The Parody Trap: Portlandia vs Key & Peele

By brian longtin • Apr 2nd, 2013 • Category: watching • Popularity: 63%

Key & Peele push their sketches past the simple parody of Portlandia; and that willingness to go the extra distance, to find moments of universal, emotional truth in their comedy, makes them the best sketch show on television.

Let’s play a game. It’s called, “Write a sketch that makes fun of hipsters who ______.” Now fill in the blank with a trendy affectation, niche hobby or urban fad, take it to its extreme, and ta da! Comedy. Portlandia excels at this game. Occasionally you can substitute yuppies (hipsters with money), or hippies (aging hipsters older than Gen X; because Gen X hipsters are still clinging to not being old yet), but the formula still holds. The wigs are just different.

Fred Armisen’s skill at impersonating a wide range of hipster neuroses has taken Portlandia a long way so far. Over a few seasons, Carrie Brownstein has revealed a real gift for comedic timing and restraint that’s a terrific balance to her cartoonish costar. And every few episodes their talents combine with some excellent writing in a sketch that perfectly skewers some thing the kids (or adults-in-denial) are doing. When they nail a target like that, they rightly earn the huge laughs and retweets a great comedic parody deserves. But it’s hard not to see this well running dry after their third season. There are only so many hipster quirks to ridicule.

Not to say the show isn’t clever, or one of the funniest sketch shows on TV. Unfortunately, that just isn’t saying much. Portlandia faces a problem that’s long been plaguing Armisen’s other gig, SNL, where every third sketch is a parody game show, talk show, or commercial (seriously, try to find a single episode that doesn’t have at least one of these three). These formats almost always depend on outsized stereotypes or celebrity impressions for laughs, which is type of crutch. When in doubt, rely on a shallow formula: the humor of recognition.

Laughs brought on by mirroring back to us what we already know earn the easy reaction of, “Oh my god, that’s totally how those people are! How crazy are they, right?” It’s not so different from what a million Gangnam Style knockoffs are attempting, or what comedy fans scorn Dane Cook for leaning on so heavily (”Remember POP TARTS, guys!?”). Fred and Carrie get a little more credit for targeting the narrow over the broad, but are farm-to-table cafes or a bunch of people shushing each other over TV spoilers all that different than airplane food or the driving habits of minorities? We laugh because we’ve totally noticed that too!

This is the humor of identification, where the connection starts from a safely accepted common ground and exaggerates it into absurdity so that we can all comfortably mock from a distance.


Stand-up comedy is currently enjoying a resurgence, primarily on the wave of performers willing to find comedy not in bludgeoning easy targets, but in probing laughable realities to reveal emotional truths. Louie CK. Marc Maron. Patton Oswalt. (Even Kyle Kinane, a personal favorite.) They start with challenging premises, then lead us down a winding a path of cleverly constructed comedy until we come around to their skewed view of the weird world we live in. Instead of distancing themselves from a subject in order to ridicule, they dig deeply into the specifically personal to find new but strangely relatable interpretations of reality.

Key & Peele operates closer to this mode. Their willingness to push their sketches past simple parody — to go the extra distance to find moments of universal, emotional truth in their comedy — makes them the best sketch show on television.

Not that they don’t also do pure parody, and do it as sharply as anyone. Their “East/West Bowl” sketch hit its target so precisely the laughs are tear-inducing. But more often Key & Peele play a different game than Portlandia’s (or SNL’s) fall-back parody-premise-generator. Instead of choosing a target first, they start with, “Wouldn’t it be funny if ______?” And instead of choosing something we all already know to mirror back to us, they explore absurd situations for their inherent humanity. What if two gangsters bonded over their love of vampire romance? What if a bully had no filter and gave voice to every messed-up thing he was really feeling? What if (in a personal favorite) an overweight nerd, pretending to order pizzas for a whole party, so he could eat three pizzas on his own, had to deal with a pizza guy that wanted to come to his party and hook up with his fake friend? And crucially, how can we end up seeing something of ourselves in these characters?

None of these sketches exist solely so we can laugh at gangsters, bullies, or nerds for the stereotypes associated with them. Sure, they exaggerate characters for laughs along the way, but each bit has a turning point. Each one hinges on something real: unlikely friendship, insecurity, loneliness. Key & Peele push through the easy laughs for deeper ones.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of their most brilliant pieces, the non-stop LMFAO party. Any comedy team could easily poke fun at the goofy outfits and continuous stream of jello shots that go along with the club life as depicted by these kind of songs. But Key & Peele do us one better. They don’t just skewer the inane lyrics (though they do), or overplay the glazed looks on the faces of zombie-like partygoers (though they do that too). That would be the simple route, the humor of recognition. In the world of Key & Peele, LMFAO aren’t just ridiculous. They’re trapped in an existential nightmare. The joke lands exponentially harder because we’re not laughing at the ridiculous thing we already knew — that these guys are themselves kind of a joke. We’re laughing at something revealed through humor that we may never have realized was true: a non-stop party is actually a kind of hell.


All this isn’t to explain why one show is funny and one is not. Few things are less interesting than picking apart jokes. Both shows have shining moments and clunkers, and either makes a fine way to spend a happy half-hour. But one show seems to get much more credit in pop culture than the other, and it would be a shame if the one that lasts longer and enjoys more success is also the one more in danger of running on fumes. Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele deserve credit for the huge amount of care they obviously put into their writing, not to mention their skill and range as actors. They might not ‘go viral’ as often as they would parodying easy targets, but theirs is the more satisfying work. Similar to the all-time best sketch shows like Kids In The Hall or Mr. Show, Key & Peele may not be non-stop laughs every episode. But at their best they hit on something deeper, something harder to express, and something truer that will stay with us longer.

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brian longtin has a lot to say and not enough time to say it these days.
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2 Responses »

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