Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, whose Comedy Central show ends its great five-season run Wednesday, saved their best for last – well, sort of. The uncensored version of the "Key & Peele" grand finale, an elaborate musical production number called, "Negrotown," has notched more than 5 million hits on YouTube since being posted in May, long before their TV farewell.
The video bears repeated viewings, on screens of all sizes: The segment, a 1950s Technicolor fantasia out of "The Music Man," showcases a black Utopia where “you can walk the street without being stopped, harassed or beat.” It's vintage Key and Peele: clever, cutting and funny – until the kicker, a subtle and sobering wallop to the gut.
“Negrotown” offers a final high note from a duo who turned a funhouse mirror on race in America and underscored that, despite progress, too often the song remains the same.
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The mini-musical recalls some of the team’s strongest sketches, including a Season 2 zombie apocalypse spoof in which the white undead avoid living black people, and last season’s skit in which alien invaders masquerading as humans could be identified by their racial attitudes.
Key and Peele have been compared to their Comedy Central predecessor Dave Chappelle. But the shows’ approaches to sometimes-similar material often proved different. Just check out the programs’ respective ESPN spoofs: Chappelle’s 2004 “racial draft” sketch, in which different ethnic groups vied to count (or discount) major figures as their own, might be his best, most provocative work. Key and Peele’s recent “teachers draft” bit, in which educators were celebrated and rewarded like top athletes, ranks among of the final season’s best moments.
While Chappelle’s style recalls that of Richard Pryor, Key and Peele are more rooted in the sketch comedy of their past gig at “Mad TV.” But that doesn’t mean the duo lacks edge. Key and Peele are keenly aware of what’s happening around them – and quick enough to reflect the times by taking viewers to places like “Negrotown.”
Both men are biracial, like President Obama, the subject of an ace imitation by Peele, who plays a low-key chief executive to Key’s ants-in-his-tailored-pants Luther, the President's “anger translator.” Luther, after an appearance with the real Obama at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in April, returned this season – but proved no match for Hillary Clinton's anger translator, Savannah, who profanely derided the President as a “dream stealer.”
Luther has a lot to say. So do Key and Peele, whose satirical voices, together and apart, hopefully will ring on well beyond an at-times brilliant show that left us with an unforgettable song – and a message delivered with smart and deceivingly pointed humor.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.