The sketch comedy landscape on television used to be a barren wasteland that barely qualified as a genre unto itself.
Besides Saturday Night Live and MadTV, there were minimal efforts to get this sort of content out there, so it’s exciting that the format has exploded so much recently, bifurcating all of this to a crazy degree.
No longer are there just a few competent sketch shows out there, but many have risen to the occasion and are answers to niche, smaller sketch subsets. Between newcomers like Kroll Show, Birthday Boys, Inside Amy Schumer, and Loiter Squad, there is plenty of competition in the genre. But one little program has humbly grown each year into a legitimate competitor for the most consistent, important sketch show at the moment (and with there being no signs of this slowing down with its upcoming season being its biggest yet). That program is Key & Peele.
After examining fifteen of its best sketches, it should be clear why Key & Peele is becoming a fundamental piece of sketch comedy history.
EAST/WEST BOWL (Season 2, Episode 2, “Dubstep”)
A legendary sketch and largely seen as their “best” one, Seth Meyers of SNL even said that it’s a perfect piece of sketch comedy. What you’re getting here is pure nonsense steeped in the reality of actual football players’ ridiculous names, and how this show knows how to find these niche areas of comedy and exploit them.
The sketch’s power is in just how far it goes (players’ names even devolve into things like a dolphin call and a jackhammer noise), but not enough can be said about the amazing work that Key and Peele are doing here with different voices and hair styles. This approach easily could have been overlooked or simplified, but the two of them do about thirty different characters in three minutes, all of which are distinctly different. The power of the sketch has been diluted slightly to the inevitable “sequels,” but it’s still a near flawless sketch.
PUSSY ON THE CHAINWAX (Season 3, Episode 13, “Pussy On the Chainwax”)
A really simple sketch about someone trying to popularize a made-up catch phrase, it’s a great example of the camaraderie and affability that Key and Peele have coursing through their sketches to help set the scene and establish character. It also plays deeply with the idea of ridiculous catchphrases and slogans that have made their show so quotable and re-watchable in the first place. All of this is subverted though when the sketch gets into the hard pain of catchphrases and boasting, and actually injects a fair bit of depth into something absurd.
VALETS (RECURRING) (Season 3, Episode 2, “East/West Bowl Rap”)
This is how you do recurring sketches or characters properly. This whole idea is based on those real people obsessed with celebrities working jobs on the fringe of stardom, like valets. Key and Peele’s valets are simple in concept, high energy, quotable, and each time they do them the turn is different, bigger, and more self aware, even. Saturday Night Live will recycle their ideas, almost doing a “find and replace” with their recurring content, but “Valets” is distinctly adding each and it’s not done frivolously. It’s also one of the many sorts of sketches that bank off of the chemistry that only Key and Peele have. Other people could do this sketch exactly the same, and it arguably wouldn’t work as well, and the live version they did on The Arsenio Hall Show is a testament to its power.
WENDELL – THE POWER OF WINGS (Season 3, Episode 11, “The Power of Wings”)
This sketch’s brilliance lies in the video’s production values shifting, getting worse and worse, as their budget continues to run out. Showing the dwindling money count paired up with the increasingly shoddy effects works so well, with this also functioning as a seamless, funny, steampunk parody video in its own right. That would be a funny sketch itself, but the clever construct and presentation here is what pushes everything over the edge. Wendall in this sketch has also been used before, but in a very different context. Re-using characters, but not in sequels to how they were featured before but rather fleshing out their sketch universe, is like an added bonus on top of everything else. Kroll Show similarly does this very well.
DAMN, CHECK THAT SHIT OUT (Season 2, Episode 10, “Dueling Hats”)
To begin with, let’s talk about these ridiculous costumes (which are hardly specific to this sketch, their Cunnilingus Lesson sketch is another perfect example of this being taken to the extreme for no necessary purpose) that aren’t important, but just an example of the production zaniness at play in this show. Underneath the aesthetics, this is a great example of a sketch seeming simple with how dumb it is, but then it takes a huge, unexpected twist (it’s not that the guy’s an idiot, but rather an alien species doing research to end earth; tremendous difference) that adds to it all, with impressive production effects to match.
INSULT COMIC (Season 3, Episode 6, “Cunnilingus Class”)
Here is one of the best examples of the extremes that this show will go to, whether it’s with the heavy burn make-up (you couldn’t do burn effects like that in a live sketch show) or the severity of the jokes (“That’s my pain medication”). The idea follows a typical sketch route of piling on uncomfortableness, but you can’t help but cringe each time it happens. It’s just all played so, so real. You can see how scared and apprehensive the comic is, and how genuinely eager the burn victim is to just enjoy the show and be featured.
It’s very important that the sketch is not making fun of the handicapped, or those that are lesser, but rather our ability to be affable and how preoccupied we get with not offending (innocent) strangers, an approach the show often takes. It’s also clever that it’s an underdog from within the background of the sketch who’s the hero in the end, not the protagonist or victim, both of which have blurred roles.
LES MIS (Season 3, Episode 1, “Les Mis”)
Here is more of Key & Peele’s high production values at work, as their sketches tend to have an authenticity to details that something live like SNL will lack or not even be interested in.
This is an idea that’s also done nearly just as well in their LMFAO Non-Stop Party sketch. The sketch idea here is funny, as it explores people being frustrated for singing for no reason in a musical, which is a simple enough idea, but this actually feels like a Les Mis parody, down to the costumes, cinematography, and phenomenal singing, lyrics, and choreography that are on display. The whole premise is heightened even more by it not just being about singing, but the idea of constantly being interrupted in these musicals (“One at a Time”), and the constant overlapping style, especially in Les Mis, while still keeping their flavor coursing through it all still, with lines like “Now where did this bitch come from?”
MOVIE HECKLERS (Season 1, Episode 3, “Das Negros”)
The idea here is one that Key and Peele play around with a lot in most of their sketches as they take a black subject and simultaneously enlighten and subvert it. A similar racial flip flop idea is being used, like what they did in the Slave Auction sketch, as well as the Sex with Black Guys, which effectively subvert common stereotypes. On top of all of that, it’s just a very smart sketch with perfect film observations and knowledge being displayed in it, which is what helps take it further than an average twist. It’s educating you simultaneously.
SUBSTITUTE TEACHER (Season 2, Episode 4, “I’m Retired”)
This takes the idea of messing with the sub and not indulging it at all. It’s all in the substitute’s head. The premise here makes fun of outrageous ethnic names, but twisting it so that the “normal” white names are the weirder ones. This feels easy, but it’s in how much they get out of these names (Bah-lah-kay or Blake, A-A-Ron or Aaron), and Keegan’s rage throughout it that hold it together so well. Key’s also just so good in it, too. This has grown to be one of their most popular sketches because it’s so simple and boundary crossing at the same time, and there’s a great final button to end it on too. It’s clever that rather than submitting to the temptation to turn this into a recurring fixture of the show, it’s even better that Substitute Teacher 2 completely plays it the opposite way, with a teacher who commands the utmost respect and then immediately loses it.
NOOICE (Season 3, Episdoe 4, “LA Vice”)
Here is yet another sketch that is “distinctly them,” with Key and Peele digging into a subculture and blowing it open in an absurdist way. This piece goes about finding the humanity, empathy, and heart in such a stupid sort of relationship, in this case, the hypeman and breakdancer.
Taking this even further though and having a hypeman for a hypeman is such a crazy idea. Once again, the outfits and hair are perfect to help sell all of this too, if the writing wasn’t already strong enough. They’re really get into the emotion here though, going so far as to say that it’s love in the end, complete with their final goodbye done in a downpour of rain, and music epicly crescendoing over it.
YO MAMA HAS HEALTH PROBLEMS (Season 1, Episode 2, “Black Hawk Up”)
This again takes an innocuous idea and twists it while going overboard, hitting the point hard that this guy’s mother is dying. There are flawless impression of an East Indian and “thug” type for no reasons necessary to the sketch other than providing some extra color to it. In the end the doctor pushes everything over the line with his “cock sucking heightening” and you’re left with an unconventional ending just when you think you’ve finally pegged where it’s going.
DUBSTEP (Season 2, Episode 2, “Dubstep”)
A sketch that starts off simply enough looking at what dubstep is, but treating it like it’s otherworldly even. It’s a very smart idea to have the sketch look very mundane and normal, but when the dubstep music begins, it skews the filming, editing, lighting, and video style in a drastic way. As the music continues these stylistic upgrades continue to heighten to actually harming Key and Peele’s characters as they suffer nosebleeds and more.
The conversation being had here on dubstep isn’t exactly new or groundbreaking, but treating the silliness of it as a physical thing that by the end of the sketch has devolved to footage of sharks, a-bombs, lions eating prey, and them pulling out their nails, is unexpected, different sketchwork in motion.
PEGASUS SIGHTING (Season 1, Episode 4, “The Branding)
This sketch is another that pays respect to real life and lampoons the famous “ghetto Leprechaun” video that made its rounds. It’s not hard to see that Key and Peele’s target here is parodying these sort of ghetto communities, attitudes (“I seen’t it! I seen’t the Pegasus!”), and the artificial construction of the media.
It’s remarkable that this sketch is actually saying something quite deep and important, it’s just presenting it alongside such nonsense (the drawing of the Pegasus, the broken rooftop). This sketch succeeds in perfectly replicating these sort of videos, while also having a voice on the incredulity in things like opinions on whether a Pegasus is a good or bad thing (“God ain’t put no wings on a horse!”) and how quickly we escalate a news story.
DUELING HATS (Season 2, Episdoe 10, “Dueling Hats”)
Here is the idea of showmanship and one-upmanship, specifically with hats, clothing, etc., and how out of hand this can all get. This sketch manages to truly go over the top to the point that by the end of it, their feud has resulted in laborers sitting on their heads as they produce hats.
This is not the deepest sketch, but it’s still smart, relevant, and distinctly feels like territory that Key and Peele would tackle while no one else does. A lot of the time, and what makes this show so special, is how so many of their topics feel specifically in their wheelhouse and outside the playground of other sketch shows. I could never imagine SNL attempting this idea.
LMFAO’s NON-STOP PARTY (Season 2, Episode 7, “Victory”)
Alluded to earlier, this is another example of the high, perfect production values this show has access to in order to seamlessly ape the things that they’re interested in. This sketch takes the simple idea of a non-stop party and turns it deadly, showing how it’s killing Key and Peele’s characters and they literally can’t escape. They manage to effectively play up the absurdity of these videos, but take it even further with the singing, editing, and costumes, being perfect here (just like in the Les Mis sketch).What really pushes this sketch ahead though is Key and Peele’s confusion and fear that slowly creeps into them as they realize the video/party can’t stop as they search for a way out to no avail, to the point of them trying to spell out HELP with JELL-O shots, until they need to kill themselves, and even that isn’t enough.
While these are some choice examples of Key & Peele firing on all cylinders, it’s only a sample of what the smart show has to offer. The series has benefitted substantially from an online presence with content going straight to the web so it’s all out there if you’re interested in binging. With the new season starting on September 24, hopefully the show will only add to their already impressive repertoire, sharpening their wit even further, as opposed to crumbling under the weight and becoming redundant.