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Thursday, April 1, 2021

April 1, 2021: Key & Peele Studying: Substitute Teacher

[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 comedy, cultural stereotypes, and how great art can transcend them anyway.

There was a famous plot thread on a Season 8 (1996-97) episode of Seinfeld (the episode titled “The Yada Yada”) about a character (Seinfeld’s dentist Tim Whatley, played by none other than Bryan Cranston long before he broke bad) who had converted to Judaism seemingly just so he could tell Jewish jokes without being labeled an anti-Semite. Like the Key & Peele sketches I’m writing about all week, this funny sitcom character and plot thread also raised thoughtful and significant questions about both comedy and society: namely, whether it’s okay for folks within a particular culture to joke about that culture in ways that would be out of bounds for those outside of it; and if so, what the boundaries and rules are for such stereotyping humor and art. I’m thinking for example about another 1996-97 text, the controversial “Niggas vs. Black People” routine that stand-up comedian Chris Rock featured on his 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain as well as his 1997 comedy album Roll with the New. Pretty much every joke in that routine wouldn’t fly if told by a white comedian (and perhaps not by any comedian in 2021, but that’s a subject for another post), but for Rock it became one of his most popular bits.

Perhaps not coincidentally, one of Key & Peele’s most enduringly popular sketches (it was the first one my sons heard about through YouTube word-of-mouth, for example) is “Substitute Teacher,” the beloved 2012 sketch about Mr. Garvey, the titular substitute who has taught “in the inner city” (as he puts it to the class) for decades and finds himself unable to pronounce the seemingly straightforward names of his white students correctly due to (we assume, until the sketch’s final joke about the class’s one African American student drives the point home) his extensive experiences with African American students and their distinctly pronounced and/or spelled names. I found the sketch hilarious when I first encountered it and have greatly enjoyed returning to it with the boys (and subsequently quoting it with them at random moments, as one does with great comic lines), but at each of those stages I’ve also wondered if it’s appropriate for me to be laughing at a premise that is fundamentally dependent on a cultural stereotype about African American names. That’s a somewhat different question from whether it’s okay for Key and Peele to make these jokes—but since comedy is so defined by audience response, by that desired laughter, it’s certainly not an unrelated question.

I’m sorry to confess that I’m not going to be able to come up with answers to these fraught questions in the last paragraph of this post (and as ever, I welcome your thoughts on them, in comments here or by email). But I will say that as with so much great humor and great art overall, it seems to me that the real secret to what makes “Substitute Teacher” work so well is the writing, characters, and performances, not just from Key as Mr. Garvey (although it’s one of his best performances from the show) but also from all the young actors who portray the white students. These characters are so delightfully human in their reactions—and again, not just Mr. Garvey’s frustrations and anger, but the varied reactions of the student characters—that they required a sequel sketch to flesh out their individual and collective dynamics further. That humorous, shared humanity doesn’t mean that we can or should ignore the cultural and social questions, no more than we can with any of the issues raised by the sketches I’ve examined this week. But it does reflect another layer to the comic genius of Key & Peele, and one that makes sketches like “Substitute Teacher” so enduringly successful.

Last sketches tomorrow,


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

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