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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

March 30, 2021: Key & Peele Studying: Luther

[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 one of the smartest comic ideas ever, and the stunning political moment it produced.

There’s no way to know for sure how particular cultural works will be remembered or what their ultimate influences and legacies will be, but if I were a betting man, I would wager that it is the character of Luther, President Barack Obama’s Anger Translator, who will represent the most enduring legacy of Key & Peele. Besides featuring Jordan Peele’s pitch-perfect impression of Obama and Keegan-Michael Key’s inspired creation of Luther, two fantastic comic performances that worked even better in combination and conversation with each other, the recurring Luther sketches tapped into both specific critiques of Obama (as too professorial, too calm, and the like) and broader cultural tropes such as the stereotype of the “angry black man” (and woman). They also made the show topical and responsive to current events in a way that it’s often difficult for scripted work to be, while (I can testify, having watched more than a few before starting this post) holding up very well over time.

All of that would be more than enough to make Luther both a wonderful comic character and a groundbreaking series of sketches, but then came the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. President Obama did a wonderful job at every one of his eight WHCDs, displaying both a capacity for self-effacement and a biting wit that themselves belied those narratives of his overly professorial or formal tone (and that stand in stark contrast to the most recent occupant, whose total lack of a sense of humor or capacity for self-reflection of any kind was on full display in his decision never to attend a single one of the WHCDs during his term). But it was in 2015, at his penultimate WHCD performance, that Obama brought out Luther to serve as his own Anger Translator, in an inspired bit that impressively demonstrated those qualities of Obama’s, took full advantage of the character’s voice and perspective, and, most importantly, yielded one of the single most stunning and significant political moments in recent years.

That moment was the culmination of the bit, the final minute or so of the hyperlinked video in the last paragraph. As Obama turns his attention to the issue of climate change, he begins to grow more heated in his own remarks, with Luther attempting to calm him down so he can do his complementary job as Anger Translator. But Obama rightly cannot be calmed, and the dialogue builds to this exchange: Obama: “The Pentagon calls it a national security emergency, Miami floods on a sunny day, and instead of doing anything about it, we’ve got elected officials throwing snowballs in the Senate.” Luther: “Okay, okay, Mr. President, I think they got it bro.” Obama: “It is crazy. What about our kids? What kind of stupid, short-sighted, irresponsible bull—” and Luther interrupts him to tell him that he doesn’t need an Anger Translator, he needs counseling (before fleeing in fear, and telling Michelle that “he’s crazy”). The moment is very funny, but it’s also profoundly telling, a perfect way to reflect the fact that the urgency of climate change demands righteous anger from every one of us (including the famously calm president). All thanks to the wonderful character of Luther the Anger Translator.

Next sketch tomorrow,


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

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