[This is a review of Key and Peele season 4, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
There is no bigger practitioner of sketch comedy than Saturday Night Live and there is no bigger target. It's been trendy to pick on the show for decades, but while I'm the kind of Saturday Night Live apologist who would dismiss most of the complaints and praise the existing version's merits, I do have to acknowledge that the show isn't as daring as it once was.
Is that because Saturday Night Live long ago lost its desire to be important and became comfortable with the notion that it was enough to be funny? Is it because there are 1,000 derisive hashtags born every time the show really bites into a hot button issue? I'm not sure, but it can't be easy being a 40-year-old institution that is no longer the center of the cultural universe at a time when people can unite on social media against something that (legitimately or illegitimately) annoys or offends them.
By contrast, it's probably quite easy to be Key and Peele right now.
Now entering season 4, Key and Peele has 1/10th the longevity of Saturday Night Live and a lot more freedom thanks to its position on basic cable (Comedy Central) and the fact that people don't judge the show's sketches as if they were dispatches from a governing body in the way that they do with the venerable Saturday Night Live. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are free to play and jab and throw a haymaker from time to time while talking about race, politics and poverty because they're just under the mainstream radar and that's where the best comedy lives.
Look at Saturday Night Live in the '70s, Late Night with David Letterman in the '80s and the collection of small yet impactful challengers to Saturday Night Live's mantle in the 1990s like The State and Kids in the Hall. Look at the internet now. It's about more than opportunity and guts, though. Just because you want to say something doesn't mean that you can. The execution has to be there, and in the season 4 premiere of Key and Peele, it mostly is.
To properly execute, someone needs to know when to say when and the best sketches from the premiere are, first and foremost, economical. Key and Peele get in, get the laugh and get out.
When we see Key leading a group of soldiers in a cadence call about the sad realities that face some soldiers after returning home from duty ("When I come home with PTSD, the VA hospital won't care for me") only to see his entire platoon abandon him, it's so much more impactful because the show didn't try to stretch a simple premise too far.
The same can be said for the "Alien Impostors" sketch (above) that sees Key and Peele wading through an alien infested city street while trying to decipher the difference between real humans and the shapeshifting aliens by applying a politically incorrect but hilarious litmus test that is shockingly and violently disregarded when they encounter a condescending yuppie who assumes that they are valets. To push further or even to take a moment to flesh out that moment would have removed the teeth from the comedy.
The Mother Majesty sketch is another well-executed gem, pairing an MTV-style VJ (it's Sway, basically) with a pop star who regurgitates hollow guru advice to her fans without ever actually hearing the words that come out of her mouth. I don't want to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say, all is not as it appears and there's a brilliant comment on both the disturbing power of these living pop stars and the role of sex in both pop music and these brands. Get in, get the laugh and get out.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are also sketches that don't work or nearly don't work because they simply keep going. The first sketch of the episode has Key and Peele attempting to both escape a bank robbery and communicate with each other on the proper way to unlock a car door. The set-up is basic enough that it could have counted as a win had it only lasted long enough to see the exchange about how to open the door once before the cops descended on the bungling thieves. The "Obama Meet and Greet," while very funny, goes on too long and suffers from repetition as well.
In "Gay Wedding Advice," Key and Peele take a funny idea that exploits small-mindedness and stretch it to the point where the band breaks. How many times does guest star Lance Reddick have to ask about singing "Gay hymns" while the Johnson family gets advice on how to behave at the wedding of cousin Delroy to another man? "Gay Wedding Advice" could have come off as preachy, but the suggestions are so incredibly over the top that the sketch is partially saved.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a later sketch when Key and Peele dress up like stereotypical "rednecks" to tout the virtues of various minorities while drinking in a bar. It's a one note/bizarro world sketch and it feels a little preachy.
Sounding preachy is, of course, part of the danger that is attached to the pursuit of trying to "say something" with one's comedy, but when the hits reach the rarefied air of well-executed satire and are as enjoyable as they are here, the misses and near-misses are worth it. Especially when you consider the alternative. Never get too big, Key and Peele. Never get too big.
Key and Peele airs Wednesdays @10:30pm on Comedy Central.