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‘Key & Peele’s’ Anger Translator catches on in campaign season

Calm is key for Jordan Peele’s Obama, left, while Keegan-Michael Key’s Luther gets ready to vent.
(Comedy Central)

When President Obama joins Mitt Romney on stage Tuesday for the second of three presidential debates, he no doubt hopes to put to rest the many questions raised by his lackluster performance two weeks ago: Has he completely lost his 2008 media mojo? Is he so addicted to the teleprompter that he can no longer handle a more spontaneous forum?

And, perhaps most important: Is Luther anywhere in the house?

Luther, for the uninitiated, is Obama’s Anger Translator, a creation of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, stars of Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele,” who have done a series of hilarious skits that are this campaign’s answer to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. Only funnier.

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Where Fey, like most comedians sending up a public figure, satirized things that the vice presidential candidate said, the Anger Translator (Key) is all about what Obama (Peele) should say. Like: “So maybe if [my critics ] could chill the hell out for like a second, then maybe I could focus on some …" or “I don’t know nobody who has a Swiss Bank account except Goldfinger and Octopussy; y’all Republicans just nominated a James Bond villain for president.”

Luther, who yells and swears and jumps around in barely contained rage, may or may not be channeling what Obama actually thinks, but he certainly reflects the mounting frustration many Democrats feel about the president’s lack of passion. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden appeared to be taking a few pointers from Luther, interrupting opponent Paul D. Ryan, addressing the camera straight on and doing everything but suggesting, as Luther did in one skit, that Romney “give a brother a peek ... just a little peek” at his past income tax returns.

For years, comedians have struggled with Obama. As the first black president he had an instant, and comedy-proof, iconic status; white comedians especially were initially wary of satirizing him for fear of appearing racist. During the weeks leading up to the first election, Fred Armisen, who is white, played Obama in “Saturday Night Live” skits, which focused more on the swooning press that applauded the candidate’s every move than the candidate himself.

Even without the specter of racial offensiveness, Obama’s early ease and lack of immediately recognizable tics proved an elusive target. He wasn’t clumsy like Ford, or famously voracious like Clinton, he didn’t continually misspeak like Bush. His maddening unflappability was his most visible characteristic, and that’s a tough one to satirize.

Enter the Anger Translator.

Despite being one of the most endangered television beasts — a sketch comedy half-hour — “Key & Peele” drew about 2 million total viewers per episode in its first season. The number, while not huge by major network standards, is on par with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and augmented early on by a strong Internet presence — according to Key, the first Anger Translator sketch drew a million hits from the Comedy Central website in the first 24 hours — was enough to earn the show a second season, which began late last month.

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The biracial pair practice what they consider post-racial comedy, which means sketches range from a couple of black guys acting like Amos ‘n’ Andy stereotypes before taking down a group of Confederate Civil War reenactors to a couple of guys experiencing dubstep for the first time.

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As with any sketch show, not every bit works, but it’s high enough on the radar to spark some debate about the nature of its comedy: Are they the next Dave Chappelle, or a mockery of black humor, pandering to the (mostly white) Stewart/Colbert crowd? Both arguments are ridiculous in their own way, but if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in comedy, controversy is a very close second.

And everyone loves the Anger Translator. Including the president. Key and Peele opened their second season by telling the audience about meeting Obama, who expressed admiration for the conceit (and a desire to have an actual anger translator), although he ended their meeting warning them not to have him do anything “too silly.” (Key and Peele responded by enacting a videotape of the young “Barry” getting high at college.)

In each Translator skit, Peele’s precisely articulated president calmly discusses the matters of the day while Luther paces behind him, interrupting with the expletive-laden “straight-talk.” (“All y’all dictators out there? Keep messin’ around and see what happens. Just see what happens. Watch!”)

In the first season, the confines of the taping schedule kept the topics general — Republicans, the tea party, international issues, even, briefly, Obama’s marriage. But the high number of hits on the website made Luther’s popularity clear, prompting the team to give him a real-time life as well.

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Luther, like Obama, is a Twitter fan (@ObamaTranslated), and, as the campaign heated up, the team posted regular messages from “the president,” reacting to current events. (Key and Peele are set to tape two new skits, this week and next.)

Luther has had his say about the site of the Republican and Democratic conventions (“Tampa? In August? Good thing y’all don’t believe in global warming?”), Clint Eastwood’s speech (“this … lost both his comb and his mind”), the 47% (“oh no Mitt, you probably wouldn’t have liked the White House any way, they don’t have no elevators for your cars…") and even Obama’s miserable performance in the first debate (“I should have been on that stage, oh my God Mitt, if I was a Siberian tiger, your … would have been Roy. Straight up!”)

Obviously, they do not have the name recognition or platform that Fey had with her dead-on Palin impersonation — YouTube may rule the world, but it’s still hard to beat “Saturday Night Live” for a break-out comedy bit. But with Obama’s checked-out appearance during his first round with Romney, the Anger Translator has taken on an unexpected air of prescience and even political significance.

Seriously, where was Obama’s inner Luther when Romney was shoving him around in Denver? And will the White House have the foresight to bring him to Hofstra University?

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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