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Saying “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is funny is like announcing an iceberg is cold. Well, of course it is. Convene a cast of seasoned comedians and you’re sure to elicit some laughs. But just as a behemoth block of floating ice has depth and breadth beyond what meets the eye, the new HBO series is more expansive and profound than what you might expect from a half-hour comedy. Created by Robin Thede, who previously hosted “The Rundown,” a late-night BET series brimming with political and cultural commentary, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” airs this Friday.
In an interview, Thede offered me — and therefore, you — a glimpse into the creative process and intentions behind the show. Here’s what you need to know before tuning in.
When you think of sketch comedy, your mind may conjure images of “Saturday Night Live” or “Key & Peele.” “Portlandia” and “Chappelle’s Show” count, too, as do “In Living Color” and “The Muppet Show.” Each show is essentially a potpourri of humorous vignettes known as sketches. Thede’s pioneering creation is the first of its kind: a sketch series with an all-black, all-female cast. The same can be said off-screen; the writers’ room is entirely composed of black women. People frequently ask Thede if she feels pressure being the first, she says. Her reply? “No, I’m just too busy being happy. It’s so amazing to walk into work and see those faces smiling back at you. And the first day in our writers’ room, everybody cried. Everybody was like, ‘Oh my God. We never thought this was possible.’”
That incredulity isn’t without reason. According to a study released in 2018 from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, from 2017 and 2018, 19 percent of women with speaking roles were black across network, cable and streaming service programs. Among cable shows, 82 percent had no women writers.
The demographics of the show aren’t a marketing stunt or exclusionary tactic, Thede notes. “What we were doing in creating this show is really pushing the industry to recognize black women in comedy and all that we can do,” she says over the phone.
The four series regulars include Thede, Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis and Ashley Nicole Black, who nabbed an Emmy for her work as a writer on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” Another black woman is behind the camera; Dime Davis serves as series director. And a constellation of guest stars illuminates the sketches, including — but certainly not limited to — Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Yvonne Orji, Lena Waithe, Marsai Martin, Kelly Rowland and Issa Rae, who was a co-executive producer of the series alongside Thede.
Seriously, you’ll want to put down your phone. This isn’t a scroll-through-social-media-while-you-watch series, nor is it the sort of airy comedy you can casually stream in the background while assembling Ikea furniture. “A Black Lady Sketch Show” demands attention; it is dense. Sketches work on multiple levels. There are jokes within jokes, hearty dashes of magical realism, a multitude of hilarious facial expressions and asides. The series prods you to laugh, but it also prompts you to think.
“So in that way, there is no sketch that starts one way and ends the same way. There’s never a sketch with a character who’s just repeating a catchphrase for three minutes. Every sketch will start one place and end up somewhere you hopefully did not see it going.”
Surprises abound. I’ll shield you from explicit spoilers, but there’s one particularly incisive sketch that’s seemingly about a support group for well-coiffed, dressed-to-the-nines black women. In fact, it’s a sharp critique of an industry that wields enormous power in women’s lives.
Even if you predict a sketch’s twist, Thede says, “you’re going to see progression and you’re going to see a full beginning, middle and end. It’s also a narrative sketch series, which is why you see characters recur, which is why you see story lines continued.”
The best humor makes a point, and Thede isn’t settling for anything inane.
“This show had to be smart, it had to be layered, if I wanted to show the world what black women can do as writers, as performers, as directors, as producers,” she says.
If time and money grew on trees, “we could have written 20 episodes of television,” Thede says. Sadly, both resources are finite, and the first season of “A Black Lady Sketch Show” amounts to under three hours of television. Still, episodes are tightly packed and richly woven. There are around 40 sketches throughout the show, and cast members play over a hundred characters.
Sketches, by nature, are short, zippy — a comedic idea distilled into a few minutes. But “A Black Lady Sketch Show” allows for more breathing room.
“We have some sketches that are six or seven minutes long, which is very long in the sketch world,” Thede says. Her team approached each one as if it were a short film.
Short segments, known as interstitials, link the sketches. They feature a continuing story line in which the cast members are in a modern home, drinking wine, chatting casually. A breezy girls’ weekend this is not — before long, an ominous reality comes to light.“
The purposes of our interstitials are rooting the four women in that house for 12 hours over the course of a Saturday where something catastrophic has happened to the world,” Thede says, “and really getting to know the cast in a heightened way.
”It’s not unusual for audiences to deeply identify with television characters. (Just think back to the scores of “Sex and the City” fans completing countless quizzes and proclaiming themselves a Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or Charlotte.) Thede pictures viewers seeing themselves reflected in the personalities of Brunson, Thede herself, Dennis and Black, saying, “‘Oh, I’m a Quinta, I’m a Robin. I’m a Gabrielle, I’m an Ashley.’”
With “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” she isn’t simply breaking new ground — she anchors the show on and off camera.
“I created the show. Issa [Rae] partnered with me as an executive producer. I’m also obviously an executive producer and the showrunner, so I’m the boss of the show as well, which is very rare,” she says. “A lot of people don’t do that. A lot of stars of their own sketch show don’t also showrun.”
Laughter is the conventional litmus test for comedy. This sketch series has a more nuanced objective: highlighting the multidimensionality of black women.
“My main goal, my whole thing with the show was that we were showing black women in as many different ways as possible,” she adds, “so that you’re seeing black women who are strong, you’re seeing black women who are weak. You’re seeing black women who are flawed, you’re seeing black women who are superhuman. You’re seeing black women who are men. You’re seeing black women who are aliens.”
Indeed, expect to see black women presented as pillars of morality and serial killers, sad teachers and wannabe social media influencers, joyous hikers and aggravated flight attendants. Expect to see a riff on “Romeo and Juliet” and a flash mob. Expect to see misbehaving puppets.
Thede continues: “I want people to watch this series and go, ‘Oh my God, I’m out of breath.’”