Robin Thede (standing, right) appears with Issa Rae in the sketch “Courtroom Kiki”

Gabrielle Dennis snaps a courthouse selfie with Quinta Brunson, Thede, Bresha Webb and — on the bench — Yvette Nicole Brown.

Director Dime Davis (center) shoots “Killin’ It!” with Quinta Brunson and Ashley Nicole Black

Brunson and Thede in “Chris and Lachel, Part 2: Exit Row”

Gabrielle Dennis in “Gang Orientation” 

Thede, Brunson and Black in “Inside a Black Lady’s Mind: Hot Air Balloon”

Fill 1
Fill 1
August 27, 2020

Lady Drivers

Black women are the force behind A Black Lady Sketch Show, Robin Thede’s answer to the white- male-dominated world of sketch TV.

Graham Flashner

A courtroom readies for a civil hearing, but this is no ordinary day in court.

As the bailiff, the stenographer, lawyer and defendant assemble, they look at each other in surprise, sharing the same giddy recognition: they're all Black women. The judge enters and gazes around in wonder. "Cicely Tyson would be proud," she says.

Celebrating the moment, the women begin a joyful chant: "Black lady courtroom! Black lady courtroom!" Later, when the Black female plaintiff gets impatient, her lawyer gently admonishes her for not understanding "the historic-ness of this moment."

The scene is from "Courtroom Kiki," a keenly observant sketch that concludes the first season of HBO's groundbreaking A Black Lady Sketch Show.

"For Black women, it's a uniquely American experience; we don't see each other in professional settings in those large numbers, because it's very tough to break down those doors," says creator–executive producer-writer-star Robin Thede.

"So we're commenting on our lack of representation in professional settings, and the camaraderie we share when we do see each other."

This sense of historic import carries over to the show itself, which fuses genre-bending comedy with incisive commentary about dating, relationships, unrealistic beauty standards, hair issues, workplace insecurities and a host of other female-centric concerns — all with an unmistakably "Black Lady" vibe.

When ABLSS premiered in August 2019, it was notable for several firsts. It is the first American sketch series with a cast comprised entirely of Black women and the first sketch series with an all Black women writers' room, led by head writer–coexecutive producer Lauren Ashley Smith.

Further, it has the first Black female series director for a sketch show, Dime Davis. The ensemble cast, which skillfully portrays some 120 different characters, is led by Thede and Ashley Nicole Black (Full Frontal with Samantha Bee), Quinta Brunson (iZombie) and Gabrielle Dennis (Insecure).

Black is the only cast member besides Thede who also writes for the show.

Thede has been building toward this show her entire career — you could even say, her entire life: she was named after the comedian Robin Williams.

"Sketch has always been my home," she says. "I grew up watching In Living Color and Saturday Night Live and was always amazed by how people could transform into these characters."

She studied improv at Second City in Chicago and Los Angeles, and went on to write sketches for Fox's short-lived In the Flow with Affion Crockett.

She was named head writer for Queen Latifah's syndicated daytime talk show in 2013, and in 2015 became the first Black female head writer for a late-night talk show, Comedy Central's The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.

She landed her own late-night talk show, The Rundown with Robin Thede, on BET in 2017, becoming the fourth Black woman to do so. The series lasted for one season, but in 2018, Thede got a call from her friend Issa Rae, creator and star of HBO's Insecure, who was looking for her next project.

When Thede mentioned her ideas for ABLSS, Rae set up a meeting at the cable network. "The idea was very simple," Thede recalls. "I thought Black women and sketch comedy needed a front-and-center role. It's a white male-dominated industry.

"Even when it comes to Black comedians in sketch, it's largely Black males. I wanted to create a narrative sketch series that featured Black women living grounded experiences in a world of magical reality."

Thede sold the show in the room — "I'm very good at pitching," she says with a laugh — and HBO ordered six episodes straight to series.

The show commenced writing in January 2019 and was airing by August. (Along with Thede, Rae is also an executive producer, as are Dave Becky, Jonathan Berry, Tony Hernandez and Brooke Posch.)

"I remember two things about what Robin pitched," says Amy Gravitt, HBO's executive vice-president of programming. "She wanted it to be a sketch show that had scope — it wasn't going to be about one idea, it would be satisfying across the whole season, which made it feel more right for us.

"And she wanted to show all the ways Black women can be funny."

Thede points to a persistent problem: "Roles for Black women in comedy have been limited. It's getting better, but I wanted to show people that if they thought Black women could just do one thing, this show would expand those horizons.

"Black women are often relegated to the nagging girlfriend or wife or oversexed weird best friend. I wanted to show that they could play aliens, politicians, doctors, lawyers, murderers, even men! They could extend the limits of how people think about them."

More than 50 celebrity guest stars augmented the core cast in season one, including Angela Bassett leading the "Bad Bitch Support Group," Bob the Drag Queen (aka Caldwell Tidicue) as the emcee of a "Basic Ball," and singer Patti LaBelle, who materializes like a ghostly spirit to belt out "On My Own" every time a certain woman goes through a breakup.

"The truth is, there are so many Black women who are established in this business who don't get asked to host SNL, or to do sketches on other platforms," Thede observes. "That's no shade to SNL at all — it's not fair for them to be carrying that burden. I said, 'Let me create a space where they can come play.'"

Within that space, Thede took an unconventional approach to creating sketches, Lauren Ashley Smith notes, often merging disparate ideas from two writers into a brand-new entity.

"It's easy for a sketch that's based on one joke to overstay its welcome; you enjoy it for two-and-a-half minutes and you're like, 'Okay, I get it,'" Smith says. "Robin wanted to make a narrative sketch show with twists and turns and the kind of story arcs you'd see on a half-hour or one-hour show — but do it in two to five minutes.

"It's really about what's thematically dynamic, serving the stories in an interesting way. When Sketch A and B combine to become Sketch AB, it's like fireworks in your brain when you make that connection."

Thus, a sketch about a corporate icebreaker gone wrong is melded with one about a tough, all-female street gang to create "Gang Orientation," in which Gabrielle Dennis — as the gang's de facto head of HR — ruthlessly inducts new gang members.

The sketches as a whole are conceived more like short films, crafted with distinctly cinematic flourishes, absurdist left turns and twist endings that often subvert everything that came before.

In "Bad Bitch Support Group," Bassett leads a group of women in an earnest discussion about their struggles to adhere to an almost-impossible standard of everyday beauty. When one woman voices a desire to be an "okay bitch" rather than a "bad bitch," the others react with horror.

Near the end, the camera pulls back to reveal that the women are unwitting participants in a sinister focus group, run by a company with a stake in making the women dependent on a product called "Foxycodone."

"We never end a sketch where we started," Thede says. "I want to leave people going, 'WTF!' I don't want it to fizzle out. If it's a one-off sketch, it has to have a strong dismount. It's like a gymnast — you can have the most amazing routine ever, but if you don't stick the landing, no one cares."

Other sketches are brilliant parodies that include a wry social critique. "Rome and Julissa," a hip-hop update of Romeo and Juliet that skewers the extreme fandom of "stan" culture, is flawlessly performed in iambic pentameter and pits two families at war — over the merits of Nicki Minaj versus Cardi B.

The teen lovers' "suicide pact" is of the social kind: they delete key hashtags from their Instagram bios.

"Get the Belt" features two sportscasters broadcasting a disciplinary showdown between a mother and her teen daughter; the sketch sparked a larger discussion on the show's YouTube channel about corporal punishment.

Inside jokes abound. "It's a viral proposal. I thought it's what you always wanted," a confused suitor says to his underwhelmed sweetheart. "No," she sighs. "What I always wanted was to find a Black lady therapist in-network."

There are gags about waist trainers, the perils of ashy skin and the impressive physique of Jada Pinkett Smith's mom. In one recurring bit,

Thede plays the self- important Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, a pretentious philosophizer who is "pre-PhD" and dispenses pseudo-wisdom in her own MasterClass. "You may not get every reference," Thede allows, "but you can understand humor, because comedy is the universal language."

The show works best when it's satirizing long-held stereotypes and tropes. The "No Makeup" sketch uses horror-film conventions to illuminate the judgments made of women who don't wear makeup. "The Joy" takes aim at the idea that black women are always angry.

"Any woman can relate to the things we grapple with," Thede says. "We try to play with expectations of the outside world as well as expectations we have for ourselves."

In "Invisible Spy," Ashley Nicole Black plays Trinity, a plus-sized woman whose secret weapon is her "regular face, which makes her look invisible in the field."

Guest star Nicole Byer (Nailed It!), who plays Black's doppelgänger in the sketch and is often mistaken for her in real life, says, "I thought the sketch spoke to a larger problem in society in a very comedic way. Our characters had a respect for each other, because we'd gotten so far in our careers without ever being noticed."

The experience of working on an all-Black-women shoot was a revelation in unexpected ways.

"You don't realize how unusual it is until you're driving home," Byer recalls. "The people who did my hair were Black and knew what to do with my hair, as opposed to my having to bring in a wig, explaining how to put the wig on, or explaining how to do my makeup. It makes my job easier when there are people who know what's up."

Threaded between the sketches are a series of interstitials that serve as a show-within-the-show. In scenes that appear to foreshadow the current pandemic,

Thede, Black, Brunson and Dennis are quarantined in a big house, the only people left on Earth following an unspecified disaster known as The Event. As flames rage outside, they sip wine and dish on topics like cancel culture, the merits of Living Single versus Friends, and the lengths to which each will go to maintain her hair.

The finale ends with a cliffhanger — a knock at the door — which Thede promises will be resolved in season two. "We pitched a number of ideas for the interstitials that would be easy to shoot and help us get to know the core cast as heightened versions of ourselves," Thede says.

For director Dime Davis, the interstitials remind her of "the connectivity that we experience as Black women just sitting and talking," she says.

Though Davis had directed episodes of the BET series Boomerang, she had no background in sketch comedy when she came aboard; she admits to finding sketch "a little intimidating" at first.

She was jazzed by the prospect of putting her stamp on a sketch series that not only prized narrative, characters and jokes, but would also look cinematic.

"My job was to create a world that, once we step into it, we instantly know where we are," Davis says. "At the same time, I wanted to push the medium and stretch the boundaries in all directions. We're playing with genre, music, shots that feel a little off-kilter. We made sure that no two sketches felt or looked the same."

They shot one to two sketches a day for about 25 days. Writers would indicate a visual style for their sketch, and whether the instructions specified a David Lynch film, The Bourne Identity or a brightly lit musical,

Davis — along with director of photography Topher Osborn and the resourceful makeup, wardrobe and art departments — would accommodate. "It was all about planning shots ahead of time," she says.

Davis used the high-end digital Arri Alexa camera, which "rendered beautiful colors and gave us all the detail of dark skin to make it pop and look beautiful and gave us so much latitude in post. We were changing frame rates and aspect ratios to make each sketch look unique," she says.

"This was the first time an audience of Black women have gotten to see themselves in so many rich and dynamic ways," Davis enthuses. "I felt a lot of pressure to do good by them."

Conspicuously absent from the show's many satirical barbs are white people and men (though some of the funniest male characters in the show are played by women). And that, Thede says, is by design.

"My intention was to celebrate Black women in comedy. We're celebrating not at the expense of white people or Black men or anybody else. The point is, look at all these amazing things we can do. Come be a part of this joy."

Season two has been written, but production has been delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions. When the show does return, don't expect sketches about the pandemic or events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.

"If this show isn't already the epitome of Black Lives Mattering, I don't know what is," Thede says. "Our sketches will continue to highlight social and understated political issues in terms of what Black women find relatable or funny. What we're doing is the ultimate act of visibility and resistance.

"Inherently, just by what we're doing, we're ahead of the curve. It's the larger world that's only now waking up to BLM. We've been living it since the day we were born."

For many in the cast and crew, ABLSS has been a life-altering experience. Smith recalls being moved to tears when the "Written by" credits rolled on the first episode. "It changed me," she says. "It made me expect a higher standard from my work environment.

"I now get to be 100 percent authentically myself, without having to explain or tone down a piece to fit into the culture of the room."

ABLSS averaged 2 million viewers across all HBO platforms in season one, and Thede hopes to build on that success.

"I want this show to be an institution," she says. "I want it to continue to grow and morph the way SNL has been able to do.

"You do it by keeping it fresh, by adding new folks and keeping your finger on the pulse. Once a year, when ABLSS comes around, it can be event TV. I want it to go on for as long as people are interested."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2020

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