What Key & Peele Teach Us About Comedy – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on What Key & Peele Teach Us About Comedy.
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon & Emily Dunbar
What Key & Peele Teach Us About Comedy – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack. Jared again. While you probably think of Key & Peele as the duo that gave us President Obama’s anger translator, Luther or the visionaries that finally made an action movie about a kitten they’re also responsible for some of the smartest comedy that’s recently graced the airwaves. And while much of their success can be chalked up to their unique, and often absurd, characters. Their true brilliance lies in their streamlined writing style, and a commitment to sketches that are as funny as they are socially and emotionally true. And how do they tell that truth? Well, let’s find out. Since nothing is better than over-explaining a joke. Welcome to today’s Wisecrack Edition on Key & Peele.
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Key & Peele. To really understand what makes Key & Peele so great, we need to look a bit deeper and discover the comedic philosophy that informs their work. And believe it or not, these guys follow in the footsteps of this guy. For those of you unfamiliar, that isn’t the demon lovechild of Dan Harmon, Alan Moore, and Slavoj Zizek – that’s Del Close, a pioneer of comedy who is still hugely influential today. But before we get into how Key & Peele embody Close’s comedic philosophy, we need to take a look at a little comedy science. While you probably don’t associate science with comedy, we can understand the success of many Key & Peele sketches by distilling them down to a core comedic structure.
In this structure, we start in a world with a built-in set of expectations which is then contrasted with an unusual behavior. And this behavior is heightened and explored until you’ve pissed yourself from laughing so hard. In other words, comedy is arrived at through exploring a behavior that breaks with the expectations we have of a given situation. If we wanted to go full ‘Beautiful Mind’ on this structure, it might look a little something like this: Reasonable Reality and Set of Expectations (+) Unusual Behavior and/or Point of View (x) Raised Emotional Stakes (+) Ending Which Subverts Established Pattern = Comedic Bliss. But enough comedic calculus, let’s look at, ‘Substitute Teacher’ as an example. The sketch opens in a high school classroom, an environment that carries with it a set of standard expectations: bored students, chalkboards, books, and a teacher trying to wield some authority. But this all changes when Mr. Garvey begins taking attendance.
Now that we have our unusual behavior, i.e. Mr. Garvey’s inability to pronounce stereotypically white names, things can really get cooking. We get to see both the logic behind Mr. Garvey’s frustration along with the increasingly terrified students. As Mr. Garvey continues this unusual behavior, his anger increases, while their fear heightens. This simple underlying logic is what helps accelerate the comedy with each move. Once we see this pattern repeated a few times, we are already predicting the next move. But not to be bested by an attentive audience, the sketch ends by flipping our expectations. For once, Mr. Garvey gets it right. Let’s see how this pattern plays out in some other sketches. For example, we expect a babysitter to have a quiet night but an unusual behavior is introduced and this behavior is emotionally heightened. With a last minute reveal that offers a glimpse into the comedic logic.
In another sketch, we start with the fairly mundane setting until we meet our unusual companions who are intent on living their vigilante air marshall dreams. The stakes are then raised well above cruising altitude and rather than fizzling out by running the pattern into the ground, we get a surprise at the end that re-frames what we’ve just seen. Of course we know that sketches that don’t follow this pattern can also be hilarious. Who can deny the pure joy of Will Ferrell’s gyrating midriff or the wondrous testicular double entendre of Alec Baldwin’s baked goods.
And hell, even Key & Peele occasionally bask in the purely absurd. But comedic structure is only half the story. While their sketches are funny, it’s another element of their work that ensures that they are also smart: Key & Peele’s commitment to finding fundamental human truth in comedy. This philosophy is not an invention of Key & Peele. However, they both cut their comedic chops in Chicago, a city whose comedy scene is permeated by this guy Del Close. And while you might not have heard of him, he’s responsible for training a few pretty decent comedians. And along the way he helped write a book called Truth in Comedy with Charna Halpern that’s become a bible for comedians around the world. In it they argue that the best comedy comes from mining the depths of human existence, and that this creates the grounds for comedy that is both funny AND smart- an idea we see everywhere in Key & Peele. Oh, and Del Close once claimed that a coven of witches cured him of his cocaine addiction. This has nothing to do with comedy, but I think it’s worth noting.
This commitment to truth isn’t exclusive to Chicago comedians. As this emotionally honest style has dominated recently, from the diner, to the work space, to streets of Italy. Now does this commitment to truth mean that good comedy always has to reflect real and truthful situations? Hell no! But while a post-apocalyptic alien invasion might not reflect the reality of the world we live in [sorry for anyone currently on acid] the core comedic idea is still grounded in something fundamentally true- that Key and Peele’s characters can instantly know who is an alien by their reactions to blackness. The friendlier the white characters are, the more certain they are of their alien nature. With some wiggle room for reasonable exceptions.
Let’s return to Mr. Garvey. What’s the truth that makes this sketch so funny? For a start, this sketch reverses the trope of a well-intentioned Teach for America types out to save a bunch of inner city kids. This role reversal produces both the immediate comedy of Mr. Garvey’s mispronunciations, and the socially conscious fact that this is something that happens to minority students all the time, except in that case, it’s more uncomfortable than it is funny. While Mr. Garvey’s reaction to names like Denise and Aaron are hilarious, Key & Peele are forcing us to ask a more complicated question, what if black teachers were as culturally incompetent as their white counterparts? And thus we have a double pronged comedic attack. Come for the laughter, and stay for the socially conscious criticism.
The benefit of this mixture of comedic structure and finding truth is that hilarious sketches can be found in any area of life whether it’s race, religion, the dark side of professional sports – you name it. And they often do so by relating to personal experience. In their first sketch, titled “I Said Bitch” there is a focus on the tensions found in black masculinity between being a strong alpha male, and a committed partner. The sketch heightens the limits that two friends will go to keep up the facade of being a hard ass, getting further, and further away from their spouses in the process. And the interstellar lengths they’ll go to maintain this facade represent the actual effort men will put in to prove they’re one of the bros. And of course this sketch highlights the absurdity of this whole macho performance.
This theme is also explored in the expanded Key & Peele universe, as their first feature film, Keanu, throws two normal suburban black men into the world of organized crime and drug dealing,
where they have to impersonate two legendary street assassins. At one point we see the one of the main characters performing a stereotypical sort of black masculinity and conversely, we see some of the hardened gangsters brought to tears by the music of George Michael. They use a similar strategy in the sketch ‘Office Homophobe’, where we see a tense interaction between two officemates. Which leads to a serious accusation. And while this sketch at first seems to set up a tired trope in which the humor is derived from a flamboyant gay stereotype, this expectation is upended when the homophobe’s boyfriend shows up.
Which leads to a surprising realization for Key’s character, “And the truth of this sketch? Well, no matter your sexual preferences or gender identity, you can still be an asshole. A more common source of comedic inspiration has always been good old fashioned religion, and critiques of religion are not new. But rather than following in the footsteps of those who find comedy in the skewering of religion for it’s irrational claims, Key & Peele find a much more human take on religion, and in particular Christianity. The sketch opens with a group of earnest believers in prayer and this group of Christians is rewarded with a visit from the voice of God himself, However, once God responds to their prayers with some practical next steps, they become slightly less enthused. Eventually, they find a nice loophole to avoid having to actually follow God’s command of service. This sketch is so great because it offers a funny critique of religion with some genuine theological nuance. The joke isn’t on religion in general, or believers in particular. Rather, it points out the hypocrisy of those unwilling to take their own religious traditions seriously when it comes to following through on a not-so-fun obligation. This critique is actually one grounded in Christianity itself, as the book of James famously says, “faith without works is dead.” Even your most devout Aunt couldn’t disagree with this one.
An even more brutally honest social critique can be seen in their sketch ‘Sound Off’, which is set at basic training. While we assume that the drill sergeant is going to lead the song in some absurd direction, it ends up finding comedy in a place of harsh realism. The sketch doesn’t only point out the disparity in who ends up fighting America’s wars but also the reality of what awaits soldiers coming home from war. Somehow they manage to make a sketch about economic inequality and inadequate medical care in the military funny. While they have multiple sketches that use the absurdity of football for comedic fuel in Quarterback Concussion they use the trope of the heroic quarterback to shine some light on the medical reality of the game. After taking a big hit we see the quarterback go from confused to quickly offering fictional baked goods before being diagnosed by a teammate. But after seemingly getting it together in a rousing chant of team spirit the quarterback notices a missing piece of his identity as a Rhino and runs off.
In an effective parody of the inspirational sports movie genre Key & Peele are showing us what it would look like if inspirational sports movies accurately represented the horrific injuries suffered by athletes. While that’s just a few examples, Key & Peele’s five seasons, plus Keanu, are filled with hours of insanely smart, and insanely funny, sketches. And because most of their work is grounded in true human emotions and situations, rather than topical humor, these sketches really hold up. But most importantly, Key & Peele serves as a reminder for the greatness of the TSA. So if you see any terries trying to get froggy, you should always remember to “Draxx them sklounst”.
Thanks for watching guys! Peace!