It used to be that with comedy stardom, all roads went through SNL. Mike Meyers, Will Farrell, Adam Sandler, Molly Shannon, Kristen Wiig: the list of careers that Lorne Michaels launched goes on and on. The conventional wisdom was that you developed a character, got the sketch on the air, and waited for your A Night At the Roxbury to introduce yourself to Hollywood audiences. With Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s Keanu and Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, a new type of comedy stardom has been born. Instead of developing characters, these performers develop their comedic voice. Instead of single-minded movie stardom, these comedians are setting themselves up for long, dynamic careers.
Inside Amy Schumer, Key and Peele, and Portlandia have ushered in a new era of sketch comedy. Rather than the broadly appealing sketches championed by Saturday Night Live and also-rans like In Living Color and MadTV, these shows foster sharp points of view and tell audiences to take it or leave it. These shows belong more in the family tree of Chappelle’s Show than SNL. The goal isn’t to write a ton of sketches and pick the best handful to throw at Middle America. These shows derive their humor from their creators’ points of view, and everyone else, from the writers room to the directors to the costume designers work toward that vision.
While Fred Armisen has decided to keep doing whatever weird projects he wants to (and, for what it’s worth, his Bill Hader collaboration Documentary Now is amazing), Schumer, Key, and Peele have decided to scale their brand into the big leagues. A very particular variety of feminism is at the center of both Schumer’s stand-up and sketch comedy. “What does it mean to be a woman?” her sketches ask in different ways. What if a woman is bigger, older, sluttier, dirtier, or bawdier than society would like? Schumer’s consistent answer is that the problem is with society and not with women. Trainwreck continued exploring this theme.
As Schumer interrogates womanhood, Key and Peele look at what it means to be Black. One of Key and Peele’s earliest sketches for Comedy Central was called “White-Sounding Black Guys.”
In this sketch, they announce themselves as bi-racial, and talk about “adjusting their blackness” on a daily basis. Blackness, and the ways the artists both do and don’t fit into different environments, is a theme that Key and Peele go back to again from a variety of perspectives. Some of their best attempts are “Negrotown”
and “Sex With Black Guys”
but you can find a couple dozen excellent sketches exploring similar themes with a quick Youtube search (here are ten of our favorite).
In a way, Keanu is an hour and half version of the “White-Sounding Black Guys.” This might seem like a slight, but with this film, Key and Peele find a way to take the initial idea of that sketch and examine it from every possible angle. In the film, Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key) end up in the seedy underworld of Los Angeles as they try to reunite with their prized kitten, Keanu. Rell and Clarence are utterly suburbified. Rell might as well be Seth Rogen with the amount of weed he smokes and his teddy-bear-in-a-hoodie style. Clarence has the J. Crew fashion and mini-van of an emasculated Jason Bateman character. When they run into the “Blips” (gangsters so hard that they were thrown out of the Crips and the Bloods), they adopt the persona of a foreign gang-banging culture to get along.
What’s nice about the feature length version of this bit is that it gives Key and Peele a chance to investigate both sides of the coin, humanizing both suburban family men and stripper loving, gun toting drug dealers. Smartly, Key and Peele brought along their house director from Key and Peele , Peter Atencio, to helm Keanu. Atencio is a cinematic chameleon who is gifted at analyzing and executing different styles and tones. Who can forget his genius Les Miserables sketch?
Or “Awesome Hitler Story?”
With an ever-expanding digital and television world and a film landscape where the wattage is being sucked up by one super hero movie after another, the important thing isn’t to become a movie star. Outside of Kevin Hart and Melissa McCarthy, there aren’t many full-fledged comedy box office stars anymore. The key is to bring your unique perspective to a wider audience. With Keanu, we see the physical gifts, brilliant banter, and keen sense of how race and culture collide that made Key and Peele brilliant for half a decade. We may not see a Keanu 2, but their capers with a cute kitten have cemented the duos place in the comedy landscape for years to come, whether that means more movies, specials, parts, or another brilliant TV show.