Satire as truth in Key and Peele

With so many outlets for sketch comedy available these days, it’s easy to equate satire and parody. But as Christians, we do so at our peril. Nowhere is that more evident than the recent season two premiere of Key and Peele, the breakout hit series starring Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

After their debut season, the biracial comedy veterans received critical acclaim for their inventive explorations of the nuances of racial identity, played out against the backdrop of pop culture, sports and politics. Their most popular sketch is of President Barack Obama and his “anger translator” Luther, whose job is to loudly interpret the diplomatic Barack-isms with all of the politically incorrect things the president feels but isn’t allowed to say. If you’re new to Key and Peele, this is a great place to start (and if you don’t understand the ending, you probably need to watch this one about black male/female power dynamics).

Those two sketches are so rewatchable. And what makes them so funny is not just the parody, but also the satire.

Parody is exaggerated mimicry for comedic effect. But satire, which often involves parody, uses exaggeration in order to establish a political or moral position. It’s parody, but with a point. Usually the point is unstated and sometimes it may take effort to unpack, but if you really look for it, it’s there.

In the first episode of season two, Key and Peele continue their penchant for razor-sharp send-ups of pop culture cliches and racial stereotypes, but the satirist edge seems to have been blunted. And yes, I do mean “blunted.”

Jordan Peele’s Obama makes an immediate appearance in a flashback of Barack as a college student, trying to dignify the proceedings of an average frat party, which includes smoking a lot of weed. The sketch itself is fairly innocuous (the most controversial thing is Obama, while rolling a joint, referring to his rolling papers as “the Constitution”), but what seemed to be most telling was the pre-sketch banter that proceeded it, where Key and Peele relayed their experience of actually meeting the president. “’Don’t have me doing anything too crazy,’” he supposedly told them. Either Key and Peele don’t think smoking weed is all that crazy or, more likely, they wanted to demonstrate that they’re not in Obama’s pocket, so to speak.

Either way, the point was less than clear.

Sketch comedy like this is bound to be uneven. It’s hard to keep coming up with original premises without becoming predictable or crossing the line from edgy to offensive. Still, watching the first episode, I felt a distinct lack of satire. Most of the sketches showed Key and Peele retaining their deft ability to capture the small details that make a parody engaging and funny (like the cold opener, assassins in “slow brotion”). But there didn’t seem to be much of an underlying theme, other than perhaps the shifting power dynamics.

Perhaps I’m being naive about their priorities. Unlike their Comedy Central cohorts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Key and Peele aren’t being paid to impart their views on the world. They’re being paid to be funny first, and moralizing is a distant second (actually, probably third or fourth).

Nevertheless, two sketches did give me hope that they’ll avoid a sophomore slump. The first, a web exclusive, featured Barack and Luther teeing off on Mitt Romney’s 47-percent video.  Hilarious, and pointed. Yes, it’s partisan, but Romney’s gaffe showed just how ignorant he is about his own privilege and Key and Peele did not waste any time throwing that in his face. The other was a subtle homage to Kevin Garnett’s “anything is possible” moment – a basketball player trying to inspire the nation’s children. Hilarious. As someone who’s irritated by the abuse of the word “literally,” this made me laugh, and loudly. 

Both videos depicted the damage from obliviously spouting off with little-to-no forethought. As Christians, we’re warned in various Bible passages to watch our tongues. Watching these sketches with renewed mind can help us remember such Biblical mandates.

And really, that’s why satire is so important. It’s one thing to appreciate the skill with which a performer can be entertaining. It’s another thing entirely to ask the underlying question, “What is this sketch/show/movie trying to say?” As believers, we’ve got to examine what we’re watching to see what values are being communicated. In so doing, we can provide more opportunities for the light of truth to penetrate the false gospels of our age.

What Do You Think?

  • Have you watched Key and Peele?
  • How do you distinguish between parody and satire?
  • Is one more capable of communicating truth than the other?

 

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