In a show at New York's Gramercy Theater this past weekend, Dave Chappelle began to take suggestions from the audience, riffing on them with his trademark ease. Audience members threw out requests ranging from “Carlos Mencia” to “ISIS”. But the standout reply he gave during this part of his show was after someone yelled: “Key and Peele!” “Chappelle’s Show-lite,” he cracked.
Chappelle had been saying something to this effect in most of his Gramercy performances, and his jab is not totally off-base. Since its premiere in 2012, Key & Peele has been compared, both favorably and unfavorably to Chappelle’s Show.
For TV.com, Price Peterson wrote of the first episode that the show “uses an almost identical format to Chappelle's Show” and that, by “aping the show’s format and emphasis on racial comedy, it seems like Comedy Central is openly inviting the comparison.”
Key and Peele themselves have acknowledged the influence of Chappelle on their comedy many times over, always in a deferential way. (They’ve also said that the idea to introduce their sketches in front of a live audience was Comedy Central’s.) But four seasons in, how similar is Key & Peele to Chappelle’s Show, really? Let’s take a look.
Chappelle’s Show spawned popular catchphrases and recurring bits that, in many ways, have come to define the comedian’s career: “I’m Rick James, bitch!”; “Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, and Dylan”; “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.” These skits helped build a devoted fan base that also at times made it hard to separate Chappelle the standup comedian from Chappelle the sketch comedy star—right around the time of his ill-fated third season, he became increasingly frustrated with audience members yelling out bits during his live comedy acts.
Over the course of four seasons, Key and Peele have also spawned quotable moments and characters—most notably, the overly passionate valets (“Liam Neesons!”), the substitute teacher (“A-ayron!”), and Wendell the obese nerd who tries hard to convince others that he’s “seeing someone, sexually.” In an age of YouTube, these characters have helped many of their videos tally millions of views, and the guys have happily trotted them out while doing public appearances and interviews.
Poking fun at pop musicians:
Chappelle’s Show was a heavily musical affair, especially when it came to sketches parodying popular musicians. The aforementioned Lil Wayne sketch from the premiere Key & Peele episode does indeed feel directly inspired by Chappelle’s infamous Lil’ Jon skits. Both sketches challenge the respective rappers’ personas, the former questioning his “hard” image, and the latter disputing his “party” image. The Lil Wayne sketch is definitely not among the duo’s greatest hits, however (Peele can’t quite capture Wayne’s distinctive voice; plus it includes a lame prison rape joke). Since then, Key and Peele have landed on more successful conceptions, like the pitch-perfect “Bone Thugs and Homeless” and LMFAO spoof.
Approach to racial humor:
From the beginning of their respective shows, these comedians have addressed race unflinchingly through humor. One of Chappelle’s most well-known recurring bits involves “white” news anchor Chuck Taylor (Chappelle in “whiteface”); Key and Peele have also jumped easily between different ethnicities, playing everything from Latino to Italian to Middle Eastern.
But that’s about where the similarities end. Chappelle’s approach to racial satire on the show was largely exploitative (this isn’t meant as a pejorative) and raw. His Chuck Taylor sketch first came to fruition in Season 1, in a bit that imagined a world where black Americans received slavery reparations and acted irresponsibly, shooting craps, buying a lifetime’s supply of cigarettes—basically, stereotypically “ghetto” behavior. The “Niggar Family” sketch, which profiles a white family in an idyllic Leave it to Beaver setting with the last name of Niggar, is on the surface just an excuse for Chappelle and its white cast members to say the charged word as many times as possible. (At one point, Chappelle as the milk man, seemingly channeling Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s signature upbeat, gravel-voiced tone, leaves the room only to pop out again from behind the doorway and yell, “Niggars!”—and disappears as quickly as he left.) But the sketch also serves to play up Chappelle’s advantages as a black comedian, by flaunting his ability to use the word freely without any repercussion (unlike white comedians), while simultaneously exposing black-white relations through an honest, somewhat depressing lens.
Where Chappelle’s satire of race is often crudely subversive, Key and Peele’s is broader and tamer. In the hugely popular “Auction Block” bit, the men play slaves who keep getting passed up for sale in favor of other, ostensibly inferior slaves. By the end of the sketch, they’re patently offended, finally attempting to sell themselves to the white buyers. (“[I’m] docile,” pleads Key. “I am agreeable to a fault. You shoulda seen the dude who asked me to get on the boat, when we came over here. I just walked right on, no big deal!”) “Nigger”—or “nigga”—is never uttered once in the scene (or hardly ever in any Key & Peele sketches, for that matter) but it’s just as painfully sad as any Chappelle sketch can be: It reflects the harsh ways in which slavery influenced black Americans’ sense of self-worth, then and today.
Their Obama translator sketches echo similarly—a chance for us to see the first black president as many hoped he would be once in office: A badass. Comparisons have been made to the Chappelle’s Show sketch imagining then-President Bush as a black man. Yet Key as Luther, Obama’s anger translator, is more closely aligned with the over-the-top physical comedy of In Living Color than Chappelle’s bawdy way with language. Plus, the idea of a black president has been fodder for black comedians long before Chappelle—recall Richard Pryor’s infamous bit on his short-lived eponymous show in 1977.
The duo, by very nature of their timing—when a black president actually does exist—as well as their biracial heritage, have a different focus than Chappelle’s racial humor did. (Chappelle’s mother, it should be noted, is half-white, though it’s probably safe to say that his experience has been very different from Key and Peele, and it was never played up on Chappelle’s Show in the way it is on their show now.) For Chappelle, race was treated more abrasively and wasn’t necessarily meant to be so “comfortable”—as he’s made clear in the past, feeling as though his white audience was missing the point and laughing at him, helped convince him to walk away.
Stand-up vs. improv:
Key and Peele come from backgrounds steeped in improvisation, having met while performing at Second City in Chicago. While dialogue can be an integral part of their comedy—as with the silly names from the “East-West Bowl” and “Substitute Teacher” sketches—they also have many sketches that play more to their physical comedy strengths.
Chappelle, on the other hand, loves performing standup and comes from that mode of comedy, and this is evident in Chappelle’s Show. Words are perhaps the sharpest tool Chappelle has, as seen with the “Niggar Family” sketch, “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories,” and the deadpan voice-over narration found in the likes of “WacArnold’s” and “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”
Key & Peele may have started out as Comedy Central’s obvious replacement for Chappelle’s Show, but over four seasons, it’s evolved to have a voice of its own. As with Chappelle, race is an unavoidable subject when discussing their careers—but they’ve also dug into broader subjects as well: nerd culture, gay culture, sci-fi, bizarre cultural icons. While it’s understandable that Chappelle finds it hard to watch someone else tackle a similar format after having walked away from it himself, he seems to be missing the point when ribbing Key and Peele. In many ways, he paved a way for them, and their success ensures his own comedic legacy.