SPOILER WARNING: This essay discusses in depth the endings of an episode of Community, a 35-year-old movie, and a classic piece of sketch comedy. If you are reading this, you are probably already familiar with Community’s twist. The Shining works perfectly fine even if you know the ending. But if you have not seen the Key & Peele bit yet, do yourself a favor and watch it before reading.
When I took on this assignment, I thought I was going to be able to cover a whole survey of Shining homages. But then I realized that besides Chang’s misadventures in “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality,” the only other one I am really familiar with is the Key & Peele sketch “Continental Breakfast.” So I looked up some more to make sure that my suspicion of their proliferance was correct. There’s a 2014 IKEA commercial in which a Danny bikes around a store. The Simpsons did it (“Treehouse of Horror V”). So of course Family Guy also did it. There are plenty of directions one can take with a Shining parody: hammy Jack Nicholson impressions, creepy little kid acting, Shelly Duvall’s big eyes, etc. Focusing on a comparison between Community and Key & Peele is instructive because the crux of both homages is the ending and what they say about the nature of reality.
The final shot of The Shining is a framed black-and-white photograph of Jack Torrance amidst a crowd of people at the Overlook Hotel’s July 4th ball in 1921, supporting the contention that he has always been the Overlook caretaker, with the aid of temporal discontinuity and/or reincarnation or something to that effect. “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” ends with a shot of a similarly posed black-and-white photo, with Ben Chang centrally featured. But this is a misdirect, as the caption identifies the snap as “Old Timey Photo Club 2014.” Key & Peele’s Season 3 sketch “Continental Breakfast” concludes with a shot of a black-and-white photo captioned “Continental Breakfast Buffet 1935,” featuring Jordan Peele’s businessman character, this just after the concierge (Key) informs him that he has always been there.
Community bends the homage to its reality, while Key & Peele bends its reality to the homage. It is easier for the latter to do so, as sketch comedy shows do not require any connection between their scenes. Themes and sensibilities may be consistent, but a shared universe is unnecessary. A traditional sitcom cannot have these shifts through separate episodes, unless it is willing to sacrifice its verisimilitude with reality. With its frequent homages, Community dances on the edge of this sacrifice but pointedly never goes all the way.
At first glance, this capper appears to just be a goof. Chang is not a time-traveller, and there is no doubt that he ever was. Besides, his story is about ghosts, not time travel. But it is not like there is any real indication that the janitor, or the crowd, or Chang himself, have any apparitional qualities. Considered in the context of the Chang in Season 5 and 6, though, this goofy one-off has a surprising amount of depth.
Chang is nearly as wrecked as Jack Torrance is by his supernatural encounter, though at least he gets to stay alive. An objective consideration of the facts would suggest that Peele’s businessman has it worse, but he is the one who embraces his fate with a smile. While Chang is not stuck in a temporal anomaly, he is trapped in his own head. His madness in early seasons is played primarily for laughs, but ultimately its consequences must be grappled with. He is chronically burdened with his lack of sanity, and his knowledge thereof. Nothing physical befalls him, but the uncertainty of what actually happens that night is a prison. The businessman is similarly restricted, but at least he has an eternal continental breakfast to savor.
The final frames of Jack Torrance, Ben Chang, and the businessman are all smiles – three clowns compelled by forces greater than themselves.