For as big of a hit as Chappelle's Show proved to be for Comedy Central, its abrupt ending after two seasons meant that the cable network largely missed out on cashing in on the show's monster buzz and extreme viral video potential. It was a real case of bad timing for the network; Dave Chappelle walked away from the series in the middle of 2006, when YouTube was a little over a year old.
Luckily for Comedy Central, six years later, Key & Peele arrived.
The sketch show, from former MADtv writer/performers Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, is currently one episode into its third season on Comedy Central, and has proven to be a hit both on air — it won its time slot among men 18-34 last fall — and especially online. Since the show's inception, its bits have racked up nearly 300 million views on YouTube; some of the more popular clips tip toward 20 and 30 million plays each.
And that's no accident; engineering their sketches for maximum viral reach is part of the blueprint for Key and Peele.
"We find stuff that has built-in fan bases and built-in audiences really take off," Key said. "We're going [to use] different sports a lot this season; there's a Star Wars sketch this year; certain things that have to do with technology, like what it's like to try to have a conversation on Skype that will resonate with a lot of people."
When they zero in and capitalize on single pop culture phenomenon, much like a timely SNL sketch, it's all about celebrating fandoms and identifications.
"There are a lot of sketches that work within genres, and the niches that those genres hit are big popular basic cable shows," Peele explained. "People who watch Walking Dead, watch Game of Thrones, watch Breaking Bad, it'll resonate with those people."
The next step and most crucial aspect of Key and Peele's sketches though, is expanding the joke out from that specificity to a broader audience. The Breaking Bad sketch, for example, is really just about counting huge stacks of cash, asking how the hell gangsters know that the suitcases of bills that they're given in shady exchanges are actually filled to satisfaction.
"We can start from anywhere; the strategy with where to go is really in that first choice," Peele said, going on to explain the process. "'OK, we can do anything we want. What if we made a scene about Les Miserables, so we can really get the musical theater crowd endorsing our show and realizing we understand what's funny in their world?' And from there, we'll try to make the sketch universal from there-on-out. So really, we have that nugget, that target from the beginning, and then we find that funny is funny because it's something that speaks to everyone."
When the episodes air, each is coded with a certain hashtag; whichever gets tweeted the most then gets put online.
It's no secret that there's plenty of traffic to be generated from fandoms and general pop culture obsessives, but there's also the issue of comic authenticity, which is an elusive and very different beast. Key and Peele spent years on MADtv, the perpetual also-ran to SNL, but with their own show came the freedom to touch on edgier topics. The duo found themselves in the position to mine social issues and deliver sketches through the filters of their own backgrounds. Both Key and Peele are biracial, each has one black and one white parent, which has provided the insight and social permission to tackle some of today's thornier news stories.
Even then, though, they're working to make the actual elements of their socially-relevant sketches universal, immune to politics and undeniable in their truth, even when they're exposing raw nerves beneath that comic veneer. You may not like what they're saying, but you at least can't deny the legitimacy of it.
In this season's premiere, Key and Peele poke at the long-standing friction between proactive law enforcement and malignant prejudice that led to the death of Trayvon Martin. The sketch features a black kid (Peele) wearing a hoodie as he walks home from school through a white neighborhood, scaring its buttoned-up inhabitants; as a suspicious cop approaches from behind, the kid pulls up his hood — which has a white teen's face printed on the side — and alleviates the ostensibly racist officer's suspicions.
If you don't think there is an element of racial profiling in law enforcement these days, there's not much they can do to help you get the joke; maybe look up the NYPD's "Stop and Frisk" philosophy.
"We try not to be preachy, and in the quest not to be preachy, we try to figure out what is going to resonate to the most amount of people. What is something that both represents not only our opinion, but is also something that is undeniable?" Peele explained. "The other thing, technique-wise, that happens with that sketch is there are no words. If there are no words, you can't preach. It's really hard to get up on a soap box and preach. If you allow the audience to piece together parts of the sketch in order to get it, their sensibilities have done the work, and they can't go back and say, 'That's not right, it doesn't ring true,' because if they got it, it must have rang true."
But when those sketches draw criticism (which, by the way, makes them more viral), it's not unexpected.
"We have melanin in our skin, so it depends on who's watching the sketch; it's about race, whether we want it to be or not," Peele added. "We just take subject matter that we think is interesting. We make a comedic choice about that, and whoever is watching it is watching it through a filter of their personal history, so because we happen to have darker skin, there you go."
Their social commentary isn't just limited to race, either.
"One thing I don't mind saying, there was a certain voice to a lot of MADtv sketches that sort of targeted people that are often victims," Peele said. "I think we wanted to make sure we targeted bullies, as opposed to people who the comedy has already been about for a while."
He cited the pair's Wendell sketch, in which an overweight nerd becomes a bully in his own fantasies, calling a gorgeous woman a 4 on the 1-to-10 scientific scale of hotness (OK, so she's an action figure, but she's at least based on a real woman). That is where the comedy comes from; not his girth.
"A victim can manifest itself in a couple different ways: A victim can be a person who has a huge nose or big teeth, and the thing is, there is nothing they can do about that," Peele added, pointing to the Wendell sketch as part of their effort to re-work the typical pile-on approach that so often happens in pedestrian comedy. "So what we would be doing then is ostensibly, we'd really just being schoolyard bullies, because we'd be bullying someone about an attribute about themselves that's intrinsic, and that just seems not fair to do."
There are other elements from MADtv that they learned to avoid — no live sketches or laughter over the broadcast — and for the most part, they try not to use the same characters again and again. One exception, though, is Peele's dead-on impression of President Obama — and Key's raucous work as his anger translator, Luther. Expect more where that came from.
"There's an Obama sketch later in the season where Obama is trying to have a romantic evening with Michelle," Key explained. "He's not being as blunt as he needs to be, so Michelle asks Luther to come in to help translate these intimate communications, and then Obama in turn says, 'Can we get your translator?'"
The First Lady gets her own anger translator, which takes the joke to the next level; so far, Key and Peele have decided to keep riding a hit, even as politics unfold during and in between each season.
"Even in the crises we're in now," Peele said, "Obama still maintains a particular personality and persona and that's what we're working with."