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As a comedy team, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are very funny.
As guys who both lay claim to biracial status (black fathers, white mothers), they share a state of informed in-betweenness that gives their comedy extra punch and extraordinary insight.
Race fuels much of "Key & Peele," their sketch-and-standup half-hour series airing Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central. Straddling the great divide between White and Black, they deliver a special brand of laughs, along with the occasional epiphany.
"There's been a lot of racial comedy over the years," says Peele. "But being biracial, mixed individuals, we realized there's been nothing from our perspective."
Even so, their mission isn't social reform.
"We're not trying to lead anybody toward any specific conclusion," says Peele, "except that, ultimately, race is an absurd thing."
The comedy of Key and Peele is clever, keenly observed and fearless. But never mean.
Consider their sketch set in the antebellum South. They play slaves who, placed on the auction block, grow increasingly indignant that no one is bidding on them, while all the other slaves are snapped up.
Then there's the sketch set in Germany in 1942, as a Nazi colonel looking for escaped blacks finds Key and Peele hiding out - in white-face. With their nervous denials and bad disguise, they manage to convince their pursuer that they're not one of them.
Peele displays TV's best impersonation of Barack Obama in several sketches where the unflappable president is joined by Luther, his "anger translator" who channels, unfiltered, what Obama is really thinking.
In person, Key and Peele are both affable, reflective chaps who genuinely seem to get a kick out of each other.
Key, the tall, hyper and bald partner, is 41 and grew up in Detroit. Peele, husky and more laid-back, is 33 and hails from New York.
They met a decade ago in Chicago, where Key was performing in a Second City improv troupe and Peele, then in the Amsterdam-based Boom Chicago comedy group, was visiting as part of a cast swap between Boom and Second City. Both soon found their way to Los Angeles where they spent several years in the ensemble of Fox's "Mad TV." Key also appeared on the sitcom "Gary Unmarried" and "Reno 411!" Jordan performed on "Chocolate News" and "Childrens Hospital."
Then, earlier this year, they unveiled the first season of "Key & Peele," an ideal showcase for them to find the funny in issues that may or may not address race explicitly, but often use race as a way to score laughs.
"We love to show bravado, and then undercut that bravado," says Key. Example: two hit men are on a stakeout when one of them, struggling to maintain his gangsta toughness, announces he has just soiled his pants.
Does this sketch somehow demean the black race?
"We want the audience to think, 'They were going to do a hit, but he pooped himself!'" says Key, bursting into laughter. "That's not about being black, brother. That's just funny!"
In another sketch, Key and Peele play a pair of natty businessmen grabbing lunch at a soul food diner. As they place their orders, they slip into a duel of "competing blackness" to see who can think of the most "authentic" soul-food cuisine. The grand winner is Key's character, who orders up "a platter of stork ankles, an old cellar door, a possum spine and a human foot."
A routine like that makes a telling comment on how people feel a need to claim, defend, or reassert membership in one group or another. And this holds true especially when someone doesn't naturally identify with any group.
Sometimes the urge for membership can lead a person astray. In one sketch, Key plays a prison inmate who, being bald, seeks kinship with a group of likewise bald prisoners. But rather than accept him, they keep beating him up. No wonder. They're shaved-head white supremacists.
"You can talk about a comfortable WASP experience or a comfortable blackness," says Key matter-of-factly, "but we've never occupied either of those spaces."