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'Key and Peele' Review: Promising Comedy Central Show Displays Political Cowardice

American culture allows comedians of color to say things white comedians can’t.

That helped propel Richard Pryor into the comedy stratosphere and made Chris Rock one of the most incisive commentators on modern living during the early 2000s.

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Enter “Key & Peele,” the new Comedy Central series debuting at 10:30 p.m. EST tonight. Biracial comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele share their mixed race ancestry in the show’s opening monologue, the kind of refreshing banter that’s immediately open and funny. The exchange doesn’t feel cobbled together by a team of writers trying way too hard to be casual.

It’s one of the best features of the new show, a program which proves both Key and Peele belong in the sketch comedy trenches – each already paid their dues on both “MADtv” and the short-lived “Chocolate News.” They’re naturals on screen, relaxed and compelling even when they’re just swapping stories.

“On a daily basis we have to adjust our blackness,” Key says before Peele finishes, “to terrify white people.”

Normally, the pair “sound whiter than Mitt Romney in a snow storm,” Peele adds.

The premiere episode mixes the kind of material you might find on any other sketch show with bits given an edge by their heritage. That edge vanishes when the duo take on the first black president.

The sharpest sketches come first, a double dose of laughs that prod our expectations on race and the culture at large. The opening finds Key on the street talking about tickets to an upcoming symphony on his cell phone. When another black man (Peele) walks past, Key transforms the conversation to sound tougher, more stereotypically “gangsta.”

The next bit finds the show’s stars playing henpecked husbands commiserating about their impossible wives. Each is panicked at the thought of his wife hearing them use the dreaded “B” word to describe them, so they end up hiding in some pretty odd places for safety’s sake. It’s two grown men trying to beat their chests while suffocating in domestic “bliss.” Even the camera angles deployed during the sketch reveal a sharp wit.

Other bits aren’t as incisive, including a series of prison videos featuring Lil Wayne. A fake ad for Ancestry.com has one joke – many American blacks are direct descendents of Thomas Jefferson – but unlike “Saturday Night Live” the sketch knows it should end before wearing out its welcome.

“In Living Color,” the most famous sketch show featuring a predominantly black cast, relied heavily on excessive mugging and recurring characters to provoke laughter. The tone here is smaller, more subtle, and the show’s stars appear capable of using nuance rather than exclamation points.

What a shame, then, that the first “Key & Peele” episode wraps with the duo’s “Obama Translator” sketch, which leaked online weeks prior to the show’s debut. It’s nothing more than a full-throttled defense of the president rather than an attempt to mock the powerful, the supposed mantra maintained by comedians prior to Jan. 20, 2009.

“Key & Peele” looks like it will keep its focus on straightforward comedy with an occasional shout out to the first black president. That makes it a snug fit with Comedy Central’s liberal-leaning lineup, but conservatives will still find some solid laughs here.

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