That's the Funny Thing About Race
Key and Peele belong to a new breed of black comics who use universal humor to tackle the topic.
"If you have clownish comics, the audience will tolerate it, but they're not 100 percent invested," Littleton says. "You have to give them something they can grab on to and actually talk about the next day."
Along with providing a nuanced look at racism, black comedy has also moved beyond speaking to a section of black life to making it seem universal. Stand-up acts popular in the '70s, '80s and '90s ("White people do this, but black people do that") supported the idea that blacks are a monolithic culture with the same background, largely based on negative stereotypes associated with living in "the hood." While comedy at large allowed for different types of white experiences -- from Archie Bunker to the yuppies on Friends -- blacks were not afforded that same range.
But the election of President Obama showed that there was a different voice out there, one that identified with being black but also had an attachment to white culture, either through having a white parent, being well-spoken or wanting a glass of merlot with an arugula salad.
"All of a sudden, there was a place where we fit," Peele says. And it's a place where people feel comfortable pointing out the idiosyncrasies of race and laughing.
Even if we can laugh about it, racism -- the ugly core found inside any race-based comedy -- still exists. As Dave Chappelle's milkman character and his wife laugh at the end of the controversial skit "The Niggar Family," Chappelle sighs, "This racism is killing me inside." Why can't Americans just talk about race? Peele turns the question around, asking instead why race is so funny.
"At its core, race is an absurd notion," he says. "For some reason we find ourselves obsessed with something that's primal: If you don't look like me, you must be from a tribe that's not next door to me. It is intertwined with our basic fears. Only in this point of time, as the world gets smaller and smaller and we achieve a greater sense of what it means to be human in this world, can we find the humor in it."
"The reason comedy is the spoonful of sugar that makes medicine go down is because human beings are really expert at deflection," Key says. "They're allowed to have their own private moment of 'I often act like the fool on the screen.' You can use me or Jordan as the scapegoat, and then you can go home and examine it."
Anthonia Akitunde is a freelance writer living in Astoria, Queens. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Fast Company and The Root DC. Follow her on Twitter.