2019 has been a banner year for sketch comedy series—first, Netflix released the hilarious and highly experimental I Think You Leave With Tim Robinson, then Comedy Central debuted the subversive and smartly funny Alternatino With Arturo Castro. On Friday, HBO premiered A Black Lady Sketch Show, a vibrant and uproarious new sketch series from Robin Thede, host of the late, great late-night show The Rundown With Robin Thede.
Thede collaborated with Issa Rae for the new series, which The A.V. Club’s Ali Barthwell recently lauded for offering “unfettered access to the minds of four dynamic women.” Those four dynamic women include Thede, YouTube comedy sensation Quinta Brunson, Emmy winner (for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee) Ashley Nicole Black, and Marvel’s Luke Cage season-two star Gabrielle Dennis. While we would have been happy to speak with all four of these women as part of the 2019 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, The A.V. Club did sit down with Thede to discuss the genesis of the show, how she got Angela Bassett to sign up for a “Bad Bitch Support Group,” and why it’s only natural that Black women would survive the end of the world.
The A.V. Club: This is going to sound like a jokey question, but—
Robin Thede: I love jokey questions!
AVC: How does it feel to keep breaking ground?
RT: [Laughs.] It feels great!
AVC: Well, you’re the first Black woman to lead a late-night writers room, you were the first Black woman to lead the writers’ room for the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2016; and now, you’re the creator of the first sketch comedy written by and starring Black women.
RT: I keep saying I don’t set out to be the first to do things, but I end up being the first a lot of times. For the last three shows I’ve worked on, I’ve broken some sort of record. So maybe that’s my subliminal motivation. When I go to the next projects and create the next shows, I’m like, “Ooh, what has a Black woman never done? I’ll do that thing.” That happened to be that my passions align with things that haven’t been done by Black women. So hopefully I will quickly have my firsts eclipsed by the seconds, the thirds, the fourths.
AVC: Is it at all frustrating or tiring to keep being a first, especially since we’re already in the year 2019? Do you feel like people project a lot of expectations onto you because of those firsts?
RT: It’s tiring only in that there haven’t been more opportunities for Black women. I was the Black woman head writer in late night and for the White House Correspondents dinner. Then I was the fourth Black woman to host a late-night show. So I wasn’t the first there, but I was the only one on the air in a long time. And now obviously there’s never been a sketch show created like this, a show run by a Black woman, created by Black women, written by Black women, starring Black women. So I think for me it’s good in a way because you stand out in the landscape of hundreds of television shows, but there is responsibility with that, and there is pressure with that. And I think that people look to you as the singular source for this because you’re the only person doing it. But the reason why we called A Black Lady Sketch Show “A Black Lady Sketch Show” instead of “The Black Lady Sketch Show” was that hopefully there will be others, and it will just be one of many. So I think there definitely is pressure and you can’t represent everyone, but you do want to create a product that’s so good that all the other networks want to get their own.
AVC: You mentioned you were the fourth Black women to host a talk show, but why do you think it took longer to have a Black woman lead a writers’ room?
RT: In late night, yes. And I hired the second, Lauren Ashley Smith, who worked with me on The Rundown and who’s now the head writer on this show. I think it took a long time because it was just this “white dudes at Harvard Club” in late night for many, many years, and sketch has been very similar. A lot of late-night writers go to sketch or come from sketch. So sketch is a very similarly white, male-dominated space. Even for women and sketch, it’s groundbreaking to have this many women working on a show. I would imagine—I mean, I don’t know this because there have been some all-female sketch shows—but I would imagine we’re one of only a couple of completely women-filled writers’ rooms, let alone Black women.
We know we’re the first to do that for TV. But I think it just takes a long time because there was a club and there’s a stigma that women aren’t as funny as men, which is so stupid because we keep breaking that over and over and over. But for some reason people still think that, and I’m not out here to prove that women are funny, because that has been proven time and time again by all of our heroes who have come before us. But I am here to show that we can be funny in a way that’s different, and in a way that’s going to challenge what you believe Black women in comedy can be.
AVC: It does feel like sketch comedy is more inclusive than it’s ever been, because in addition to A Black Lady Sketch Show, we’ve also got Alternatino With Arturo Castro on Comedy Central. What do you think it is about sketch comedy that’s fostering that kind of representation?
RT: I think there is a sketch renaissance. I have friends, my friends Bashir [Salahuddin] and Diallo [Riddle] have Sherman’s Showcase coming out on IFC. I think Saturday Night Live has stood the test of time, but throughout the years, we always have periods where you have In Living Colors, MAD TVs, Chappelle’s Show, Key & Peele. I think sketch has actually been really consistent. I think there’s just times when it’s in the general zeitgeist a little bit more because things are going viral or whatever. But sketch has never really gone away. And I think that now we’re getting some new voices and some different voices that come from, not necessarily stand-up, but true character sketch improv world. So I think that people are just entering it from different avenues, and I think at the same time the world is ready for laughter. We really need it. And SNL can’t be the only game in town, you know? And it’s no shade to them. It’s just I think people want to see as much as possible, and things that speak to them differently and have a different point of view.
AVC: What makes Issa Rae an ideal collaborator for this show?
RT: She’s so great. I’ve known her for years. We’ve been looking for something to do together, and fortunately both of us have been very busy with our own careers. But the day the announcement that The Rundown was canceled came out, she called me and was like, “What are we doing together? The next thing we’re doing, we’re doing it together.” And have this deal at HBO, so I was like, “Well, I have this sketch show that I really want to do, and I’ve been pitching it, and there’s some interest somewhere else.” She said to bring it to HBO, so we had a meeting with Amy Gravitt, and at that meeting they bought it sight unseen. We didn’t have to shoot a pilot. We went straight to series, and in less than a year, in eight months, the show was on television, which is crazy. That’s crazy. And it’s one of the fastest shows HBO has ever turned out.
AVC: It really did feel like I saw the announcement and then all of a sudden, here’s the trailer.
RT: I know, I know. It’s so fast. And I wanted it that way on purpose. I purposely wasn’t posting a lot on social media. I didn’t post from set because I wanted people to be like, “Holy shit, when did they even do this?” And we shot very fast and we wrote very fast. TV shows still take time to do, but we just wanted the world to see it. To HBO’s credit, to Issa’s credit, nobody wanted the show to get stale. It can’t be super topical because it is very cinematic and beautiful, and that takes time and we’re not turning out things the day of. But it would get old because sketch does that.
But Issa is such a great partner—not only are we friends, but this is a woman who has a very distinct vision for how Black women should be represented. And you see that with Insecure and how great of a show that is. But in addition with this show, she really was like, “Okay, you’re creating the show. I’m just here to support.” And that’s what she did. She was the ultimate partner in that way because whatever we needed to get done, whether it was casting or whatever, she was there to push things where they needed to. Other than that, she just let me create my show. She believed in the vision from day one and never wavered, as did HBO and all of our producing partners, Jax Media, our studio. And I’m not just saying that, because I would just not talk about them if that was the case. But this has really been the most joyful experience I’ve had putting a television show together, and I’ve done a lot.
AVC: In addition to your cast and writing team, something that’s unique to your show is the way the interstitials form a season-long narrative. How did that come together?
RT: So I didn’t want to do regular interstitials and come out on a stage and be like, “Y’all ready for your next sketch?” I just didn’t want to do that. So we created this concept of a show within a show where the interstitials serve as a home base, as a palate cleanser, because the show bounces literally a hundred years one way or another, or from a thriller to a musical. It’s all over the place, as sketch is, right? But there’s no commercial breaks, which usually serve as your palate cleanser—they let you take a breath, you still laugh at the jokes from the other sketch, you get to kind of catch your breath before the next journey you’re going to be taken on. But we don’t have that on HBO. So I wanted to do something, and honestly I don’t even think people are going to catch a breath because [the interstitials] are really funny, but I wanted the world to get to know these kind of larger-than-life versions of the cast and see us outside of our makeup. Because what I realized is, too, especially for me, I don’t look like myself in any sketches. I look insane all the time in the show. Think about the gang-orientation sketch. No, you wouldn’t recognize me.
AVC: Yeah, you absolutely transform for that.
RT: Yeah, or for the Motown sketch. I just look very different. So I thought I wanted the world to get to know us in this new show. A little bit of that is about cast familiarity because on a lot of sketch shows, all the players come out at the end and you see them. So what is our moment like that if we’re not going to do it in front of a live audience? And I was like, “Well, I love this story of four women having survived an apocalypse.” And I guess I’ll find that out at the end of episode one. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m spoiling or what I’m not, but you’ll be careful.
AVC: Well, if it helps, this will run after the premiere.
RT: Oh great! Fantastic. So yes, so these four women live in a house at the end of the world. We start essentially 12 hours after the end of the world and then over the course of the show, we go back in time throughout the other episodes and lead you back up to that moment again. I love the idea that Black women were the only ones that survived the end of the world, that makes me happy. But it’s also like the farce of that actually happening—you know, me being able to fortify a house well enough, like where did I get those skills? But it’s just this ongoing kind of storyline that helps these women engage in conversations that Black women have all the time, but at the same time give you a look into their heightened personalities on the show. The third purpose of it is to give you that palate cleanser so that you’re like, “Okay, got it. I returned to my home base now. I’m ready for the next sketch.”
AVC: You’re all able to combine these really specific types of humor and observations, things that might go over men’s heads, white people’s heads, Latinx people’s heads, but there are so many things that are also universal. There’s a sketch with this overly romantic gesture that is just—
AVC: Yes, exactly. But it also feels like you’re saying something about how ingrained these gestures are in our pop culture and how that bleeds into real life, where you’re just supposed to be swept off your feet.
RT: Correct. You’re supposed to just say yes because he’s put together this big thing. Right. Ashley Nicole Black wrote that sketch, and she’s also in it. She’s very good at writing relatable humor—she’s just amazing at that. With A Black Lady Sketch Show, we didn’t want people to think that we were bashing men or Black men in any way, so the way we represent men is very intentional in the show. They’re definitely a part of it, but they’re not the enemy by any stretch of the imagination in this show. So even that guy [in the sketch] is harmless, just kind of a fuckboy, but he’s not a bad guy and he really loves her. I mean, he quit his job to choreograph the whole thing—or to get Sheryl Lee Ralph to do it.
But yeah, his intentions were so good, his actions were terrible. And we all know that guy. So you’re right, it’s very universal. I always say the show is specifically cast, but universally funny. Of course there’s going to be cultural references that are specific to us. Otherwise why would we be doing the show? You have to have your point of view. But we also have sketches about aliens; there’s horror movie spoofs. There’s all sorts of things that culturally will have the earmarks of Black ladies, but which we really hope will be universal for the audiences.
AVC: I’d like to ask you now about a specific sketch, which you can probably guess is the “Bad Bitch Support Group.” Seeing women like Angela Bassett and Laverne Cox and Amara La Negra gathered with you and Gabrielle Dennis was just mind-blowing. How could you have possibly narrowed down the list?
RT: Of bad bitches? [Laughs.] Listen, it was very hard. We started at the top with Angela Bassett. She said yes. And then when I got up from passing out, I was like, “Now who are we going to get?” And it was really important to me because there are so many bad bitches. It was really important to me that in addition to Gabrielle and I, that we filled that space with a small number of women because we wanted everyone to have equal time to be funny in the sketch and you didn’t want to overstuff it. It could’ve been 50 women, but I wanted to make sure that throughout the show that Afro-Latino women are represented, that trans women were represented, but not in a way that was pigeonholing them in those classifications.
So the Bad Bitch Support Group was a really fun way to get Laverne Cox and Amara La Negra and Angela Bassett, in addition to Gabrielle and myself, in a sketch that had nothing to do with our identity. But the representation of everyone’s identity in that sketch is so important. And it was saying, “All are welcome.” And it’s important to me that that’s in the first episode, too, because it’s saying that—I mean, Angela Bassett is 60 years old. It’s unbelievable. But we’re representing women of different ages, different sizes, different gender identities. So it was important to me that throughout this series, not only in that sketch but throughout the series, that we’re able to show Black women in a million different ways.
And the tough thing is there’s only six episodes. I think that’s how we narrowed it down. But honestly there was a list of hundreds of people we wanted to work with and as you know, you’ve seen the series, there’s way more guest stars than are even in the trailer. It’s packed. So I’m really excited about people just seeing the amount of people who came to play with us. Narrowing down that sketch was really tough, and honestly at the end of the day, it could’ve been any number of bad bitches in that sketch, and hopefully that’s something that can come back into season two and we could see where they’re at and see some more members.
AVC: And how did you land on Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl” for the opening credits?
RT: Megan Thee Stallion is just amazing. She’s an artist who is just killing it. She’s my favorite rapper right now of the new class in that genre world. Her and Rapsody, Tierra Whack, all these women who are doing this amazing, amazing music. And so Issa Rae and I were talking—we have very similar musical tastes—and I was asking her about a couple of songs and she was like, “We gotta get Megan. Megan’s songs are so hot.” And there was a couple of other shows that have used her music now this summer we noticed as well, but no one else has “Hot Girl.” She let us have it, thank God.
But it was funny, we knew we were going to do the opening sequence that we did, which is very specific. So we wanted a juxtaposition of what was going on visually and the hottest song of the summer. It was a very easy choice, and Megan’s camp was so game and generous with us. It’s just a fun song and it’s a fun juxtaposition. We wanted to be joyful. I think a lot of people think Black women are angry, and it’s like, “No, we want to have fun on their show.” We experiment in all levels of joy and happiness and anger and sadness, and we are able to push the boundaries of comedy everywhere. So that song for us is just like, “Okay, let’s get it started. You know this is going to be a party.” And Megan represents positivity amongst Black women too. She’s super positive. So that was a fun artist and a great song for us.
AVC: I also got a real kick out of the sketch that’s like this riff on The Temptations.
RT: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: It just made me think about all these songs that you grow up hearing that you don’t realize how—I mean, some Beatles songs are really dirty.
RT: They are, they’re nasty! I was listening to “Grease Lightning” the other day, and oh my God—that song has just got, well, the whole musical is actually very subversively nasty, but that song is horrific. If you don’t know the words, do not listen to it. Yeah.
But what we wanted to challenge with that sketch, “Motown Meltdown,” is the idea of this bubble-gum, family-friendly group in the ’60s. What would happen if one of them started singing lyrics like we know today and just see what would happen. But it’s a fun idea to mix era concepts, right? So taking something that feels modern and how R&B is now all like, “I’ll fuck you in a shower.” That’s not romantic! But that’s what passes as R&B now, versus these old-school, super-bubble-gum, ice-cream-shop, “I want to hold your hand”-kind of songs. So yeah, it’s just a silly idea, but we all get to play men, sing and dance, which is kind of fun. Learn all those Motown moves.
AVC: There’s a larger conversation going on right now about the distinction between diversity and representation, and in watching your show, I feel like the writers and the cast and you all get the difference and are demonstrating that difference.
AVC: It’s the difference between a checklist and something more expansive; something that’s just a term and something more organic.
RT: Yes, yes, exactly.
AVC: I mean, I’ve been called a diverse person.
RT: That’s right. Which is crazy! [Laughs.] You are not a diverse person. That is not a thing.
AVC: I’m always like, “It’s just me. I’m one person.”
RT: Yeah, I’m not diverse. I’m Black. Don’t call me diverse, call me Black. I’m not diverse as a person. I’m diverse mentally, emotionally, but that’s not a race or an ethnicity. “Diverse.” Yeah, that’s ridiculous. And this show is definitely all about representation. It’s about showing Black women in so many different lights and so many different abilities. I mean, you’ve seen the show, you know how many characters we play. We each play dozens of characters throughout the season. Men, women, aliens, unnamed beings, we play it all—and to challenge the ideas of what Black women can do in comedy is true representation.
It’s truly a political act to be on TV doing all of these things that we’re doing because I really think it’s going to challenge what people think about our limitations and our boundaries as women, and in particular as Black women, and thirdly as Black women comedians. I think there is only one way a lot of people think we can be, and I think this show will challenge that and shatter that notion.