The scene: two men with guns prowl through a ravaged urban wasteland after an alien apocalypse. They’re looking for other human survivors, but they’re also looking to blast aliens who disguise themselves as human. So they have to make split-second decisions about who’s real. A white girl who screams, “Please don’t hurt me – my best friend’s black and I love Jay Z, and my favorite movie is Think Like a Man“? Now that’s a real human. But when they meet a black guy, they ask how he feels about the police. He replies, “I love their third album.” Blast!
Key and Peele are on top of the world right now – as they kick off the new season of their genius Comedy Central sketch show, their confidence level is buzzing through the roof, which only makes them funnier. Despite their opposite personalities – Keegan-Michael Key, fortysomething and married and hyper; Jordan Peele, thirtysomething and single and laid-back – they always give the vibe of two dudes hanging around the dorm room, trying to crack each other up.
The duo blew up via YouTube, and word started to go around – “Hey, check out these two guys who do this bit about Obama’s ‘Anger Translator.'” Their specialty is taking a simple one-joke premise (Obama talks differently to black people) and kicking it back and forth to the point of hysteria – by the end, Obama’s yelling, “Afternoon, my octaroon!” As with Broad City, another Comedy Central smash that first found fame on the Web, their best gag is that they’re BFFs who find each other so hilarious they’ve built up a lifetime supply of private “slap ass!” jokes.
Their riffs can be daring, like football players with concussions: “What are we doing out there? Because I don’t know! Seriously, what are we doing?” But most of their best skits aren’t edgy or controversial at all. My favorite Key and Peele moment is their “Continental Breakfast” sketch: A dorky guy stays in a motel and gets wildly enthusiastic about the crummy breakfast buffet. He talks to his cereal and muffins, finally breaking down and sobbing with joy. (“And what are you, my little friend? Not a spoon, not a fork – something in between. A fpoon! What will you think of next, Germany?”) There’s something deeply poignant about it – as if America is just one big nation of lonely men trying to bond with their food.
Key and Peele are leading a cable-comedy boom, which has been Golden Age-ing it up in 2014. We’ve seen upstarts like FX’s You’re the Worst as well as stellar seasons from still-peaking franchises: IFC’s Portlandia, Fuse’s Billy on the Street, HBO’s Veep and Girls, BET’s Real Husbands of Hollywood. And Comedy Central, a network as easy to take for granted as leftover pizza, is on an epic hot streak, from Broad City to Drunk History to Nathan for You to Inside Amy Schumer.
All these cable successes raise a sticky question: Why is it so hard for the networks to be funny? When you look at this fall’s sorry class of new sitcoms, you see a staggering amount of wasted effort and money and talent. It’s like what Hunter S. Thompson said after the 1972 presidential race, arguing why George McGovern should have run a more radical campaign: “Hell, he certainly couldn’t have done any worse.” Exactly, Dr. Gonzo. How much worse could the ratings be for Manhattan Love Story? Given how the network comedies are flopping by playing it safe, what do they have to lose by shaking it up? But while they flounder, the margins are full of artists making a historic racket – so savor this Golden Age while it lasts. Slap ass, Key and Peele. Slap ass.