Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, on Key & Peele, have been putting themselves in the sketch comedy hall of fame since their show debuted in early 2012. As a sketch writer myself, I’m semi-furious at the consistent quality. Their smart sketches make Saturday Night Live look like the bucket of runny poop it is.
I can’t even imagine picking the Best Sketch Ever from this show. How could I not pick one of the Obama Anger Translator sketches? Or “Flicker,” which takes “made you look” to absurd extremes? Or “East/West College Bowl,” which glories in the ridiculousness of ridiculous names? Or even their very first sketch, “Bitch,” which perfectly nails false male bravado? I give up. This show is too damn good.
Since this is my column, I get to cheat. Instead of Best Sketch Ever, I’m giving Key & Peele the Oscar for Best Mother Joke Ever.
I love mother jokes. I love them so much I just started a new Twitter account (@cnnyourmom) devoted to the cause. There’s just something so delightfully stupid about insulting someone’s mom. I think the first mother joke I ever heard was one commonly heard in the Buffalo suburbs: “Your mother (or, if you prefer, yo mama) works on Chippewa St.” (Let’s just say Chippewa St. was less vibrant and more sex worker-y in those days.) Another memorable diss occurred when I was 14-ish and playing basketball with an older kid. While attempting a free throw, he said, “If I make this shot, your mother is a pig-fucking whore.” That kind of blew my mind. Who knew a free throw had the power to condemn my female parent to bestiality and degradation? To me, mother jokes are as absurd as a Harold Pinter play.
I think Pinter himself might have been proud of Key & Peele’s “Yo Mama Has Health Problems,” from season one. Please take a moment to google this sketch and watch it. I can wait.
All done? Great. There are so many things I love about this sketch.
Structurally, it’s perfect. “Yo Mama Has Health Problems” is kind of a clothesline sketch at the beginning: that’s a type of sketch in which a bunch of jokes are laid out one after another, like clothes on a line. The pattern of set-up, mother joke, set-up, mother joke is classic clothesline. Then there’s a beautiful reversal, as Peele’s Mr. Lewis transcends a silly sketch character and becomes a real person using humor to cope with his mother’s problems. Then we get an immortal reversal: Key’s Dr. Gupta tosses in a real mother joke at the end—and the crudest of the lot. Key saying “Oh, snap” in his Indian accent is an understated thing of wonder. The final button on the sketch “Now let’s talk about the procedure” underlines the reality underneath the absurdity, or maybe vice versa. Either way, wow. What a sketch.
The acting, as usual, is terrific. Key nails the Indian accent of the doctor and his pleading that this issue be taken seriously. Peele is boisterous and giddy firing back mother jokes. Both are wonderful during the transitions. Key losing his temper betrays no winking to the audience: the anger feels real, and it’s certainly justified. As Peele drops the façade of jokes, he’s wonderfully vulnerable. I’m sure both these dudes could do dramatic acting pretty easily. They have chops.
Like “Flicker,” which turns “made you look” into a comedy epic, “Yo Mama Has Health Problems” takes an old, disparaged, seemingly worn-out comedy premise and stands it on its head while pumping new life into its veins. That’s inspiring.
It’s also a reminder of the infinite possibilities of sketch comedy. Sketches don’t get much more respect than jokes. They’re usually treated like insubstantial fluff next to longer genres, but that’s bunk. The brevity of sketches creates incredible freedom: since the characters and premises don’t have to drag on for an hour or more, they can go absolutely anywhere, do anything, satirize anybody, or just be in the style of classic absurdist theater. This sketch—and every episode of Key & Peele—should light a fire under sketch writers everywhere. There’s so much that can be done.
To your mom.