Awards Daily has an email chat with A Black Lady Sketch Show production designers Cindy Chao and Michele Yu about their work on Season 3 of the variety sketch series.
It’s rare in the film and television industry to have a production design duo, but A Black Lady Sketch Show‘s Cindy Chao and Michele Yu are comfortable breaking the mold. It’s what they do with their set designs and even the way they incorporate Black-owned businesses and artists.
I got to ask them a few questions via email about some of my favorite sketches from Season 3 of the HBO variety sketch series, including how they turned a church into a basketball court and a women’s restroom lounge into a talk show set.
Awards Daily: I read that you incorporate Black-owned businesses in your production design. How do you go about finding these businesses and working with them? That’s so awesome!
Cindy Chao and Michele Yu: Thank you! We make it a priority to include real Black women artists and products from Black-owned businesses. Early on, we made this part of our mission as an art department—this is a show that is uniquely positioned to celebrate Black women and their accomplishments, and we saw an opportunity to elevate small brands and the work of visual artists on screen. When you’re creating a set, most interiors need artwork on the walls—why couldn’t they be real art pieces by artists who might benefit from that visibility? Our Set Decorator, Lizzie Boyle, and our Prop Master, Todd Daniels, were more than on board from the start and have done an amazing job of reaching out, curating, and connecting to brands and artists to make this happen each season.
AD: There are so many sketches that I could start with, but the “Girls’ Trippin’” music video is so fun. How did you pull this together? It looks like something where it’s all hands on deck, with the unique lighting and props (like the funny signs).
Cindy and Michele: For “Girls Trippin'”, we were inspired by those fun airline safety videos that feature eye-catching choreography set to music with moving set pieces, as well as some of the surreal and hyper-real qualities of ‘90s R&B videos. We knew the way the ladies would be moving through the space was going to be dynamic and wanted a set that could move around them as well so that things were always shifting. It’s a very abstract set!
We designed a central set piece reminiscent of an airplane cabin that could split apart in the middle into separate pieces, in the pink color palette that is iconically associated with all seasons of ABLSS. Along with this, we designed moveable parts like cockpit doors, a freestanding bathroom stall, and adjustable window shades with an LED screen behind it that could switch between multiple backdrops for different parts of the music video. The amazing construction team at Standard Scenery built and installed all the set pieces, including those hilarious light boxes that were conceived of by Robin Thede and the writing team.
To make our set glow, the lighting and set dec teams installed LED ribbons and created a runway aisle on the stage floor. Our cast had only a couple of days to rehearse the choreography, and even though we did not have our location yet and nothing was built yet, we had an area in the production office marked out with tape where all the set pieces and airline seats would go to help with the rehearsal. It truly was a collaboration across all depts to pull this set together, and it was such a great one to see come alive with the choreography.
AD: I have to ask. How did you combine a church with a basketball court for the Dunk-A-Thon sketch? That was so funny!
Cindy and Michele: Transforming a church sanctuary into an explosive sports arena was definitely a fun task and we were up for the challenge! We scouted multiple church spaces but found the perfect one in Altadena.
The sanctuary already had great architectural features, including wood-paneled walls and beautiful stained glass windows. We decided to thin out the pews and have only a select few oriented so that they would be facing each other, on risers, to create the feel of an arena. The pews became bleachers. This cleared the center of the floor for the cast to travel through, past their fans, and up to the baptismal fountain and basketball hoop.
A dance floor decked out with court markings really was what sold our dunk-a-thon arena. It was necessary for the Set Dec team to source a substantial baptismal fountain—one with a sturdy base AND one with a wide enough and deep enough dish for the baby dolls to get dunked in. The dish was filled with water so the splashes you see from the dunks are all practical! We can’t forget the choir of judges who were also standing on risers at the front of the sanctuary and the floral arrangements that remind the audience that they are still in church, despite all the action.
AD: The Curzuz sketch is so fun. What went into creating this one?
Each of the contestants have their own version of a tall skinny gothic throne, and we built out the host’s area with ornate chandeliers hanging from sculpted, twisted tree branches that looked like tentacles extending out from his DJ booth. SFX added the bubbling smoke cascading from the top of our cauldron. We worked alongside our show’s Costume Designer, Michelle Collins, honing in on a palette that would complement the incredible bespoke costumes she created for these characters. So much of this set was a dance between light, smoke, shapes, and silhouettes.
AD: I love Black Table Talk, and I’m obsessed with the location of the interview. Where are they when Dr. Hadassah is interviewing Colman Domingo?
For Season 2, we took over an empty reception area at a wedding venue in Malibu and zeroed in on elements that would make it read as an homage to Red Table Talk—there are specific ways that set is lit, the practicals that are in there, the colors and textures, as well as the depth of the space—and spin it for Dr. Haddassah into her own thing as well. Set Dec always has a lot of fun with this one, building in sillier pieces like the full-sized panther statues that always sit near the Doctor like they’re her familiars. For this season, we found an executive lounge room with its own bar inside a golf resort out in the very eastern edge of LA County.
What was great about that location for this set was how architecturally weird the space was. It had all these curves to the room, translucent partition walls, corridors, and turns that would have allowed for interesting off-screen entrances, a decent ceiling height, and some unusual colors and patterns that wouldn’t make sense in most scenarios but made a lot of sense for “Black Table Talk” specifically. It had a lot of visual interest built into it, with various seating areas and potential for playing with existing foreground and background pieces so that the camera could find something interesting to see no matter which direction we shot into.
AD: You got to work with Jackée! She was great in the Knights of the Roundtable sketch. What went into creating this set?
Cindy and Michele: Jackée is a legend! She was in our Season 1 “227” homage, too. It was an honor to get to create another set for her to play in. This one was built on another great location find. For several sketches this season, we had the chance to shoot standing sets at a movie ranch.
The medieval-style room for “Gladys and the Knights of the Round Table” was an unexpected find, though, as most of the other sets there were caves and desert compounds. We walked up to a building that looked like a Spanish-style mission church from the outside, but featured an interior that was built out like a classic medieval castle. It had stone walls and floors with majestic arches that already gave us great bones. Funny enough, when we scouted this, someone had been using it practically as a personal gym—there was weightlifting equipment everywhere. And we had very limited time to scout because it was actively being reserved for that purpose, so when we scouted it, we had just a few minutes to kind of tiptoe around in the dark, trying not to trip over barbells, and then make our entire design plan for this space off of rough sketches and a couple of very, very dark photos.
For the overall look of this set, we watched a lot of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the gold standard for a comedic take on medieval times, as well as The Favourite for key inspiration on lighting. We, along with our Set Decorator, Lizzie Boyle, were drawn to sumptuous jewel-toned velvet tapestries to stand out against the stone textures and ornate chairs to break up the blockiness of the architecture. Our favorite detail of this set has to be how the title card—“Gladys and the Knights of the Round Table”—was woven into an ornate tapestry, complete with dragons, hanging over an iron gate. That was designed by our most talented graphic designer, Sarah Gonzalez, who has been with us for four seasons now.
AD: Do you two have a favorite set piece you worked on?
Cindy and Michele: We are always fans of sets where we get to transform existing spaces into sets that are not expected. Sets like the one we’ve discussed, for “Baptism Runs on Dunkin’”, where a church is transformed into a sports arena. Another one is “Shit Talk”, where a women’s restroom lounge transforms into a talk show set with just a shift in the lighting.
A Black Lady Sketch Show is on HBO and MAX.