I watched a bit of Key & Peele over the weekend. I was vaguely aware of them, and knew that they were funny. But I wasn’t quite prepared for just how good they are. As you may know, I have a generally low opinion of American sketch comedy. Too much of it is dependent upon a single unusual character who acts bizarrely for a while before the sketch simply stops. Although I admire Julia Sweeney, the best example of this is “Pat.” Key & Peele does a good job of ending sketches — not always, but with for more regularity than I’m used to.
The first sketch I ever saw was “Substitute Teacher,” which is about a black teacher who has taught school for twenty years in the inner city. Today, he is teaching in an affluent, apparently all white class. As he’s taking roll, he uses unusual pronunciations for each name and believes that the students are playing games with him when they correct him. For example, he pronounces “Aaron” as “A-A-Ron.” I believe the joke here is primarily about the unusual names and pronunciations in the African American community.
The point of the sketch is not that the teacher is stupid — far from it. He uses the somewhat obscure word “churlish” and pronounces it perfectly. It is just a clash of cultures. But what most works is the ending. The teacher calls out the name, “Tim-oh-thee.” At this point, the only black student in the class sticks his head out from behind a row of white students and says, “Pree-sent.” To which the teacher is grateful, “Thank you!” Comedy is never more finely crafted than in this sketch:
But the sketch that got me going on this Key & Peele jag was “Text Message Confusion.” It is about two friends texting each other and mis-communicating more and more. The best part of this is where Key can’t believe how rude Peele seems to be and so texts, “You are fking priceless.” Peele takes this as a compliment and texts back, “You’re the one who’s fking priceless.” I love this because it shows just how hard it is to communicate intentions clearly in written form — especially in short bursts of text.
This reminds me of an old coworker I had who developed an approach to email. She said one must always assume the very best intentions of the sender. This is true because it is rarely the case that someone intends to be a jerk. And if they do intend to be a jerk, they will eventually make it completely clear. Of course, in this sketch, it shows how minor irritation can quickly lead to a violent confrontation. Again, in this sketch, we get a very nice denouement.
And finally, here is “Pizza Order.” It is remarkably sweet. In fact, Key’s monologue in the middle of it is almost heartbreaking. Of course, it is Peele’s character who is ultimately tragic and who is responsible for the comedy:
What’s interesting in all of these is that they are all about miscommunication. And in no instance does anyone intend to miscommunicate. Peele in “Pizza Order” is lying, of course — but just to hide his sad and lonely life. It is a distinctly higher level of comedy than one normally sees in the United States. I don’t think that these more academic observations explain its appeal to a wide audience. And Key & Peele has a fair share of silliness. But it does show there is nothing about finely crafted comedy that stops it from being popular.