'Key and Peele': Can they fill the void left by Dave Chappelle?

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It’s been six years since an African-American comic starred in a successful Comedy Central show, and now the network has two starring in a sketch show to see if the network can once again woo black viewers. But will Comedy Central’s gamble with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele pay off?

Though their names won’t ring a bell with most viewers, Key and Peele are actually seasoned comedians and former cast members of Fox’s now defunct MADtv. Their new sketch show, the appropriately named Key & Peele, sets out to fill the gaping programming hole that Dave Chappelle left when he abruptly exited his own show on the network in 2005.

In 2008 Comedy Central tried out a news sketch show with David Alan Grier (Chocolate News) in an effort to appeal to black viewers, but one lackluster season later the show was cancelled.

Despite the obvious appeal to black audiences, I’m not sure of Comedy Central has gone out of their way to make sure black audiences knew Key and Peele existed — only thing I heard of the show was a subway poster and an article in New York magazine.


Key and Peele

This seems especially risky, since Key and Peele don’t benefit from name recognition to draw in an audience. However the network did put strong programming around the show, sandwiching it between Tosh.O, a viral video clip show targeted to college frat boys, and The Daily Show. Perhaps they’re hoping on the strength of word of mouth to grow the show’s black fan base organically, something that is a real possibility if its promising debut is any indication.

From the outset Key & Peele seems like an exact replication of Chappelle’s Show, from the set design, show format, the live studio audience, and even the southern blues acoustic theme music. It’s slightly unsettling, and could even be a detriment to the show — instead of forcing the audience to draw comparisons to the very high bar set by Chappelle’s Show, why not carve out a unique space and design for the actors to display their talents?

However Key and Peele say their life experience is what makes their comedy unique. Both comedians are biracial, a fact that greatly informs their performances.

“We grew up, for lack of a better term, between two worlds. That’s not to be too literal about it, but I think one of the themes that comes up in the show occasionally, and certainly doesn’t dominate this show, is the absurdity of race, and also makes fun of exploitation of race, playing the race card,” Peele recently told New York magazine.

The show itself had a solid debut, with sketches ranging from men secretly cussing out their wives, to Peele’s surprisingly accurate President Obama impression. Key and Peele have a genuine rapport and a comedic sensibility that plays to the top of their intelligence.

One sketch in particular flipped the stereotype of “talking white” on its head, instead they portrayed two characters who talk “blacker” when in the company of other black people. It was funny, and yet also struck a note on how complex code switching has become for 21st century African-Americans.

Key & Peele is still a work in progress — the sketches seem to run a bit long, and some jokes were stagnant where they should have flourished — but its off to a promising start. If Key and Peele continue with their intelligent humor, Comedy Central may have just rediscovered their sweet spot with black audiences.

Follow Kia Miakka Natisse on Twitter at @miakka_natisse