A Black Lady Sketch Show creator and showrunner Robin Thede has challenged the TV industry to greenlight more modern black stories and opened up about how comedy can help change culture.
In a conversation as part of the virtual ATX Television Festival, Thede and panellists Liz Feldman, Julie Plec and Marta Kauffman discussed ways of promoting more black writers and writers living outside of LA and New York into the business.
Thede also revealed she fired an agent after discovering they didn’t send a spec script to Parks and Recreation because there wasn’t a diversity position at the NBC show.
“I’ve been black my whole my life and I’m glad the world is recognising, hopefully for the long term that black people are not treated equally in this country and abroad. It’s about opening people’s eyes, the women’s lib movement did and the gay rights movement did. Change only happens through revolution,” Thede said.
“In terms of laughter, being helpful in these times, laughter is always helpful. I specifically named my show A Black Lady Sketch Show on purpose because I wanted people to know what they were tuning into and wanted to get the elephant in the room out of the way. It’s about normalizing, in the micros, black female comedians, showing that we can play anything anyone else can play. We can deliver comedy in the greatest traditions of sketch. Our act of defiance is in our existence. Laughter is so critical, it can teach you about other cultures. If anyone watches A Black Lady Sketch Show they are inherently going to learn things about our point of view, about things we have to say and are going to laugh.”
She urged the business to create more shows like Insecure as well as in other genres. “[The] challenge now is to greenlight these modern black stories,” she said. “We want to be able to make our version of The Vampire Diaries, our version of Buffy, we want to be able to make sci-fi, horror, I’m writing features in different genres. It’s important for us to be normalized in all genres. It’s about what we can do now. it’s not about just hiring one black actor and one black writer. It’s about creating an environment where everyone feels equal on set.”
An example she gave was when she wrote a spec script for Parks and Recreation. “We’ve seen these diversity programs in the past with diversity hires paid for by the network and they’re not treated as a full-blown writer on the show and that to me is insane. I remember writing a spec script for Parks and Recreation years ago and my agent didn’t submit it to the showrunner and he told me months later that ‘the spec is good but it wasn’t a diversity position so I didn’t send it’. That agent obviously got fired but he literally thought he couldn’t submit my script if it wasn’t a diversity position. It’s that kind of thinking that we have to deal with to this day,” she said.
Grace & Frankie creator and showrunner Marta Kauffman added that she wished she had made different decisions earlier in her career. The Friends co-creator said, “I wish I knew then what I knew today, I would have made very different decisions. We’ve always encouraged people of diversity in our company, but I didn’t do enough. Now all I can think about is what can I do, what can I do differently. How can I run my show in a new way? That’s something I wish I knew when I started showrunning but all the way up through last year.”
All four women agreed that the business needed to find more women and more diverse writers for the industry. Julie Plec, creator of The CW’s Legacies and co-creator of Netflix’s Girls on the Bus, said that one of the problems is that the only people who can afford to move to LA are those with money. She said that she was working with Warner Bros to find a way to have writers from across the country work via Zoom. “I could very easily hire writers from Atlanta, where we shoot, and everywhere else, to get a job writing for a show via Zoom if they don’t have the means to live in LA. That is a game changing idea. Now we have to figure out how to make that happened.”