There are two complementary forms of radical humor taking place on "Key & Peele," the sketch show that just finished its third season on Comedy Central.
On the one hand is the race humor, savvy in tweaking fraught white encounters with blackness and sometimes equally fraught black encounters with blackness.
On the other hand are sketches that are completely race neutral in content, which are given frisson merely by the race of the comedians: Both Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are the children of black fathers and white mothers.
In a TV-comedy ecosystem in which "Saturday Night Live" embarks on what is effectively a public quest for a black female cast member and comes off hapless in the process, "Key & Peele" feels both modern and necessary.
It's also an implicit response to a country that shows different faces about its racial comfort, depending on what angle you view it from and who's doing the looking.
"Keegan and I go day to day: One day we're like in an almost racial utopia and one day that feels like were living in the 1950s," Peele said, on a break from writing for the show's next season.
This constant switching of positions is a novelty, making "Key & Peele" potent but not inflammatory or browbeating. That's true even when the subject matter gets intense, as in the recurring series of sketches about slavery or those about President Barack Obama's "anger translator," Luther. (This past season Michelle Obama got one, too.) And the performers are comfortable with ethnic drag across the racial spectrum.
"For me playing as many different races as possible, it's liberating," Peele said, "and it makes the show a safer place to come in some way."
Warmth is a hallmark of this show, and one of the things that sets it apart from what preceded it.
"We recognized early on that we would be compared to 'Chappelle's Show' a lot, and that did happen," Peele said. "So we did ask ourselves that question: What can we do that no one else can do?"
Quite a bit, as it happens. The sketches run from immersive character work to wry jokes about language to blunt race themes, like the season-opening sketch in which Peele, ogled as he walks through a white neighborhood, pulls his hoodie up, a la Trayvon Martin, but this hoodie has a white face painted on the side. Everyone relaxes.
In addition to crisp writing, the show benefits from outstanding direction and even better wardrobe and hair.
No one in TV comedy appears to be having more fun than this pair, who have only gotten looser as the show has become more established and successful. It's even spilling over off screen, where they continue delivering blows to racial myopia.
Peele said, "I no longer answer to Key."
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