THE WORLD ACCORDING TO KEY AND PEELE: Beyond being funny, Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele's irreverent comedy shines a light of truth on African American life.
In Part 1, we examined the connection between Comedy Central’s Key & Peele and the tension that Black men feel between being accepted by society and being true to one’s self.
Here in Part 2, we’re going to take a look at several Key & Peele sketches, get at some of the underlying issues behind the comedy, and see what biblical truths can be applied to them, particularly as they relate to the lives of young men like Trayvon Martin.
(Before I go any further, a DISCLAIMER: Key & Peele is rated TV-14, and while there are very few sexual references, there is a fair amount of profanity, albeit mostly bleeped out. As always, use discretion when viewing clips. You don’t want your 5-year-old repeating this stuff — or your 45-year-old boss, for that matter.)
(Also, let me say this for the record — despite the adult content, I think each of these sketches is absolutely hilarious. No, they’re not for children. But they’re funny nonetheless. In the following paragraphs I do a lot of cultural exegesis, breaking down the principles behind the humor. But never let it be said I don’t think it’s funny.)
“Yo Mama Has Health Problems,” is a depiction of a doctor with an Indian accent, trying to give a consultation to a younger Black guy with his posse standing behind. Every time the doctor tries to engage the guy in conversation about his mother’s failing health, dude has some juvenile comeback with which to delight his friends. Riffing on the classic pastime of playing the dozens, this sketch demonstrates the communication breakdown that happens to people with misplaced expectations and different cultural traditions.
The brilliance of the sketch is in its metaphysics — that it’s one long joke about people joking with another. The twist at the end is when the doctor figures out how to play along, and does so — with shockingly inappropriate results.
This sketch makes you laugh and cringe — often at the same time — because few things are more destructive to a relationship than a failed attempt at humor. This is not to say that we shouldn’t joke around with one another, but rather, we should understand how and when to do it. Gilbert Arenas had to learn this the hard way — there are times when jokes are not an appropriate way to make a point. After all, there’s a reason why, in Proverbs 26:18-19, careless jokesters are compared to arsonists.
What’s especially poignant is, a few minutes in when Jordan Peele’s wisecracking character lets down his guard, his acknowledgement rings true. Many people, Black White or otherwise, use humor as a coping mechanism. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is in context. When others around us take their cues from our sketchy behavior, that creates misunderstandings of epic proportions. If those misunderstandings are propagated long enough, you end up with people resorting to smartphone apps to see if they’re allowed to say the n-word.
If we as Black folks want to help edify and build up others outside of our culture, it’s going to require, at times, that we rein in our sense of humor. Not mortally cripple it, just put some good boundaries around it. Otherwise we’ll continue to have tragic episodes of miscommunication, and the net result will be fewer people willing to take the risk of a potential offense for the sake of gaining greater clarity and perspective from someone outside their cultural context.
Given our nation’s overall racial divide, it’s clear that we as Christians need to share as much perspective and gain as much clarity as possible. It’s just one way to help our nation avoid more Trayvon-like incidents.
In the book of Acts, there is a profound story regarding Peter, a leader in the early church, and a vision he has regarding a blanket of food that the Lord told him was no longer considered to be unclean. Space constraints don’t permit me to fully break this down, but that vision leads Peter down a path of greater love and acceptance for outsiders.
This sketch reminds me of that story, except that the cultural model is inverted. Instead of ethnic-specific foods being outlawed, they’re actually preferred. And rather than exclude each other, we see Jordan and Keegan trying to outdo one another, proving their in-group status by ordering more and more “authentic” soul food, which comically regresses into more bizarre and less-edible fare.
There are many underlying truths in this sketch. The obvious one is that men are often hypercompetitive, and African American men are no exception. Another is that soul food, while an important component of African American culture, sometimes lacks in nutritional value.
This makes sense if you factor in the role slavery had in restricting the culinary habits of Black people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Blacks rarely had access to choice cuts of meat, so had to adapt by eating the parts of animals that their White masters found undesirable.
Indeed, it seems as though ingenuity as a survival instinct has become a defining characteristic for African Americans; the history of hip-hop, for example, is full of people who took undesirable, marginal or forgotten elements of music and turned them into something original and innovative (graffiti, turntable scratching, sampling, etc.).
The downside, though, is that just because something is culturally authentic doesn’t make it good. It’s no wonder that a people who were subjugated and dehumanized for centuries might internalize behavioral ways of coping that are less than truly healthy. This dynamic is what is satirized by K&P by the pursuit of food that sounds less than edible.
My favorite moment of the “Soul Food” sketch is at the end, where Keegan says, in response to the server’s offer of gravy: “What’s a cellar door without gravy? It’s not food.”
Isaiah 55:1-2 calls out to people in this situation, who find themselves grabbing plate after plate of stuff that isn’t really food. Isaiah proclaims the compassion of the Lord, who wants His people to be satisfied with goodness and settle for nothing less.
Rather than chasing only what is culturally authentic, as Christians we should chase after what is anointed and Godly. Rather than competing for cultural acceptance, we should be spurring each other on toward love and good behavior, worrying less of what others think than of what the Lord thinks. That’s true for Black men, yes, but it’s true for everybody.
* * *
So now, in two of these K&P sketches, we’ve seen several aspects of Black masculinity on display, and identified a few solutions that can help our young Black men continue to develop and make the world a better place for all the other Trayvons out there.
But what about our relationships with women? There seems to be issues at play that affect our interactions with each other and with the opposite sex. Whether male or female, this is something worth paying attention to.
So make sure to check out Part 3 of this series, where we delve into the final sketch of our sample.
The Federal Election Commission approved Stephen Colbert’s request to form a Super PAC. In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled decided that corporations, unions and individuals coulddonate unlimited funds to groups not associated with a candidate for campaigning purposes. This group is called a Super PAC. The decision is known as “Citizens United.” More interesting than Colbert’s approval to form a Super PAC, is the role Viacom can play. Viacom will not be required to disclose the financial information related to using Colbert’s airtime or staff to create TV ads. However, if the Super PAC’s TV ads appear during another show or on another network, Viacom will be forced to disclose the expenses involved. We live in a world where the media is influential in determining how a candidate is received and what information is made popular. The FEC’s decision to approve of Colbert’s Super PAC will open the floodgates for other media personalities to sway public opinion in the direction of their liking. Soon every talk major talk show host will have their own Super PAC.
Planking has gone viral since it started in Australia, but still people are asking; what is it? Planking is the act of lying down face down with your arms to your side as shown below. But, the craze is based on the creative ways people are doing it. Even celebrities have joined the party; Orlando Magic ballers, Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas recently released photos of themselves planking. However, not everyone thinks planking is just a silly fad. Some have linked planking to the way that slaves were packed into the slave ships on “planks.” I doubt this is what anyone had in mind when they snapped their photo, but what do you think?
When Jerome Corsi released his book, Where’s The Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President, Esquire Magazine figured it was fair game to target the less than factual title with a satire of their own. Esquire’s Mark Warren then published an article titled “Breaking: Jerome Corsi’s Birther Book Pulled from Shelves!” Joseph Farah, the CEO of WorldNetDaily.com and Corsi have filed suit against Esquire Magazine and writer Mark Warren for over $200 million dollars for defamation and causing loss of book sales. I do not think this suit will hold up, but perhaps, comedians should steer clear of those with egos this large.
Cloud storage is new enough that I’m going to assume a lot of readers don’t even know what it is yet, but at 69-years-old, Paul McCartney is already on board. Instead of keeping a library of video-tapes, cassettes, and CD’s of all his music and videos, he stored them on a cloud with the help of Hewlett-Packard. The mysterious cloud, is a virtual library of files. It is not stored on your computer, but rather on the internet, and can be accessed anywhere in the world. The cloud is the future. Soon…we won’t even have computers as we know them. We’ll simply have screens that access clouds.
While congress is being pressured to meet the August 2nd deadline for raising the debt ceiling, there is talk that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will be leaving his position. Geithner’s family is moving from DC to New York and he has stated that he will be a commuter. Geithner led the response to the 2009 finical crisis, but high unemployment rates and slow economic growth will plague him and the White House in the 2012 presidential election. If Congress meets the August 1 deadline and Geithner resigns, theWhite House will have to begin looking for a new Treasury Secretary while Washington is consumed with the 2012 election. This could help President Obama send the message that he is able to put together a team that will turn the economy around. If Congress does not meet the deadline, Geithner will have the difficult responsibility of paying the country’s bills without using borrowed money. This means the government would be forced to either default on obligations or raise taxes by several hundred billion dollars. Either way, the economy will be the number one issue in the 2012 election.
Android and iPhone are the primary gatekeepers in the app world, but all of that may soon change. Recently, Financial TImes and ESPN released application for smartphones and tablets that run in your browser window. The apps were created in HTML5 which allows “video, offline reading, touch and gestural interaction.” Developers look for HTML5 to eliminate their need to build native apps for different devices which each have their own programming language. This also means that developers will no longer have to share their profits with Apple or Google, who “take up to a 30% cut of the revenue.”
I gave our readers a heads up about BET’s Reed Between The Lines in The Pendulum a few months ago, but I’m back with more to share! BET recently released an ad campaign about the series and I have to admit that it is looking good! My interpretation is that the show is a 2011 version of The Cosby’s with a 30-something edge. It features a loving married couple, played by Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Unfortunately, they have yet to put the trailer online, but stay tuned!
Chris Rock will star in an upcoming Lionsgate film, What To Expect, When You’re Expecting. The film is an adaptation of a pregnancy manual and will provide “a modern look at love through the eyes of four interconnected couples experiencing the thrills and surprises of having a baby, and ultimately coming to understand the universal truth that no matter what you plan for, life doesn’t always deliver what’s expected.” Rock will advise a group of expectant fathers on the importance of fatherhood. Ironically, the film will star Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Brooklyn Decker, and Anna Kendrick, none of whom are black women. Since Rock is a father in the film as well, I’m slightly bothered that they couldn’t show a functional black family in the midst of this comical piece.
Nia Long has a tender spot in my heart but she has to be the beautiful glowing pregnant woman in Hollywood right now! The father is San Antonis Spurs foward Ime Udoka. Although this is her second child, she has expressed that she was shocked when she became pregnant. She called the unexpected news, “the sweetest surprise ever.”
Among other things, the NBA star’s troubles offer this sobering reminder: An occasional joke is okay, but don’t quit your day job.
Washington Wizards basketball star Gilbert Arenas was recently suspended by the NBA because of a practical joke involving several unloaded handguns, a joke that he played on a teammate who was angry over an unpaid gambling debt. Consequently, Arenas was hit with a gun charge, to which he pleaded guilty, and now his contract with the Wizards appears on the verge of termination.
Clearly, the joke didn’t go over that well.
Nevertheless, Gilbert Arenas is a genuinely funny guy, and I hope that somehow, despite the fallout over his recent transgressions, he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.
See, humor is a funny thing.
In one sense, it’s a basic human need, a notch or two below the need for food, clothing, and shelter. This is why sitcoms and comedians are so popular. As people, we don’t just love to laugh, we need to laugh. Humor is a critical way that we humans express shared meaning and make sense of the world, and it exists at the convergence of our intellect and emotions.
Unfortunately, this makes the concept of funny mysterious and hard to pin down. It often depends on context, which is why sometimes it’s so hard to relay a funny joke from one situation into another. So many factors can change the equation so many times, that a joke that sparks a bout of side-splitting laughter here might only elicit a chorus of yawns there — or worse, an avalanche of boos.
This problem has plagued many comedians over the years, especially White entertainers who complain of an unfair double standard regarding ethnic slurs. Many White folks in general have cited, from the annals of Black pop culture, example after example of things said by Blacks that if said by a White person would be denounced as racist.
So it’s with more than a little schadenfreude that pundits and commentators of almost every persuasion have emerged from the woodwork to pontificate on the subject of fallen-NBA-star Arenas and his recent incident involving handguns in the locker room. Like Caesar, they come not to praise Arenas, but to bury him under a cloud of suspicion.
This wholesale denunciation is problematic.
Much has been said in defense of Arenas’s quirky, practical-joking “Agent Zero” persona. And I agree with those who have detected a racialized difference in the overall response and coverage of this and incidents like it, proof of the NBA’s overall image problem in mainstream America. Both the NFL and MLB have been dogged by far more police blotter activity, particularly as it relates to violent crime and drug abuse, yet neither is tagged as routinely as the NBA is as a “league full of thugs.”
Furthermore, too little has been said about the reason why Arenas had the guns in the locker room in the first place, which, according to reports, was because he didn’t feel comfortable with them coexisting with his children at home. This seems, on the face of things, to be a responsible decision.
But all of that is beside the point.
The real travesty is that Gilbert Arenas earned all the penalties levied against him because he failed to grasp a rather obvious truth: In life, not everything is a joke.
Inveterate pranksters often use humor as a defense mechanism to mask their insecurity. Arenas’s story — abandoned by his mother and raised by his father, whom he didn’t meet until he was 3 years old — is filled with the kind of personal pathos that can inspire insecurity and fear of rejection. Not only has Arenas fit this pattern throughout his career, but after the gun incident went public he actually admitted in his Twitter feed — boasted, really — that he never takes anything seriously.
This quality often makes him an engaging interview subject, but in this case, it clearly impaired his judgment.
How do we know this?
Because with even a modicum of awareness, he would have noticed the following:
• Guns are often involved in violent crimes, which are often perpetrated by, and thus associated with, young Black men
• The NBA is a league dominated by young Black men
• The NBA has, for the last few years, been trying to recover from a series of scandals that have generated a lot of negative publicity
• The D.C. team used to be known as the Washington Bullets, but the general public decided the name was in bad taste, considering the District’s notoriously high murder rate
• Not coincidentally, The District of Columbia has some of the strictest gun laws in the country
All of this, and still …
Not only did Arenas not have the sense to ask a team official about how to properly deal with his guns, not only did he not have the sense to realize that guns and practical jokes don’t belong in the same sentence, but even after he did these things and they became public knowledge, he didn’t have the sense to apologize or show any genuine form of contrition outside of a statement drafted by his attorney.
I think Gilbert Arenas defaulted to his normal response to everything, which is to turn it into a joke and hope it goes away.
This time, it just didn’t work.
Now, I’m not saying that he should lose his job over this. Some punishments, though understandable and legally permissible, are still excessive — like the guy who was fired from his job for being a fantasy football commissioner.
Plus, this will remain as a stain on Arenas’s reputation. As such, Gil will probably continue to feel misunderstood as he tries to put his career back together. Like many talented Black men with chips on their shoulders, he might be tempted to adopt a me-against-the-world mentality.
“Only God can judge me,” goes the typical ‘hood refrain. This could become his mantra.
But I hope not.
Likewise, I hope he doesn’t lose his sense of humor altogether. Maybe one day he’ll crack open a Bible, find Proverbs 26:18-19, and learn to use discernment when cracking jokes. And maybe he’ll discover Romans 13:1, and learn to receive correction from authority more gracefully.
Maybe, as part of his NBA penance, he’ll end up in a public service announcement about the dangers of practical jokes.
Now that would be funny.
Photo of Gilbert Arenas by Keith Allison from Wikipedia.