Brainchild of trailblazing comedy writer Robin Thede and produced by the unstoppable Issa Rae, A Black Lady Sketch Show seeks to bring the funny AND the weird.
When HBO dropped the trailer for A Black Lady Sketch Show there was already a lot of buzz. The trailer featured stars like Angela Bassett, David Alan Grier, Laverne Cox, Kelly Rowland, Marsai Martin, Nicole Byer, and more. The guest list alone seemed to get the masses excited, but that wasn’t even the most intriguing part.
Not only will the show feature a slew of prominent black celebrities, but it also stars four very funny black women, is written by some very funny black women, produced by some very funny black women, and directed by some very funny black women. The intentional involvement of black women at every stage in this project got a lot of people talking, mainly because of how rare that is and how groundbreaking it is poised to be.
While there have been small, but iconic contributions to black sketch comedy with The Chappelle Show, Key & Peele, and In Living Color — and if you want to go way back, The Flip Wilson Show — they have not always included black women. And mainstream network shows like MADtv and Saturday Night Live are also lacking.
With 44 seasons under its belt, SNL has only featured seven black women on its cast — Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorne, Maya Rudolph, Sasheer Zamata, Leslie Jones, and Ego Nwodim. Black women were similarly underrepresented on MADtv. Despite running for 14 seasons plus a brief revival in 2016, MADtv featured only six black women — Erica Ash, Debra Wilson, Daniele Gaither, Daheli Hall, Nicole Randall Johnson, and Lyric Lewis. Even fewer black women served as writers on both shows. SNL didn’t hire its first black female writer until season 18 with Vanessa Middleton. And neither show has had a black woman serve as director.
In Living Color is perhaps the most progressive example of the inclusion of black women in a sketch comedy series, featuring four black women on its cast — Kim Wayans, T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh, Kim Cole, and Anne-Marie Johnson — during its five-season run, including three who were together on its original cast. It also featured several black women as writers and a black woman — Terri Mccoy — at the helm of a majority of the episodes.
But A Black Lady Sketch Show isn’t just giving black women a seat at the table, they are building their own table and rolling up in their chairs. And it’s all thanks to multi-hyphenate comedian and writer Robin Thede.
Named after comedy icon Robin Williams, Thede has been building up to this moment all her life. She was the first black woman to be a head writer in late-night television while working on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, and now the first black woman to create a sketch series featuring a cast and crew of black women. The dream of doing A Black Lady Sketch Show has been brewing in Thede’s mind since her college days doing improv at Northwestern.
“I would be on improv teams with all black women, and it was something I always wanted to do on TV, but I was always on sketch shows with a lot of dudes. They were great, but it was always a dream in the back of my mind to create a show with all black women,” Thede tells EW. “I just had to wait until I had enough success in my career that someone wanted to buy it and last summer was the right time.”
“The right time” may be a bit of an understatement. A nigh perfect series of events seemed to occur to have the new sketch show premiere this soon.
“When The Rundown got canceled, Issa [Rae] called me and was like, ‘Okay, what are we doing?’ And I said, ‘Well I have this sketch show and I really wanna do that.,'” Thede explains. “And she was like, ‘Bring it. Do it with me, let’s bring it to HBO.’ And so, she immediately signed on as an executive producer with me and HBO bought it in the room and sent us straight to series. And less than a year later we are on TV, which is crazy.”
It should shock no one that Thede — who occupies multiple roles on the show, including showrunner, creator, executive producer, writer, and star — is set to check off another historic milestone, as it seems to have become a pastime of hers to shatter glass ceilings and kick open bolted doors. But Thede makes it clear that she is less preoccupied with clearing “firsts” and more concerned with creating a space where black women can come together and flex their dramatic and comedic chops that certain audiences may not be familiar with and to inspire other funny black women to perhaps create their own shows. “We named it A Black Lady Sketch Show because it’s not ‘THE Black Lady Sketch Show.’ So, A Black Lady Sketch Show means to me that it’s just one of many,” Thede explains.
Which makes her assembly of castmates all the more special.
“The great thing about this show is that I handpicked the cast, Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis, Ashley Nicole Black, who were comedians in their own right,” Thede says, gushing about each one. “Everybody knows Quinta from social media, but Quinta studied improv at Second City and Improv Olympic. Gabrielle Dennis was a standup comedian and on Damon Wayans’ sketch show on Showtime. And she’s a pitch-perfect mimic of any singer. Quinta can play so many different characters. Ashley Nicole Black literally has a Ph.D. in sketch comedy. She’s unbelievable as a writer-performer on the show.”
“I’m creating this new class of women who have been out here and been doing this, but who haven’t had the chance to be seen in that way. They’ve always been in majority white spaces, or if they have been involved in black spaces, it’s been as a sidekick-girlfriend to somebody or the dramatic lead in something in Gabrielle’s case,” Thede says. “So, I’m just excited for these current black women to be seen in the light that they deserve. And for people to see all this amazing stuff that they can do.”
Thede, Brunson, Dennis, and Black portray over 100 original characters during the show’s six-episode run. One common thread in many of these characters is, well, they’re pretty damn weird.
“The part of this show that really makes my heart sing is I’ve always been a fan of weird and out-of-the-box comedy,” Brunson tells EW. “I was a fan of Tim and Eric, and Human Giant and sketch shows like that. And we got to go to those weird places on this show.”
But, Brunson — who first gained popularity thanks to her viral video series The Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date — says, those weird places will be specific to the culture of black women. “They’ll be universal, but the way we get to tell these stories is specific to us, but it’s the weird stuff I liked when I was younger. It’s not every single sketch, but we have some in there that really make my heart sing. I love weird s— and when we get to be weird. It’s usually reserved for white men. So, I’m really happy to be weird with these women.”
Weird is right, as the show sets its potential audience up for its incoming and wacky-as-hell-humor with a sound, cataclysmic framing device that promises to be anything but boring.
Unlike her costars, Dennis is better known for dramatic turns in The Game, The Bobby Brown Story, Rosewood, and Luke Cage, but she got her start in sketch and standup comedy. Dennis says she hopes this same space that Thede has created for the cast to be weird, encourages other black female comedians.
“I remember first starting out and there weren’t a lot of black female comedians period and people would say ‘Oh, you’re too pretty to do comedy’ and then I would show up with a baseball cap and kind of dress myself down as much as possible, but you know I don’t do that because I shouldn’t have to,” Dennis tells EW. “In fact, I’m hoping ABLSS inspires funny women to be themselves and embrace their femininity through comedy.”
Dennis also expressed excitement at the sheer magnitude of guest stars that include the likes of Bassett and Gina Torres featured on the show, explaining that between the principal guests and the legion of to-be-seen guest stars, there will be a diverse set of black women represented.
Rounding out the main cast is Black — an Emmy winner for her work on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee — who adds another layer of representation to the show, that of a plus-size black woman, whose representation in comedy is often…not good (Norbit anyone?). But Thede assures that Black’s role in the show will be far from that of a trope.
Thede notes that Black wrote most of her own sketches. “[That] was important to me that she have the autonomy to speak about her things that were important to her comedically. From her own point of view,” Thede tells EW of Black’s involvement.
“She has dating issues, she has job issues … We wanted her to have a really strong voice in the show and also have a really strong presence on camera. To be able to do whatever. She’s just like any of the rest of us,” Thede says. “Plus-sized women also do everything everyone else does. I don’t know why we ‘other’ plus-sized people so much. It doesn’t make any sense. But, you know, I hope that brings more normalcy for that group of black women. But also just for black women in general”.
Attempting to represent black women in general and in comedy is no small feat. But Thede and company are ready to make a valiant attempt all while getting weird. The show takes on the apocalypse, parodies a fear of ashy skin, pays homage to Shakespeare, dabbles in a little government espionage, combines puppets with Megan Thee Stallion‘s “Hot Girl,” shouts out ballroom culture, and debates whether Britney Spears’ cover of “My Prerogative” is better than Bobby Brown’s, and that’s just a taste. Oh, and get ready for your new favorite phrase: “Flinstone D—” (move over, Groupon Peen).
And just in case you’re still skeptical about what A Black Lady Sketch Show has to offer on the comedic front, Thede has a message for you: “Watch the show, we’ll prove you wrong”.
A Black Lady Sketch Show premieres Friday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.