Robin Thede predicted the end of the world in her HBO sketch comedy A Black Lady Sketch Show.
One of the first sketches in the six-part series, which launched in August 2019, features Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson and Gabrielle Dennis, dealing with “The Event,” which runs through the series.
“When I brought that idea into our writers room, I had a fever dream, literally like a sweating dream in the middle of the night,” Thede tells Deadline. “I woke up, wrote it on two sides of a paper, single-spaced, in this chicken scratch, and brought it into the writers. I said, ‘This is what the interstitials are going to be. This is what we’re going to do.’ And they all just looked at me like I was insane. They were like, ‘You need more sleep.’ But, it turned out to be prophetic, in so many ways.”
Coming up with the idea in January 2019, Thede has always been ahead of the curve, particularly given that A Black Lady Sketch Show is the first major sketch show to be created by, written by and starring Black women.
The show came about shortly after The Rundown with Robin Thede was canceled. “When that got canceled, Issa Rae, who is a dear friend of mine, called me and said, ‘OK, now is the time we get to work together.’ And I said, ‘My show just got canceled. You don’t want to say, you’re sorry?’ And she’s like, ‘For what? No, let’s get to work.’”
Thede had actually sold the idea to another network but hadn’t signed the papers because they couldn’t agree on a budget. This allowed HBO to step in. “Fifteen minutes into dinner with [HBO’s] Amy Gravitt and Issa and me, we sold the show. Straight to series, no pilot. They read nothing.”
She said it was a “perfect storm.” “They believed in me, they believed in my vision for this show, which was a narrative sketch series where Black women have grounded experiences in a magical reality.”
Los Espookys had just debuted, HBO was looking for more experimental comedy, and A Black Lady Sketch Show was able to follow in the Friday 11 p.m. slot. “That was a great spot for us, because the expectations are low. But we turned out results that, I believe, were excellent. The ratings, obviously, for the show were excellent and the critical praise,” she added.
The show features a broad range of sketches from Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, a “world-renowned philosophizer” to the Bad B*tch Support Group, The Invisible Spy and Rome and Julissa.
Thede said she considers sketch comedy her home and A Black Lady Sketch Show is the seventh sketch show she has worked on including Chocolate News and In the Flow with Affion Crockett. “I don’t just do one thing. I’m always the sort of person who does a million things at once. So, as opposed to one genre, I can explore 50 genres in six episodes, and make all these different little short films,” she said. “That’s the way I look at sketch. On this show it’s very narrative. So, we tell stories, we involve you in the characters, the characters recur. For me, it was really fun to be able to explore, especially since it was Black women playing the characters, being able to explore sketch characters a little more dimensionally than you’re able to do, on other shows. And our sketches are longer,” she added.
The first season of the show was written by Thede and head writer Lauren Ashley Smith, with whom she had worked on The Rundown, as well as Rae Sanni (The Good Place), Akilah Green (Chelsea Handler), Ashley Nicole Black (Full Frontal With Samantha Bee), Holly Walker (The Nightly Show), Amber Ruffin (Late Night With Seth Meyers) and Brittani Nichols (Take My Wife).
The show was renewed last year for a second season and the writing has already been completed. Ruffin did not write on Season 2 as she is making her own talk show for Peacock, and neither did Nichols, who sold her own show.
Thede was able to add three new writers to the room: Kindsey Young, who worked on Insecure; Kristin Tucker, who worked on a Dog with a Blog; and UCB alum Shenovia Large, who moved to the West Coast to write on the show.
“We have a chance, in Season 2, to break some new talent with their first writing credits. In Season 1, it was just a bunch of vets. But now we have the room to bring in some new ones, which is always really important to me,” Thede said. “You get your farm team. It’s the reason why I have so many actors on my show, and so many writers in my room, as many as I can afford, because you all go on to work on other projects together. Issa, I met when I was doing The Nightly Show. She was auditioning to be a correspondent, if you can believe that.”
Season 2 would have been completed and edited by now if COVID-19 had not got in the way. Thede was five days away from shooting before the production shutdown kicked in. She said the writing is “pretty evergreen” but that the team will have to adjust some of the sketches given the situation, particularly the sketch that takes place in a hospital.
She doesn’t know when they will get back and whether they will have to switch to a stage rather than on location. “Every network’s going to deal with it differently. I know that HBO is being very conscientious, and we talk every week about how we’re going to get back,” she said. “I’m concerned about putting people in positions where we’re just kind of crossing our fingers, and hoping it’s OK. I just want people to not be greedy, and I want networks to understand that we’re risking our lives, especially actors, to go back to work. We’ve got to be smart about it.”
Thede recently made a passionate plea for Hollywood to greenlight more Black stories. While she is happy that A Black Lady Sketch Show is being mentioned in the same Emmy conversation as other Black shows such as Astronomy Club and Sherman’s Showcase, she also wants people to talk about the show alongside SNL, Drunk History and shows from Iliza Shlesinger, Amy Sedaris and Tim Robinson.
“We’ve only been on one season, not 50. But, the women who are on the show, what I bring to the table, I think the combination of what we built, is really special and really buzz worthy. Not only for its existence, but also for the content. I always say, the show is specifically cast, but universally funny,” she said.
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