Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele made a name for themselves as cast members of MADtv in the early ’00s, playing memorable characters like Coach Hines and Sad Fitty Cent, respectively. After becoming friends—and demonstrating great comedic chemistry onscreen—during their several seasons on that show, they parlayed their relationship into Comedy Central’s closest thing to an heir to the dearly departed Chappelle’s Show: the wonderfully smart, bizarre sketch comedy series Key & Peele.
Since its debut in January 2012, the series has showcased its stars’ whimsy and their comedic chops through song, unsettling impressions, and cinematic lampoons. They’re probably best known for a recurring sketch featuring President Obama (Peele) and Luther (Key), his anger translator, which, as I wrote last year, is easily the best and most astute comedic interpretation of our head of state currently airing on TV.
Key & Peele returns tonight for its third season, and if the promos are any indication, we will soon be treated to another round of great sketches. And some of them will be callbacks to the excellent work they’ve already done. So for newcomers to the comedic duo, here are the essential bits that will introduce you to their distinctive brand of humor.
The East/West College Bowl
The premise is simple: A lot of college football (and NFL) players have, shall we say, interesting names. (To wit: HaHa Clinton-Dix, De’Asian Richardson, and Konockus Sashington, to name just a few.) Key and Peele take it to another level, trading off personalities—and hair pieces—as they introduce themselves during the East/West College Bowl. The names and spellings get sillier with each passing player, from the relatively benign “D’Marcus Williums” all the way to “Donkey Teeth.” The skit worked so well, they dropped another one last week—and the new one is just as delightfully absurd as the original.
In an inverted twist on strange names, Key plays Mr. Garvey, a substitute teacher who taught inner city kids for 20 years and is now tasked with a predominantly white science classroom. But roll call leads to confusion, as Mr. Garvey pronounces seemingly common names like Jacqueline and Aaron as he might in an urban setting. Tensions escalate until the unexpected kicker—one of the show’s best.
Key and Peele take one of the defining qualities of dubstep—the “bass drop”—and brilliantly parody its use in movies and television. Peele comes over to help Key pack for a move and decides to introduce him to the newish genre of electronic dance music, instantly transforming their task into a nightmarish—but hilarious—ordeal. Warning: This sketch is not for the squeamish.
The duo’s use of music is particularly imaginative—and often bitingly satirical. (See also their take on LMFAO.) In this sketch, Peele comes over to hang out with his new neighbor, Key, who shows off his guitar collection by playing a few of his favorite country songs. These songs, he fails to realize, have seriously racist overtones. Peele tries to explain to him how racist they are, but Key replies innocently, “Come on, brother, there’s all kinds of homies. White homies, Asian homies.” As the songs become increasingly overt in their slander against black people, Key’s willful ignorance only grows more disturbingly hilarious.
Key and Peele often take small ideas and blow them out to absurdly delirious degrees. This sketch, in which two co-workers engage in an escalating prank war, is perhaps the best example. Using dramatic cinematic tropes—slow-motion, a dark score of Hans Zimmer-like proportions—their twisted competition is brilliantly played and totally unpredictable. Watch until the end—you won’t be disappointed.