How ‘The Carmichael Show’ and ‘Key and Peele’ Used Humor to Center the Black Experience


Last night, two of the best black TV shows airing this summer came to an end. Comedy Central’s sketch program Key & Peele ended its run after five seasons and 53 episodes, while NBC’s new sitcom The Carmichael Show ended its first season of six episodes. (There has been no cancelation or renewal news yet.)

Both of these comedies dealt brilliantly with race, even when it wasn’t their main topic. The Carmichael Show‘s short run took on a “Very Special Episode” format almost every week, focusing on heavy themes that were delivered with a laugh, in front of a live studio audience: protesting and police brutality, a black teenager revealing that she’s transgender, religious differences, and even a gun control debate. The show treated each of these subjects delicately, humorously — and sometimes even cheesily, all things considered. In “Gun,” when Jerrod and his father Joe find themselves at odds with their girlfriend and wife (respectively) regarding keeping a gun in the house, the two men go back to Jerrod’s place for a night of macho, gun-toting posturing… and, in true sitcom fashion, Jerrod accidentally shoots Joe in the foot. Lesson learned, sort of! Then, on the opposite side of things, Jerrod’s mother Cynthia decides that now she wants to have a gun at home, after a scare in which she thinks the house is being robbed.

It’s all normal sitcom fodder: misunderstandings, generational clashes (Jerrod’s parents are often portrayed as slightly confused or old-fashioned —”ignorant” is too strong of a word — as a way to show alternate, conflicting stances or to speak for a select segment of the audience), mishaps, loud one-liners, and so on. But it’s also deeper than that: the confusion and sensitivity with which Jerrod treats the young transgender character, Jordan, in “Gender” is both realistic and remarkable.

THE CARMICHAEL SHOW — “Prayer” Episode 103

Each of Jordan’s two admissions — first, Jordan comes out as gay, then clarifies that she’s actually transgender and was testing the waters to see how Jerrod would react — send Jerrod rushing to his family’s house. The second time, after Jerrod screws up in responding to Jordan’s revelation, he and his family talk through the concept of being transgender, trying — together — to fully understand what this means, and to actively destroy common misconceptions through living room conversation. When Jerrod returns to talk to Jordan, he hasn’t made some miraculously transformation into Transgender Expert. Instead, he straight-up admits that he doesn’t understand, but, as Jerrod says to Jordan, “The fact that I don’t totally get it doesn’t mean I don’t hear what you’re saying or that I don’t believe you. I know that this is real. Truthfully, I don’t have to get it 100% to support you 100 %.”

While an episode as unique and successfully executed as “Gender” is pretty extraordinary for any first-season sitcom on a broadcast network, what makes it even more remarkable is that Jordan, the trans character, is a black youth. It’s true that TV has been adding more young trans characters of late — CeCe on Pretty Little Liars, Adam on Degrassi, Cole on The Fosters — but they are all white (with an exception: Unique on Glee) and will face slightly different challenges than black trans youth, especially considering how many black trans women are murdered (and then often ignored by mainstream media). And “Gender” isn’t the only episode to filter a serious, contemporary issue through the experiences of a black family; setting the gun control debate among the Carmichaels, rather than a stereotypical white, Republican family (see: Last Man Standing) was an inspired creative choice, and landed with more gravitas than expected. I sincerely hope The Carmichael Show gets a second-season pick-up from NBC — the network desperately needs a solid sitcom this season, and television needs Jerrod Carmichael’s voice.

As for Key & Peele , there has already been plenty said about the radical brilliance of the series and what its end means (I highly recommend reading Wesley Morris on the subject) — and with good reason. Key & Peele was something special, a sketch show powered by race that found laughs in the occasional feelings of fear, loneliness, and hopelessness that comes along with being part of a minority. As biracial men, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were in the unique position of being able to speak from multiple racial perspectives — something that has been on my mind since rewatching Dear White People , which features a mixed-race lead character who regularly discusses race and can be seen as “militantly black,” and reading Mat Johnson’s hilarious, smart satirical novel Loving Day, which tells the story of a biracial man (who loudly identifies as black) who stumbles into a mixed-race utopia.

There are similar themes in all three of these works: notably, a sort of lost feeling that mixed-race people often have a hard time shaking, the flitting between different groups but never wholly belonging, the desire — whether conscious or not — to make sure people know that you are black even if your skin is lighter, and the worry that you’re not “black enough,” regardless. Each work also features a search, that will feel familiar for all minorities and mixed-race people, for a version of utopia. In Dear White People, it’s the all-black house on campus; in Loving Day (recently optioned by Showtime), it’s a mixed-race school-slash-possible cult; in Key & Peele, it’s literally “Negrotown.”

“Negrotown” (which has already been up on YouTube for months, and which has been stuck in my head equally long) is perhaps the best sketch that Key & Peele could have gone out on — though that surprising callback to the pilot episode was nothing short of amazing. It’s a bright, colorful, musical, and hopeful place where black people can simply be black. They can be free of racism, of white people, of all the microaggressions (“no stupid-ass white folks touching your hair”) and threats to their lives (no “trigger-happy cops”). They can shop without being followed! Wear hoodies without getting shot! No one is ever in the position of “token black friend!” Like many of the series’ other sketches, it seems too good to be true — to the extent that even during the funny and joyful song, you’re just waiting for the shoe to drop (and it does). “Negrotown” isn’t real, and the reality is draining. While I’ll miss Key & Peele, I’m almost glad it’s ending this way: on its own terms, when it’s still fresh and good, before its creators get burned out, and in time for them to move on to other projects. Writing about race gets exhausting; I can’t imagine it hasn’t taken its toll on Key and Peele at certain points.

But for a short moment, in “Negrotown,” everything was perfect, and no one felt out of place. That’s what watching The Carmichael Show was like; that’s what watching Key & Peele‘s race-based sketches was like.