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.
DOUBLE DOSE: Comedy Central stars Michael Key and Jordan Peele bring racial stereotypes into focus by addressing them head on.
Fans of racially themed sketch comedy had been relegated to watching reruns of Chappelle’s Show and In Living Color until last February when Comedy Central unveiled their latest breakout hit,Key & Peele.
Featuring biracial comedians (and Mad TV alumni) Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Key & Peele‘s thematic M.O. is to dive deep into the racial ambiguity and complexity of modern pop culture, mine for nuggets of truth, and then exaggerate them into overdrive. The result is a peculiar kind of inspired silliness that is not quite as crass as Chappelle’s Show or as mean spirited as The Boondocks, but that still works as effective satire.
The show maintains a broad enough appeal to hit on other topics (like this bit on reality chef competitions), but the core of the show is still in racial issues. Because their biracial identities form the basis of the comedy, many of the vignette premises involve the convergence of Black and White stereotypes and cultural mannerisms (like this short bit with mic checks). And the funniest and most effective sketches are those where Keegan and Jordan find themselves temporarily ditching their mainstream, respectable personas in order to demonstrate how authentically Black they are — which usually means subtly, gradually, and outrageously outdoing each other. Whether they’re in a dramatic stage production, in a restaurant ordering soul food, or even just walking down the street, the results are usually hilarious.
What sketches like these tend to illustrate, though, is the dichotomous tension that a lot of African American men tend to feel, one that’s heightened for those of mixed-race heritage like Key and Peele. People use different words to express it, but it’s essentially still the same struggle — the meek, acceptable, responsible Black man versus the militant, flamboyant, outspoken Black man. Sellout versus Soldier. Punk versus Player.
(Back in the day, it might have been Martin vs. Malcolm, but now it’s just as much Barack versus Luther, the presidential anger translator. Apparently K&P nailed this dynamic so well that even President Obama himself thinks it good.)
But whether spoken or unspoken, as Black men we tend to feel trapped between those two extremes. We want to handle our business and rise to the highest echelons of success, but we don’t want to forget where we came from. We want to have nice things and inhabit nice spaces, but we don’t want to abandon our cultural identity, one that has roots in turmoil and struggle.
And this tension is a major component of the outrage over the Trayvon Martin case. After all, Trayvon died in an upscale neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. And he died wearing a hoodie. Obviously, the hoodie is nowhere near an exclusively Black piece of apparel. These days, everyone wears them, from high school students to upscale retirees. You can buy suit jackets with hoodies, for crying out loud. So the underlying question that the Trayvon Martin case brings up (after the obvious one of “why did it take so long to arrest Zimmerman?”) is why is an African American teenager in a hoodie automatically considered a threat?
BENEATH THE HOOD: Trayvon Martin's hoodie spoke to the tension between repression and authenticity embodied by many Black men, and also satirized in Key and Peele's comedy.
Out of this tumble a Pandora’s Box of troubling questions that Black parents have been wrestling with for decades, all connected to young Black men and the presumption of class based on public appearance. There are the philosophical/theoretical questions like, is it best to be as conservative as possible or should we keep it as “real” as possible?Were Geraldo Rivera’s comments those of an out-of-touch bigot, or a compassionate pragmatist? And then there are the more practical, nuts-and-bolts types of questions. How can we tell what gang members are dressing like nowadays? Should we watch The Wire? Which trends are just stylish and which are thuggish? Does it matter which way a cap is tilted? What about certain colors or team logos? Does jewelry matter? Baggy pants, or saggy pants? What about skinny jeans that sag?
You’ll notice that the above question mainly ignored the obvious answer to the question of why Trayvon was considered a threat — centuries worth of institutionalized and internalized racism. This answer, while obvious, does little to help address the practical struggles of being — or raising — a young Black male today, to the lament of Black mothers everywhere.
As believers in Christ, some of the questions that should matter most are, “what does the Word say about this issue?” and “how can I apply it to my cultural context?” These are often hard questions to answer, and even harder to have healthy dialogue over, because of the seriousness and tension surrounding these issues. Sometimes, you just need to laugh a little bit before you can really engage.
Enter Key and Peele.
These two talented comedians have provided an ample supply of case studies into postmodern African American male culture. So let’s laugh, and let’s learn. Let’s look at the issues, and see what the Bible may have to say about it.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we look in-depth at several hilarious Key and Peele sketches, examine the underlying cultural issues at play, and then apply some biblical understanding.
As a father, I dread feeling the pain that Tracy Martin has now.
Knowing your innocent son has suffered for the guilty.
I raised two sons who are now 27 and 20 years old. They’re good young men. They know God, have attended college, and are working hard as they navigate their life paths. They have no criminal records. They have no children out of wedlock or offspring that they don’t support. They don’t fit our culture’s negative stereotype of the black male — anti-intellectual, violent thugs to be feared. But judging from their tattoos, skinny jeans and partiality to wearing hoodies, perhaps you wouldn’t know this about my sons if you encountered them on a sidewalk.
Black fathers that commit to raising their boys to be good men fear for them because we know intimately the burden of the negative black male stereotype — the white myth we’ve been branded with for centuries. It has gotten worse since I was younger in the ’80s when my father feared for me. We dads (and single moms nowadays) eventually perform the ritual of sitting our sons down to have “that conversation” that has been passed down, that man-to-man talk about the rules of survival.
We say things like:
• Expect to be followed in a department store, but don’t pay it any mind.
• When (not if) the police stop you, stay cool and calm. Don’t make any sudden moves that could cost you your life.
• Pull your pants up. Dress neatly and don’t act rowdy or suspicious in public. Otherwise, you’ll scare white folks and they’ll trip on you.
“I’ve always let him know we as African Americans get stereotyped,” Tracy Martin told USA Today of his son, Trayvon Martin, who died senselessly at the hands of a gunman claiming self-defense. “I told him that society is cruel.”
By now you’ve surely heard about Trayvon, 17, who was killed Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, an apparently overzealous neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida. From Zimmerman’s 911 call, it is clear that he believed the negative black male stereotype and fit Trayvon into its deadly box. It didn’t matter to Zimmerman, who is actually Latino, that whites also burglarize in his neighborhood. Trayvon, while visiting the home of his father’s fiancée, was essentially walking while black. A black teen “wearing a hoodie” is “suspicious” and therefore guilty. That was enough for Zimmerman, 28, to justify drawing a 9mm handgun and bustin’ a cap into a teen.
A dad’s worse fear for his son realized.
We dads fear for our sons because we can’t control the minds of others who want to believe the worst about them. We fear that our sons will suffer for the young men who have bought into the negative stereotype and even promote it. We fear the white police officer who pulls them over for a traffic stop. We fear a police chief who declines to thoroughly investigate our son’s killer, even when the gunman has admitted to it.
By all published reports so far, Trayvon wasn’t a thug or gangsta but more like my sons, or perhaps yours when they were teens — a good kid carrying a package of Skittles and talking to a girl on his cellphone. Even President Obama chimed in yesterday, remarking that if he had a son, he’d likely look like Trayvon.
Trayvon wasn’t anti-intellectual. He was reportedly an A and B student. There’s nothing wrong with being an athlete or a rapper (one of my sons is both), but Trayvon dreamt of being a pilot. Clearly he was being raised to rise above the stereotype.
But the innocent often suffer for the guilty.
As much as these racially charged incidents outrage us, the fact is that most crimes are intra-racial. Whites basically kill whites and blacks kill blacks. Black-on-black homicide is the leading cause of death for young black males ages 12 to 19. Both of my sons, while in high school, have had friends die this way. In my day, growing up in Brooklyn during the Howard Beach incident, I too had more high school friends who died at the hands of fellow young black men. Why aren’t we equally outraged by black on black homicide as we are when a white person kills one of us?
I hope Zimmerman gets a fair trial that leads to hard time in state prison. But what is the black community’s culpability in perpetuating the negative black male stereotype that Zimmerman chose to believe? White people do no have a monopoly on racist thinking. Black and Latinos perpetuate negative stereotypes, too. We all bear some responsibility. It’s a result of the systemic, often institutionalized racism we are all under. We need to analyze that and get free from it.
What if we all operated on the root cause of the sickness — the systemic racism in our society, which has warped the minds of all Americans, instead of the symptom only? What if we all attacked the sin at its source? I believe we all need systematic anti-racism training — in schools, churches, and at home — to heal from racism.
There is a pattern to how we react to these high-profile, racially charged recurring tragedies (see Emmett Till, or more recently Yusef Hawkins and the Jena 6). We learn of these incidents through the media and become angry. Anger leads to protesting, marching, and chanting led by national civil rights leaders. Scapegoats are soon forced to resign, like how the Sanford police chief abruptly agreed March 22 to step down “temporarily” under pressure. Oh, we may even have a vigorous national conversation about race for a week or so. But after the news cycle has run its course, we quickly return to the same old stereotyping until the next tragedy explodes.
Meanwhile, good dads and moms are left dreading the perilous prospects that may await their innocent sons.
Whether the destruction inflicted upon our black sons comes from within our community or from without, we must be intentional about equipping them to rise above the ignorance and hate. If our black sons are to ever be as safe as young white men in America, we must get to the root cause of the negative black male stereotype that has burdened me, my brothers, my dad, and generations of African American men.
If we don’t, we’ll continue to mourn the tragic and unnecessary deaths of young men like Trayvon Martin.