Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Africa, that's a Flyover Continent"

Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele are a couple of young, bi-racial comedians who host a new TV sketch show on Comedy Central.

The key word here is bi-racial. Both comedians have white mothers and middle-class backgrounds, personal histories that make it difficult impossible for them to identify exclusively with one or another culture. Of course, there's nothing new about biraciality en principe--ask Sally Hemmings or Barack Obama--but it remains surprisingly new and uncharted territory in America, where for centuries the one-drop rule has meant that anyone with a small percent of African ancestry is considered black. (Even the president, whose election Key and Peele cite as critical for the evolution of their own comedic perspective, self-identifies as as African American, despite having had almost no serious contact with black American culture growing up.)

What's surprising is how much comedic landscape opens up s a result. Some of Key and Peele's humor comes from the absurd expectations other people have of them: Whites expect them to be ghetto-tough and black one minute, white and conciliatory the next; blacks expect the same, only in reverse. And some of their humor amounts to a salutary criticism of a lingering adversarial culture that makes less and less sense. One sketch features Peele as a streetcorner thug bragging about his masculinity when Obama's motorcade pulls up. Obama looks the thug up and down and says:  "I'm the leader of the Free World."  Hard to out-hustle a guy who can launch hellfire missiles.

But a lot of Key and Peele's jokes come from their having a critical distance toward their own "blackness." Their spoofs on black credulity and opportunism come this close to licensing racism, as if they're giving their white audience the opportunity to laugh at blacks because, as "blacks," they're allowed to say things whites wouldn't dare to say. I imagine there are some whites who enjoy their comedy for precisely that reason, just as some people thought Archie Bunker was a truth-teller. As Key and Peele become more popular, I worry that they'll come under increasing criticism from within the black community for selling out or playing blackface. I hope not. What Key and Peele are doing is much interesting than that, and they're funny in part because of how daring they are. As you laugh you're thinking--as you never do when you watch say, the vulgarities of a Comedy Central Roast--Can they say that? (Not that the roasts aren't funny; they're just not daring.)

Take the following exchange, with which they opened up one of their shows:

Welcome to the show. thank you for coming.
Uh, I am Keegan. - and I am Jordan. Hello.
And this is Key and Peele.
[cheers and applause] - AND, UH, AFRICA IS TRULY [bleep]ED UP.
You just came outta the gate with that.
IT'S [bleep]ED UP, KEEGAN.
See, and I completely disagree.
I would go to Africa right now.
No, see, there are flyover states. 
For me, Africa, that's a flyover continent.
So, you're seriously telling me you would not want to see the Nile?
You would not want to see the plains of the Serengeti - no.
You would not want to see, uh, Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro? - No.
You didn't. no, you did not.
I'm saying, ..
Slavery was an awful thing.
All I'm saying, silver lining, it got my ass out of Africa.
 Okay. - I said it.
But things are improving there, Jordan.
- it's not--it's not-- it's not different enough.
I'm sorry, no, I refuse to go to a continent that's so bad that people don't even care if there are flies on their face.

I don't want to comment on this too much. Jokes and frogs, for one thing. For another, I'm not quite sure what to make of it. Could a pair of white comics get away with saying this? Absolutely not. Could blacks? Maybe, but I've never heard any attempt it. Black comedians satirize blacks all the time--and wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't--but generally avoid doing it in ways that might embarrass their community in front of white audiences. That's where Key and Peele are ready to go. It's someplace we as a culture haven't been, and I wonder if we're ready to go there yet.

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