Depending on your perspective, President Obama's performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday night was either funny or filled with rage. Or perhaps it was funny about being filled with rage. Either way, there's no doubt that Obama, by incorporating comedian Keegan-Michael Key into his act, went public with the anger — specifically, the black anger — that has become part of the general conversation about Obama's time in office.
Key and partner Jordan Peele do a Comedy Central routine in which Peele, playing Obama, delivers a calm, measured speech while Key, playing Obama's "anger translator," named Luther, acts out what Obama is really thinking, sputtering in rage against criticism and opposition that Obama believes is based in racism. (Both Key and Peele are, like Obama, biracial.)
Key says he got the idea after seeing Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst during Obama's September 2009 speech to Congress. "I'm like, when has anybody had an outburst in this august institution before?" Key told CBS last year. "I have never seen that happen to another president who doesn't have melanin in their skin. So why did it happen to this president?"
"He's caught between a rock and a hard place," Key continued, speaking of Obama. "If I speak back, I'm an uppity black person and if I don't speak back, I'm ineffectual. So we were like, 'Wouldn't it be great if he had a surrogate?'"
Thus Luther the Anger Translator was born. "If anyone has the right to go, 'This is racist, this is so ridiculous' — the president does," Key said in a 2012 Detroit Free Press interview. "Obama, he doesn't dignify those types of things with a response so we gave him a surrogate to do it."
In the first sketch, Obama calmly explained that while he may appear serene, he has all the ordinary human feelings of anger — while Luther stood behind him, screaming about his birth certificate. "I have a birth certificate. I have a birth certificate. I have a hot diggity, daggity, mamase mamasa mamakusa birth certificate, you dumb-ass crackers!"
"We wrote that scene over a year ago, and it was in the height of the second birther renaissance," Peele told the leftist think tank Center for American Progress in February 2012. "It felt like there were a bunch of things that were not being said that should have been said. He was really being crapped upon. And you watch things, and you know people are all thinking the same thing. We're all thinking in our heads what we all hope he's thinking, but he has to maintain his composure … I think it is much more complex than just a racial thing. We hit him with the crackers line, which is just a sort of orgasmic moment. It's a guiltily orgasmic moment for black people, probably."
Obama loved it. Appearing on the Tonight Show in April 2012, he volunteered the Key & Peele sketch as one of the few comedy performances he had seen, calling it "pretty good stuff." Off-camera, Obama was a bit more enthusiastic when he met Key & Peele during a fundraising trip to California.
"First thing he says, he looks at Keegan and goes, now, I need Luther. I need him. Going to have to wait until second term, but I need him," Peele recalled in an interview with MSNBC shortly after the 2012 election.
Now the second term is here. And at the Correspondents Dinner, Obama signaled that he will no longer be bound by the constraints that kept him from expressing anger and frustration during his first term, when he still had another campaign to run. Now, he's past worrying about how things look.
"Welcome to the fourth quarter of my presidency," Obama told the crowd. "I am determined to make the most of every moment I have left. After the midterm elections, my advisors asked me, 'Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?' And I said, 'Well, I have something that rhymes with bucket list.'"
"Take executive action on immigration? Bucket. New climate regulations? Bucket. It's the right thing to do."
In addition to the I-don't-care attitude the president signaled, it was probably the first time — research, anyone? — a president had made an extended joke on the F-word in a public appearance.
After lame jokes about allies: Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, the First Lady — and harsh jokes about his critics: Dick Cheney — Obama brought on Key as Luther, supposedly to express the president's frustration with the press.
"Hold on to your lily-white butts!" Luther announced.
Obama began a boring and anodyne speech. "Despite our differences, we count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of the day... " he said.
"And we can count on Fox News to terrify old white people with some nonsense!" interjected Luther. "Sharia law is coming to Cleveland! Run for the damn hills! Y'all, it's ridiculous."
"We won't always see eye to eye... " continued Obama.
"Oh, and CNN, thank you so much for the wall-to-wall Ebola coverage," said Luther. "For two whole weeks, we were one step away from the Walking Dead. And then you all got up and just moved on to the next day. That was awesome. Oh, and by the way, just if you haven't noticed, you don't have Ebola!"
Obama picked up his speech again. "But I still deeply appreciate the work that you do..."
"Y'all remember when I had that big, old hole in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and then I plugged it?" Luther yelled angrily. "Remember that? Which 'Obama's Katrina' was that one? Was that 19? Or was it 20? Because I can't remember."
And so on. The joke within the joke came when the president brought up global warming, and in the process of describing the issue began to become angrier than Luther, to the point that Luther actually urged Obama to calm down. Obama had become his own anger translator.
"We do need to stay focused on some big challenges, like climate change," Obama said.
"Hey, listen, y'all, if you haven't noticed, California is bone dry," said Luther. "It looks like a trailer for the new 'Mad Max' movie up in there. Y'all think that Bradley Cooper came here because he wants to talk to Chuck Todd? He needed a glass of water. Come on!"
Obama took over again. "The science is clear. Nine of the ten hottest years ever came in the last decade... "
"Now, I'm not a scientist, but I do know how to count to 10," interjected Luther.
"Rising seas, more violent storms... " said Obama.
"We've got mosquitos. Sweaty people on the train, stinking it up. It's just nasty," said Luther.
"I mean, look at what's happening right now," said Obama, his voice rising. "Every serious scientist says we need to act. The Pentagon says it's a national security risk. Miami floods on a sunny day, and instead of doing anything about it, we've got elected officials throwing snowballs in the Senate!"
The balance had changed. Luther seemed concerned about Obama. "Okay, Mr. President," Luther said. "Okay, I think they've got it, bro."
"It is crazy!" continued Obama. "What about our kids? What kind of stupid, shortsighted, irresponsible bull -- "
"Wow! Hey!" said Luther, putting the brakes on Obama. "All due respect, sir. You don't need an anger translator. You need counseling. So I'm out of here, man. I ain't trying to get into all this."
"Go," ordered Obama.
"He crazy," whispered Luther as he stopped by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Obama smiled and ended the routine. "Luther, my anger translator, ladies and gentlemen." A moment later, he said, "I got that off my chest."
Of course, it was all comedy — don't the critics understand it's just a joke? — but Obama gave his imprimatur to the Luther interpretation of the Obama presidency. Criticism directed at Obama about seemingly non-racial issues, from Ebola to the BP oil spill to climate change, is more severe for Obama than it would be for a white president because it is rooted in racial animus. That animus showed its face in more obvious ways in the birther and Obama-is-a-Muslim memes, but it's always there. Now, in his second term, Obama is finally free to air his resentments.
"He said, you know, I know it's hard for a brother on TV," Jordan Peele said on MSNBC, remembering a conversation with Obama. "I know it."