Robin Thede is used to “firsts.” From 2015–16, she was the head writer for the first season and a half of “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” the first African-American woman to hold that position on any late-night talk show; the first black woman to write for the White House Correspondents Dinner; and of course, the first Black woman to create, showrun, write, and star in a sketch comedy series, HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which itself made history as the first sketch show to feature an all-Black woman cast and writers room — a welcome respite from other late-night shows that tend to overlook Black women’s narratives.
Although for Thede, these accomplishments are all bittersweet, and a reflection of the kind of progress that still needs to made in an industry that’s long been dominated by stories by, about, and for white men. “It’s my badge of honor, but the industry’s badge of shame, and I think that, as great as having those titles are, I guess I wish I had role models,” Thede said. “I wish I would’ve had women who I could’ve looked up to and who I could say did this before me, because, at the end of the day, I’m breaking ground, and there are inherently no mentors who look like me. So I’ve been very lucky to have mentors like Chris Rock and Larry Wilmore and John Stewart, and Wanda Sykes and so many other comedians, but they haven’t done exactly what I’ve done. And now I’m trying to pull others up with me.”
Especially noteworthy in “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which is executive produced by Issa Rae, is the bridging of generations of Black women of all shades, shapes, sizes, and backgrounds that makes the series 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.
“For us, it’s just our priority, and I think every show shows you their priority in terms of who they put on camera,” Thede said. “It’s obviously called ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show,’ and there’s a diversity within that Blackness, including trans Black women. So instead of saying, “White shows, you have to do better,” I said, “Well, let me just create my own platform for all these amazing women.”
A half hour of some of the brashest, funniest, and even at times savage comedy on television, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” may have initially seemed like a bit of gamble for HBO. However, as Thede revealed, HBO was very enthusiastic about the show, ordering a six-episode season straight to series, with no pilot, and no scripts. They just went by a pitch during their very first dinner meeting.
“I think I have a proven track record in the business,” Thede said. “No one is worried about me producing bullshit. Everyone, especially in this business, knows how hard I work. I think combined with Issa at HBO, who has a deal there, and is rightfully a darling of the network, I think they just trusted us both. I had a relationship with those executives at HBO prior as well. So I think it was the perfect storm of us all just wanting to work together and HBO trusting my vision.”
With a main cast that includes Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis, and Ashley Nicole Black, that vision centers on sketches that showcase her talented co-players and a sharp wit informed by the experience of Black womanhood.
Buzzing with pop culture references and propelled by surreal humor, the show intentionally shuns conventional skits. Shifts in tone that punctuate many of the jokes are very common; a sketch can seem to be about one idea, but then suddenly becomes something else entirely. There’s a kind of freewheeling nature to it that makes it unpredictable and exciting.
With sketches that feature Bassett (in an atypical comedic role) leading a support group for “Bad Bitches,” and Torres, also in an unusual comedic performance, appearing in a sketch which sees the “Pearson” actress play a CIA director ordering a covert mission, as well as a parody of FX’s acclaimed series “Pose” with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner Caldwell Tidicue (Bob the Drag Queen) in Billy Porter’s Emmy-nominated role, the series makes for a perfect binge. Still, its creator is aware that intelligent, absurdist humor by Black creatives might not have been platformed in previous years.
“Late night has been, historically, a largely white male, Harvard-educated group, and people like Seth Meyers take that really seriously and made sure they had 50% women and women of color on their staff,” Thede said. “But still, you have no other head writers of color, even male, or black. So there’s still a long way to go. But we’re here, and we’re ready to do the work. The industry has just got to be ready us because we’re not going anywhere.”
The first season of “Black Lady Sketch Show” was successful enough that HBO ordered a second season, whose production was halted just five days before it was set to begin, due to the the pandemic. She was mum on details about what to expect for Season 2, but she already knows what audiences should not expect. People keep asking, “Oh, are you guys going to write a whole bunch of stuff about the quarantine?” I’m like, “No, I’m not,” because our show already dealt with four women quarantining in a house at the end of the world. It’s still the end of the world, because you still have to figure out what happened. We want to reveal pieces of that mystery slowly, but you’ll have more answers to your question.”
And despite a second season setback, it’s been quite a fun ride for Thede in the last year, as an artist in a rare, wonderful position. But it’s still all about the work. “Oh my God. Yes, this is my dream,” she said. “This show is a joy to make. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t think people realize how many hats I wear on the show or how much I do. But who cares? No one ever recognizes that. You know what I mean? The point is that they enjoy the content. I know that the show has been successful, because I’ve seen our numbers and I’ve seen all the critical praise and I’ve heard all the Emmy buzz and all of that. But, for the most part, because I’m always working, I kind of just keep my head down and focus on making the show.”