As Comedy Central's Key & Peele crept closer to its series finale — announced partway through its fifth season, to the surprise of many — the sketch show was lauded for its consistency, honesty, and straight-up lunacy. Stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are comedic chameleons who can take on any character thrown at them, whether that means hyperactive valets, a dysfunctional couple, the president of the United States, or even just fictionalized versions of themselves. Key and Peele, both biracial, have been able to tackle issues other (whiter) sketch shows can't touch, and they've done so with enthusiasm and empathy. The show has also taken fraught concepts like identity and masculinity to create sketches that ring both true and hilarious.
All these aspects of Key & Peele have been celebrated throughout its five-season run, and rightly so. But another aspect of the series that I'll miss is one that is less obvious when it's done well, as it was on Key & Peele: its incredible production value.
There's no question that Key & Peele's writing and acting was some of the sharpest in the sketch game, but there are very few shows that pay as close attention to detail as this one did. Tapping into the powers of set design, wardrobe, hair and makeup, editing, cinematography, and Peter Atencio's brilliant direction is what made Key & Peele stand out among its comedic peers. Even the Television Academy agreed, giving the show several technical nominations in addition to Key's supporting actor nod and the show's overall nomination in the new Variety Sketch Series category. (Atencio, however, was not nominated for his directing.)
Key & Peele's influence could be seen in Kroll Show, Nick Kroll's meticulous sketch ode to reality shows that wrapped up last year. It would be exciting to see more shows follow suit, since Key & Peele's level of commitment across the board is what makes it a singular achievement in comedy.
To celebrate its legacy and send it off into that good television night, here are seven of Key & Peele's most visually impressive sketches.
1) "Negrotown" (2015)
While this sketch was included in last night's series finale, Peele actually released it in May. This was two full months before the season began, but Peele tweeted that he "had to release this one early," being in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore. The sketch itself is an ambitious feat. It starts in a dank alleyway where Key's character gets arrested, knocked out, and mentally sent to "Negrotown," a Technicolor dreamworld in which white people — especially "scared cashiers" and "trigger-happy cops"— are nowhere to be found. Suddenly, Negrotown transitions into an MGM musical number that hits racist standards and hits them hard. In a retrospective with the Hollywood Reporter, Peele pointed to this sketch in particular as a moment when they achieved "a different level of synchronicity with our team, especially Peter Atencio, our treasured director."
2) "White Zombies" (2012)
As The Walking Dead kept smashing ratings records, Key & Peele got into the zombie fray with its own take on horror's most disgusting villains. This sketch, which follows the bemused pair as they walk unscathed through a white suburban neighborhood overrun with zombies, was one of the show's early viral hits. The concept carried it through, but "White Zombies" also solidified Atencio's prowess as a director. His attention to zombie movie tropes like handheld cameras, quick movement, and wide shots that pan slooowly up to the sky also made sure critics describing Key & Peele sketches would inevitably turn to the word "cinematic."
3) "LMFAO's Non-Stop Party" (2012)
While Key and Peele's hair and wardrobe help make them surprisingly good LMFAO doppelgängers, the most impressive part of this sketch is how the direction and editing sell the premise. As the two sing about how "the party don't stop," they slowly start to realize that this is literally true; they're stuck in a party for the rest of time. The quick cuts and manic camera movements highlight their panic as they try to find a way out, escalating until they finally can't take it anymore. Without this, it would've been a whole lot harder to get us invested in Groundhog Day: LMFAO Edition.
4) "Obama — The College Years" (2012)
Peele's impression of the president is one of the best ones out there, but the reason this imagined look at Barack Obama's college days works is because of the incredible effort to make it look like a home video from 1980. Everything about it — from the grainy video quality to the guests in their frizzy finest to Obama himself holding court in a polyester suit that's still clinging to the '70s — gets behind this concept and sells the hell out of it.
5) "Aerobics Meltdown" (2014)
This is another grainy video period sketch, but "Aerobics Meltdown" has the bonus of cutting back and forth between the terrible quality of the 1980s workout tape and the actual taping of the event itself. As the dancers keep pumping away in their bright purple spandex, "Lightning" (Key) looks off-camera, where a crewmember is telling him about a terrible accident — one cue card at a time. This concept needs clear visuals to sell the disparity between the grinning aerobics and Lightning's increasing horror, a cheesy aerobics video and an uneasy thriller.
6) "Dubstep" (2012)
People who love dubstep often have a hard time explaining why. They just turn up the music to chest-pounding levels, tell you to wait for the drop, and then lose their minds. Key and Peele take this literally for this sketch, and it's about what you'd expect. But the sound editing and frantic cuts are so specific, so deliberately chosen to punctuate the sketch's beats, that the sketch becomes more than just the characters' dubstep-induced mania.
7) "East/West College Bowl 2" (2013)
However much other sketches considered their details, though, there are no better examples of how Key & Peele was a collective effort than the "East/West College Bowl" sketches. These follow a simple formula: Sportcasters introduce the East/West college bowl football teams, and then both Key and Peele are off, alternately grinning and blinking into the camera in quick succession. By the time the sketch is through, we've seen them as more than 30 different people.
This is an enormous undertaking for hair and makeup, which take care to make Key and Peele's increasingly unhinged players distinct from one another. "East/West College Bowl" also pulls in impressive graphic design talent to make the bit look as much like an ESPN show as possible, with its constant background movement and awkwardly serious shots of the players. Any one of these elements would stand out as impressive taken on its own, but they're far more impressive when they all work together — a fact Key & Peele never forgot.
BONUS ROUND: Series finale blooper reel
If Key & Peele's hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments ever need a reel, they couldn't do much better than this set of bloopers, which aired at the tail end of the series finale. Without any kind of narrative distraction, we're free to admire the astonishing work of the people who helped Key and Peele create dozens of characters per season (or in the case of "East/West Bowl," per sketch). Whatever Key and Peele do next, they likely will not be undergoing the same level of transformations, or at the very least, not the same impressive volume of them.