My first contact with Key and Peele was in a profile by Zadie Smith in The New Yorker. I had no idea who the duo were, but I’m a huge fan of Ms Zadie and I read anything she writes. That piece turned out to be a very long read that I consumed without a pause on my phone, pushing up and up the screen and wishing it would not end.
Ms Zadie is one of the few writers who have the ability to make me find joy in anything they write. She could release a book of fortune cookie quotes and I’ll still read it like it contained the world’s most lyrical poetry. She started that essay with this: “The wigs on “Key and Peele” are the hardest-working hairpieces in show business.” And from that detail went on to present the best profile I’ve read this year. The essay moved from the set of their show, to Key and Peele’s past and the cultural significance of their comedy like a perfectly choreographed dance-drama—every word a character that has perfected its part in the show.
Of Key she says, “Key—to steal a phrase from Nabokov—is “ideally bald.”” And places it in parenthesis like she was whispering to me in a way that suggests we are both privy to the Nabokovian phrase she referenced. In a more recent essay on Joni Mitchell, she says she finds it hard to entirely believe connoisseurs.
“I will admit that in the past, when I have met connoisseurs, I’ve found it a bit hard to entirely believe in them. Philistinism often comes with a side order of distrust. How can this person possibly love as many things as she appears to love? Sometimes, in a sour spirit, I am tempted to feel that my connoisseur friends have the time for all this liberal study because they have no children.”
Zadie is a connoisseur of novels, as she admits herself in the essay, and the above is how I also feel when I encounter her wide ranging book references. I am not a good student of literature, and have a mild distrust of people who have read as much as Zadie has, the same way she does of connoisseurs.
In reading Zadie Smith’s pieces, however, I find that my latent philistinism does not rise to the fore the way it does when I read most widely-read Nigerians. Intelligent Nigerian literati write like they will suffer from indigestion if they do not vomit all their exotic language and obscure -isms on the page at once. Zadie’s work opens up literature to me, while theirs make me almost never attempt to read a book again. (The other person who does the same to me as Zadie, in almost equal measure, is Teju Cole, and one day I’ll write about him too).
It is difficult for me to talk about Zadie’s writing without resorting to words like ‘amazing’ and ‘brilliant,’ and acting like a groupie. But this post is not just about Ms Zadie. I’ve only told you the above to show how one writer whose work I love opened me up to a part of popular culture would have been hitherto hidden from me.
After reading the profile on Key and Peele, I decided to watch some episodes of their Comedy Central show. Although some of their references were lost on me, I immediately understood why Zadie had dedicated so much words to them. Key would later become a familiar face to many more around the world as Luther, Obama’s anger translator in his speech at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. That viral video was an adaptation of one of the running sketches on their show. But why I’ve decided to write about them here is because of their latest sketch about Negrotown. I’m not a fan of standup comedy, especially the Nigerian type. Of course some of it is funny—I still laugh when I recall some Basketmouth sketches—and there are others that are just downright distasteful, what many of them have not been able to do is make their comedy bigger than just laughs. This is the beauty of Key and Peele: They deliver laughter while leaving their audience with something to ponder upon without sacrificing comedic quality. If there are Nigerian comedians who do this—by this I mean present important details of Nigerian culture to the world in nuanced ways while retaining their comedic flair—that I do not know about, please provide links to their work so I can change my perspective. In the mean time, do watch Negrotown and let me know what you think of it.