Are you bored with the content on Netflix? Have you watched everything on Hulu? Have you already caught up with the DC Universe shows you’ve never even knew existed until they were on HBO Max? Then may we suggest – if you haven’t already – perhaps you should catch up with the fantastic Robin Thede creation, “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”
HBO Emmy nominee for Outstanding Variety Series (Thede), Directing for a Variety Series (Dime Davis, the first female African-American nominee in this category) and Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (seven-time nominee Angela Bassett), the program is a spring in a desert of sketch shows centered on persons of color let alone women of color. Not only is the series insidiously funny, but it features production value and inspired direction that far exceeds its modest budget. Oh, and did we mention the guest stars that pop up hilariously when you least expect it?
Thede is best known for writing and appearing on both her own sadly short-lived BET series “The Rundown with Robin Thede” and “The Larry Wilmore Show,” but “Black Lady Sketch Show” has taken her notoriety to another level. The question now is just when will a second season be filmed (if you live in Los Angeles she’d really appreciate it if you wore a mask) and if her freshman wonder can knock off “Saturday Night Live” in a year the Variety Sketch category has just three nominees (“Drunk History” rounds out the trio). Those were just a few topics as well as Patti LaBelle, “227” and misreporting on how she initially sold the show, that came up when we jumped on the phone last week.
The Playlist: What was your reaction to the Emmy nods and when you saw Dime and Angela had been nominated as well?
Robin Thede: I would say elation. It’s one thing when they talk about “Your show is going to get nominated.” You just never believe the hype especially for a first-year show that aired a year ago. Only six episodes. I knew they weren’t announcing it live, So I looked online. Once I saw Leslie [Jones] start to announce the nominees and I saw us right there and I just froze. I thought, “Oh, this must be the list of eligible [series].” It didn’t register to me that we were actually nominated. I was like, “Oh, they haven’t put it up yet. This is just like the list of eligible shows. And then I saw there were only three, and I was like, “Holy shit.” Then my phone just went crazy, obviously.
And I think, it’s so well-deserved and historic for you and Dime. The show is so good. I honestly can’t wait for the second season to come.
Oh, thank you so much. We worked so hard and my whole goal was to create this cinematic sketch series, but a narrative sketch series. So my whole goal was to create a narrative sketch series where black women were living these grounded experiences in a magical reality. So, to create this sort of environment where black women get to be seen, not only as comedians but as really strong actors too. I think that that’s what attracted people like Angela Bassett to the show, not only because of the vision that I sold to them but also I think just what the show could represent. And I think from day one, everybody, Angela, Dime, myself and everybody who’s been involved have seen this as what the world is seeing it as now. And I think that vision has been so clear as to what it could be, what it could look like and the impact it could have. For me, it’s really cool because I think a lot of people are just now discovering it, which is why it’s so important that we do evergreen content, but stuff that still feels current. For me, it’s just taking in all those things and it’s so fun because you have a dream about something and then literally all of it comes true, and so I just have to keep thinking bigger.
I was going to ask you where the idea came from to have the narrative thread throughout the six episodes but if that was part of your pitch, I can see TV executives thinking that you’re going to come in and pitch something more like SNL. Did this take scare any execs off? Was it harder to sell the show than you thought it might be?
No, not at all.
Oh, that’s great.
I think a lot of it has to do with my relationships in the business. I’ve run a lot of shows. I’ve created in a late-night space and I’ve been on a number of sketch shows. This is like my seventh sketch show that I’m acting on, but the first one I created. So I think given my history in the business, I don’t think much of what I came in with was scary. Somebody else had reported something that wasn’t true. They said that I had pitched the show all around town and nobody wanted to buy it. And I’m like, “I never said that.” So the truth is, is that I was still doing my late-night show, “The Rundown.” And on one of our hiatus weeks, I came back to L.A. to pitch a bunch of things. And this was kind of an afterthought that I pitched to another network, and they were like, well, what’s your ultimate dream? And I was like, “I want to do a black lady sketch show.” And that’s just what I was referring to it as. It wasn’t even the title at that point. And we had sold it to another network, that I cannot say, and we never settled on the budget. So by the time “The Rundown” got canceled that summer, Issa [Rae], who’s a dear friend of mine, she was like, “We got to do something together.” And I was like, “I have this other project that’s in the middle of being sold, but I don’t know if we’re going to get there on the money.” And if you look at a lot of sketch shows, they’re notoriously very cheaply made. I get it because sketch is a gamble for any network. And when we went to meet with HBO, I already knew Amy Gravitt who is the comedy head over there and who was going to be hearing my pitch. And we all just went to dinner and I talked to her really. It wasn’t even a formal pitch. I just talked to her about what I wanted to do and how passionate I was. I was pitching the types of things I would want to make in terms of sketches and the cast and all that good stuff. And I think she just saw that it was completely developed and was ready to go. They sent us straight to series so I think my vision was always super clear from the beginning. And I think the only thing that really scares executives is somebody who doesn’t have all the boxes checked in terms of what they want to make. I think it was hard for anyone to deny because the two places I pitched it, both bought it. I didn’t take it all around town. I didn’t do a big long couch and water tour to sell it anywhere else. And I think it ended up being at the place where it was supposed to be.
When you were pitching the show, did you have the cast all set or did that come later?
Yeah, I had the people I wanted. I didn’t have them set in terms of being committed or anything, but I had been talking to them about it and I told HBO who I wanted, and they loved who I wanted to be involved. And I talked about guest stars. I talked about everything. Basically, I saw this show before I went into HBO. I knew who I wanted as my head writer. I knew who I wanted to just be involved at every level.
How difficult was it to get some of these big guest stars? For example, the Patti LaBelle sketch obviously does not work without Patti LaBelle.
Surprisingly easy. It was. I can’t even lie. We have an amazing casting director, Vicky Thomas, but I had worked with Patti in the past, and she remembered me. Angela Bassett, I had met in passing, but Issa had also met her. And I think everybody once they knew who was involved and what network we were on was just down to play. People don’t remember [Patti’s] sitcom “Out All Night,” but it was so funny. And so she loves doing stuff like this. So for her and Angela, we wrote those sketches for them. But none of the other 55 celebrities we have in six episodes were written for. And we just said, here’s a part we’d like you to play. And they came and killed it.
So even when you did the “227” reunion that had to be planned right?
Oh, okay. Sorry. They were also written for it. I take that back. Yeah. They were written for because we needed them in the dream sequence at the end to pay homage to them. Those were the other people that were written for specifically.
Did you go to Marla Gibbs first? If Marla wasn’t going to do it, was it not going to work?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know who they went to first casting-wise, but yeah. Don’t try to get me in trouble!
No, I didn’t mean it that way. [Laughs.] I’ve only seen them do any sort of reunion less than a handful of times. I thought it was impressive.
Well, all kudos go to our casting director. They also knew that I had been doing a live show. I’d been doing this live show called “227: The Lost Episodes” at Second City for years.
How did I miss this? [Laughs.]
The whole cast knew about it. And we kept inviting them to the live show, and they kept refusing to come, and they were getting older. You don’t want to go sit in a dark improv theater watching random people. It was me and Amber Ruffin, Daniele Gaither and Holly Walker. Years ago before any of us were on late night, we were doing this live show and improvising lost episodes of “227.” So I think when this request came around, it was just a full-circle moment. They were like, “Wow, she’s really been dedicated to this show for a long time.” And I also wrote letters to all of our guest stars. Not all of them, but the people that I really wasn’t sure if they were going to do it. I would write them a letter and just tell them what it meant to me and how I would protect them on the show. That this wasn’t a show that punched down. This was a show that celebrates black women and black culture. Because a lot of comedy can be really mean and really can punch down. And I think the moment they read the script, they realized we weren’t making fun of them in any way. So I think that the material, my relationships, and I think the personal outreach in combination with our amazing casting team was what did it.
Knowing that you come from an improv background and so many of the other main members of the cast do as well, how much of a sketch that an audience sees on TV is what was written on the page and how much comes from an outline beforehand?
Outline? No. This is still HBO. There’s no outline. [Laughs.] This is a word for word script that must be shot the exact way it’s written. That being said, we do improvise a lot, but we have to get it exactly as scripted and once we get that with Dime, we would then get to play and go off script and improvise. We write the show. I’m a purist writer. I would never. We do 12, 15 rewrites of every sketch. We don’t mess around. The reason why the writing is good is because we work so hard to make sure that every word counts. We don’t cut any corners in any department on the show.
Was there any skit in particular that you were surprised how well it resonated once it aired?
Surprised, no because that was the intention, but definitely happy about how many of them resonated. It’s interesting because I think 18 of the sketches out of like 50, if you count the interstitials, are on YouTube and a lot of people think that’s the only content of the show and I’m like, “No, you need to watch the whole thing.”
Yeah, you have to watch the whole thing.
The sketches like “No Makeup” and how people really related to that. It’s called “Courtroom Tiki,” but I’ve just taken to calling it Black Lady Courtroom because that’s what everyone called it. That sketch is so wild because people will just stop me on the street and be like Black lady courtroom, but they’ll change the courtroom to something else. My doctor was like “Black Lady Dentist.” So I think that and “Get the Belt” was a big one, especially for Black people or anybody who had been hit with a belt when they were growing up and had parental abuse issues that they had to work through. And we wanted to be really careful about how we did that sketch because we didn’t want to make fun of child abuse in any way. But I think especially for a lot of people of color, it’s like “Yeah, we grew up getting hit and having corporal punishment.” And so we wanted to be able to present that in a fun and interesting way, but spark conversation. And that’s exactly what it did. It’s so funny on YouTube. One of the top comments is like, “I came for the laughs, but I’m staying for the therapy.” And so it’s like therapizing each other. But so many sketches. Even stupid sketches, like “Gang Orientation.” People just love it because people work in offices, or they did, and they understand that kind of HR culture juxtaposed with a street gang, which is so silly. But that’s the great thing about this show is I wanted Black women in particular, but everyone, honestly, to feel like they could relate to the material, and they could be like, “oh, that happened to me in my life.” Especially if you’re not a Black woman. That you can watch the “No Makeup” sketch and be like, “Yes, I get it.” I would say the show is specifically cast, but universally funny. And I think that really holds true. We have people that watch the show from all over the world, all different types of gender identities, races, everything and it’s resonating, which is so cool.
Have you shot the second season yet?
We were five days away from shooting when we shut down.
Damn. So you guys are still waiting?
I’m trying to shoot as soon as we can, but these L.A. numbers don’t want to cooperate and people don’t wear masks.
Please wear your mask so I can shoot my show.
Yes! Please. The first season ends on a cliffhanger. Will it be resolved? Or are you just going to push it aside and do a hold another narrative interstitial thing?
Of course. Definitely with the cliffhanger. We have to find who’s at the doorbell. Oh my God. How awful would that be if I just ended it like that? People would kill me.
Listen, there’s a lot of filmmakers who’ve done that without caring what people thought. [Laughs.] Is the plan to bring any of the characters or skit ideas back in any way for season two?
Yes. A lot of the most popular characters from season one, you will see back. That’s the whole idea of a narrative sketch series is that you tend to follow-up characters. We follow them in season, but from season to season, yes, you will see some of your favs come back and you will also get to meet lots and lots of new, strange characters in season two, which I’m very excited about.
I can say season two is really good. It’s really good. I’m just really proud of the writing that our team was able to do this season. And we got a couple of new writers in addition to our season one folks. And it’s really good. And I’m so bummed we can’t shoot it because it’s so good. And we’ll have to adjust some things for COVID if we do shoot during this time, which I am hopeful that we’ll be able to, but we’ll have to adjust some things. We can’t have a hundred extras in a sketch. We can’t have kids and animals and too many other actors. And 55 guest stars in six episodes feels impossible in season two, just because of COVID and testing and quarantining and risks. So we’ll do what we can and I hope people are patient with us.
I have friends on the production side of the business and so many of them felt like they were about to just go back and then July hit and the numbers just spiked.
Did you feel like you were close or did you always feel like, “Nope, they’re not going to give us the green light, we’re months away”?
No, it’s really up to me. We are working closely with HBO and WarnerMedia all the way up to AT&T in terms of securing PPE and making sure we have COVID experts on set. Look, I’m the showrunner of the show as well. So I’m not just creator and star. So I have to look at everything from an administrative standpoint. So I’m working closely with my team to create an environment where we can shoot the show safely for everybody. And the numbers in L.A. are just making it really hard. So no, I haven’t stopped working on the sketch show since March. I still have phone calls and conferences and I’m trying to figure out what we can shoot, what we can’t shoot every week since we got shut down in March. I think HBO is an incredible partner, and they’re working really hard to set up an environment for us to be able to shoot. But it’s honestly, it’s not up to me or the network. It’s up to people to wear their masks and go inside and stop having house parties and kicking it.
Can you scream that from the rafters because I would really like to see a movie even with five people in a theater.
I know. It’s so frustrating. And people are going to be really mad by the end of the year. And especially in January when there is just no new content. People are going to be really angry. There’s not going to be content for like all of 2021 because no one can shoot. Some people are shooting, but it’s people who were already almost done or people who can shoot on a stage, but our show is a hundred percent on location. So imagine now having to take a traveling circus, essentially, all around L.A. and having to make sure that everybody’s safe. It’s really difficult.
“A Black Lady Sketch Show” is available on HBO and HBO Max.