Robin Thede On Creating 'A Black Lady Sketch Show' In The Middle Of A Pandemic
“It was critical for us to broadcast that joy. So if everybody had masks on and every sketch was about the pandemic, it would be traumatic.”
When it premiered in August 2019, A Black Lady Sketch Show felt like something entirely new and long overdue. Created by Robin Thede (a Black woman), directed by a Black woman, written by Black women, produced by Black women, and starring Black women (including central cast members Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson, and Gabrielle Dennis), it was the first sketch comedy show in the history of the medium to center the Black female perspective. This fact gave ABLSS a sense of built-in importance, but none of it would have mattered if the HBO series didn’t deliver the laughs. Thankfully, however, it did — in spades.
This didn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Thede’s work — much of which was already history-making. In 2015, she became the first Black woman to lead a writers room for a late-night talk show when she accepted the position for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, and two years later, she broke similar ground when she premiered her own late-night show on BET, The Rundown with Robin Thede. Unfortunately, The Rundown was unceremoniously canceled after only one (critically-acclaimed) season. But fortunately, for us, that cancellation would eventually pave the way for A Black Lady Sketch Show.
This Friday, HBO will premiere the long-awaited second season of Thede’s brilliant sketch comedy series. (Like many shows, it was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.) In its sophomore outing, ABLSS continues to hilariously shine a light on specifically Black issues — too-long hair appointments, the overwhelming whiteness of the judicial system, the origins of CPT, twerking — through a universal lens. The end-of-the-world interstitials continue — albeit without Brunson, who had to leave the show to develop her own comedy with ABC — as do some of the show’s most memorable characters. (Remember Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, Pre-Ph.D?). And after securing everyone from Laverne Cox to Angela Bassett (who went on to receive an Emmy nomination for her performance) to guest star in its inaugural season, Thede & Co. have assembled a similarly stacked cast of guest stars this time around — including Gabrielle Union, Skai Jackson, Kim Wayans, Amber Riley, and Ayesha Curry. (A few impressive men show up too, from Jesse Williams and Laz Alonso to Omarion and Miguel.)
Ahead of Friday’s HBO premiere for A Black Lady Sketch Show, NYLON hopped on the phone with Robin Thede to talk about season two, celebrating Black joy, the slow-but-sure changing tides for Black women working in comedy, the bright side of shooting a show during the middle of a world-shifting pandemic, and how Trump being in the White House inspired her eerily prescient sketch idea about four women stranded together at the end of the world.
When A Black Lady Sketch Show premiered in 2019, you said that you decided to use “A” in the title instead of “The” because you hoped that, one day, your show would just be “one of many.” In the two years since, how do you think the culture around Black women-led comedy series has shifted?
Look, I think we're just getting started in terms of Black women creating, starring in, and writing their own projects. There are only a few of us who are in the comedy space — who are doing it. But there are more and more every year. With the success of Insecure, lots of women… I mean, my friend Ziwe is coming to Showtime with her show, and she used to write for my late-night show. I met her when she was an intern — I was just like, "You're funny on Twitter. I want to hire you." Phoebe Robinson has a bunch of shows she's doing — she has a new one on Comedy Central. My beloved Amber Ruffin, who I have known for decades and who wrote on season one of A Black Lady Sketch Show, has been killing it with her late-night show. All of these things are happening and I love seeing them. I love supporting them. But it's still not enough, right?
It won’t be enough until we have the sort of representation where we're seeing all types. Where is “The Southern Black Women's Comedy Show?” You know what I mean? In white male sketch comedy, you've got all sorts: you've got Canadian comedians, the Southern-fried comics, you've got the comedians in L.A. — you know, “the coastal elites,” the New Yorkers, the Brooklynites. So I think there's room. Especially in sketch comedy, there's nothing but room.
I really try to work with as many Black women in sketch as I can. We've made some inroads in late-night and in some other formats, but I think there's just a lot more to be done. In scripted too! You have people like Michaela Coel, who are doing these gut-wrenchingly beautiful pieces of art — not even “TV,” just art. But I think on the sketch comedy side, it's still a little slow to break in. It's always going to be tough because women aren't seen as being “as funny” [as others]. But I'm like, "Have you met a Black woman? They're the funniest people on earth!" So I think we'll just keep pushing, and I hope that our continued success is a gateway for others.
Your show was the first of its kind. Not only were Black women the stars, but it was also written, produced, and directed by other Black women.
Edited, dressed, makeup, hair — everything.
Exactly. Given your long history in the field of Hollywood comedy, what would you say were some of the biggest differences you noticed when working in a space where you were, for the first time, completely surrounded by other women that looked like you?
Well, it wasn't the first time. I've been hiring [Black] people since 2014. On The Nightly Show [with Larry Wilmore], I brought in four Black women, which was the most that had ever been in a late-night writers room. And on my late-night show, it was nothing but Black women and men in there. Well, we had a couple of white people that worked there, but it was a writers room that was dominated by Black women. My head writer, Lauren Ashley Smith, came over from The Rundown. For the last almost seven years, my whole mission has been to include more of us in the spaces where we weren't traditionally allowed. I've been working my way up to A Black Lady Sketch Show for a while. So for me, it just feels like second nature now. I'm so used to it.
But I always forget that! When I talk to people on other projects or work on other things short-term, I always have to go, “Oh yeah! The world doesn't look like A Black Lady Sketch Show!” It's just joy. I mean, we always talk about that. We talk about it in the writers room, about not having to explain your pitch. You don't have to say, "Okay, so there's this woman named Anita Baker." We're like, "Yeah, you don't have to explain that. Just pitch the sketch." I think that secondhand is so nice for us. And also, just this feeling that everybody has your back and that everybody wants you to do well and wants you to succeed. We all have this common goal. There's no social-climbing nature. Everybody's just there to make a great product.
Season one was framed around these interstitials about four women who were stranded in a house together at the end of the world. The season aired months before we’d all find ourselves in a very similar position due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did it feel to stumble upon an idea that, in retrospect, feels almost eerily prescient?
Well, going into season one, I didn't stumble upon it. I knew it was a possibility. I mean, with Trump in the White House, I was like, "He's going to kill us all. So let's imagine a world in which he does." Of course, I would say our prediction was much more bleak — it was that basically only four women had survived. And there was a metaphor there, right? There was a lot of allegory in saying that the four people to survive the end of the world would be Black women.
So going into that, I knew that the world was changing. Remember, Trump was president, right? So in January of 2019, when we were writing that, I had a real sense of peril and a real sense of the world shifting in a way that did not feel good, especially for Black people. So I wanted to comment on that — even on a sketch show, right? I come from this world of late-night, my mother is in politics, and I'm very politically active — so it was important to me that, although the show is not overtly political, we were able to say things even with the comedy in an allegorical sort of way. So in season one, that was really important. In season two, we'll be exploring other things differently. But I think we're always going to strive, no matter what, to have commentary in a comedic way that will present something for you to think about — and specifically, something for you to think about in terms of how Black women are represented and seen in the world.
Season one premiered before last summer’s huge reckoning around race, but season two is about to premiere almost a year afterwards. Do you think that your show, which centers Black perspectives, will represent something different to a certain sect of your audience in light of the conversations that have been happening over the past year?
Probably not to the audience that already existed. But to the new people that come? Certainly. I think that our show may have a better sense about the diversity amongst Black women — which, maybe before the racial reckoning, would have felt like an incongruous phrase. But all Black women are not the same! We are not a monolith. We say this all the time. Black people, in general, are not a monolith.
Although there are a lot of men on the show this season, I do think that it's critical that people who haven't — or maybe who wouldn't — watch something with "A Black Lady" in the title do come to the show. [It’s critical] that they see that, although the show is specifically cast and specifically written, it's universally funny. There are things that you're going to be able to laugh at. There are characters you will laugh at no matter where you come from, and it will intrinsically give you a better understanding of our community, our relatability, and our point-of-view.
With the recent premiere of certain shows, I think we (and by we, I mean Black people) have started to really have these deep, insightful conversations about the role that trauma should play in the Black stories we're telling in Hollywood. During a time when the day-to-day reality for so many of us is already rooted in so much trauma, how does it feel for you — as a creator, a writer, and an actress — to be putting something out there that is deliberately meant to make people smile and laugh, while still being very Black?
Well, thank you for saying that, first of all, because that is 100% the mission of the show. But I will say, this show saved me. And I think it saved a lot of us in the pandemic, in so many ways. We had to shoot at the height of COVID, during a very scary time. It was a crazy thing we had to live through, and I don't think we give ourselves enough credit or patience or grace for that. But coming to work every day and being able to see all of our sisters and brothers on the show, being able to put on these costumes and put on these crazy wigs and do these accents and be these characters and live in this fantasy world where there was no COVID, where our friends and family members weren't dying at an alarming rate — it was like we got to go to a Mecca of sorts. Even though it was really challenging to make this during a pandemic, whenever we were together, it was like we were invincible. I know that sounds super cheesy. But if I would've just sat at home for a year — which many of us did — it would’ve been a lot more emotionally taxing.
Even though showrunning and starring in a show that has to be made while people are looking like they're working in a hospital, with multiple masks and face shields and gloves, while we're getting tested six times a week and all of these things [is hard], it was worth it to create the product that we did. I think anyone who watches season two won’t even remember that we shot it during a global pandemic. It doesn't feel that way and I think that was really critical for us. It was critical for us to broadcast that joy. So if everybody had masks on and every sketch was about the pandemic or whatever, it would be traumatic. It would be invoking trauma, even though we were trying to invoke joy. So we just knew that it had no part in this season.
One of my favorite parts of every episode is the post-credits bloopers sequence, where your characters are testing out alternate jokes that didn't make the final sketch but are still hilarious. I have to know: How do you come up with such an abundance of quality material that you end up with all these excess jokes that get left on the cutting room floor?
Listen, digital this season has several minutes of more outtakes — and we really call them “outtakes” because they really are just alternate jokes. We don't like to do a lot of, "Oh, I messed up my line" because that's whatever. I like to be like, “Okay, you didn't get a lot of these jokes because we had to cut them for time or story or whatever, so I'm going to cram them into the end of the episode.”
But this season, we have so much more. I mean, one of the sketches that's in the trailer, about the loaves and fishes, has seven minutes of more jokes. And in TV time, that is an eternity! But Brittany Scott Smith, who directed that sketch in particular, just let us go for, I don't know, 12 minutes or something? She just kept rolling and never cut, and we just went and went and went.
I need to see the supercut!
No, you will! We're going to release some of it digitally because there's just so much. That's what I mean about the joy — we're not faking it for TV, we're actually having it, and we want people to feel that. But yeah, the outtakes are the best and we did even more improv takes this season. We were able to just make it a priority. We had a lot last season, but we didn't know if people would like them, so we just cut the episodes. But once they started airing, we realized everybody wanted them. So we made more of an effort to give you even more in this season.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.