Robin Thede leads yet another comedy revolution with "A Black Lady Sketch Show"

Salon talks to the amazing comedy writer about her new HBO sketch series written, directed and starring black women

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 28, 2019 3:30PM (EDT)

Quinta Brunson and Robin Thede in "A Black Lady Sketch Show" (Courtesy of HBO)
Quinta Brunson and Robin Thede in "A Black Lady Sketch Show" (Courtesy of HBO)

One year ago Robin Thede was in a rare, wonderful position. She was a few months shy of celebrating a year of hosting "The Rundown," her critically-acclaimed BET series that, at the time, made her the only black woman late-night host on the air — and one of only four women helming a topical comedy series in 2018.

Thede is accustomed to breaking new ground; she came to BET by way of “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” where she made history as the first black female head writer in late-night television. She's also been in the industry long enough to know that a writer can never rely on having just one project in the works. While "The Rundown" was in full swing, Thede was also shopping around a sketch show. "I figured I could do it in between seasons, which was a crazy notion," Thede told Salon last week.

Maybe not. As it turns out, BET abruptly canceled "The Rundown."  But once that news broke, "Insecure" creator and star Issa Rae called Thede and urged her to pitch her next project at HBO. The network bought it at the table, she said. "We went straight to series. There was no pilot, there was no development."

A year and nearly three dozen character costume-changes later, audiences will be treated to Thede's latest and perhaps greatest comedy feat yet, "A Black Lady Sketch Show," co-executive produced by Rae.

Debuting Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO, Thede's sketch series showcases her extreme versatility alongside that of her fellow black women in comedy, including Emmy Award-winning "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" correspondent and writer Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Quinta Brunson. Her writing staff includes Akilah Green, Brittani Nichols, Amber Ruffin, Rae Sanni and Holly Walker, and filmmaker Dime Davis directs.

"A Black Lady Sketch Show" isn't expressly targeting black women, of course. Mainly, it's just a very funny, insightful and playful sketch show. The revolutionary difference is that it's entirely cast, written and directed by black women, the very actors typically sidelined in sketch variety and the comedy world in general. This is why Thede intentionally selected her core cast to reflect different types of black women — women with darker complexions, plus-sized women and older performers.

"This is like my sixth or seventh sketch show," she said, "It's the first one I've created but I've written for other people's, I've been on other people's and none of them have lived very long. I've seen sketch come and go, and I've seen the mistakes that I've made or other people have made."

Thede crafted "A Black Lady Sketch Show" to have longevity, and it shows. The ensemble plays with absurdist comedy territory while skewering modern concepts of unrealistic beauty standards, relationship lunacy and commenting on the ways the world sees, or refuses to see, black women. Interstitial sketches show them hanging out together as friends and taking jabs at one another. Though it covers a wide thematic territory over its six episodes, there's an end-of-the-world vibe joining every episode, as seen in its interstitial sketches featuring the women hanging out together.

And the title's "Black Lady"  designation isn't limited to the core cast.  A-list superstars including Angela Bassett pop up in surprise cameos (although Bassett's appearance isn't a spoiler, since the premiere episode is titled "Angela Bassett Is the Baddest B***h”), a key part of the unpredictable fun of the series.

And it's worth nothing that Thede  cast the series herself by texting her main ensemble and her guest stars. "It wasn't from agents' recommendations, because honestly they didn't send me a lot of people, women that I know are out here grinding, who are amazing and are working also," she  said. "It's not like they're new ... we're all here under everyone's noses.  It's like people just don't see us, especially plus-size black women — forget it, you know? So it's really fun to us that we get to showcase all that on the show."

In a  conversation conducted during HBO's presentation at the Television Critics Associations Summer Press Tour, currently underway in Beverly Hills, Salon spoke to Thede about the extra hurdles faced by black women in comedy and why sketch comedy appears to be such an effective and popular format right now. (The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

There have been a lot of female comedians,  particularly black ladies, who have been a part of sketch comedy ensembles, but they haven't gone on to enjoy the same level of stardom as their male counterparts.

So rude, right? Yeah. Why does Kim Wayans not have her starring role in a comedy? I don't know.

Even when we look at, you know, “Saturday Night Live,” you basically have Leslie Jones –

Yeah, there’s been Ellen Cleghorne,  and Leslie … I mean, that “Ghostbusters” shit she had to go through, that was a debacle. Jesus Christ. But it’s true. You know, Maya Rudolph has had some success, but she was in that whole UCB camp with all those ladies and I think they've had to support her.

But a lot of black women are left to fend for themselves, you know? When these black women are so amazing and so talented, it's silly. We should be able to break out like anybody else. I think it's harder for women in general, but for black women it's obviously going to be doubly as hard.

But hopefully we can change that with the show. I think that's the benefit of only having black women on the show. Like, somebody's bound to break out, if not all of them — or maybe not. But I think you increase your chances of success overall for the show, but also for that kind of break out ability.

This cast is so talented and so amazing and everyone's playing dozens of characters. And I think being able to see black women who are written for by black women who are directed by black women who are black women starring in roles as black women, that will read as more authentic. And it allows us to explore the boundaries of comedy or the limitlessness of this genre. Versus, say, being on a show where you might be written for by a predominantly white male room, where you're just playing a character that they wrote for you because they have to put you on something, or because they need a Michelle Obama impression or whatever.

It's no shade to the black woman who have done those things. They have amazing platforms and are killing it. But I think in order to stand out you have to have something more. And I think for us that something more can be HBO. It can be the fact that we're not competing with white men on this show to, you know, try to get any air time.

At the risk of sounding obvious with this question: What makes this a black lady sketch show?

There’s black ladies on it. (smiles mischievously)

Come on now. You what I'm trying to ask. This has a very specific point of view, but at the same time manages to be universally appealing in its humor.

That's right. That's what I keep saying: specifically cast, universally funny. There are definitely going to be cultural references that black women only will understand, and that's fine.

I mean, even if on “The Rundown,” my late-night show [on BET], there were a lot of references people didn't get that they would have to Google, they did. The thing is, black people lead the culture. . . . So with black women in sketch it's like, “Oh, are black women funny? Can they be more than just the eye-rolling best friend?" Yeah, of course.

So the show was definitely written from a very specific point of view, but it's from a diverse array of black women. So you're going to get sketches that have aliens or musicals or thrillers or murder. You're going to get sketches with all sorts of different things because of the diversity amongst the black women in our writer's room. And that's a weird sentence to say to people — your writer's room is diverse, but it was all black women.

Because guess what? Not all black women are the same. For us it's really about showcasing something that is seen as very homogeneous and showing the layers that black women have. And even on this show, in six episodes, we can't, we've barely scratched the surface.

But we're also not beating people over the head with it. It's not like every sketch is about like doing our hair and complaining about men. A lot of the humor is very subversive and it's very subliminal in some ways, and there's very broad humor. So we really just wanted to show the breadth of what we can do.

This show is coming on the air at a time when four prominent women of color are under attack, front and center, by the President.  

It's crazy. And this whole, “go back to where you came from” bullshit. And narrowly avoiding the war with Iran — I mean, it's just, it's crazy I think that we all feel like the world died a little bit when [Donald] Trump got elected.

So yeah, I think this is a little bit of larger allegorical commentary on black women. Sometimes feeling like they're the only ones in the world, when we're with each other, because we're the only ones who truly understand each other. The rest of the world outside can feel like it's in shambles and we still make it and we still thrive.

Let’s pivot a bit. What did you learn from your work with both “The Rundown” and working with Larry Wilmore on “The Nightly Show?”

Larry taught me that if it's not smart, you're doing your audience a disservice. I really try not to punch down, or if we do punch, it’s with jokes or about very rich and very famous people who can take it.

There's not a lot of mean humor in the show. I just don't traffic in that kind of humor. That’s not to say it's not pointed and sharp, but we're not coming after anyone in particular.

From “The Rundown,” we had a lot of sketches on that show too. That show was all about the intersection of politics and pop culture, so if I had a sketch about an Olympic sport, it also had to kind of be a political commentary as well. Whereas this show is not that.

For me, spending five years in late night just made me want to stop watching news 24 hours a day. So I got to be a little more in the depths of my imagination for this show. Not that I wasn't using my imagination on the other shows, but I'd always had to be rooted in something real in the political world, and this show doesn't have that burden.

Instead, I think the political act is us even being on TV doing this show for the first time in history. That freed me up a little bit, just in the work that I've done over the last five years, to really take my comedy and my sketches to a different place.

It's an interesting time right now for sketch comedy. There's been a lot of coverage of “Saturday Night Live” and its political takes, but we also have “Alternatino,” and your show, “Sherman’s Showcase” — all shows that find way to speak subversively to the times without actually turning people off or, you know, going the classic sitcom route of being about nothing. We spoke a little bit about being specifically universal in your direction. But how does sketch comedy specifically afford you room to speak to the truth of moment?

Sketch comedy taught me early on with “SNL” and “In Living Color” that you can speak to things that matter through sketch, and comedy is the universal language of communication in my mind. It's how people retain things. Think of the fact that we're 20 years after Dave Chappelle almost, and I'm still quoting sketches from him.

I think that sketch, in that way sneaks into … it's like an ear worm, right? It's a song you can't get out of your head.   You hear those jokes and you don't even realize that you're learning more about other people. Stereotypes are being broken down. I think people will watch the show and just internally, subversively, they'll start thinking, “Oh, I saw a black woman do that really funny thing” or “A black woman comedian did this or played that character and it really, I didn't know they could do that.”

It may seem silly to say in 2019, but I really do think people just don't think women are funny. And don't see a lot of black women comedians — Whoopi be Goldberg was the only black woman comedian I saw for ages until “In Living Color” as a kid. And I didn't understand why I didn't see more. Even today, there's only a handful on these sketch shows. I think there can never be enough, to be honest.

I have seen more black women on, you know, stand-up series, but it's always been shows with 10-minute sets.

Right! Where are our hour specials? There are so many funny black women who can do an hour just standing on their head. And I think this is the same in the sketch world. You just do not see us. And I don't know why. And the ones who do break through are the ones who have learned how to trick people into getting them in the room. I say that in a positive way. Like they've learned the game, they've learned what character white people will allow. And this is not for all of them, but I'm just saying like, we're only allowed — this is  not on black women, it's on the white people who “let us in” — it’s like they only let in a few at a time.

And if you're not doing this sort of humor that like they can understand, I think it's really hard for them to understand that you're so funny and talented. So I just want to show that we can be a million different things. We don't all have to be one thing. And the one thing that we're allowed to do here is still valuable and funny.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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