When the show arrived on Comedy Central in early 2012, it drew frequent comparisons to its older cousin, Chappelle’s Show. In many ways, this happened because in a largely white landscape, shows that look alike are compared to one another. But in another sense, because Chappelle’s Show felt taken away from us so unceremoniously, we awaited its heir apparent and saw it in this new program that attacked issues of race so frankly and openly.
We may have giggled a little harder at Luther, President Obama’s anger translator, because it reminded us of Chappelle’s “Black Bush,” and welcomed its examination of racial stereotypes because we missed having that conversation with Chappelle and his ensemble. However, the conversation on race in America has pivoted significantly in the years since Chappelle’s show went off the air, and Key and Peele pivoted along with it. The stereotypes the veteran so often worried he was reinforcing in the final episodes of his show took up less and less airtime by his successors as their show matured. This is the greatest gift that Key and Peele gave their viewers.
In a country that has grown increasingly divided since the pair’s show hit the airwaves, their ability to show a multifaceted experience with detail and nuance allowed them to be more than token black comics on a network dominated by white faces. So many racially-charged issues that have surfaced in recent months are the result of an instinct to group the black experience into a single set of qualifications and traits; with theatrical commitment and artfully applied wigs and makeup, the MADtv alums bucked that myth and embodied the code-switching that other black people employ countless times a day.
Over the course of four and a half seasons, Key and Peele have proven the unthinkable: that there’s considerably more to the “other.” The show was honored with a Peabody during its run for what its organizers said was the ability to “tackle racially-charged issues and ideas like no one else on television,” and Keegan took the opportunity to give thanks for what Comedy Central allowed them to do. “We’d like to thank Comedy Central for giving us the opportunity to show the African-American experience as not a monolith, because it’s not,” he said. “It’s so many different stories and the danger of the world sometimes is trying to assign a single story to an entire group of people.”
Given the duo’s ubiquity in television and film while on their own show, I have little doubt that we’ll see them again; Key has already filmed season two of USA’s Playing House, Peele is working on a horror film addressing some of the same racial tensions that the show often addresses, and the pair is working on a feature-length adaptation of their popular “Substitute Teacher” sketch. So if Key and Peele aren’t going away, why does the departure of Key and Peele sting so deeply? Roxane Gay’s “When Less is More” says it best (albeit about Orange is the New Black, but remains incredibly fitting here):
I’m tired of feeling like I should be grateful when popular culture deigns to acknowledge the experiences of people who are not white, middle class or wealthy, and heterosexual. I’m tired of the extremes.
So few movies or shows fall between those extremes, but thankfully the ones that do...are good, not always great, but well within reach. We need more. We need pop culture that demonstrates not only the ways people are different but also the ways we are very much alike.
A tweet from a fan that Keegan-Michael retweeted shortly after his own announcement underscored the impact that his co-brainchild has had in a few short years:
— demetris johnson (@Nex_Tribou) July 26, 2015
Key and Peele afforded us an opportunity to have conversations about race that we had grown accustomed to having, and then adapted to allow many more stories to be told. The trip we get to take with them is nearly done. In many ways it has taken us somewhere wonderful, somewhere reassuring. But the question is already starting to linger: At a time when we need these conversations most, where are we headed next?
Amma Marfo is a writer, higher education administrator, and popular culture enthusiast dedicated to the idea that our leisure pursuits can inform and enrich the work we do. She writes often for her own blog ("The Dedicated Amateur") and is a contributing editor to the Niche Movement. Her first book, THE I'S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs, was released in January 2014. Her other interests include running, yoga, surfing, trivia, comedy, and gluten-free cooking/baking. You can follow her on Twitter @ammamarfo.