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How Key and Peele Use Stereotypes to Reduce Bias

Key Peele

Since Comedy Central began airing “Key and Peele” in 2011, the comedy sketch show has been met with just as much controversy as acclaim—mostly due to the actors’ use of stereotypes and racial humor. Former MADtv stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are self-described as biracial, and both are skilled at impersonations and dialects, allowing them to play convincing characters of any culture.

While many of their sketches rely more on puns or physical comedy, their most controversial sketches play heavily off of stereotypes to get the joke across. This has yielded mixed results from viewers, many of whom accuse the show of perpetuating negative stereotypes.

But is talking about stereotypes always negative and hateful? Other audience members don’t think so, and comment on how refreshing it is to see Key and Peele point out racism in pop culture.

 

Tweets like these reveal mixed emotions about Key and Peele’s use of stereotypes, but what about their intent? I’ve become convinced that the comics use stereotypes as a tool against bias by getting viewers to reconsider personal views and find common ground with others, all through their unique brand of humor.

Based on the wide range of groups they’ve ridiculed, so far nothing is sacred to these comedians. As a result, there are no boundaries holding them back from poking fun at any culture.  Yet there’s more to it than just using stereotypes to mock groups of people. Like an old idiom says, “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” so instead of burying uncomfortable subjects, Key and Peele are pulling them out and exposing the more ridiculous parts of each. In a way, these sketches don’t even really mock stereotyped groups at all. They pointedly lambast characteristics associated with those groups or even just individuals within them.

For example, in the sketch “Proud Thug,” drug dealer “Carlito” is too proud to take a seat during a cartel meeting, and the situation keeps escalating as he refuses medical treatment, then dies and stubbornly refuses to go to Heaven, still too proud to accept help from his friends. On a superficial level it seems like the sketch is mocking Latinos. But on a closer look it becomes apparent that only Carlito’s excessive pride is being ridiculed, the rest of his friends don’t have the same problem at all. So, in the end, who or what is being lampooned? Latinos in general? Or thug culture? Or maybe just individual pride and stubbornness? The situation is funny with or without the stereotypes, so perhaps Key and Peele chose the Latin drug dealer stereotype as a frame for the story because the audience was already familiar with a stereotype that Latin men are proud. They then tapped into that idea, brought it to light, and made their audiences reconsider before repressing it again.

Maybe some viewers before the sketch really thought that Latino men were prideful. But after that negative trait is built up to the point of absurdity (i.e. Carlito dying and refusing the enter heaven on account of his pride), even the most close-minded viewers are forced to reconsider that stereotype. This formula can be seen in many of Key and Peele’s sketches, using humor to challenging racism toward many different groups of people.

On a recent sketch from Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” Key and Peele pointed out another important aspect of racism. In a hilarious segment called “Racist or Not Racist,” Stewart presented cases to a diverse panel of judges which then handed down a racism verdict. In one case, a columnist said that people with traditional views have to “repress a gag-reflex” when considering a biracial marriage, to which Keegan-Michael Key responded that the columnist was “A volcano of hate … against white people!” He and Peele went on to explain that it’s just as racist to assume that some white people can’t stomach a biracial marriage as it is for those supposed racists to dislike that marriage. So even as the laughter on this segment died away, some truth remained, namely, that racism and stereotyping are a two-way street not exclusive to any group of people.

The two comedians expounded upon this concept in their March 13th “Time Magazine” opinion article, “Make Fun of Everything.”  The short piece was the featured article in the “ideas” issue, and in it Key and Peele challenged modern American culture by asking, “When did America get so politically correct?” They go on to explain a recent sketch where an insult comic is uncomfortably pressured into mocking a wheelchair-bound, gay burn victim with an artificial larynx, citing it as an example of their no-holds-barred approach to comedy where everyone should be able to laugh at themselves.

But should anything be off limits? They ask this, saying they can’t be too edgy for fear of insulting and driving away their audience. Nevertheless, Key and Peele think that theirs is a higher calling where they have the opportunity to use humor as a tool to reduce tensions and stereotypes by breaking free from the grip of political correctness.

“It’s our duty,” according to a post the duo wrote. “To not make fun of something is, we believe, itself a form of bullying. When a humorist makes the conscious decision to exclude a group from derision, isn’t he or she implying that the members of that group are not capable of self-reflection? Or don’t possess the mental faculties to recognize the nuances of satire? A group that’s excluded never gets the opportunity to join in the greater human conversation.”

Like medicine, some of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s humor can be hard to take, but it may be a necessary antidote for political correctness. So instead of pushing cultural groups further apart, these comedians are finding common ground through humor. By forcing us to reexamine our own biases, they are reducing stereotypes and helping us realize that we all have plenty to laugh at, regardless of our differences.

Photo Courtesy of Danny Feld/Comedy Central

Find Emiah on Google+

Emiah has always been intrigued by the cable TV industry. She is consistently questioning how certain shows become pop culture phenomenons while others unceremoniously fail. Emiah has a deep appreciation for Andy Cohen and The Real Housewives franchise.

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