Awards Daily chats with A Black Lady Sketch Show showrunner Robin Thede, who reveals details behind five memorable Season 3 sketches and whether this could be the year they win an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.
As showrunner and performer, Robin Thede brings an unbridled energy to all of her characters on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show. But that’s about the only thing any of them have in common.
“The ones that stick with people are the ones that are loud and leaders in their own mind, and definitely leading the wrong way,” says Thede. “Like Coach Luann Butler, good intentions, but not a great coach. Dr. Hadassah—very charismatic, but truly wrong in most things. But then there are characters like Chris or Shanedra from the Coral Reef’s gang who are pretty quiet and pretty subdued, but who are memorable in their own ways for their more understated comedy. I try to find a gamut. The beauty of this cast is that everyone is so versatile that we get to jump in and out of roles that are so different from ourselves and each other.”
In the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category, ABLSS has gone up against SNL the past two years and lost. With SNL fading in nominations, could this finally be the year the HBO series comes out on top?
“It’s not about beating SNL. It’s about winning our first Emmy! SNL is amazing. You cannot take anything away from SNL! But I am extremely proud of the work we’ve done, and our show is the hardest sketch show to make. We have a small staff, a much smaller budget than SNL, we don’t have a stage. We shoot everything on location. It’s all super cinematic. It’s a behemoth. And I couldn’t be prouder to make it.”
Thede talks about some of the memorable sketches from A Black Lady Sketch Show‘s Emmy-nominated Season 3, including some never-before-revealed details.
“Capp’t” – Episode 4 “Bounce Them Coochies, Y’all!”
In “Capp’t,” the best and brightest bullshitters compete to see who can come up with the best excuse to get out of any obligation. Thede stars as the host, with Ashley Nicole Black as Chef Lourdes and Essence Atkins as Chef Rayna. This sketch is a showcase for every actor (even guest star Daphne Maxwell Reid—Fresh Prince‘s Second Aunt Viv!) while also packed with jokes.
“Our Emmy nominated writers, hopefully soon to be Emmy winning, they’re incredible! Every season we have such an incredible group of new and returning writers. The cool thing is that joke density is something we really focus on. Every season we become more and more intense about it. First season, I was like as long as every third line is a joke, second season every other line, and third season—every line is a joke! We really crafted this way of being able to write real conversation that feels grounded a little bit, one toe on the ground—it’s sketch. Having this grounded experience in a magical reality is what I always talk about. The script gets thrown away at some point, even after all that hard work.”
Something Ashley Nicole Black’s Chef Lourdes does in the sketch is turn to the camera frequently. The first time she did that, Thede was on the floor laughing and told her to keep doing it.
“Every time, she speaks in that sketch, she ends up turning to the character and breaking the fourth wall. That was not in the script that way at all. Essence Atkins’ character was nothing like that on paper. She barely says any of the lines we scripted for her! I probably was the most on book, but I’m also reacting to them in the moment. There were two confessionals written in and then everyone got a confessional. Even Daphne Reese was not supposed to say she slept with Gab’s husband. She just said it and we were all like, ‘Ahh!'”
‘I Feel Your Paint’ and the Return of Rydeen – Episode 3 “Y’all Want Some Blood Juice?”
Season 2 has a sketch in the first episode called “Hear Me Out,” where Kim Coles plays a bank teller who isn’t listening to three various robbers who just want to be heard, with the joke being that no one listens to black women. Skye Townshend’s character complains about global warming and says, “The Alaskan salmon are burning in the waters!” and Thede’s only line in the sketch is, “But the tilapias are fine, right?” Fast forward to Season 3 and this character returns in the “I Feel Your Paint” sketch, with the same line.
“Her name is Rydeen, but no one knows that. They just know her as the tilpapia lady. I don’t think we ever even call her by her name.”
When Thede created this character back in Season 2, she tried to make her voice as deep as she possibly could and it became a thing. It made the cast and crew laugh and they decided to bring her back.
“People tweet me about tilapias all the time, whether they like them or not. It’s a very controversial fish.”
“Snitches Get Cross Stitches” – Episode 2 “Anybody Have Something I Can Flog Myself With?”
We’ve all seen the “Live, Love, Laugh” posters and throw pillows. This sketch takes those mantras VERY seriously, with one woman (Thede) living—and keeping women hostage—by it.
“I’m from Iowa originally—we’re doing more Minnesota accents—but it’s not far from my original accent to be honest. One that I fight every day. Ashley has connections to the Midwest, too. We wanted to play with those accents and see what we could do.”
The house in the sketch is filled with signs featuring mantras that apply to everything, like a clock that says “It’s Wine O’clock” (“I have a Shondaland-sized glass for her!”). Thede says she was inspired by a visit to her mother’s house.
“Who are these signs for? Are they for your friends? Are they to remind you? And what would the dark side of that be? If you have one of those signs, you have 30. You never just have one. The people that have them, they have them.”
“Blowing Up” – Episode 2 “Anybody Have Something I Can Flog Myself With?”
Bomb diffuser Nasim (Thede) just wants to finish his career with a perfect record before retirement. Then Fatima (Black) answers his call and hilarity ensues. Thede actually stepped into the role of Nasim at the last second.
“I’ll tell you a little secret. I was not supposed to play that character. At all. Our guest star fell out at 10 o’clock the night before that sketch. I was like, ‘Shit!'”
All of the other cast members were unavailable, so Thede stepped in for call time at 5 a.m.
“Welp! I guess I’m gonna play a man! We went and dug in our mustache bin and we didn’t have one, so I just said fuck it—I’ll have a goatee and no mustache! And our hair department always has extra wigs, so they got me an afro. So I said, find me some glasses and put me in a SWAT vest. Let’s do it.”
But with little time, clearly, she wasn’t off book and had to read five pages of dialogue.
“I literally have the script taped in front of me. I’m trying to interpret it the best I can. I didn’t even know I did that character until I had to start shooting.”
“Equally Joked” – Episode 1 “Save My Edges, I’m a Donor!”
Speaking of bombs, poor Keisha (Thede) completely bombs at a comedy club and gets upstaged by one of the audience members, played by Wanda Sykes. Oh, and David Allen Grier is also there, who plays her pastor who “can’t stand her ass.”
“We shot it Christmas Eve, very end of our schedule. We got it in right before the buzzer. Wanda and DAG were just very excited about it and very cool honestly. We knew that’s what we wanted to do. We were trying to figure out, how do you write for Wanda Sykes? How do you make Wanda Sykes funnier than she is? That’s our challenge. If you come here, we have to give you material that’s worth your time. We let them play a lot. We’ll give them the script, and we’ll do the script and we’ll give them a ton of extra jokes, and a lot of times, they’ll improvise. That’s what’s so fun. I’m just inviting the most talented people in Hollywood to have a space.”
All seasons of A Black Lady Sketch Show are available on HBO Max.