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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
In Living Color, Saturday Night Live (Screenshots: YouTube); A Black Lady Sketch Show (Photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO)

With A Black Lady Sketch Show, Black women are no longer just background in sketch comedy

In Living Color, Saturday Night Live (Screenshots: YouTube); A Black Lady Sketch Show (Photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

On August 2, at a private screening of the premiere of A Black Lady Sketch Show, series creator Robin Thede regaled an audience of mostly Black women, including myself, with a story of failure, friendship, and new beginnings. With The Rundown With Robin Thede, she became only the fourth Black woman to host a late-night show, a milestone that not even the show’s precipitous cancellation in 2018 could diminish. That news was surprising, considering the show had earned a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. But all the goodwill in the world couldn’t save Thede from a massive overhaul at Viacom; a switch to scripted television on BET meant late-night talk shows were run out of town. “I cried,” Thede admitted, after learning of the show’s demise. But then her friends began to call—friends like Insecure creator Issa Rae, who encouraged Thede to seek other outlets, like HBO, which is now home to A Black Lady Sketch Show.

Thede’s tale of overcoming setbacks is one that many Black women seeking success in the world of comedy had heard or experienced before; for years, the few Black women who have managed to hop that line have found themselves isolated or even humiliated. Saturday Night Live, the longest-running and best-known sketch comedy show, has nearly as long and detailed a history of selling Black female comedians and other women of color short. Even on predominantly Black sketch programs, Black women have rarely been more than featured players, but their contributions helped catapult more popular sketches to iconic status. Most fans of the broader genre will never know their names. But the arrival of A Black Lady Sketch Show marks one of the biggest steps forward for Black women in sketch comedy, who have been relegated to the background for far too long.

When Thede sat down for an interview with The A.V. Club, she spoke in detail about why it’s so challenging for any women of color to break into the comedy industry, be it on late-night or sketch. “I think it took a long time because it was just this ‘white dudes at Harvard Club’ in late night for many, many years, and sketch has been very similar. A lot of late-night writers go to sketch or come from sketch. So sketch is a very similarly white, male-dominated space. Even for women and sketch, it’s groundbreaking to have this many women working on a show.” Casting on SNL is a microcosm of a larger problem in the industry. Ellen Cleghorne recalled a similar bout of dismissal and humiliation during her run on Lorne Michaels’ sketch series in a 2018 interview with Slate’s Andy Hoglund. The show’s first Black female cast member with a contract, Cleghorne said SNL found ways to make sure people of color didn’t receive credit. “They didn’t used to give black people contracts on SNL. That was cold-blooded. They didn’t even give them credit. The credits roll, your name’s not even on there. That was a joke because that’s how you got residuals,” Cleghorne told Slate.

Maya Rudolph, who followed in Cleghorne’s SNL footsteps in 2000, told The New York Times last year that she didn’t initially feel like a token hire. “I didn’t feel like I was hired to be the black lady, which can happen a lot. Who knows? Maybe I was and no one told me.” Later, in the same interview, she confessed that her hair was often the subject of ridicule during the seven years she was on the sketch show. Putting all of her thick hair under a wig was difficult, so she set up a standing appointment with the SNL hairdresser to have a Friday night blowout. “[The blowdry station] was on the same hallway as a lot of the dudes’ dressing rooms,” she says. “And every [expletive] Friday night, we’d hear some [expletive] white guy walking down the hall going, ‘Is something burning in here? What’s burning?’ I’m like—I’m. Get-ting. My. Hair. Done.’”

Rudolph dedicated several hours a week to get her hair right for the show, a commitment that didn’t include the time spent on rehearsals, writing, performances, or doing PR for SNL. These are just some of the hurdles Black women on America’s most famous sketch show have had to deal with. Longtime cast member Kenan Thompson famously said the show went so long without a Black woman in the cast (or even as a featured player) because “they just never find ones that are ready.” But five years into Barack Obama’s presidency, it was clear that having no Black women in the cast could no longer be chalked up to a lack of availability.

In 2013, criticism of SNL’s lack of diversity came to a head, leading to a well-publicized, nationwide search for one Black woman worthy enough to appear on the show. Sasheer Zamata, an accomplished sketch writer and performer and friend of SNL alumnus Bobby Moynihan, was added to the cast, while Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes joined the writers room. But it soon became clear that the show didn’t know what to do with Zamata. Cleghorne, who, like Zamata, spent four seasons on SNL, described this incongruity to Slate: “I still feel my blackness is objectified, as opposed to individualized, in the way white people are. There’s 10 white boys on that show. Each one of them are individuals, they bring something special… there’s always tokenism. It’s very dangerous.” During her time at SNL, Zamata never managed to get a big personality character like a “What’s Up With That?” host or a Debbie Downer. Instead, she was relegated to support roles and background characters, singing backup to one of Thompson’s musical characters or standing in as a famous Black woman. Zamata drew from her YouTube history for her most memorable sketch, “Dance Vlog,” which saw her play Janelle, a pre-teen expert in club dances like booty-bouncing and grinding. Guest host Chris Rock played Zamata’s father, who was eager to see what his daughter was doing online. It was a hilarious bit that could easily have been stretched out into a recurring character, but never was.

Zamata’s fellow SNL alum Leslie Jones is one of the biggest breakout stars in sketch comedy of the last decade. Jones’ tenure on the show began in the writers’ room, then saw her mostly play boisterous parodies of herself, sometimes flirting with Colin Jost on “Weekend Update,” other times falling awkwardly in love with Kyle Mooney in “Leslie And Kyle.” Audiences couldn’t get enough of Jones’ big heart and infectious laugh. Her 2019 sketch “UES” encapsulates both her rise—denoted by her new ritzy neighborhood— and how it remains a rarity among Black women. Jones recently announced that she’s leaving SNL; her future plans include a Netflix standup special and a Supermarket Sweep reboot. But Jones leaves a hard-to-fill void, and Ego Nwodim, a featured player, as the only Black woman in SNL’s lineup.

Of course, SNL isn’t the only space where Black women in comedy have sought glory. One of the most famous sketches on the classic program Chappelle’s Show was “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong: The Brenda Johnson Story.” If IMDB is to be believed, Brenda was Quincy Tyler Bernstein’s first role on television. She knocked it out of the park, but the offers did not come rolling in. She did guest spots and background roles for the next twenty years, before landing the dual role of Tameika Robinson and Tameika Washington on Starz’s Power.

The breakout stars of In Living Color, a show mostly produced and written by Black creators, were men. The list includes Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, Kenan Ivory Wayans, and of course Damon Wayans. The one female breakout star of the show was relegated to the chorus of “Fly Girls”—Jennifer Lopez was essentially a go-go dancer between sketches. While Black women played a huge role both on screen and off during In Living Color’s four-year run, they didn’t become household names, and many never saw the career heights of their male co-stars. Kim Wayans showed herself to be capable of a wide range of characters. Her most popular, Benita Butrell, wore rollers in her hair and acted as the neighborhood gossip, though she swore she was above such behavior. The character played out of a window and directly to the television audience, performing the scenes solo and more than holding her own. T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh is a name many are not familiar with, but has a face that has graced many Black iconic shows. Her time on In Living Color led her to Cosby and That’s So Raven. Her talent lies in her ability to portray hundreds of characters with sincerity and a hilarious vigor: From an exasperated diva to a worried West African housewife to a cranky old merchant, Keymáh had the range to fill out any scene.

With the mountain of embarrassment, overwork, and under-appreciation Black women face in sketch comedy, a show like A Black Lady Sketch Show provides an opportunity to showcase all the talent previously left behind. Along with cast members Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson, and Gabrielle Dennis, Thede crafts stories unique to the Black community and at the same time hold universal appeal. Employing seven writers, all Black women, the show exists as part of HBO’s new wave of minority specific shows, designed to bring in new audiences and highlight underserved voices. As part of WarnerMedia’s new initiative states, “WarnerMedia pledges to use our best efforts to ensure that diverse actors and crew members are considered for film, television and other projects, and to work with directors and producers who also seek to promote greater diversity and inclusion in our industry.” Shows like Los Espookys, Euphoria, and Insecure are changing the face of the network that had previously featured predominantly white-led shows.

But A Black Lady Sketch Show isn’t just checking a diversity box. It’s a space that allows for experimentation and growth, without having to stop and explain Black culture to a non-Black audience. Like Los Espookys, the show demands every viewer, prepared or not, get on board and discover the world at the show’s pace. In one of the best sketches of the season, “Gang Orientation, the writers combine a job orientation with elements of sorority life and Blood life. Using AKA Pink and a lighter shade of Blood red, the writers created a hilarious overzealous gang boss who sucks the joy out of meeting new people. In “Hertep,” Thede created her first iconic caricature—a take on unenlightened wannabe academics who believe that all Black people came from Egypt, Hertep wears African garb and dismisses her “slave name.” She believes any expression of whiteness should be stricken from Black culture. Thede is hilarious in the role, extending her pronunciation of words. In Hertep’s first appearance, Thede has no one to perform against; she basically monologues in a YouTube-style informative video. It’s a genius performance.

HBO recently renewed A Black Lady Sketch Show for a second season. The show wasn’t perfect in its first season; like most sketch comedy, even SNL, bits can be hit-or-miss. Sometimes a character will work in one scene and flop the next. But the initial talent on display—not just on screen, but the writing and directing (the entire first season was directed by Dime Davis)—gives great hope for what season two could hold. Knowing the history of Black women in sketch comedy, a season two seems almost like a miracle. Here’s hoping for more than four seasons, and dozens of breakout stars.

A contributor for Playboy and Hollywood Reporter Joelle writes about film, television, and comic books. A speaker, host, and avid podcaster her reviews have been featured on NPR, BBC1, and ET.