Socially Conscious Comedy Part II: Key and Peele on Being Black in America

Seeing how I love to pretend that binge-watching comedy sketches counts as research, I decided to follow up on last week’s post about Amy Schumer with a post about Key and Peele.

I find a lot of Schumer’s work funny because I can relate to it. It’s not quite the same with Key and Peele, since I am neither black, nor male, nor American.

Although sometimes their characters aren’t male either.

Even though I have little in common with Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, I do find their work hilarious. They do a variety of flawless impressions and have a much wider range than Schumer, who generally sticks to one (albeit very funny) schtick.

Like Schumer, they also take on some very serious social issues in their comedy. Since they are both half-black, Key and Peele often touch on the way racism affects the lives of black or biracial individuals. Below, I’ve included three racial inequalities that Key and Peele do a great job revealing via their sketches.

1) Racial Profiling and Police Violence

As a Canadian, the prevalence of police violence towards black Americans blows my mind.  Don’t get me wrong, Canada certainly has our own problems when it comes to police violence. That said, our more recent incidents of violence are due to taser-overuse, rather than unnecessary use of a firearm. It’s uncomfortable to watch cases of police violence when they are discussed on American news, since the focus tends to be on whether or not the victim of police violence “deserved it.” Black victims, even twelve-year-olds with pellet guns, are framed as threatening, in order to excuse why a cop discharged their firearm.

Key and Peele often subvert this “threatening black man” trope in their sketches. In “Flash Mob” and “White Zombies” Key and Peele play non-threatening black men who are mistaken as dangerous by the white people (or white zombies) around them.

Similarly, “Solution to Racial Profiling” mocks the racial double-standard that fames black youth in hoodies as “thugs” while their white peers are described as “misunderstood”.

One of their more serious sketches, “Negrotown,” addresses police violence directly, by imagining a world where police violence and racial profiling no longer existed.

2) Film Clichés

Key and Peele regularly parody movies and TV shows in their sketches. Some of these parodies target the restrictive black stereotypes Hollywood has produced. In an episode titled “Dueling Magical Negros” Key and Peele play wise old black men attempting to dispense wisdom to a troubled white man. Meanwhile, “Dad’s Hollywood Secret” runs thought a whole range of offensive black caricatures from early Hollywood films.

They also discuss the very limited range of roles available for black actors in their stand-up. In “Das Negros” they explain that, as actors, they don’t tend to get called for the “average black role like … the gangster who gets killed or the pimp who gets killed or the black dude in Star Trek who gets evaporated.” Instead, they usually audition for the role of the “black friend” who makes the protagonist look cooler and “not racist”.

3) Racial Stereotypes

Probably the most common problem Key and Peele address in their comedy is the day-to-day stereotypes black individuals experience. In the same episode mentioned above (“Das Negros”), Key plays a biracial man on a date with a white women. She gets upset when he doesn’t act “black” in certain situations and act “white” in others. She tells him that “I heard when you date a biracial guy you get the best of both worlds.”

Similarly, “Sex with Black Guys” explores how these stereotypes can hinder a black person’s dating life-

-and “Black Ice” plays around with what it would sound like if those stereotypes were projected onto frozen water, rather than people.

Sadly, Key and Peele are wrapping up their final season this year. If you haven’t checked out their other work, I’d encourage you to check it out on YouTube or the Comedy Network website.

As I mentioned in my post about Amy Schumer, “humour has a powerful way of helping us self-examine ourselves, and think more deeply about problems we might have dismissed if they hadn’t made us laugh”. The sketches I included above compelled me to think about the privileges I take for granted as a white person. They also made me laugh at the ridiculous stereotypes and fears that produced so many inequalities.

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