There’s nothing radical about the structure of HBO’s new comedy series “A Black Lady Sketch Show”; it’s a series of pop culture parodies and send-ups of current events. But the series has its own sharp-witted, affable point of view and provides a necessary showcase for more black women performers than have ever appeared on a single show, led by a core cast that includes creator Robin Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Quinta Brunson, who are all funny, dynamic, and unapologetically provocative.
It’s a point of view that comes primarily from the show’s creator and co-star, Robin Thede, who was the head writer on Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show” – Wilmore is among the famous faces who appear in the series – and oversaw “The Rundown with Robin Thede”, which was also groundbreaking for late-night television, airing on BET. (Although, in a perplexing move, the network canceled it after just one season, despite ratings and critical success.)
A half hour of some of the brashest, funniest, and even at times savage comedy on television, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is a bit of gamble for HBO, not only in terms of its time slot – airing late, at 11 p.m., on an evening when much of its youngish target audience can be expected to be out on the town – but also in terms of precedent: there is none. Executive produced by Issa Rae (who also appears in the series), “A Black Lady Sketch Show” makes history: it’s the first sketch series cast comprised entirely of black women; it boasts the first all-black women writers room, and every episode is directed by a black woman (Dime Davis).
Nothing and no one is sacred here. While not all of “A Black Lady Sketch Show” works, there’s a sense of “danger” that’s palpable. But Thede wants, above all else, to make you laugh, and audiences will have plenty to laugh at in the first season of a series that is bursting with bits that are destined to become social media hits.
Especially noteworthy is the bridging of generations of black women of all shades, shapes, sizes, and backgrounds that makes “A Black Lady Sketch Show” something really special. Featuring a long list of guest stars, including veteran actresses Loretta Devine, Angela Bassett, Gina Torres, Khandi Alexander, and more who trade quips with younger castmates, the show is ultimately a celebration of black womanhood. In a sense it serves as a respectful nod to the battle-tested queens while heralding fresh, if more youthful, voices.
An unforgettable sketch features Bassett (in an atypical comedic role) leading a support group for “Bad Bitches,” as opposed to “OK Bitches” or “Basic Bitches.” It’s one of the funnier, subversive bits appearing in the first episode, serving as a critique of the impossible beauty standards that society expects of women.
And Gina Torres, also in an unusual comedic performance, appears in a sketch titled “Invisible Spy,” which sees the “Suits” actress play a CIA director ordering a covert mission. Ashley Nicole Black is the titular spy, a woman so ordinary looking that no one seems to be able to see or remember her.
Other memorable sketches include a parody of FX’s acclaimed series “Pose” titled “Basic Ball,” with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner Caldwell Tidicue in Billy Porter’s Emmy-nominated role; a send-up of the 1980s hit NBC comedy “227”; a performance by a fake 1960s soul group featuring the show’s core cast appearing as men; a divorce party that goes off the rails after hallucinogenic mushrooms are introduced; and a satire of black churches titled “Church Open Mic,” in which members of the congregation who are called up to testify instead push their own schemes (one person promotes their Instagram page, for example).
Most of these skits are thoughtful, well-crafted and funny, and the show’s target audience should relish Thede and her team’s attempts to blow up a whole set of cultural clichés. Here, for example, is a half-hour that actually grants you enough intelligence to appreciate how beholden women are to society’s beauty standards, and then goes on to bitingly ridicule the worst of its excesses.
Those skits that don’t quite land – like a bit on how threatening “black girl joy” can be, which begins with a bang, but ends in a whimper – are thankfully few and far between.
Sketches are separated by interstitial devices that serve almost as commercial breaks, allowing the audience to take a breath between each skit, a smart move given how sharply contrasting – and even at times jarring – they can be. The interstitials feature the show’s core cast in a nondescript home discussing a myriad of issues of relevance to black women, against the backdrop of a world that’s coming to an end. It’s a creative, fun device that continues throughout the season’s six episodes, telling one continuous story. These “breaks” also allow audiences to get to know the four leading ladies as they are – albeit, heightened versions of their real selves.
Overall, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is a satirical sketch comedy series that provides an upheaval of laughs with a distinctive flavor. And should the show be a success – critically and in ratings – it will be due in no small part to Thede and her co-stars’ whip-smart, black woman-centric approach to political and cultural satire, which is a welcome break from other late-night shows that tend to overlook black women narratives.
“A Black Lady Sketch Show” premieres on Friday, August 2 at 11 p.m. on HBO.