On last night’s "The Daily Show," host Jon Stewart interviewed the excellent comedy duo Key and Peele, whose show on Comedy Central is one of the slyest, strangest treatments of race on TV. One sketch featured an inner-city substitute teacher who insists on changing his name from Aaron to A.A.Ron. In another, they played slaves on an auction block, at first intent on rebelling but unable to resist the urge to compete over who gets sold first. In a different sketch, they were Germans who hastily coat themselves in whiteface to ward off an SS officer. But though race and racism is a staple of their comedy, they more often spoof the various ways black men, and men in general, perform masculinity for each other: as gangsters, as baseball players, as drug dealers, as high school bullies.
And the segment "The Daily Show" built around Key and Peele last night was a perfect extension of their brand. Before their interview with Stewart, they joined him for a bit called “Racist or Not Racist,” along with "Daily Show" correspondents Jessica Williams, Jason Jones, and Aasif Mandvi. The segment kicked off with a round-up of news anchors asking their viewers, “Was that racist?” Then Stewart rolled news clips and panelists debated them. At first the main joke was Jones as the beleaguered white guy who couldn’t say anything right. After watching one clip about a little boy who dressed up as a KKK member for Halloween, Williams and Mandvi declared it “racist” while Jones held up a sign that said “adorable.” "All I’m saying is it would be nice if we could get some impartial judges in here,” Jones said. When Stewart announced the arrival of two new guests, Jones said: “That would help me out a lot…” then mugged his disappointment when he saw Key and Peele.
But the sketch got more nuanced and its satire more backhanded when Key and Peele arrived. After an MSNBC clip quoted from an op-ed stating that New Yorkers with "conventional views" have to suppress a "gag reflex" when they behold their mayor-elect's interracial marriage, Key and Peele proclaimed it "racist—against white people." But then the whole conversation devolved into a weird sexual reverie involving an Asian man and three white women. It was a sharp, funny sendup of the media's fumbling relationship to racism, and a nice illustration of what makes Key and Peele so good: the way they manage to combine sharp social commentary with a sense of the bizarre.