By Peter Hummers on June 3, 2021
In 1990 17-year-old Dave Chappelle was featured in a montage of random people telling a joke in the first episode of ABC’s America’s Funniest People. He moved from D.C. to New York to pursue a career in comedy and was booed off the stage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater during Amateur Night; he later said this experience gave him the courage to continue in his quest to become a comedian. By 2006, Chappelle was called the “comic genius of America” by Esquire Magazine and in 2013, “the best” by a Billboard writer. In 2017, Rolling Stone ranked him No. 9 in their “50 Best Stand Up Comics of All Time.”
In 1995 Fox debuted an ensemble sketch comedy show inspired by Mad Magazine, titled MADtv (streaming here). Jordan Peele and his future collaborator Keegen-Michael Key joined separately in 2004. The first episode of their own eponymous sketch show drew 2.1 million viewers in 2012, making it the most-watched Comedy Central launch since 2009.
Chappelle and Neal Brennan (with whom he wrote the screenplay for the 1998 stoner comedy Half Baked [streaming here]) co-created and co-executive produced this show for Comedy Central, teaming up like Lennon and McCartney to write the sketches; some were by Chappelle, some by Brennan, and some were collaborations, but all were credited to the pair. It’s an audacious show for the time (and moreso today), with skits about a 1950’s white family (shot in black and white) named “N*ggar,” a mock documentary about a blind African American who becomes a leading white supremacist, and who, when told his ethnicity, divorces his wife, calling her a “n*gger lover,” a look at a gay KKK cell, etc. It’s sometimes shocking, in marked contrast to Dave’s own extremely laid-back personlity, and always funny.
There are recurring characters, most famously Tyrone Biggums (Chappelle), a squeaky-voiced crack addict; in his first appearance he is mistakenly asked to give an anti-drug talk to a class of grade-schoolers, which ends with the children hastily scribbling down local addresses where they could score and the teacher telling the camera, “Worst talk ever!”
There’s music; the opening theme is sung by blues greats Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, on camera. Rappers Mos Def, and the RZA, GZA, and Method Man from the Wu-Tang Clan are among the recurring guests, who appear in skits and in performance.
Charlie Murphy (Eddie’s older brother) wrote “True Hollywood Stories,” reminiscences in which he played himself, with Dave portraying Rick James (who appeared as his present-day self), and Prince. Murphy averred that the stories were true, which hasn’t been challenged, and the fun lay in the writing and acting. Prince honored Dave by putting Dave’s picture in character as Prince on the cover of one of his singles.
Fasten your seatbelts and grap your popcorn for a legendary and very funny show. Chappelle, who has been awarded with three Grammys, four Primetime Emmys, and the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, among others, remains active with two recent stand-up specials on Netflix (one introduced by Morgan Freeman), and more to come.
In 2004, Keegan-Michael Key joined the cast of Mad TV midway in the ninth season. He and Jordan Peele were cast against each other, but both were picked for their chemistry together. They capitalized on this with their own subsequent show, Key & Peele.
Their humor is less centered on race relations than Chappelle’s and more on traditional human foibles. Both Key and Peele are biracial and so are able to play many ethnicities in their brilliant sketches, their show winning a Peabody Award and two Emmys. Subjects are popular culture, social awkwardness, and ethic stereotypes: Mr. Garvey (Key) is an angry and intimidating substitute teacher and 20-year veteran of urban education. He has trouble pronouncing the common names of his mild-mannered and generally white suburban students, though he vehemently believes his pronunciations are correct, such as pronouncing the name Jacqueline as “Jay-kwellin” or Blake as “Balakay” or Denise as “Dee-Nice.” Any corrections from the students, he believes, are meant to make him look foolish.
There is “LaShawn and Samuel,” a gay couple with very differing personalities and views on marriage. Samuel (Key) is very intelligent and well-mannered and exercises restraint when making important decisions. LaShawn (Peele) is very loud and extremely flamboyant and is constantly thinking up often nonsensical and impossible ideas for their future.
There is “The Continental,” played by Peele, a strange, eccentric man who opulently and hedonistically indulges in his hotel’s free continental breakfast as well as flying first-class, and it’s implied (in a reference to The Shining) that he supernaturally inhabits the hotel.
The production values on these filmed skits are up there with the best serious TV series; no expense seems to be spared to give a realistic mise-en-scène for the ridiculous situations.
And, as Chappelle’s Show often features Eddy Murphy, a recurring segment on Key & Peele is the amazing “Metta World News,” starring NBA star Metta World Peace as the strangest newsreader in the world. He delivers, as “news,” bizarre hypothetical scenarios and his imagined approach to them. Here’s a 4-minute compilation of this mind-bending segment on the official Key & Peele YouTube channel, which curates videos of individual show segments that you can see without Hulu or Paramount+ subscriptions.
Key & Peele is more sophisticated and often funnier than even Chappelle’s Show; Dave Chappelle’s best work has come from his later standup, while Key and Peele are at the top of their game here. They are both also popular character actors (appearing together, for instance, in the first season of Fargo, as FBI agents), and Jordan Peele has had great success writing and directing the films Get Out (streaming here) and Us (streaming here).
If you have a funny bone, you’ll want to see both of these great shows. Next time, more anti-westerns from Kevin Costner, the movie Open Range and the current Paramount TV series Yellowstone.
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)