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Monday, March 29, 2021

March 29, 2021: Key & Peele Studying: Negrotown

[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I’m going to be highlighting and contextualizing some of the best sketches from my favorite work of 21st century humor, Key & Peele. I’d love to hear your comedy favorites in comments!]

On three layers to one of the truly great comedy sketches of all time.

I had seen and enjoyed various clips from Key & Peele by the time “Negrotown” aired in May 2015 (as a promo for the show’s next season), but it was this sketch which truly convinced me that the pair were American comic geniuses. For one thing, they manage in the course of the brief musical number at the sketch’s center to feature more different racial, cultural, and social issues than many full-length works are able to include, and to do so in a catchy, rhyming song (with a fantastic accompanying dance number) at that. From Redd Foxx to Dick Gregory to Richard Pryor to Whoopi Goldberg to Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock to the Original Kings of Comedy to Dave Chappelle to Wanda Sykes to Tiffany Haddish to so many more, African American comedians have long been at the forefront of our collective conversations on race in America, but I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a more succinct and thoughtful (and entertaining) comic engagement with those topics than “Negrotown.”

At the same time, I don’t think the sketch’s use of a musical number is at all accidental or secondary to its ideas. From its set and costumes and colors to the very tint of the film (I’m sure that’s not the technical term, but you know what I mean), that musical number feels very much like it’s been lifted out of a Rodgers & Hammerstein show—except that the America portrayed in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musicals was all too often quite literally the opposite of Negrotown, a nation and world that seemed to be entirely devoid of African Americans. Moreover, while individual shows like the groundbreaking DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess (1935) did feature African American characters and stories, the overarching history of American musicals was a strikingly whitewashed one until the last couple decades. At the very least, “Negrotown” highlights that legacy by creating an African American-centric musical number and world (which really shouldn’t feel as unfamiliar as it does); but in an implicit way that element becomes yet another racial and cultural commentary in this multi-layered sketch.

And then there’s the sketch’s framing story. Its portrayal of an African American man randomly and frustratingly targeted by a racist white cop has only become more resonant in the nearly 6 years since the sketch first aired, of course. And to my mind, the sketch’s single best line, and perhaps the single best line in any 21st century comic work, is the final twist, as the racist cop manhandles the innocent man into his police cruiser: “I thought I was going to Negrotown,” the man complains; to which the cop replies, “Oh, you are.” I’ve spent many years thinking about the evolving histories and issues of race and mass incarceration, as well as reading and teaching the vital work of folks like Michelle Alexander on those questions; and then along comes this talented comic duo to express all that in one pitch-perfect line and moment.

Next sketch tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other humor favorites you’d share?

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