Key and Peele Are Our Comedic Anger Translators

In their fifth season, the duo deploy their brand of incisive, racially deft comedy with anger translators, trigger-happy cops, and a magical land called "Negrotown" where "you can wear your hoodie and not get shot."

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Jul 8 2015, 4:09am

Dual anger translators. All photos by Danny Feld. Courtesy of Comedy Central

Barack Obama's presidency is nearing its end, and some might wonder what that means for the sketch-comedy show Key and Peele, which enters its fifth season on Comedy Central tonight. The show has crafted a fresh, unflinching brand of humor by, in part, spoofing the president and our current political climate. Little seems to escape these guys, not even harmless presidential meet-and-greets where President Obama, impersonated seamlessly by Peele, greets black supporters with hugs and leaping chest bumps ("What's up, fam?" Obama drawls. "Started from the bottom, now we're here!") while his white supporters (and even white babies) receive stiff handshakes and a boilerplate "Nice to meet you." When a man, played by Key, is identified by Obama's aide to be one-eighth black, Obama gives him a special greeting: "Afternoon, my octoroon! Come on, bring it in there."

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, two biracial men, have managed to reflect the shattered hopes that many Americans held about having a biracial president, who is most often referred to as black. Their sketches play on racial division, racial and sexual identity, authenticity, and the ways that we thrive in these divisions at a time when we are supposed to be "past that."

In a sketch from season one, two black men try to out-order one another at a soul food restaurant in an attempt to prove who's "blacker" than the other. The men escalate to surreal levels, from ordering collards to chitlins, to ham hocks, to four pounds of grits, to donkey teeth—"Fuck it," says Peele, "any animal tooth will do." The sketch pushes further and further until they finally arrive at a "a platter of stork ankles, an old cellar door, a possum spine, and a human foot." But the server's question isn't about the foot—it's whether they want gravy on the door. "What's a cellar door without gravy?" asks Peele, and Key supplies the answer: "It's not food." While I can't speak for the actors, to me the cellar door seems like a clever way to integrate the actual context of this "soul food"—in the Underground Railroad, people would often hide runaway slaves in cellars on their journey to freedom in the northern states.

The sketch "Negrotown" was another bold statement made in the wake of the murders of Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, and Rekia Boyd by law enforcement. In the sketch, a black man arrested for walking down the street knocks his head against the top of the police car. He finds himself whimsically led into a colorful world of smiling, singing, and dancing black people, where cabs stop for black men and "you can wear your hoodie and not get shot." The rousing musical style combined with the sobering lyrics and Peele's repeated appeals of "Can a nigga finish a song?" only make it even more bittersweet. It's so well executed and rousing that it's hard not to want to go too, only to have your hopes shattered later when he comes to, still very much under arrest and being taken to a different "Negro town": prison.

The Emmy-nominated show's newest season continues the duo's brand of sharp, timely, and often racially deft comedy. Luther, Obama's now-famous anger translator, who made a surprise appearance at this year's Foreign Correspondent's Dinner with the IRL president, returns in the first episode, only to be matched by Hillary Clinton's anger translator Savannah, who speaks in an exaggerated Southern accent and has a hilariously fitting haircut reminiscent of T-Boz from TLC. The pairing of the translators may make for an inevitable spin-off of "Anger Translator" characters as we venture into a new campaign season full of presidential hopefuls who rarely say what they really mean, such as Clinton, who was recently criticized for saying "All Lives Matter" at a historic black church in Missouri, just outside of Ferguson, in the wake of the mass murder of nine African American people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church by a white gunman. Many people took to Twitter displeased with her inability to acknowledge the present violence against African Americans in this country. Did she mean to say this, or was it the "safe" thing to do for her campaign?
Though its creators are not politicians, Key and Peele has come to dispel the silences and euphemisms of the political world with sharp humor aimed at deciphering it. In the last eight years, spurred by cellphone videos of police brutality, the widening wealth gap, and the failure of the post-racial "Yes We Can" era, the country has arrived at a place for a black humor that is broadly popular and relatively unflinching in its approach to racial, sexual, and cultural identity.

In response to the Supreme Court's decision to legalize gay marriage across the country, Key and Peele released an exclusive clip of a Town Hall meeting where a straight man, played by Peele, is mistakenly identified by a C-SPAN-style cameraman as a gay man. The Peele character isn't against marriage equality—he just doesn't want to be incorrectly assumed to be gay—and he goes to semi-ludicrous lengths to try to prove this, from trying to put his arm around a female stranger (she declines), to attempting to out an earringed man whom Peele assumes to be gay (the guy then puts his arm around his girlfriend). The sketch plays around with ideas of perception and gay-dar, asking: How does someone who is straight assert his heterosexuality without being seen as homophobic? And what does it mean to be assumed to be gay?

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In an earlier sketch, a black family hires a gay wedding advisor to answer their questions about how to prepare for their cousin Delroy's gay wedding. The show eschews all concerns of political correctness and lays out just about every mainstream gay stereotype as one family member asks when the "YMCA" song will be played at the wedding, and another asks where to buy a "gay" wedding present for the couple. The advisor, played by Key, patiently dispels all myths about what gay people do and want on their wedding day, until he loses his cool, trying to make the family understand the absurdity of their questions. One guy asks, "Do we throw something other than rice?" Exasperated, Gary responds: "Like what, sir? What would you throw other than rice?" To which the guy responds, "Couscous, skittles," further infuriating Gary. Although the sketch risks being a bit trite, it's not afraid to talk about stereotypes and poke fun at non-existent divisions related to sexuality.

This season, the writers even poke fun at the fear of terrorism when a pair of effeminate men on an airplane with "scary" braided hair (one with an afro shaped as a baseball hat) and exaggerated lisps attempt to enlist a confused, frightened black man (played by Malcolm Barrett) on the plane to disarm the "terries," whom we don't see and are, presumably, figments of a paranoid imagination. The scene is odd and comedic, with an almost horror element to it. Although the narrative gets a bit confusing due to the characters' garbled dialogue and concocted words, it's interesting to see this play on terrorism. These characters are not the usual crime-fighting heroes we see in Hollywood movies, and if encountered on an actual airplane, they'd probably evoke more fear than the stereotypical "terrorist" we see in popular media. When one of them pulls out a box-cutter to show he's ready for the "terries," the fearful airplane passenger screams, and others team up to tackle all three men, a reflection of the sad true state of America, where black men are all too often deemed guilty and threatening by appearance alone.

Viewers can expect more of Key and Peele's incisive humor this season, especially in a sketch that may prove too close to reality, where a trigger-happy white cop played by Key struggles to distinguish between unarmed black citizens and white crime suspects. Like much of their work, it's extremely sad, and extremely relevant. Key and Peele seem to wrestle with the difficult questions that enable their humor: Why would the first black president need an anger translator? Why would we need a Negrotown if we have a black president? The duo proves that the best way to make us laugh is to draw from the very things that make us really angry.

The fifth season of Key and Peele premieres tonight, July 8, at 10 PM ET on Comedy Central.

Nijla Mu'min a writer and filmmaker whose work can be found at www.nijlamumin.com. She is on Twitter.

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