tradition... which they are admirably further perfecting weekly! Mahalo

    November 25, 2012 at 12:50 am | Report abuse |
  2. Danielle

    Ah....to be biracial........black folks and white folks can NEVER wrap their minds around how fluidly we move back and forth between the two. We are both. I will never understand why yall cant understand that.

    April 4, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  3. young black male

    I said biiiiiiiiiiiiii!tch, I'm the man of the house.

    March 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mohamad

    The Episode with the magical black men fighting each other killed me. these guys are great

    March 4, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. RK

    Dave lacked subtlety something that these guys have. I think Dave had more followers just because of how in-your-face he made everything, it made it easier to understand for those who had not experienced what Dave was trying to convey. This show is hilarious, but it is no Chappelle show. And for once I think that is a good thing.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  6. MississippiSteve

    They're hilarious. If you don't think it's funny... pull the stick out of your keester!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  7. bam

    cuz Chapelle didnt already do this????? show is funny article is pointless

    February 28, 2012 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  8. Scott

    It's a funny show and worth watching.

    I

    February 28, 2012 at 8:15 am | Report abuse |
  9. Disgruntled_girl

    I set my DVR to record every episode. Sometimes I think they visit the race thing a bit too much – and then I read here that some say they don't do it enough. I guess Kartina Richardson doesn't quite get the point that they are making jokes. Does she want a lynching joke? Wasn't the skit where the Nazi shows up to administer racial tests enough for her?

    February 28, 2012 at 7:30 am | Report abuse |
  10. Aaron

    The episode where they act like valley girls and take pictures..OMG Hilarious.

    DELETE IT. I HAD BIRTHER FACE. OMG DELETE IT.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:47 am | Report abuse |
  11. A Rod

    I like how the female critic from Salon says, "they're appealling(with their acting) to the "white liberal" ideals of a post-racial world." Sort of an ironic statement. Post racial; white liberal.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      The critic from Salon fails to realize that there are plenty of comedians addressing racial ugliness. I am in favor of making fun of the stupidity of racism; however, not EVERY black comedian should be automatically signed up to do so.

      These guys are funny. Let them be funny in whatever way they decide to make people laugh.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
      • Lenny

        Racism is only stupid when you may not have to deal with it on an almost everyday basis. i am positive most of the people who have welcomed this show as hilarious are probably not dealing with a BLACK STRUGGLE. Either way I never enjoyed MADtv like In living color or the chapelle show. Most of those guys are comedy rejects compared to other successful comedians, who starred in sketch. I dont think most white liberals or white viewers even give a rats ass about the black struggle, and that is why their jokes are not deemed, offensive or not funny.

        March 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
  12. ERICCARTMAN

    not funny at all, i watched and it seems like they try too hard.

    after the first season, the show will be over.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      I've only watched one episode but I think I agree (so far) with your evaluation of the show. It ain't no Chapelle Show fo sho.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Brendon

      There were already renewed for a second season.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  13. Al

    As a biracial person I really appreciate what they do. People in segregated communities (see some posters above) really don't know what to make of you and you never really know what to make of them. You feel like an outsider pretty much wherever you go and whoever you talk to, but you learn to understand that every time you meet somebody it's an opportunity to get them to (maybe) look beyond the color of your skin. I'm glad the show turned out funny. It feels like some time over the past three years the execs at Comedy Central figured out they could do more than just the Daily Show and South Park.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:38 am | Report abuse |
  14. Winston5

    crayzee funny, welcome back guys!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:23 am | Report abuse |
  15. GetReal

    Wait for the repeat of the restaurant sketch where his girlfriend is surprised at why he is not acting out his black half when some assertiveness is actually called for. And then he switches to his white half when he needs to be more civil. That bit was actually very well crafted and did a great job of comedically stereotyping BOTH the exaggerated view of whites AND blacks. Sorry if I am going a little cerebral for a comedy show, but I actually find the show extraordinarily well crafted and very, very funny.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      Oh man, that skit was AMAZING.

      December 4, 2012 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
  16. GetReal

    These 2 folks are brilliant, and the show is too.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  17. jim

    All I know is that these 2 guys are super talented and truly funny-I knew they were talented when they were on MadTV and Im glad they are back!!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
  18. GetReal

    Hands down, some of their first sketches were comedy classics. The bit about the "thank you chef"....it killed.

    And actually, everything else. These 2 are, by themselves, each incredibly funny. But their bits are also brilliantly written, AND brilliantly edited.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      yea-the Gordon Ramsey Chef parody was hilarious!!

      February 28, 2012 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  19. Kerry

    I record it and watch the really funny bits again. They are naturals. Love them.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mureil

      Hey Joel I didn't know it was bring your kids to the pool day! (I know we are dorks) but how funny that was sort of a picture of htings to come! And yes you and your sister make some pretty cute little kiddos!

      April 19, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
  20. Er

    Maybe it's funnier after the first episode. The first episode was so painfully unfunny that I haven't bothered to watch any other episodes.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Nathan

    Gee I wish I had those trouble – being made fun of because of my mother bringing me lunch. Mine died when I was a child and I don't remember her. Boo hoo.. I got over it.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Winston5

      yeah, you really sound like you 'got over it.'

      February 28, 2012 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Jennifer S

      Obviously not.

      March 5, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  22. bfskinnerpunk

    These guys are truly funny. The first two shows were amazing. The third one? meh.
    Anyway, it is interesting to note that almost every instance of "racism" that is referenced is one in which black folks are engaging in the racist behavior. These two suffered at the hands of their black peers in real life, one was abandoned by his black father (terrifically common situation), and only recently felt bold enough to refer to their white background in the presence of black people.

    February 27, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • ERICCARTMAN

      and the racist pull their heads out of the wood.

      white parents also abandoned and kill even their kids, m0r0ns like you always use comedy shows to justify your racism and bigotry.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:22 am | Report abuse |
  23. M1sf1ts

    Yep, it's no Chapelle Show, but it does have it's moments. Peele does a pretty good Obama impression.

    February 27, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
  24. T

    Super funny ! Those two are great together.
    Hope for more of their stuff for years to come.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  25. LandinH

    I think this show shows a great deal of variety and insight into the life of being bi-racial or black while being absolutely 100% hilarious. Great show.

    February 27, 2012 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
  26. LoLa

    Love, love, love this show!!! I don't know if it's because I love them on MadTV, but i'm glad they're doing this sketch. I don't have any critiques; all's I know is that it makes me laugh so i wish them success

    February 27, 2012 at 1:17 am | Report abuse |
    • ron

      These guys are funny, because of who they are and thats all that matters!

      February 27, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  27. chris

    These guys belong on BET instead of comedy central simply because they are black? Seiously?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
    • chris

      Seriously?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
      • sERIOUSLY

        What are you, Erin Burnett?

        February 28, 2012 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  28. I think not...

    I said that because their "jokes" have NOTHING to do with being white, or any other race other than black. It focuses on blacks and everything they go through, never does it focus on their white heritage. They look black, they act black, they tell black jokes, and they ARE black...thus leading me to believe that they belong on black TV. It can't be racist when its a fact!! If they appealed to people of all races then yeah, put them on ABC, NBC or wherever...but they appeal to blacks ONLY, so put them where they belong...with other black comedians on a black channel!!

    February 26, 2012 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
    • mike

      Except that, you know, they point out that they're bi-racial repeatedly on the show...

      February 27, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Here we go again...

      "I think not..." Your comment is so dumb and ignorant I had to stop what I was doing, sign in, and let you know...I mean, seriously, you could really hurt yourself with all that stupidity. By the way, their comedy appeal to MANY. Not just blacks, you moron. These guys are hilarious! ...Hmmmm....I bet you're angry and jealous because you have nothing to be proud of. FAIL.

      February 27, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • GetReal

      What planet are you on? Many of their bits FULLY engulf their "white" side and satirically and appropriately exploit its humor, and they do the EXACT same thing with their "black" side. I am afraid you re one of the many that dont have the cerebral folds to really get it. They are actually d@mn funny and show is actually brilliantly written.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Winston5

      dinosaursayswhat?!?

      February 28, 2012 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Amanda

      Obvious troll is obvious...

      February 28, 2012 at 7:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Micah

      Trolls....

      March 10, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • destiny

      So if ABC, NBC, or Comedy Central should only play shows that include characters/topics dealing with people of 'all races', why was it okay shows like Friends and Fraiser, which had a lily white cast and humor that overwhelmingly appealed to white people to get top billing on those stations? Blacks barely watched them and neither did too many Hispanics. They pretty much alienated them. Yet you don't see the issue with these types of shows being displayed on more mainstream television. Of course you don't, because it caters to people LIKE YOU and if a show doesn't contain main characters LKE YOU, YOU feel that it doesn't deserve to be on mainstream tv. The funny thing is, Key and Peele's show actually has a far more diverse viewership than Friends and Fraiser ever did. People of ALL RACES watch K & P while those other shows had an OVERWHELMINGLY white audience.

      August 19, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
  29. HardyHarHar

    I loved their show when it was called MAD TV.

    February 25, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  30. HardyHarHar

    It's like MAD TV all over again...

    February 25, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • ha..

      not even close

      February 27, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  31. Lise Quinn

    I love this show, they do demonstrate that we still sort people and put them in boxes based on their skin color, to light or too dark. The comments here demonstrate this as well.
    Great show!

    February 25, 2012 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  32. scott

    Dave Chappelle sucks....Richard Pryor was a genius,

    February 25, 2012 at 5:35 am | Report abuse |
    • jim

      wow-you really think Chappelle sucks?man,thats truly amazing-the guy is hilarious

      February 28, 2012 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
  33. I think not...

    This garbage belongs on BET, NOT Comedy Central!! I understand the jokes, but do not find them funny. They appeal to the masses of ignorant blacks, not the educated few who might be watching Comedy Central. I wish there was a comedian of color that appealed to all races and backgrounds...

    February 25, 2012 at 3:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Josef F

      Go back and read what you've written here. How could someone not find you to be a horrible racist?

      February 25, 2012 at 7:28 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      I don't think this ultra-anonymous commenter sounded racist (why must every critical comment be racist?), but it did seem like it came from a very angry person with a very limited sense of humor.

      February 25, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
      • Vella

        John, his statement is inherently racist by merely implying that merely because they are "Black", they should be on Black Entertainment Television. He didn't suggest they air on, say, ABC, NBC, etc., he went straight for Black People. You can also see that he's posted on this topic a couple of times and it seems his issue stems from his opinion that they are Black and that despite their White parentage, they are NOT White. Trolls are very predictable...and transparent and this one is no different.

        February 25, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Like No Other

      Richard Pryor! There is only one king of comedy and he is making something else laugh! I could only imagine pryor in heaven quizzing god on why all the BS on planet earth by those hairless monkeys!!!

      February 27, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • THE TRUTH

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtfCUAppExw&w=560&h=315]
      THIS MAN DOESN'T THINK SO

      February 28, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
  34. I think not...

    Please explain exactly what you find even remotely funny about K & P or the pathetic YouTube off-shoot of the show?! Oh wait....maybe I need to be an ignorant black person to find the humor in them!! This crap belongs on BET, NOT Comedy Central!! You're black...so what?! There's NOTHING white about any of you!!

    February 25, 2012 at 3:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Grant

      It's funny because it's true. I am black but grew up in a mostly white community. I go to an all black church. You never know when you have to act "black" and when to act "white". It's tough living between two worlds that shouldnt be seperate. These two represent a diffrent kind of comedian.

      February 25, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
      • Jamie

        Everyone has the right to behave as they please.

        February 27, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Micah

      Trolls...

      March 10, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • destiny

      Well, considering the fact that Key and Peele's show has a huge WHITE following, and the show received one of the highest ratings on a channel with a predominately WHITE viewership, it is the ignorant WHITE people that are keeping the show alive. I'm surprised that someone who claims to be so smart missed that fact.

      August 19, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  35. jasper

    this is the only Comedy Central show I DVR, it is both intelligent and funny without pandering to those who seem to appreciate only raunch and vulgarity

    February 25, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  36. Anonymous

    This show is better than Mencia's ever was. Not as good as Chapelle's, but then again, no one is like Chapelle.

    February 24, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Like No Other

      True that!! And all of them were spawned by no other!! The Awesome Richard Pryor...His show in the 70's was awesome but to hot for the networks to handle!! Chappelle Rocks!! But I am glad Key and Peele are doing there thing as well!! They will get better as they continue to learn and grow! They are off to a great start! And they are 100% correct when they the Black Race is NOT monolithic!! Get in where you fit in because nobody else is going to take care of you but yourself!

      February 27, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
  37. Good Good Good

    The show is funny Bad Bad Bad

    February 24, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  38. DK

    As a biracial person – I find it hilarious.

    February 24, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  39. Bad Bad Bad

    This show is terrible

    February 24, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • YB

      I agree. It's definitely no Chappelle show or even close for that matter.

      February 24, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Excellent and insightful explanation of your point of view. So thorough. Now I'll have to take some time out of my day to reconsider my position that this show is... not terrible. Still, your critical examination is hard to argue.

      February 25, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
      • Micah

        This comment is a win.

        March 10, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |