Most people likely expected that when Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele debuted their new sketch comedy show on Comedy Central, it was the most blatant attempt by the network to replace the phenomenon lost when Dave Chappelle walked away, this time by bringing in two black men. By the time the first episode of Key and Peele finished, that misconception could safely be put to bed. Between the “I Said Bitch” sketch and Key’s iconic anger-translator Luther, one thing became obvious about these two; they are massive geeks. Every episode that followed only proved their geeky interests further.
And it is awesome.
From sci-fi to fantasy to steampunk to general nerdiness, Key and Peele has it all. It’s no surprise either when they talk about the show and the way life influenced their comedy. Neither men shies away from their biracial heritage and the way it sometimes separated them from others (the way most geeks become interested in geeky media). Peele grew up an admitted nerd; a quiet reader who loved geek media staples such as robots and aliens while gravitating towards fantasy stories. Key’s theatric enthusiasm speaks for itself.
Even going back to the years when Chappelle conquered the comedy world, a show so reliant on nerdy interests probably wouldn’t have found much success. The world is a different place now, one where Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are the most popular dramas on TV. After five seasons and an Emmy win, Key and Peele ended a rousing success that propelled its two titled actors to stardom. They received a brief but funny role in the second season of Fargo. They starred together in the well-received Keanu. Peele is directing and writing the horror film Get Out. Key will star alongside Cobie Smulders in the Netflix comedy Friends From College coming out in 2017.
If ever there was proof that geek culture has taken over the media, two black geek comedians hitting mainstream star status for their dorky sketch show is it.
The debate over their best sketch will rage on forever. Instead let’s take a look at the sketches which best represent the many genres of geekdom covered throughout Key and Peele’s wonderful run.
Wendell is one of Key and Peele’s most iconic characters, and this sketch stands tall among not just his best, but the best of the entire show. Not only is the sketch hilarious, but it is jam-packed with every fantasy cliché; evil wizards, spells, a hero riding a snow-white Pegasus, the captive princess to rescue. While the sketch clearly makes fun of these clichés, it’s clearly not mean-spirited. Every moment feels like the kind of video a fan with money and means would make. Wendell definitely wouldn’t be the only fan to spend half of his budget hiring the princess.
Fun story time: the inspiration for this sketch came from this multi-million dollar music video by Chris Dane Owens. Take a look and the influence becomes obvious. Some of the shots and costumes in “The Power of Wings” come almost exactly from Owens’s video. Jordan Peele said he was “kind of obsessed” when the video went viral in 2008, but it wasn’t until Wendell’s intro that he had the right way to riff on it with a sketch. Give it a watch. Love it or hate it, you’ll definitely be entertained, and the sketch will be even funnier.
In fact, “Shine on Me” makes the best part of “The Power of Wings” even better, when Wendell’s budget runs out. As funny as the sketch becomes when a Barbie doll replaces the woman and he wields a floppy cardboard sword, you can’t help but admire the effort. Wendell has a dream and he wants to see that dream through. Sure his budget management is terrible, but does that stop him? Not at all. Every fantasy fan has their own version of “Shine on Me” or “The Power of Wings” floating around in their head. Some have the money to make it happen. Others end up with paper wings on fake horses. Either way, you’re awesome to try.
“Anything is achievable! Don’t let nobody tear you down!”
Choosing this over “Alien Imposters” and the racist zombie sketch was tough. Ultimately “Post-Apocalyptic Hunt” won because it displays one of the best parts of Key and Peele: the ability to create atmosphere in their sketches. The fact this is a sketch only makes the opening the more impressive as Peele’s character traverses the aftermath of an apocalypse. Ruined streets and dead bodies covered in dust provide the backdrop as a grizzled survivor wanders in search of others. The monologue provides the timeline and characterization. Key and Peele’s ability to set up real character to their sketches shows up often, but few do so as quickly and effectively as this sketch.
Then Key’s character shows up wearing a championship belt, rainbow afro, and a cape, and it all falls apart in the best way possible.
Great looking? Check. Great punch-line? Check. Come on, everyone would watch a full movie about this. Clearly the sketch’s creators have seen enough movies about the subject. The effort and detail put into this sketch speaks volumes about the nerdiness of its creators.
As with the apocalypse choice, it was hard not to choose “Alien Imposters” for the sci-fi category, but what better represents sci-fi nerds than Star Wars? Star Wars is one of the godfathers of nerdy media influencing the legions of geeks taking over pop culture today.
And the geekiest part of the sketch isn’t even Key’s wonderful Lando Calrissian impersonation or how they recreated Cloud City, but rather the way Jordan Peele’s obnoxious fan character represents the many obnoxious fans among us. Star Wars is far from alone in this. In fact, hardcore fandom is one of the show’s consistent sources of material, from the two Liam Neeson loving valets to the segments between sketches. They have talked about dealing with fans like this specifically, right down to the “ideally doe.”
Key and Peele themselves likely walked in the shoes of this kind of fan before own stardom.
Doing this good a job recreating Star Wars is geeky enough to win out for the sci-fi genre. The way Peele represents obnoxious fans of all kinds puts the sketch over the top. He is the fans who made Star Wars one of the biggest franchises on the planet. He is the fans who pitch ideas to Key and Peele on the streets. And he’s also just what he appears to be throughout the sketch; a guy who really admires Lando Calrissian.
This sketch ranks among the best just for the line, “I got bit on purpose so I could live forever and see future cars.”
It puts in plenty of work to rank high well before that line, though, as it tears into every lame vampire cliché out there. Skin-tight leather, wearing all black clothes, sexual decadence, lesbians who are not actually lesbians and exist only to titillate, hissing, every bit of it gets torn apart by the perfectly normal new vampire who just wanted immortality.
And he has a point. Did he even manage to get any of that blood in his mouth?
Yet again, Key and Peele show how familiar they are with all the tropes while asking all the questions the rest of us geeks ask each other while watching a familiar vampire movie for the hundredth time.
Is it bad to have never realized the racial makeup of the Power Rangers and their assigned suits before this sketch? Apparently some people noticed if this sketch is any indication.
While Walter Jones, who played Black Ranger Zack Taylor, insists that the assigned colors were entirely coincidental (and he’s absolutely right), it looks bad. A Vietnamese actress played the Yellow Ranger as well, after all. Apparently these two remained in Key and Peele’s memory. So did the purposeful diversity of the cast which also shows up in the sketch.
While the sketch focuses more on racial jokes than any connection to the Power Rangers (or Voltron, which it also resembles), Key and Peele did a good job replicating the terrible effects of the show. “Power Falcons” is a great example of their love for using geeky backdrops to make pointed jokes about race, politics, and other important social topics.
Really, just think about how nerdy the process of taking the valet characters and translating their conversations into Shakespearean English had to be.
Whether you know or care about Shakespeare or Othello (which Key and Peele worried audiences would not), anyone can relate to the eager nerdiness with which the two relate to Othello’s character. Besides riffing yet again on the passion of fandoms, this sketch also says a bit about the representation audiences crave in the stories made for them.
This sketch skillfully captures the excitement and anger of seeing representation and then having it taken away. These two are ecstatic to see a black main character, talk about how much they relate to him, talk about what it means to see someone like them and that it might mean good things for black people. And then Shakespeare kills Othello off.
While obviously funny, much of the anger shown in the sketch feels quite familiar to the anger during the Spring Slaughter earlier this year. This is a discussion which has received a lot of attention recently, as the number of LGBTQ characters have increased in recent years. Some expertly handle representation while others bungle it badly. Media has reached a point where black men no longer struggle to be represented in TV and movies the way they used to, but things are not perfect and the feelings still resonate with audiences of every demographic. It hurts to see one of the few characters a fan can relate to killed off. Care needs to be taken in how that death happens.
Nerdy media especially often serves as the best source of representation and escape for those who feel unrepresented in the real world. TV, movies, theatre, comics, and books all give us characters we relate to. They also feel estranged from the rest of the world and face the same persecutions.
Maybe Key and Peele didn’t intend for this sketch to comment on the representation issue at all. The comment still exists, and it takes a funny sketch and gives viewers something deeper to think about. After all, everyone has wanted to grab their Shakespeare and vent.
Videos and images courtesy of Comedy Central