Way back in another century, President Bill Clinton was called “the first black president.” And it was Clinton who suggested that America needed to have a “conversation about race.”
The new sketch comedy series “Key & Peele” (9:30 p.m., Comedy Central) presents a nonstop conversation about race, racism and biracial identity. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were raised by black and white parents and exploit their backgrounds to lampoon racial attitudes, hip-hop cliches and the need of some men to “out-black” each other. Whether they do this out of fear, conformity, a need to intimidate or a combination of all three is the painful riddle at the center of most of Key and Peele’s bits. Other sketches mine comedy from the habit guys have of talking “white” around women and white people.
A rapper based on Lil Wayne sings boastfully in a prison video until the other inmates quite literally cut him down to size. Two husbands dutifully acquiesce to their wives’ every demand while speaking in bland suburban accents. They assume much louder and “blacker” voices when alone with each other, complaining about their frustrations. In a bit widely screened on YouTube, we see a dignified President Obama addressing the nation in calm tones, accompanied by an “anger translator” who becomes increasingly apoplectic while “interpreting” the president’s message.
Like Key and Peele, the president is biracial. And he’s often seen as someone who can’t show frustration without appearing to be an angry black man to white critics who already think the worst of him.
There’s no doubt that Key and Peele are touching on some sensitive nerves here, and having fun in a rather cerebral manner. I’m just not convinced that they aren’t more “interesting” than funny. It also reminds us that other comics have dealt with race in the past. And while it was central to their acts and their identities, it was not the only subject in their routines. Buried in this first episode is a rather absurd parody of “MasterChef,” a sketch that amusingly sends up reality TV and has nothing to do with race. “Key & Peele” should mix it up a little.
• Speaking of the president, first lady Michelle Obama appears on “The Tonight Show” (10:35 p.m., NBC).
• As if to punish England for past transgressions, TLC introduces “Sorority Girls” (8 p.m.). It follows five American college students attempting to form Britain’s first sorority while studying at Leeds in the U.K.
Tonight’s other highlights
• A bad thriller is off the wall on “Glee” (7 p.m., Fox).
• Nick’s new pals on “New Girl” (8 p.m., Fox).
• Season finale of “Celebrity Wife Swap” (8 p.m., ABC).
• “American Experience” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) examines the legends surrounding Jesse James.
• Games of chance on “Raising Hope” (8:30 p.m., Fox).
• Raylan runs up against a new crime boss on “Justified” (9 p.m., FX).