As sketch comedy exploded in the 2010s thanks to YouTube, Key & Peele stood head and shoulders above Saturday Night Live, a forgotten MADtv reboot, and any number of funny (but rarely brilliant) shows on IFC (which now seems to show exclusively Everybody Loves Raymond reruns). Part of this was their years of experience (both starred on MADtv in the waning years of its original run), part of this was their nuanced take on race, and part of it was the show was filmed and smartly edited (and only 22 minutes). While the show was consistently funny through five seasons, here are my 10 favorite sketches.
10. “Obama Meet & Greet” (Season 4, Episode 1)
While Obama’s “Anger Translator” feels less insightful as time goes on, this one has aged beautifully. After a press conference, Obama snakes his way through the crowd, giving bear hugs and fist bumps to his Black supporters, while politely shaking the hands or pushing away his more fawning white supporters. It’s hilarious and versatile enough to be memed.
9. “East/West College Bowl 2” (Season 3, Episode 12)
The sequel that surpassed the original. The first was inspired by former Jets tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, but the silly names are even funnier in this follow-up. You just can’t talk about the 2013 season without talking about Fudge.
8. “Auction Block” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Arguably their darkest sketch, they established their greatness early on. A third-rail bit of comedy, the guys play slaves put up for auction. Obviously not wanting to be sent off for a life of back-breaking work and torture, they’re initially relieved when they’re not immediately bought. But as the available bodies dwindle, they grow increasingly offended, like kids on the basketball court. It’s sharp writing, perfected by the duo’s exasperated performances.
7. “Substitute Teacher” (Season 2, Episode 4)
The sketch that took them into the stratosphere. Key flies solo here as a veteran of inner-city schools who’s immediately lost in a well-funded suburban classroom filled with white students. What really makes it sing is the way Key starts at 11, and then keeps taking his rage to new levels.
6. “Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Malcolm X at the Theatre” (Season 1, Episode 2)
This sketch presages One Night in Miami – both the play and the movie – but still feels like a spot-on parody. A modest play about a fictional meeting between the two civil rights icons devolves into sound bites as the two insecure actors try to one-up each other. By the time Malcolm X is quoting Passenger 57 and MLK is doing the Worm, you know they’ve blown past a nuanced debate about nonviolence vs. action.
5. “Black Ice” and “Hoodie” (Season 3, Episode 1)
These two racially charged sketches from the third season premiere are short but most definitely not sweet. The former finds the pair defending a weather phenomena (and homophone) from attacks by their fellow news anchors. The latter feels like a punch in the gut coming just a few short months after the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.
4. “Family Matters” (Season 4, Episode 4)
This behind-the-scenes horror show features some of the duo’s best turns, with Peele especially on his A-game as a frustrated Reginald VelJohnson. You’ll never hear Steve Urkel’s catchphrase in quite the same way.
3. “Hollywood Sequel Doctor” (Season 5, Episode 9)
A group of writers hits a wall when coming up with ideas for a Gremlins sequel, until a flamboyant producer (Peele at his most over-the-top) indulges their craziest ideas. That the sketch and the film they’re pitching both work is the payoff of commitment to a bit.
2. “Georgina and Esther and Satan” (Season 4, Episode 3)
Aside from a couple of SNL‘s Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches, this might be my most rewatched sketch of any comedy. That’s how much I love this inspired bit of lunacy with the guys as two church ladies with foul mouths. A lot of the show followed the formula of telling a joke or delivering a weird reaction, then repeating it with higher stakes a few more times. But this sketch takes it to another level once Georgina and Esther get a chance to turn their threats into action as they fight the Devil himself.
- “Negrotown” (Season 5, Episode 11)
The team’s greatest sketch actually premiered on YouTube months before airing in the show’s final episode. This full-blown musical hits all the of the points they tried to make about race relations over the years in one catchy number. It’s a perfect blend of dark humor and colorful palettes, directed beautifully by the secret to their success Peter Atencio. Bonus points for casting Nick Searcy as the racist cop, who’s so good at playing assholes in movies and TV because he’s one in real life.