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The Many Voices of ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’

Robin Thede’s HBO show—just renewed for a second season—is in many ways the first of its kind, but refuses to be the last

HBO/Ringer illustration

Director Dime Davis doesn’t like to pick favorites; after presiding over all six episodes of A Black Lady Sketch Show, she’s proud of her entire body of work. But when she talks about the highlights of her experience on the show, she identifies two seemingly contradictory feelings. There’s the “warm and fuzzy” sensation of coming home to a familiar face, or several—“I got to see the women I knew growing up, portrayed by these four incredible cast members”—and then there’s the shock that comes from creating something unprecedented. Of a genre parody with “Fincher-esque vibes,” Davis observes, “I’ve never seen two black women in a suspense thriller like that.”

In some ways, A Black Lady Sketch Show is, proudly and prominently, the first of its kind. In others, it’s dedicated to not staying alone in the room. The HBO comedy series, created by and starring late night veteran Robin Thede, is the first sketch show entirely cast and written by black women, but even the title implies it doesn’t intend to be the only one for long. “It was called The Black Lady Sketch Show, and then we decided to call it A Black Lady Sketch Show so it wouldn’t just be the singular one,” Thede explains. “We would keep that door open for others.”

Already renewed for a second season just over halfway through its first, A Black Lady Sketch Show builds on a moment in comedy when diversity is valued both for its own sake and for the creative dividends it pays. In the past few years, acts like Ali Wong, Hasan Minhaj, and Samantha Bee—all influences cited by ABLSS’s head writer, Lauren Ashley Smith—have found a foothold. But for the sketch genre in particular, 2019 has been a banner year for stretching the limits of the form, from the cultural specificity of Arturo Castro’s Alternatino to the tonal absurdity of Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave. A Black Lady Sketch Show brings this trend to a crescendo, yielding a show that wears its exceptionalism on its sleeve even as it takes its existence as a given. “I think people’s appetites have been primed,” Smith observes. “I think people were ready to hear, ‘What is a black woman’s take on sketch comedy?’”

The answer to that hypothetical has yielded 50-odd segments, united by the presence of Davis, Thede, former Full Frontal correspondent Ashley Nicole Black, BuzzFeed alumna Quinta Brunson, and Gabrielle Dennis, a comedian turned dramatic actor turned comic performer once again. Some ABLSS segments take race and gender as their explicit subject, like Thede’s recurring “hertep” character, Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, Pre-PhD. (Don’t invite her to your wedding.) Others make them purely incidental, such as a high-concept scenario where a woman without makeup quite literally looks like a zombie. More often, the sketches land somewhere in between, using the show’s title as explicit context but situating the actual comedy more within black femininity than around it. “Basic Ball” certainly benefits from people having watched Pose or Paris Is Burning, but anyone can get the jokes about clinical depression; “On My Own” is as much about the indignities of a breakup as it is the musical stylings of guest star Patti LaBelle, one of dozens of high-profile guest stars. Sketch is, by its nature, an uneven format, and ABLSS is no exception. But by season’s end, it’s leveraged less than three hours of run time into its own distinctive, self-contained world, with recurring characters and tropes the audience has quickly learned to recognize.

Thede had the basic concept of A Black Lady Sketch Show in her back pocket for years, but didn’t actively pursue it until her BET series The Rundown was canceled last summer, almost exactly a year before ABLSS’s eventual premiere. The same day, Thede got a phone call from Insecure creator Issa Rae, who had an overall production deal with HBO in addition to her own series. Rae offered to help make the project a reality, and together, the two pitched the network over dinner. “They bought it before the entrée came,” Thede recounts with obvious pride.

While a clear vote of confidence, that swift pickup also fast-tracked A Black Lady Sketch Show to relative warp speed. “The good thing is you don’t have to make a pilot or languish in development, but you also don’t get a Game of Thrones budget,” Thede says. By early 2019, Thede had reached out to a network of 24 writers and hired a room of six. (“I could have hired many more, but you know, you can only afford to hire so many.”) The season itself was shot in just five weeks, a breakneck pace that put something of a strain on the creative team. “There’s not one sketch that looks like another,” Davis says. “So when you’re shooting two or three sketches a day—I gotta be honest, it was very difficult to get it to where it is, just because of the tight time frame. But all of that was worth it because of where it is now.”

Hiring one director for all six episodes was partly a practical consideration; Thede, Smith, and the writers hadn’t sorted the sketches into blocks ahead of time, and there simply wasn’t space for multiple directors to swap out control of production. Yet Davis also helped give ABLSS a unified aesthetic, guided by Thede’s vision of “a cinematic show that had grounded narrative sketch, but still elements of a magical reality.” ABLSS opens with “The Fog,” a scene that starts in a high-fantasy alternate universe and ends in an airplane cockpit (with Insecure’s Yvonne Orji as a flight attendant). The rest of the show follows suit.

An alumna of Lena Waithe series Boomerang and The Chi, Davis didn’t have a background in sketch comedy before Dear White People creator Justin Simien referred her to Thede for the job. (Thede will costar in Simien’s upcoming horror-comedy Bad Hair.) But diversity of background was vital to Thede’s vision for the show, and shaped her hiring decisions accordingly. Writers in particular were chosen to cultivate difference within seeming similarity. “I didn’t want all the same type of black women in the room,” Thede says. “I wanted ones who had come from lower economic backgrounds, or higher economic backgrounds, or college, or no college. One of our writers had been a stripper before; one of them went to Yale. There’s all sorts of different perspectives, and that was really important to me, because I didn’t want to paint black women as a monolith.”

According to Smith, the resulting mix enabled a creative environment she’d never experienced before in TV. “I was used to doing this sort of translating for myself,” she recalls. “There would be a point where I’d write my pitch, and then the point in my pitch where I’d explain my pitch. I’d be like, ‘This cultural experience that you maybe haven’t had is this.’ Or, ‘The way that people talk to you when you look this way is this.’ That part got deleted, in a lot of ways.” What came in its place was the space to unpack finer points of difference, and jump off to wilder places: “When you’re able to operate from such a shared starting place, you get so much more time and energy to be creative. You’re not explaining yourself.”

A Black Lady Sketch Show bounces around freely from 1930s baseball leagues to literal outer space. In between, however, the show returns to the same connective tissue: interstitial scenes of Thede, Black, Dennis, and Brunson, in character as themselves, shooting the shit in Thede’s living room. Thede calls these interludes “a narrative that helped give viewers a bit of a palate cleanser, but also a home to come back to between the different sketches;” in lieu of the elaborate world-building and payoff required of a traditionally structured sketch, the clips are loose discussions of everything from turn-ons to hills worth dying on. The scenes feel like a natural conversation between friends because, in a sense, they are. “We spent one cool day in the writers’ room just throwing out our hills,” Smith says.

This being a sketch comedy show, the running bit does include at least one over-the-top twist; the final shot of the premiere reveals all these petty debates are playing out amid an honest-to-god apocalypse, with Thede’s house the only one left standing. But the stripped-down setup helps communicate the more grounded concept underlying the madness, whether it takes the form of a “bad bitch support group” or a viral proposal gone horribly wrong. “We wanted to really showcase the fact that just because this is, quote-unquote, A Black Lady Sketch Show, there is no one ‘a black lady’ opinion,” Smith explains. “There is no one singular ‘a black lady.’ We’re only able to show four, and there are millions. But we wanted to showcase what it would be like if you put four women who, you would think, on paper they have all the same opinions. You really get to see them hash out and bat around ideas, whether it’s cancel culture or hair or what color sheets you sleep on.”

Along the way, A Black Lady Sketch Show enlists plenty of outside help. Angela Bassett is the leader of the aforementioned support group (“because duh,” Thede reasons); Patti LaBelle plays herself; Laverne Cox, Nicole Byer, and Thede’s former Nightly Show boss Larry Wilmore (who hosts a podcast for The Ringer) all stop by for cameos. Thede was pleasantly surprised by the turnout among celebrities she asked to stop by, but she already has a wish list drawn up for the now-confirmed Season 2 and beyond. “Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Oprah, Halle Berry, Viola Davis,” she rattles off. “That’s the great thing—there are endless amounts of black women who are capable of doing a stupid sketch on my show! People always seem to think of the same three black women for everything, but that’s not true. There’s so many black women comedians, black women dramatic actresses, musicians, all sorts of talented women out there who we would love to have as a part of the show.” A Black Lady Sketch Show doesn’t see the deliberate breadth of its title as a burden, but an opportunity—not a mandate to live up to so much as a chance to explore.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.