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'Key & Peele' Layer Race Issues With Laughs

Erin Gibson, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peel in a skit from <em>Key & Peele</em>.
Mike Yarish
Comedy Central
Erin Gibson, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peel in a skit from Key & Peele.

Comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele push stereotypes to new — and sometimes uncomfortable — levels. On stage, on MadTV and now in their Comedy Central show, Key & Peele, they find the humor in their biracial upbringings and the many roles of black men in America. The duo credits the existence of their show to the most powerful man in the U.S., President Obama.

"Certainly for Keegan and I," Peele tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden, "being actors and going out for roles, it becomes very clear what people think the African-American character has to be. You know, there's only a couple."

But Obama, he says, made black nerds cool. "The fact that you have this biracial, this hyphenate human in front of your face all the time," adds Key, "its very difficult to ignore," and it's an opportunity for biracial comedians.

Interview Highlights

On how race factors in modern American life

Key: "What I really noticed is an influx of interracial children more than in anything else. But ... I still have had experiences within the last decade of my life where I've gone ... 'That was ... some good, old-fashioned racism right there' ... But they're few and far between. ...

"Sometimes it's skewed a little bit when you're in the entertainment industry because people sometimes will see you differently. ... I'll say it, I have racist relatives who don't see ... Michael Jordan [as] a black person. It's that strange thing. It's like his worth is measured in a monetary fashion. ...

"And they don't like black people. ... [But] you don't find anybody who doesn't like Sidney Poitier. Everybody likes Sidney Poitier. It doesn't matter if you're racist or not racist. There's an interesting dynamic there."

On how black audiences respond to their comedy

Peele: "There's this narrative that [black people] are victims. And ... I think Keegan and I are ready to sort of reject the idea that now, African-Americans are still victims. I don't feel like that is true, and I think that some people have a hard time laughing at themselves, [and] some people have a hard time laughing at people they feel like are victims.

"Keegan and I have, you know, done some scenes about black culture, which we love, and they're not too far off from something that we might've loved on In Living Color. But we have gotten some criticism here and there, and ... all we can attribute it to is that we're [biracial]."

Key: "A black criticism has been, well, this, you know, this is disrespectful. This isn't funny. And I'm like, God, this scene is very similar to a couple of scenes I saw on In Living Color that it appeared as if nobody complained about. So what's the difference other than the fact that we have white parents?"

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