Revitalized 'Key & Peele' continues to shine

Comedy Central

By Akshay Seth, Managing Arts Editor
Published September 28, 2014

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have a chip on their collective comedy-duo shoulder. Or as Luther — Obama’s explosively caustic presidential “anger translator” — would phrase it: “THESE COLSQUARE-LOVING, JON-POOERT-WORSHIPPING MOTHERFUCKERS WON’T GIVE US ANY GODDAMN EMMYS. Why do we have this limp-dick Peabody? YOU KNOW WHO ELSE HAS A PEABODY. NO. BECAUSE NOBODY OR THEIR GRANDDADDY’S FART STAIN KNOWS WHAT A FUCKING PEABODY IS. NOBODY. Shaklaika.

Key & Peele

Comedy Central
Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m.

After years peppered with gape-inducing snubs, the Comedy Central mainstay rolled into the 66th Emmys with momentum, sitting snug behind nominations for hairstyling, makeup and even a glancing nod at the show’s often hilariously memorable musical pieces. But the piece-de-resistance, the chef-d’oeuvre, the Holy of Holies was finally — finally that oh-so-sweet bump up to “Outstanding Writing For A Variety Series.” Perennial sketch entry “Saturday Night Live” wasn’t even in the pool. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s “Portlandia” was still too involved with its cast of weirdo Portlandians. Based on merit alone, “Inside Amy Schumer” should have won, but alas, its ratings were too low. All roads led to Luther. Then swooped in Colbert: that pasty, wrinkle-ridden face; the filthy talons on its crow’s-feet — like all those years before — sinking into an unsullied statuette. And Luther wept. He sobbed.

But Comedy Central took note. The fourth season premiere of “Key & Peele,” more than just perpetuating the goofy brand of loud, physical comedy often delivered by its leading duo with such crackling precision, showcases a revamped, relaunched product. Rather than the typical 10-to-13-episode slate we saw in previous years, the upcoming five months will feature 22 weekly installments, leaving room for a slew of new characters in addition to the established personalities — like Luther — that drew us in.

It’s an expectable approach to a somewhat vague problem: throw money and time at a show in an attempt to save it from becoming stale, or in this specific case, attract industry approval. Part of those efforts are visible right off the bat. In lieu of the clunkily digestible format used in past seasons — block of sketches + studio audience interaction/exposition + another block of sketches — “Key & Peele” opts to scrap all those bits with the pair doing live comedy in front of an audience entirely. Instead, we get a larger sketch, sprinkled piece-by-piece into the pauses between smaller sketches, to give the 30-minute runtime a smoother feel.

The format could achieve what it’s intending to, but in order to do so, must lean heavily on the strength of the larger piece that ties the episode together. In the season premiere, that larger sketch is just Key and Peele, playing an exaggerated version of themselves, driving listlessly to some unspecified location. Don’t worry, there’s no hidden catch or ethereal punchline (perhaps, maybe a lazy reference to “True Detective”) — it’s exactly as boring as it sounds. At its best, the riffing feels mechanical, no heart or soul of its own, with the rest of the dialogue serving only to foreshadow more sketches: still the thumping heart of “Key & Peele.”

Yet in spite of how disappointing those interludes may be, they don’t diminish the quality of the film-scale production or writing propping up the show’s otherwise laugh-out-loud, instantly-quotable (“afternoon, my octeroon”) skits. Last week’s funniest bit involved Key’s character filling in a Black family about what to anticipate at Cousin Delroy’s upcoming wedding to *gasp* another man. The scripting and jokes are expectably crisp though it’s the character-work, carried by veteran actors in small, pulpy roles — Lance Reddick (“The Wire”) plays a tobacco-gnawing uncle dumbfounded he won’t be allowed to break into his own rendition of “It’s Raining Men” — that elevates the sketch from good to it-has-770-thousand-hits-on-YouTube good.

Of course, that inherently edgy premise doesn’t hurt. But going deeper, one always-palpable strength of “Key & Peele” has been its focused tendency to lampoon societal inequalities. It’s the reason why having two people of color hosting their own show is so necessary, and ultimately, another reason why we get a chance to lighten, enliven serious discussions about those inequalities in everyday talk.

The ability to anchor race-sensitive arguments with its hosts’ volatile chemistry is the essence of what makes “Key & Peele” great television — a shining inkling of what “Chappele’s Show” accomplished. And if the millions of views their sketches net online are any indication, the world wants to watch. So despite that lethargic parody of “True Detective” used to string together the whole affair, despite the growing pains, the season four premiere succeeds in setting the table for an intriguing, expanded new chapter in the show’s legacy. Or as The Valets would put it, “ ‘KEY & PEELES’ IS MAHHHH SHIIIIIHHT.”