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‘Key & Peele’s’ Lady Problem (And the Perils of Loving Comedy While Female)

'Key & Peele's' Lady Problem (And the Perils of Loving Comedy While Female)

The much-missed Key & Peele returned to Comedy Central last night. Now in Season Four, the show is one of the network’s best. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have amazing range, they’re delightfully weird, they do these gorgeous, high-budget genre parodies, and their race-based comedy is pretty damn edgy.

So it’s a real bummer that their sketches involving women are oddly regressive, based in the kinds of vague stereotypes they otherwise expertly skewer. I imagine these female-centric bits springing out of “women are like this” conversations between the two friends — which is often confirmed for me when they talk about it in their live-on-stage bits interspersed with the sketches.

This issue is a frequent problem for me as a lover of comedy. And of just laughing out loud, which I do a lot watching this show. Even, I’ll admit, during some of the clips below. But I’ll feel bad about it afterward. And this is certainly not unique to my experience of Key & Peele.

When comedy is a lifelong passion, I have found, you have to wade through so much sexist bullshit. Bill Hicks? Yup. Eddie Murphy? Oh my god; but still, Raw and Delirious were required viewing as a teenager, if you were into comedy. Benny Hill made me laugh. So did Monty Python’s Flying Circus — a lot — but both shows basically used their female actresses as cleavage-delivery systems.

These days, I’m still regularly disappointed by some of the best comics around when they turn out to have the same old prejudices about women. I’m annoyed that otherwise talented male performers, with big successful shows, can get away with phoning in stupid, rehashed jokes at women’s expense. I’m looking at you, Bill Maher. And Daniel Tosh. And Tracy Morgan. And Seth MacFarlane. (Family Guy was funny back when he was actually running it, I’ll argue in the face of rampant opposition, but even in its earliest seasons there was a meanness about women that tempered my enjoyment.) I find many things to like in the comedy — and lefty political ramblings — of Russell Brand, but holy shit, what a sexist.

For God’s sake, even the adorable John Mulaney (whose new show looks dubious, but whose standup is pretty brilliant) has a bit about how there could never be a female Ocean’s Eleven, because pairs of them would keep “breaking away from the group to talk shit about the other nine.” Because women are so bitchy! Sigh.

But I like to think of Key & Peele as more evolved than the rest of the pack — maybe because they’re so ahead of the game on race comedy. So I’m reliably surprised when their portrayals of women just… don’t seem to be trying that hard.

Be better than that, Key & Peele. So I can laugh without it stinging a little. And so I can just enjoy the show without having to point stuff like this out.

The biggest irritant for me has been the recurring character of Meegan, the shrill and needy girlfriend.

A slightly funnier take on Meegan (Megan, in this case?) is here, in which the comics lambaste the way women talk about cuteness as if they need to devour it.

But mostly, she’s a walking, talking embodiment of bad stand-up about how crazy girlfriends can act. As with “Meegan Come Back”:

Another recurring theme is the old saw about being scared of your girlfriend/wife. Check out “I Said Bitch”:

A related bit sees Jordan playfully snapping a phone pic of his girlfriend first thing in the morning, only to have her put a gun to his head until he deletes it. I’ll admit I laughed, but something underneath it rubbed me wrong: Oh yeah, the trope about female irrationality and how girlfriends can become terrifying monsters at the drop of a hat.

And then there’s the theme of women being oblivious to, and/or disgusted by, men’s secret sexual tastes. In this one, Jordan sweats profusely while she interrogates him about his porn predilections:

Meanwhile, the deliberately retro “Tackle and Grapple” is problematic in a different way. Yes, it’s a parody, and a well-done one at that, but it’s still using the ladies as props.

But I want to wrap up on a happy note: it’s not all clumsy gender cliches. Sometimes they get it, and when they get it, they NAIL it. This sketch almost redeems K&P from every other transgression I’ve mentioned. I’m guessing it had some input from Rebecca Drysdale, the lone female writer I see listed among the show’s dozen. And if not, great! I’d love to think the guys came up with this one on their own. 

In any case, here’s hoping there’ll be more like this in the new season. I’m optimistic. I have to be.

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