[steps up to the blackboard in front of a cultural studies class at an elite university. The black-turtleneck clad audience of earlytwentysomethings hold pen to the ready]
The comedy team Key & Peele’s sketch, “Continental Breakfast” stands as an enigmatic onion that begs peeling. On the most surface level it is the story of a buffoon; a clownishly obvious faker to the position of seasoned traveller. A man who has no idea what even such a commonplace phenomena as a continental breakfast, or a spork or even a grape is. On another level it is the story of an enlightened stranger, one who spurns the wearily sophisticated lens of the seasoned traveler and in doing so opens himself up to the limitless wonder of the experiential world.
The man in the gray suit
We first meet our protagonist as he is checking into a hotel; just a commonplace mundane man engaging in a mundane activity in a mundane location. A highly familiar site of social exchange. We know the rules of the game. But does he?
The outsized reactions of our travelling everyman are all pantomimes of shared insider knowledge, first with the concierge and then with his fellow diners. But why? What is the need to communicate an obviously lacking insider’s understanding with such comic resolution?
It is the disconnect between his position as a stranger in a strange land, an outsider with out connection or context for the myriad, shared social understandings that crosscut the (un)familiar playing fields of the hotel lobby and dining room, and his self-conception as a normal, capable, adult member of society. The obvious, and thus, failed disguise on the part of the protagonist is funny because it is an exaggeration of a game we all play, or have played at various points in our life in order to maintain face and avoid the subaltern social position of neophyte. On this level the hotel does not represent the everyday, it represents all the unfamiliar waters we swim in with a veneer of competence.
The mugging and wagged fingers on the part of the protagonist are patently ridiculous, and yet go without comment on the part of the concierge. As he shows no sign of guilelessness and, in fact, possess the trappings of knowingness, in the position of a concierge–a keeper and divulger of insider knowledge–we are led to assume that is lack of reaction to the protagonist’s obviously ridiculous attempts at insider knowledge are a matter of the required politeness and deference of his position. Likewise, the kitchen worker who is accosted by our protagonist and addressed as a maÃ®tre ‘d is unnerved but unfailingly polite. The protagonists fellow diners are under no such compunction of polite deference, and their reaction, while muted, are clearly ones of annoyed contempt. However, these reactions go completely unnoted by their target. These two different reactions tap into a basic fear that others know we are truly the imposters we often feel ourselves to be but are either too polite to show any outward sign of this realization or they do react but we are too unaware to pick up on it. After all, who has not been in the position of polite, silent witness to obvious pretense? And who, when they have reacted to the peccadillos of a fellow traveler with an eye-roll or look of exacerbation have had it bounce off the targets shield of obliviousness? We assume that the other characters must be filled with the same benign contempt for the protagonist as we are, thus we identify with their location as polite witness or unnoted note taker to failed pretense. At the same time, we identify with the protagonists position as imposter and also feel more than a little embarrassed and sorry for him. The tension in these conflicting emotions is what produces such a fertile comic farrago.
A Europyne utopia
The theme of exuberance takes center stage as our travelling everyman enters the dining room and embarks upon his continental journey of delight, the buffet a series of elevatory intercourses carrying him higher and higher toward a pinnacle of orgasmic abandon.
A surface interpretation of this scene positions our protagonist as an ultra-naÃ¯f overwhelmed by the (sub)richness laid out before him. However, a deeper interpretation exists, one informed by the Buddhist and Taoist principle of nowness. In this interpretation he co-creates magnificence with his surroundings–the patently pedestrian environs of a hotel continental breakfast buffet–through an attitude of unbridled enthusiasm born of absolute presence. Is this attitude of unbridled enthusiasm willfully born or is it the direct product of his overwhelmed senses? The answer is a little of both.
The dual nature of intentionality and abandon are expressed through our protagonist’s declaration that he “loves being incontinent!” That is, he loves surrendering to the total loss of control born of unrestrained masticatory exuberance. The state of incontinence is genuine, but this dyonisistic revelry is a product of the protagonist’s openness to unbridled enthusiasm about the mundane. His loss of control may be genuine, but the circumstances that birthed it are very much manufactured through a deliberate stance toward the world — one of infantile-like rapture. This state of abandon is in fact a state of absolute presence. The experience of now is unencumbered by equivocating comparisons with the past or desires for a more perfect future. The protagonist’s only want is to “have what I’m having!” A wish that is granted with each moment of profound experience.
The emptiness of expertise
In contrast to the vivaciousness of our protagonist, his fellow diners are paragons of world-weary cynicism. They represent the dominant state of consciousness in late-modern America. A jaded state that renders them free of the subalterned position of neophyte and safe from the ridicule of their fellow dinners, yet mired in anhedonia. This state of professed knowledge is a reaction to the sheer unknowable size, complexity, and rate of change that is the modern world. We are all repeatedly rendered neophytes in most areas of life. Forced into the uncomfortably vulnerable an indeterminate state of naÃ¯f, we react by faking it. The modern state has rendered us all imposters to competence. The price we pay for this is an alienation from the state of wonder enabled by the sheer technological power and complexity of our society. It has never been easier to enter the pure land of rapt enlightenment, and never before have so many people been positioned so diametrically opposed to it.
The eternal truth
When our travelling Bodhisattva informs the concierge that he will be “staying here indefinitely,” he is declaring his intention to forever dwell in the pure land of enlightened experientialism. Wherein the concierge states a simple, universal truth, that he, and by extension we, have always been here. We are born into a universe of wonder and reside there for the rest of our lives. The fact that our awareness of this state of affairs is occluded by our reactions to the push and pull of the minutia of life in no way lessens its veracity.
When confronted with this eternal truth our protagonist first attempts his habitual ruse of expertise, only to remove the mask and ask, “really?!” He, like us, lacks a conception of the permanent and total nature of what is experienced as a temporary revelatory penetration of the usual equivocating cognitive mediation. Unlike most of us, he does not resist this knowledge with protests as to the temporal nature of previous experience, but rather accepts it with equanimity…so long as he can return to the world of wonder, the great continental breakfast buffet. Perhaps all of his experiences have been as revelatory as his continental breakfast, or at least all of his breakfasts. This is certainly suggested by the closing Kubrickian pan in on a photo of a continental breakfast from 1935 with our ageless everyman featured front and center.
The defetishization of commodities
The continental breakfast buffet represents our modern world, full of every day, taken for granted, wonders. The latticework of labor that goes into the creation of this “mundane” and, one assumes, mediocre continental breakfast is nearly unfathomably staggering: from the back breaking labor that goes into growing and harvesting the fruits and vegetables, to the animal husbandry, care and eventual slaughter that produces the meat, to the mining and processing of petroleum that goes into the construction of the “fpoons,” the electricity produced to provide lighting and cook the food, to the food preparations that go into the creating the breakfast buffet day after day. One can go even farther back to the production of the tools used to create the raw products that go into the continental breakfast. Then there are all the processes that allow the workers to reproduce their labor through the satisfying of their requirements for survival.
Alone, our wise fool is aware of these facts. Or rather, others’ may, when it is brought to their attention, become momentarily aware of these relations of production, but only our gray suit-wearing friend is able to ingest this information to the extent that it informs his cognition of the world around him. His senses penetrate the surface sheen of disembodied commodities to penetrate their corn-syruptitious nature as the end products of a Gordian interrelatedness of labor production. This awareness of the origin of things and their dynamic nature is at the root of his gnosis.
The crux of the joke is that our pseudo-sophisticated traveller is way too excited about a continental breakfast. But behind the joke is a wry commentary on knowledge, ignorance and the imperative of social pretense in the face of incomplete knowledge. And behind that, still, is a sage parable on the joy and richness of absolute nowness, an infantile-like state of rapture with the world.