If you don’t already know, A Black Lady Sketch Show is all the things hilarious. It’s the first variety sketch series written, directed, and performed solo by Black women. Created by Robin Thede, who’s also the executive producer along with Issa Rae, the show is “a narrative series set in a limitless magical reality full of dynamic, hilarious characters and celebrity guests. The show presents sketches performed by a core cast of Black women.” In just one season, A Black Lady Sketch Show received three Emmy nominations including one for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.
BET.com caught up with Robin Thede, Gabrielle Dennis, Ashley Nicole Black, and new cast member Skye Townsend to talk about why Black Women’s jokes matter, working with their idols, and the power of a Beyonce hoodie.
BET.com: I think ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show will be an institution for Black women comedic performers, directors, and writers. Why was it so important for you to center all kinds of Black women in sketch comedy?
Robin Thede: Wow. Thank you for saying that. I think that’s exactly what we had in mind. So many of us have auditioned for SNL and or been on other sketch shows. This is like my seventh sketch show and they’ve done other sketch shows. I just got tired of waiting for other people to give me the chance that I knew I could create for myself.
Then beyond me, this wasn’t going to be just the Robin Thede Sketch Show. I wouldn’t want to watch that. Then I was like, “I know so many funny Black women, it would just be a shame to not bring together a group and to have this forum.” We brought in our legends like Angela Bassett, Patti LaBelle, and this season Gabrielle Union and all these amazing people that we get to see in a way that the world doesn’t allow us to be seen so often.
Nobody was pitching Angela Bassett sketch comedy roles. I said to her, “Why did you take this job? She said, “I did it because you asked and no one asks.” I think that is so wild.
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It’s not only important that there are Black women in the cast, writing the words, directing the show doing all the hair, makeup, the clothing, it’s important in totality. It’s a judgment-free space where you get to be yourself without explanation. And I think that’s what makes it so we’re attracted not only for the guest stars but also for our viewers
BET.com: Speaking of the Emmys, I read that you had on a Beyoncé hoodie when you found out the show was Emmy-nominated. That’s some serious good luck.
Robin Thede: I did. I did. And I saw first that we had been nominated for a variety sketch series. And that to me, was it I was like, great. we got an Emmy nomination; I was freaking out. And then I got a text from our studio and said, congratulations on your three nominations. And I was like, ‘What else did we get nominated for!!??’ Then I saw directing and guest Actress for Angela. It just blew me away to have a season that had aired over a year ago. To have a brand-new show be recognized in that way by an Academy that is traditionally you know, really only honors SNL, let’s be honest.
Key and Peele broke through and that’s pretty much it in terms of Black people and the Emmys since the “In Living Color” days. So, I think that was critical for us to be able to break through that barrier and I hope it continues.
BET.com: Gabrielle, you’ve been on several different casts and ensembles. What’s different about the comedic chemistry on A Black Lady Sketch Show?
Gabrielle Dennis: You know what? The mixologist Robin Beaty put it together. I mean, she knew she knew what ingredients were needed. And she knew what each of us brings to the table and like putting together a singing group, you know, you’re finding all the parts, you know, who’s singing soprano who’s singing, you know, all the layers, right?
And then when we get there, it’s not only the personality, the talent, the dedication, the commitment, the love, the craft, like all of those things have to merge. Because you can be talented and be a complete jerk and nobody wants to work with you. Or you could be an amazing sweetie pie and not be funny, you know? There are so many elements that have to come together. Hats off to Robin for knowing which people to put together. I think the chemistry comes from the common thread of us all loving what we do and respecting each other as artists.
Coming to work with that kind of magic every day is pretty special. It’s nothing like I’ve ever been able to experience before. So, you appreciate it. You are 1,000% grateful for being able to stand on two feet on the ground, living, breathing, laughing, and surrounded by so much talent.
BET.com: Skye, you come from a family that knows a few things about comedy (your dad is Robert Townsend). Do you believe that comedians are born or made?
Skye Townsend: Wooooo! You came in hot with that one. I like that. I’m in my family, we call it ‘funny bones.’ I think certain people are born funny. But I think that in order to get to a place of being a really incredible comedian, everybody must work at their gift. And that comes with understanding things such as timing, pacing yourself, such as trusting your instincts? Who are you studying as a comedian?
You know, my dad always says, ‘If you only have one influence, you got a problem.’ I have somebody I love for physical comedy. I have somebody I love for character work. I have somebody I love for animation. And so, I think you’re born funny, but I think they’re really smart ones who work at their craft, but still keep that core authenticity.
BET.com: Lastly, Ashley, you’ve been behind the scenes as a writer. In your view, what are some challenges for Black women who are creatives in comedy?
Ashley Nicole Black: I think traditionally, the pressure I’ve experienced is when I get scripts for my consideration or to audition for roles. It’s a lot of the same character over and over again, the way that people imagine a plus-sized Black woman. What I love about sketch comedy, in general, is getting to play a lot of different characters.
On this show, specifically, because this show gets so wild and so crazy, Robin is going to give you a couple of parts that you’re like ‘I don’t even know how to play this. Nobody would cast me this.’ Some of the things that this woman has convinced me that I could do…there’s one where I play like the thotiest character. What I love about this show is there is no box. The box isn’t even anywhere near our set. We have torn it up, dismantled it, and it’s gone.
I hope the audience can see themselves and be like, “Yes! I’m tired of seeing us do the same thing over and over again! I’m excited to see this weird, fun, crazy, sexy, or whatever it is that we’re bringing.
A Black Lady Sketch Show premeires on Friday, April 23 and airs on HBO Max every Friday following at 11pm PT/ET.
(Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)