Key & Peele aired its series finale Wednesday night. It’s great timing for them: Going out on top instead of lingering too long, clearing their calendars for other creative pursuits.
It’s just too bad for the rest of us. Because we still need a show like Key & Peele, the most insightful, incisive television series about race in the U.S. since Dave Chappelle went MIA in 2006.
Key & Peele — created by, written by and starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele — premiered only three years ago but managed to crank out five seasons in that time, over 50 episodes of brilliant, absurdist sketch comedy that managed to be both deeply weird and so mainstream that Luther, “Obama’s Anger Translator” played by Key, was invited to make a five-minute cameo alongside the real President Obama during the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Key & Peele was not just a show about race, and it would do a disservice to the wide-ranging strangeness of the series to suggest otherwise. But the show, more often than maybe any other comedy in recent memory, addressed race in every which way, not as a binary but as a constantly shifting, complicated, nebulous yet central thing.
The series required its stars to constantly adopt new accents, mannerisms, wigs, ages, even genders, from one scene to the next; almost by design, identity was an ever-present theme. Who are you in this context? Okay, but how do you adjust in that context? How do you talk to your black friend in front of your white friend? How do you talk to your black friends when no white people are around? Who sees you the way you want to be seen, and who refuses to see you that way, no matter what you do? And how do you see yourself?
Key & Peele are biracial; both have white mothers and black fathers. In an early episode, they riff on this concept in front of a live audience (these conversational, stand-up-style segments went away by the final season.) Because of their biracial background, Key says, “we find ourselves particularly adept at lying, because on a daily basis we have to adjust our blackness, you know what I mean?”
“There’s many reasons we do that,” says Peele. “Like to terrify white people. Because with the way that we sound, the way we actually talk, we’re not terrifying anybody. We sound very white.” This is an issue, as Jordan explains later: “You never want to be the whitest-sounding black guy in a room.”
Some of the best sketches zero in on this art of code-switching. In “Obama Meet & Greet,” Peele-as-POTUS warmly embraces every black person in the crowd but offers only brisk handshakes to white people. At the end, he cradles a black baby girl in his arms, cooing about how “she is so beautiful, I want another one!” Then, upon being introduced to a white baby girl, he shakes her tiny hand and says, plainly, that it’s nice to meet her.
The show requires both men to frequently hide certain aspects of their appearance, voice, and physicality as they play up others, so that within any given episode Peele can transform from Barack Obama to a black man in whiteface trying to hide out from the Nazis to “M.C. Mom,” a surprisingly great rapper who happens to be Key’s mother. Both disappear into the hyper-specific characters they create to such a degree you completely ignore what is most readily apparent about his looks and see, instead, what they want you to see.
The most impressive feat on this front is Peele’s Meegan, one-half of the worst couple you know. Meegan is a nightmare girlfriend to Key’s Andre; she oozes the entitlement of a spoiled, snake person white girl. She’s like Gretchen Weiners by way of early Kristin Cavallari with a dash of Alexis Neiers. No makeup is employed to lighten Peele’s face — he only wears cosmetics that would make him seem feminine — and yet everything about Peele’s delivery, from the modulation of his tone to his pitch-perfect syntax, is instantly recognizable as white.
Other sketches go for a clever subversion of what counts as “normal,” digging at the idea of whiteness as a default setting. In the “Substitute Teacher” sketches, Key plays a temp who spent 20 years in the inner city and finds himself subbing for a teacher in an all-white school. The entire scene consists of him conducting roll call and demanding students respond to what he deems the “real” pronunciation of their names: Denise becomes Dee-nice, Aaron is Ay-Ay-ron, and so on.
In “Black Ice,” two white newscasters in St. Paul announce a winter weather advisory, warning viewers to “watch out for that dangerous black ice.” It’s “scary, tricky, ruthless stuff, that black ice. A perfectly safe neighborhood can be suddenly terrorized by the appearance of black ice.” As they talk, a cartoon ice cube with a gold tooth and a backwards baseball hat appears, as dripping-graffiti letters beneath it read “Black Ice Alert.”
The newscasters toss it back to their weather guys — Key in the studio, Peele outside — who protest this characterization. “Just because black ice looks different from white ice, it doesn’t make it any more dangerous. Also, one must remember how hard it is for black ice to survive what with the authorities trying to destroy it with the snowplows and the salt truck!”
Key, flailing wildly, goes on: “As you can see right now, the city is being controlled by lots of oppressive WHITE snow, making it hard for ALL people to advance!”
The white newscasters are unconvinced by this display and move on to the following segment. “Next up,” the woman says. “Why is America being ruined by black people?”
Now, maybe it would not have occurred to you that the most deft way to address police brutality against black Americans would be with a fantasy musical sequence about an all-black utopia. But that’s exactly what Key and Peele did with “Negrotown,” a previously released sketch that aired in last night’s finale.
Key’s character is walking down the street at night when he both spots a homeless man played by Peele and gets stopped by a white police officer. As the police officer puts Key into the back of the patrol car, he — oops! — bangs Key’s head against the door. Key passes out; when he wakes up, homeless Peele has been transformed into a dandy, singing tour guide, leading Key through a candy-coated musical metropolis without white people where “you can walk the street without getting stopped, harassed, or beat” and “you can wear your hoodie and not get shot!”
Key & Peele felt so right for right now, not because it addressed some brand new issues or ideas — unlike the series, racism did not make its American debut in 2012 — but because it aired in our not-actually-post-racial times, when the kinds of conversations characters had in Key & Peele’s world were happening all over, at a greater volume and frequency than ever before. And the most impressive feat of all might be that, even while every sketch was happening on multiple layers and taking aim at multiple targets, the show was consistently surprising and funny.
Why go off the air now, when audiences are still so hungry for this stuff?
“We both said, ‘Let’s be extremely British about the whole thing,’” Key told the L.A. Times. “You do five seasons, and you go away. Then no one can ever tell you they hated the show.”