The Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category may not have an extensive history at the Emmys, but since 2015, it has put the spotlight on some truly innovative comedy, from Inside Amy Schumer to Key & Peele and Documentary Now!. But with A Black Lady Sketch Show, series creator Robin Thede is breaking ground on multiple fronts: When the brilliant sketch show premiered in 2019, it was the first variety sketch show led by Black women, both on screen and in the writers’ room. The success of ABLSS also marks a few new firsts in television—not only is this the first time that a variety sketch series made by and starring Black women has been nominated, but Dime Davis is the first Black woman to be nominated for Outstanding Directing In A Variety Series. And, as if stacking a cast with comedic talents like Thede, Emmy winner Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson, and Gabrielle Dennis weren’t enough, A Black Lady Sketch Show also garnered an Emmy nomination for Angela Bassett in the Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy race.
No one is more thrilled than Thede to achieve these milestones, but bringing this years-long dream to fruition and acclaim hasn’t left her resting on her laurels. As the Emmy nominee tells The A.V. Club, she now sees A Black Lady Sketch Show as a dream come true for her whole team, as well as another opportunity to create superb comedy. We spoke with Thede about firsts (again), normalizing Black stories on TV, and how A Black Lady Sketch Show represents a springboard for ever more inclusive storytelling.
The A.V. Club: When we spoke ahead of the show’s premiere last year, we talked about all the “firsts” you’ve achieved in your career, and all the firsts that A Black Lady Sketch Show represents. You can now add a few more to the list. Are you trying to put the rest of us to shame while we’re in quarantine?
Robin Thede: [Laughs] What a great way to put it! But not intentionally, no. You know, hopefully everyone feels proud and feels uplifted by these historic moments. I know that’s how I feel. I’m so proud of the team, obviously. People say “I don’t do it alone,” but it’s so true. People like Dime [Davis], and our guest stars like Angela Bassett, my incredible cast, my incredible writers—they are the absolute backbone to making what originally was my dream become our dream come true. And I could not be prouder of this team.
AVC: In all seriousness, A Black Lady Sketch Show really demonstrates just how deep and wide the pool is of Black creatives. I know the goal is always to entertain, but did you also want to make that point?
RT: Oh, I absolutely intended to, and I thank you for saying that. Everything was done intentionally with purpose and intention. How many times can I say intention? [Laughs.] But yeah, no, everything was done intentionally. Larry Wilmore told me that: He said “hire with intention.” We didn’t believe in blind packets at The Nightly Show. I didn’t do that on my late-night show [The Rundown With Robin Thede], and I did not do it on this show. I don’t believe that blind works because in this context, “blind” means you’re just looking for the same sort of people who write the exact same way that the same, usually white male writers write currently, especially in variety and sketch.
Where shows have benefited is in getting packets from people don’t write exactly like the voice of the show, and who do offer different opinions and different outlooks. And I think especially in late night, but also in sketch, I think it’s really critical to have voices who don’t all sound alike. Even in my all-Black, all-women writers’ room, we had writers who went to Ivy league schools. We have writers who were strippers. We have writers who never went to school. We had writers who grew up dirt poor. We had writers who grew up with more money. We had every sort of different type of person in the room. And yes, they all ended up being Black women. Well, they were intentionally all Black women, but they range in economic differences, LGBTQ, age. We have writers in their twenties and writers in their fifties. So for me, it was really, really critical, if we were going to be a show called A Black Lady Sketch Show, people were going to be looking for a variety of types of Black women to be represented.
That’s why I’m so thrilled that Ms. Angela Bassett, the queen herself, at her age—and I won’t say it, but people can Google it—is being nominated for a sketch comedy Emmy. And it’s so cool because we often think about musicians or the cool young actors having these funny sketch turns. There were some men on our show, but we just wanted to provide a place where particularly Black women could play against the stereotypes we’re seen as and could really have fun and not have to be stuck in any boundaries the other shows might put them in.
AVC: That’s of a piece with something you said at this year’s virtual ATX festival about the importance of, and I’m paraphrasing, watching shows about Black people the way you would anything else. It makes your show just as groundbreaking in the relatively quieter beats, like the interstitials among the friends [played by Thede and fellow cast members Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson, and Gabrielle Dennis].
RT: Yeah, and I think that is critical. We need to be seen as normal people, not as some sort of other sort of character or some one-dimensional best friend character or coworker. I want to know what’s going on in those Black character’s lives. I want to know the normal things they do, the mistakes they make, the successes they have. I think modern, regular-ass Black stories are really important to tell. And it’s why our interstitials, even though they take place at the end of the world and they’re on a big sketch comedy show, they still are for women, as you said, having these regular conversations, these very normal conversations about relationships, and cancel culture, and personal likes and dislikes. I think all of that is important, and it helps to normalize Black images; it helps to normalize the preconceived notions about Black women. We’re not all strong and loud and whatever. We can be those things, but we don’t have to be those things. And we are more nuanced than that as people. And I think that this work goes a long way to help people see that.
AVC: The series premiere of A Black Lady Sketch Show turned out to be prescient, as far as quarantine and feeling like everything’s going to hell outside your door. Are you going to try to work your magic with the season two premiere by showing everybody living in a utopia?
RT: Oh, that’s a very specific pitch. [Laughs.] I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in season two, but I don’t even know how to… answering it would be giving you information either way. But I can say that we’ll find out who’s at the door, if there is anyone at the door. The first season ends with a ring on the doorbell, and the women think that they’re the last four women on earth, but they may or may not be. So we will continue that story and you will find out more information, but that’s kind of all I can say. The season’s already written, so I’ll have to take that under advisement in season three, if there is one, God and HBO willing.
AVC: Among the four core cast members, you guys played something like a hundred characters in the first season. It’s almost like playing Where’s Waldo? when you watch to try to place you, Quinta, Ashley, and Gabrielle in a scene, because you all take turns transforming. Do you have a favorite character or one particular premise that really just stands out to you a year after you premiered?
RT: When people were first asking me a year ago, like you said, when the show premiered, I think I was like, oh, maybe Chris or the Hertep, Dr. Hadassah. But honestly, the more I watch it and step back from it, and the more I look at the impact the show is having, it’s other people’s characters that I love. It’s Angela Bassett in Bad Bitch Support Group; it’s Gabrielle Dennis in Gang Orientation as Elisa. It’s Ashley Nicole Black as Trinity, the Invisible Spy. It’s Quinta as Lashel in the Chris and Lashel series. There’s so many. It’s the work Aja Naomi King does in “Invisible Spy, Part Two.” And Nicole Byer. Jermaine Fowler in the Viral Proposals. I could go on and on. They all make me so happy. They’re really like kids, right? You can’t pick a favorite.
But I think what’s really settled into my heart right now is the show as a whole. I see that as a character. I see it as a beacon of this dream I’ve had for two decades that has come true in such a beautiful way. I think it’s very rare to accomplish the thing that you had as the ultimate dream in your mind. And I think at a certain point after the Emmy nominations came out, I was like, oh, I need a new dream. I carried this to, not a conclusion, because I’ll make this show for 50 years. But I carried it as far as I saw it going. So now it’s like, okay, we’ll just keep doing that and keep making this show. But now I need like... You know what I mean? Everybody needs like their five, 10, 20 year plan or whatever. I feel like I’ve achieved so much, and that’s a beautiful thing. So now I’m putting together a much larger plan. I mean, this plan was large. [Laughs.] But I’m just thinking of a new plan that incorporates everything we built doing A Black Lady Sketch Show, and how I know we can really keep those doors open for so many people in the industry moving forward.
AVC: What has changed behind the scenes in moving from season one to season two? I know you can’t speak to the new storylines, but have you adjusted anything in how you approach staffing or working with directors?
RT: It’s the same process, I think. We brought in two new-to-the-business writers. No, three. We brought in three first-time writers. So we have a little bit of a larger room. We lost two people: Amber Ruffin has her own late-night show, so now has two late-night shows to contend with, so she wasn’t available. And then Brittani Nichols sold a show to Quibi, so she’s executive producing and starring in that. We had two slots to fill, but we brought on an extra writer. So we had seven total, plus me and my head writer this season. We brought in three fresh-faced writers who had been in various capacities in the business, but hadn’t had a writing credit yet.
That was really important to us because in season one, we had vets, we had Emmy winners; we had people from The Good Place, we had people from Transparent, from Sam Bee’s show [Full Frontal]. We had nothing but vets the first season. In season two, it was important to me that we brought in new writers who could join those women, those veterans in the room and learn from them, but also bring a fresh perspective. And they really did. I think the material in season two is even more dynamic than in season one. But in terms of who I was looking for, no, it’s still all Black women in the writer’s room. I don’t see that changing. And for directors, it was the same process. I wanted to find folks who could accomplish the four things: cinematic, narrative, grounded, and magical. Those are the four words I use to describe the show. And in sentence form, I always say that it’s a cinematic, narrative sketch show where Black women live grounded experiences in a magical reality.
So, I’m very clear about what this show means. In season one, it was really hard. Dime was really the only director who understood that intrinsically. And she brought in a deck with Edgar Wright references, but also David Fincher references. So she really understood the visual elements of sketch comedy and hard comedy on screen, in addition to making it look stunning. We treat each one of our sketches as a short film, and we ascribe a certain aesthetic to it. So we can take everything from a big Broadway musical to a dark and gritty kind of thriller. And we can take that from sketch to sketch without missing a beat. I think that same edict from my original vision is the same in season two. And obviously, just looking for ways to enhance the comedy at every turn.
AVC: A Black Lady Sketch Show has been as much of a showcase for talented, somewhat established performers and a launch pad for newer ones, including new writers. Which sounds like an obvious thing for a show to do, but it’s also clear that not every one nurtures talent the same way.
RT: Well, everybody should be doing it. And that’s the point. Gone are the days where I think any showrunner can make an excuse to not have any women or people of color on their staffs. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I just feel like every show is richer for a diverse set of perspectives. And as somebody who has been the only Black person in a room, or the only woman in a room, I know how shitty that feels. I know that you can’t do your best work in an environment where you have to explain your existence before you can explain your pitch. So, sure, I feel a responsibility because I want to provide a space where all those things are possible, but I also want to make a show with a very specific point of view. And so it behooves me to have those women in the room. So it’s not like I’m doing some sort of great service. I’m making A Black Lady Sketch Show, Black ladies need to write it. That’s just kind of inherent.
But I’m also working on other projects where I have rooms that are not as homogenous. I will do that on every show that I make; I will always strive to represent the normal American experience when I walk down the street. People are like, “Oh, that’s a coastal thing.” But no, I’m from Iowa, where there are Black people, there are brown people, there are Asian people, there are white people. Where I grew up was in the heart of the Midwest, but there were still people of all types. I think we have to be more clear about that. And it doesn’t matter the subject matter of the show. Look, A Black Lady Sketch Show was going to have Black lady writers. If there’s a Latinx show, it needs to have Latinx writers. It doesn’t make any sense not to include them. But shows that are period pieces or just kind of about slice of life or typical American images, which we default to think of as white, there’s no reason why those rooms need to be all white or all male. It’s really important that we represent the world and the world that we’re creating. And I just think, it’s 2020. People need to be ashamed of themselves if they’re not seeking out people of color, Black people, women, and LGBTQ folks for their staffs—not just in their writer’s rooms, but in their casts and crews. And in a really meaningful representative way, not in a token sort of way.
AVC: We talked about this a bit before, but given her nomination and the fact that I could talk about this forever: Let’s come back to Angela Bassett’s character in that Bad Bitch Support Group sketch. It’s a little bit like finding out Keanu Reeves can do comedy, where you have this person who is already super talented, and they do comedy too?
RT: I know. It’s unfair.
AVC: Did you sense that Angela Bassett was just going to knock this out of the park?
RT: Yes, because she has been funny in other things. I mean, I think of Lena Waithe’s Master Of None episode. Of course, her character was like deadly serious in that show, but it took comedic chops to be able to deliver that in a comedy. I knew that this character was going to be more overtly comedic and broader, but Angela Bassett can do anything. It’s like asking if Meryl Streep could do comedy. Of course she can. But what the industry does is that they put women specifically, and hyper-specifically Black women, into a box. The fact that Meryl Streep or Viola Davis or anyone of that level could be thought of as not being able to handle any type of acting is insane to me.
I always think that these people can do anything and I’m ballsy enough to ask them. We had some folks, who I will not say, but we had some folks in season one who would have really tripped people out—would just have really blown people’s minds, but the scheduling didn’t work. But I’m hoping we’ll get them for season two. And I think that this is going to be the hallmark of this show moving forward, that we are able to create these moments that people are like, okay, who the hell is going to show up this week? Because literally it could be an Oscar winner, you know? And I think that’s part of the excitement about the show. The show feels a little dangerous in that way. “Well, what are they going to surprise me with next?” You know, we do everything from horror to musicals. I’ve had people tell me, “I laugh at your show, but I also got scared and I also got excited. I went through all these emotions.”
I think that’s the fun of the show too, is that we never let people get comfortable. But I think Angela’s nomination in particular means that other people of her caliber will be super-comfortable coming to play because she signed on having seen nothing but a script. There was no reason, honestly, why she needed to do it. She didn’t need it. Her career was fine. But I wrote her a letter and I talked to her about it, and she signed on right away. I think that that’s a testament to the vision of the show and the team that we put together, and of course to my vision. But, I definitely am not doing it alone.
AVC: The outstanding variety sketch series category is one of the newer Emmy categories, but you’re still up against long-running series like Saturday Night Live and Drunk History. How does it feel to shake things up a bit?
RT: I love it, and it’s about time. I believe Key & Peele was the last show led by Black people that was in this category. But it feels great because I think that even though we’re a first-year show that aired a year ago, we deserve to be there. I know a lot of shows say that. But I’ve been on a lot of shows and I knew every year that I wasn’t going to get nominated for other shows, just because you can kind of read the tea leaves. But this year, it felt really good going in, and I was hopeful. The truth is, we’re making something that’s more beautiful, more unique, and more dynamic than anything out there. That’s just the way I feel, and I’m not alone. I think Drunk History is very innovative and it’s a strong contender. And SNL has been around for decades, and they’ve won a lot. So it’s up to voters to figure out if they want to roll the dice with a new kid on the block, or if they want to go with tried and true. But either way, they’re not going to be making a bad decision. For us to even be nominated in a category, the smallest category in the entire Emmys, with only three nominees—it’s an honor. And it’s really a testament to the hard work of all the people who put this show together.