"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
At a time when the latest incarnation of the Def Comedy Jam is the new series “Russell Simmons Presents the Ruckus,” and when Showtime lamely promotes its stand-up specials as part of Black History Month, here comes a sketch comedy series not for post-racial America, but for biracial America.
“Key & Peele,” which starts Tuesday night on Comedy Central, stars Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, two energetic comedy talents who waste almost no time before sharing their biracial credits: Both of their moms are white.
But they tell the exact same joke about it in the first two episodes (though it’s a fine observation): White moms can’t strike their black children in public.
Still, who’s better equipped to tackle comedy in the Obama era than these two, each able to fully exaggerate white or black characterizations as needed. Both have excelled at President Obama impersonations (at a time when the leading impersonation of our 44thpresident is by a “Saturday Night Live” cast member of Venezuelan/German/Japanese heritage). You might remember Key from his terrific Obama impression from the final season of “Mad TV.” “Mad TV,” which lasted 14 seasons on Fox, was in some ways hipper than “SNL” and certainly better versed in black culture and better able to turn out smart rap parodies than the stodgier NBC mainstay.
Plus, “Mad TV” didn’t just have a lone African-American in the cast; it had Aires Spears, Debra Wilson and, as a featured player, Key’s future partner Jordan Peele.
On “Key & Peele,” Peele handles all the Obama sketches now, despite the height deficit (he’s much shorter than the president). But his voice and cadence perfectly reflects Obama’s and it is used to devastating effect in plenty of sketches. In one, Obama rolls up on a bragging rapper only to declare he is, in fact, leader of the free world (and he drops the mic dramatically). Another mimics “SNL’s” early News for the Hard of Hearing with Garrett Morris. Obama’s hidden anger is translated by a demonstrative assistant played by Key; it looks like a sketch that will become a standby move.
It appears as if they’re in a hurry to get in as much Obama as possible – either because they fear they’ll be canceled early (as David Alan Grier’s show was) or that Obama’s presidency will.
But there are a lot of well-done sketches in between, and they’re produced more like slick viral videos than studio bits.
With their biracial backgrounds, they can easily explore some common dilemmas, such as not wanting to be the whitest-sounding black guy in the room. But their heritage also gives them a wide berth to masterfully play black or white as needed; to impersonate uptight businessmen in one scene or Lil’ Wayne in another.
Best of all, they can go off on sketches that have nothing to do with race — about husbands who are afraid of talking about their wives within earshot, or reality-show chefs you can never really understand.
Delivered in the manner of “Chappelle’s Show” (because that is the law on Comedy Central), “Key & Peele” moves from sketches to rather odd stand-up bits before an audience you can’t quite believe has been assembled to watch clips. But there’s great energy and real laughs, and with any support at all from the network, this could mint as many new catchphrases as Chappelle.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)