Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show creator/actress Robin Thede about how some of the show’s sketches came to exist in real life.
Watching the first season of HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, a running thread in each episode includes the four women (Robin Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis, and Quinta Brunson) hunkered down in a house during an apocalyptic lockdown, with limited snacks and stuff to do. Of course, in 2019, this felt like science fiction; in 2020, it’s the real world.
As the first series to have an all-black women writers’ room, the first black woman sketch director (Dime Davis), and the first sketch series made up of all black women (eat that, SNL), ABLSS has something for everyone in its first season, including shout-outs to popular TV shows like Pose, celebrity cameos (Patty LaBelle!), and of course lots of laughs.
I had a fun chat with series creator Robin Thede about this groundbreaking show and how it’s proven to be both ahead of its time and about damn time.
Awards Daily: I just recently watched the Casper mattress skit, where Ashley Nicole Black is in a three-way and the first thing she pulls out is bleach, a face mask, and hand sanitizer. I laughed out loud when the guy says, “That’s the Outbreak suit.” Have you been thinking about that sketch a lot during quarantine?
Robin Thede: Oh, not only that sketch, but our entire interstitial in every episode, quarantining at home after the end of the world!
AD: Right! I was thinking that, too.
RT: Yeah! I thought about it a lot. There’s also a hazmat suit in the house in the deep background that you can see. They have a fight over Quinta eating all of those snacks. There are all sorts of things we’ve all been going through in these last two months. When we were writing, I had this idea for the interstitials and everybody thought I was crazy, including my own writers’ room, and HBO was like, yeah, let’s do it! It seems more prophetic than ever now.
AD: Why did you choose to have the Event and what were you trying to show?
RT: I think in this political climate and with the president that we have currently, I thought anything was possible or on the table in terms of disaster. (Laughs) Maybe it’s a little bit of my own fatalist mind, like, this president’s gonna get us killed. It just seemed plausible! And I wasn’t wrong, and I’m not happy about it! It’s a horrible thing to be right about. It’s funny because you push sketch comedy to the bounds of reality, and that’s how you get sketch. You find the craziest things that could happen in a grounded reality, but you have those magical elements that make it sketch. It’s just interesting that now our reality is sketch. It will be interesting to see how we continue to push it in Season 2 and beyond.
AD: I love that. “Our reality is sketch.” It works on so many levels. What inspires you with these sketches? They’re so creative. How do you come up with some of these ideas? The Pose sketch is one of my favorites.
RT: Oh, the Basic Ball! Yes! Well, it starts with an incredible writers’ room. I definitely do not do it all by myself. The Basic Ball was written by Ashley Nicole Black. We don’t do a lot of parody on the show, because it takes so long to make this show. We don’t want to seem like we’re behind the times, but we knew Pose was coming back. She said when I’m watching Pose, I feel like the basic version of those amazing characters. That was her idea, just based on her personal twist on ball culture. She’s a genius for that and I encourage my staff and when I’m writing sketches, that we all think about what’s the most relatable thing in our lives and how do we push that in reality?
That’s where we start from, and the show is so relatable for so many people. Even if you think about our support group with Angela Bassett at the head of it, it’s for women who don’t want to be basic; everyone can kind of relate to that. One of our most popular sketches in the whole series is “Black Lady Courtroom”—well, it’s called “Courtroom Kiki,” but everyone calls it “Black Lady Courtroom.” It’s just about a handful of black women going into a work environment where you don’t normally see all black women and just what happens. There’s nothing super magical about that sketch; it’s just so rare in that setting and delightful. The magic is how we push the joy in that sketch to the sketch extent. It’s about starting with that grounded place and then letting it bloom into this magical universe that the whole sketch show takes place in, as the four women in the interstitials are going through this horrific time.
AD: You have so many amazing guest stars. How were you able to pull everyone together? You got Angela Bassett, who’s mostly known for drama. Did you have a wish list of collaborators?
RT: Oh, of course! And the great thing about our show is that we were able to get people who are just good actors. And then if you give them good material, they can be funny. Any good drama actor can do comedy with the right material. And if you watch Angela Bassett in that sketch, I think some people have a tendency on other sketch shows to go for the joke, but the actors who came to play with us were so generous and trusted the writing. They never really tried to rewrite anything; they just studied and did the work. Angela Bassett didn’t have to try to do a joke; she just performed it honestly, because she’s so amazing. It’s so funny because the character she’s playing is so fish out of water, for who you think Angela Bassett would be. Although if you think about it it makes perfect sense that she’d be the head of a Bad Bitch Support Group. That’s the great thing about our show, we do a lot of the work for them—although I don’t want to take away from their performances, their performances are always great. We were so lucky to have 55 guest stars in 6 episodes. We tried really hard not to take you out of a sketch by an appearance. And we didn’t make the sketch about a person, with the exception of Patti LaBelle. But yeah, my wish list is endless: It’s all black women in comedy, like Tracee Ellis Ross, Regina Hall, Regina King, Tiffany Haddish—who we were working with in Season 1; we just couldn’t get our schedules to work. And then there are also the mega people you’d never think to see on the show, like Beyonce and Blue Ivy.
AD: I’d love it if Blue Ivy were on the show! (Laughs)
RT: (Laughs) Yeah, I’ll take Blue Ivy! Honestly, everyone’s welcome to play with us, who hasn’t had a chance to do that on other sketch shows. Or even just in careers. It’s really fun for us to be able to feature them and to find a really great way to do it that doesn’t disrupt the show and that lets them be seen the most organically. The nice thing about us, which I think is the opposite of all other sketch shows, is that we don’t write—with the exception of Patti LaBelle—for celebrities; we write great sketches and then invite celebrities to come play the roles that we’ve already made three-dimensional. I think if you write for celebrities, a.) they’re going to want to have a lot of input and they may not understand the full scope of what you’re doing, so they may not be able to help in in the right light; and b.) the biggest thing is that we’ve already spent time developing these characters and once you’re doing it the opposite way, you don’t really get a lot of character development time. We get to spend the whole writing process creating a great character and they get to land in that place that’s already had that work done.
AD: How did you divvy up which of the four actresses would play which characters in some of these skits? I was thinking of you playing the man on the airplane.
RT: So for the core cast, it’s different. The four of us, it’s a two-handed kind of thing. Ashley Nicole Black and I are obviously in the writers’ room; Quinta and Gabrielle are not writers on the show. We write to their strengths. We have in mind, “Oh, Quinta can play this character, Gabrielle can play this,” etc. So Chris, from Chris and Lachel from “The Wedding Sketch” and “Exit Row,” we knew I was going to play Chris because I wrote that character and I wrote the sketches. Not everything I write I play, by the way, but as I was writing it, I knew I was going to be playing that character. We didn’t know who would play Lachel, so after everything’s written, we do a round robin session between the four core cast members and kind of internally audition to see who will play the other half of roles that we haven’t written specifically for someone. Not even the core cast knows all of the roles they’re going to play until a couple of weeks before we shoot. I’ve had roles I thought I was going to play, but then one of the other cast members was so good at it, that they did it. It’s really a testament to our cast. People think they can do sketch, and people are always in my mentions, “You need to hire me!” But can you take a hundred characters and make them all individual and shoot them in just a few weeks’ time and be dynamic in every one of them? What they do is so incredibly hard.
AD: How much have you filmed for Season 2? Or has COVID-19 hindered it?
RT: We were five days from shooting. Yeah.
AD: That’s so unfortunate.
RT: So we are working to get back as soon as we can and as safely as we can. It’s tough. We have a lot of guest stars, sketches, and locations. The whole industry is suffering obviously, but people keep saying to me, “I hope you already shot Season 2!” We started writing right after Season 1 ended, and then went right into pre-production, so it wasn’t like we were sitting around. My work’s never ended! We’ve taken no breaks, even though the world thinks we’ve been off the air forever.
Season 1 of A Black Lady Sketch Show is streaming on HBOGo.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.