Robin Thede Explains Why She Kept Politics Out Of 'A Black Lady Sketch Show'
"Trump is not funny to me"
Do you remember what you were doing when the trailer for A Black Lady Sketch Show dropped? I do. I sent it to my best friend at the same time she was sending it to me. It was only a preview of what was to come, but the nearly two-minute-long video felt important, it felt promising—and it felt long overdue.
Creator, star, and executive producer Robin Thede is making history with her new HBO show. It's the first sketch series written, directed, and starring Black women. It's also, quite possibly, the fastest HBO has signed off on a project. "[Me and Issa Rae] went out to dinner with Amy Gravitt, who's our network executive, and she bought the show at dinner," Thede says. "It was a no-brainer for them. The show was already developed, I had created my vision for it, who I wanted on it, and how it would work, and they said, 'Yup, here are six episodes.'" Thede continues: "We did not shoot a pilot, we did not shoot anything, we just went right into our writers' room. They hadn't even read a script, but they knew based on my ideas for the show that they were into it."
It also helps that Thede has significant skin in the comedy game. She was a head writer for The Queen Latifah Show and wrote for Kevin Hart's sitcom The Real Husbands of Hollywood. She was a writer and performer on the sketch comedy series In The Flow With Affion Crockett and, more recently, she became the first Black woman head writer in late-night history for The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, only to turn around to create and host her own late-night show, The Rundown with Robin Thede. It's during her time hosting that she started soft pitching her new series to different networks. When The Rundown got canceled after only one season, she shifted her attention.
"We started writing in January, and it's airing in August, which is really stupid fast," Thede says, which might account for my—and a lot of the internet's—surprise when the trailer was released with little to no prior promotion. "I think it's one of the fastest shows HBO's ever put out," Thede continues. "And that's just because of my own sheer will to get it done and to work within our budget and our time frame."
But just because it's come together quickly, doesn't mean it feels slapdash. It simply means that Thede had a well-thought-out vision, which was "to make a show that was cinematic, and show Black women living a diverse set of grounded experiences in a magical reality."
Thede says they approached the show "as if we were doing 40-some-odd different short films." She continues: "It's a narrative sketch show, so we tell stories, characters recur, you check in with them throughout the season, but it's not just, like, a character shouting a catchphrase over and over. We're trying to tell a story and showcase three-dimensional characters as much as possible, because Black women often don't get to play those types of characters, and that was really important to me."
Ahead, we talk to Thede about the appeal of sketch comedy, the joy of acting, and her decision to leave politics out of the show.
You have an extensive history with sketch comedy, what about the medium appeals to you?
It's always been my first love. When I was at Northwestern, I started a sketch comedy group that's still going on. And then I went to Second City and came out to L.A. and had a resident sketch team. So, it's always been my love and something that I love to do. I think that sketch is such a fun medium, because you really get to be anyone. And for Black women, who are often so pigeonholed, especially in comedy, it's a rare treat to be able to play dozens of characters. Between the four of us [Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis, and Quinta Brunson, the main characters on the show], we play 100 original characters in six episodes—which is insane. It's so fun to be able to step into all of these different personalities and characters and situations and eras and voices and wigs and costumes.
It's also kind of a perfect medium for right now. Bite-sized humor is great for the short attention span society seems to have.
Yeah, I think that can be true, and the interesting thing is, because we are on HBO, you're getting a very dense show because we don't have commercials. So, our interstitial series, with the four women in the house first, is our kind of palate cleanser between sketches and a return to a home base. And that narrative series is us playing larger-than-life versions of ourselves. Everybody can kind of identify with different personality types like, "Oh, I'm a Quinta, I'm a Gabrielle." So you get that, but you get to breathe in-between the sketches.
We have sketches that are a minute to seven minutes—and that's long in the sketch comedy world. But, like I said, we treated them like short films, so they have true character development and story line arcs. They're not just a character shouting the same thing over three minutes. It was important to us and for my writers that we figure out ways to keep it bite-sized, but also, when we do go longer, that it's still interesting and that it's still shareable and digestible, while still challenging the audience. We definitely don't dumb down anything for the audience. There are going to be things that go over people's heads, even if you are a Black woman. There's stuff you need to watch twice. I would honestly say that everyone needs to watch the episodes twice, there's a lot going on in all the sketches. There are also easter eggs in the sketches that you're going to miss the first time. There are hints to other sketches and other characters embedded in the sketches that you'll miss upon first viewing. So, there's a lot to see, and that was on purpose. We definitely didn't want to do a show that was superficial or base level in any way. We wanted to do things that give the audience more of a gift that can continue to be unwrapped.
You also appear in a majority of the sketches. Do you prefer writing or creating over performing?
I've never had to choose. I've always been a writer-performer. I started out as a performer only, but I was also writing—I just didn't call myself a writer. The first seven years in this business, I was only a performer. This is like my sixth or seventh sketch show that I've been on and most of those have only been as a performer. I've never been a producer on a sketch show before, and I've certainly never run a sketch show before. So, I am the showrunner of this show only because there are no other Black women who have show-run sketch series, and I knew my vision was clear, and I wanted to make sure that it was carried out.
I'm a performer first though, and anyone who follows my career over the past two decades would know me mostly as a performer. I think I get a lot of credit for the writing because I have been a head writer most recently, and so I think people know me as that—especially in late-night. But I've always been on the shows that I've been a head writer for as well. And I starred, obviously, in my own late-night show, and we did a lot of sketches on that show that I was in as well. I will never just be behind the scenes, I have no interest in that. I'm a performer first who also writes.
Is there a character on the show that you enjoyed playing the most?
I don't want to give away spoilers for characters, because there are definitely ones later in the season that were more of a challenge for me. But, let's just say, of the three dozen or so characters that I play on the show, each one of them presents a unique challenge. Whether I'm playing a man, someone who's extremely energetic, someone who's low-energy, someone who's an alien [laughs]. My fun is stepping on set every day and being able to portray a different type of Black woman. A type of Black woman who will make someone feel seen when they see [her].
There are a ton of guest stars on the show. Was there anyone who was particularly hard to get?
The people who were hardest to get didn't do the show [laughs]. But everybody, even just knowing the title and knowing that I was doing this show and that Issa was involved and HBO, I think that was enough to convince most people.
So, when people say, "Oh, why isn't so and so on the show?" We asked that person. Especially if it's a Black woman who you know and is in the zeitgeist of either drama or comedy, we asked them all. But most who didn't make the show were just too busy, and the ones who were not busy, are on the show. The trailer only shows 21 guest stars, but there are twice as many on the show. We wanted to keep it focused on the core four cast members, but when celebrities do come in, they come in in a way that makes sense and in a way that shows them in a light that we don't normally see them in.
I mean, Angela Basset is in the trailer, that's no surprise, and the way that she is on this show is a way that people have never seen Angela Basset before. And she was so down and ready to play. Kelly Rowland is on the show—she's also in the trailer—and she just showed up ready to go and only has a small part in the show. Most celebrities actually only have small parts in the show. There are some who have bigger ones, but a lot of them just come in for a line or two. And they were so happy to do it and so happy to be a part of something so historic and so fun. I don't think a lot of celebrities get that chance, they don't get asked to host SNL. A lot of Black women haven't been on anything with this kind of comedy, so I think it's a place where people want to come to play and want to challenge themselves to do something fun.
The show largely avoids talking about politics. Was that intentional?
One hundred percent. We're also not a show that's shot and airing the same week, so any talk of politics would feel dated, even for as fast as we put the show together. Politics, for me, wasn't something that I wanted to overtly discuss on the show, just because I've spent the last five years in a 24-hour news cycle and having to make jokes about all that stuff. And I think people have expected that from me, so I wanted to show a different side of what I can do. And I think it's no surprise how Black women feel about politics, so it didn't really make sense. Trump is not funny to me, and that kind of stuff had no place on this show because this show is pure comedy.
The political act on this show is the fact that it exists. I think it's revolutionary to have the first sketch show comprised, directed, created, starring Black women written by Black women. I think, for me, that's the political act, and being able to see Black women do comedy that you've never seen them do before is inherently political.
What's next for you?
God, what do you people want from me? I work so hard, I just finished editing last week, I'm on a promotional tour now [laughs]. No, I have a movie that I'm working on selling, don't know when that will happen, just because of the buzz around the show has frankly been overwhelming, which is great. There are hundreds of sketches that we wrote that we did not have time to shoot or money to shoot, and so I think a Season 2 would be fantastic. Write your congressperson and HBO and let them know.
What's next is continuing to do work that highlights Black women in comedy, and that continues to show the variety of things that I can do as well, and continues to showcase all the things that we can do in this industry.