SINGAPORE — When Robin Thede is asked about the best piece of advice given to her, she says it came from fellow comedian Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show. “He told me that as a boss, you are not responsible for making people happy, your only job is to provide an environment where they can thrive.”
And in HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, this attitude is apparent because the entire cast — consisting of Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis, and Quinta Brunson — do thrive and put in some fantastic performances across a whole range of sketch characters.
Touted as the first sketch show that is produced, directed, and starring black women, A Black Lady Sketch Show is the product of Thede and co-producer Issa Rae. It has already garnered praise from critics for its incisive look at American society from a black female perspective, and for humour that transcends race, class or gender.
With such a project, it is inevitable that Thede feels some pressure, but says that she tries not to feel the weight of that pressure and that it’s “more of a responsibility to make a great show just in general”.
Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore sat down to talk to Thede on the phone to learn more about the process that goes on behind the scenes, and what hopes she has for future seasons.
The regular characters that appear on the show are fascinating. Are these characters based on people you know or encountered?
A lot of the characters are based on several people we know and we kind of take multiple elements of their personality and create one character. For example, Dr Hadassah is an amalgamation of several different characters that we know from television, social media, people, professors that I’ve had in the past. A character like Chris, who is a guy, is sort of a couple of different ex-boyfriends rolled into one.
How much of yourself do you put into those characters, and do you have a pet favourite character that you play?
The characters are usually so extreme that it’s not a lot of myself at all. I really like playing Chris. It’s fun just playing a guy because it’s so different obviously from who I am as a woman, but also just as a person, so that’s a lot of fun. The Dr Haddassah character is a lot of fun. She’s nothing like me personally, which I think is a good thing. She’s full of conspiracy theories and all sorts of strange things. I do impressions like Jackée Harry’s character Sandra from 227 which kind of an homage to a beloved character.
There’s not a lot of myself in my sketch characters, but in the interstitials which show four women living in a house after the world ends, some of that is a little bit more like my personality, but most of it is concocted in our writer’s room.
How much of what we see on television is scripted and how much of it is improvised?
There are certain characters like Dr Hadassah or a character named Jackie Woodton that’s coming up in episode five who has a fair amount of improvisation. For the most part it’s mostly scripted, and even the moments the you might think are improvised usually are scripted because we wanted to make sure that we had a high joke density through the show. But I think the great thing about our cast is that they make it feel like so much of it is improvised, which is great. And that says a lot for the writing as well.
I’ve watched a couple of clips and the jokes on the show are incredibly layered and complex. I kept coming back to them and laughing hours after I watched it. Could you share more about what the writing process of the show was like to produce something like that?
That makes me very happy to hear that, that was definitely our intention. It was important to us that we created characters that were layered and — especially as black women — who were three-dimensional and who had more than just a funny joke to say. All of our sketches had to work on multiple layers so that it wasn’t just a character saying a funny catchphrase. It was a character saying something that upon first hearing is funny, but upon second hearing is like, ”oh wait, she’s actually saying this”.
How did you come up with enough sketch ideas in every episode?
That is a credit to my team, my writers, and my head writer Lauren Ashley Smith and myself. We all wrote feverishly for about eight weeks, and we actually wrote hundreds of sketches, and in the show I think 45 or 46 make it to air.
We had an endless amount of ideas, primarily because the show has never been done in this way before with black women, we could tap into certain areas that had never been covered before on other sketch shows because they didn’t focus on black women in this way. We were never out of ideas, and we have lots more and hope to be able to continue for many seasons.
You’ve had some really hilarious guest stars, like Angela Bassett in the first episode. Will there be other big names coming on?
In the next few weeks we have Amber Riley coming on as well. We already had people on like Patti LaBelle, David Alan Grier, Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Kelly Rowland, and Gina Torres. Tia Mowry and Deon Cole are coming on in the next few weeks.
We have 40 or 50 guest stars in six episodes, and that’s an insane number of guest stars. We didn’t intend to do that, we just asked a lot of people and they all ended up saying yes because they were so excited about the project.
I was really pleased to see people like Laverne Cox and Bob the Drag Queen in the sketches. Was it a deliberate decision to try and be more inclusive?
Yeah it was really important to us. Laverne Cox is included as any other black woman would be on the show, and for us featuring LGBTQ folks like Bob the Drag Queen and Lena Waithe was important because for us it was important for our point of view to include people of all sorts of orientations on the show, and to say that you’re welcome here, and this is a safe space to come and have fun and to play in this arena. Other sketch shows may not have been so gracious or concerned with making that an important position.
I really like what you did what you did with Trinity the spy, and what it had to say about the erasure of plus-size black women in society. I think she’s a really great character. Will we see more of her?
Yeah, she’s so fantastic. Ashley Nicole Black, who plays her, also wrote that series, and it was important to me that we put the saga of her story up top in the beginning because that character is so relatable and I think people of all sizes, but especially darker, plus-sized women have often felt like they are ignored when they are standing right in front of people.
Amongst the cast, which one is your favourite one, the best one or the surprised one?
For the celebrities that came, Angela Bassett was the biggest surprise. We never thought we would be able to get her. And she said yes immediately, she was so game. She wanted to come and have a great time with all the ladies and she really poured herself into that character. I don’t remember hearing her curse like that before, so I was really excited that she was willing to play this really wild character. She’s known for being a dramatic actress but she was so in her element in comedy, so she was a big surprise for us.
Who would your dream guest star be?
I really want Beyonce. That would be amazing. I think everyone would love that. We had Kelly Rowland this year so maybe we can get Beyonce if we have season two.
What was the most difficult thing about the production?
The most difficult thing is because I’m also the showrunner, so I’m also the boss of the whole show and I manage all the departments. So the most difficult thing for me was doing that job and also starring in the show. I was making high level decisions while I was also trying to play characters on the show and memorise my lines. That was the most difficult for me personally, but overall making the show was a dream. It was just a lot of work.
In the show, the interstitials show four friends who are hanging out when the world ends. Subsequently they are only talking about actors or beauty products. Why did you go this route instead of having them panic and behave as they would like in post-apocalyptic movies?
We’re only showing them in the span of 12 hours after the big event. So in the first episode it’s at the end of the day, but in the other episodes we go back to the beginning of the day and work our way back. We wanted to show the devolution of their minds, so that you watch them trying to have regular conversations even though the world has just ended, but as the day goes on they start fighting and getting more angry and start to realise that the world has ended. By the end they start to deal with the shock of what’s going on.
Have you reached your goal in creating this sketch show, and what is the next step?
This was a dream of mine for the last two decades, and it was something I really wanted to do given my history in sketch comedy. To create an all-black women sketch show was really important for me because I don’t think we’ve been able to be represented in American sketch comedy in that way, and it was important for me to show the world that we could do this and that we are forces of comedy just like men are.
I want to continue to make projects that are authentic to our points of view in comedy, I think it’s important that we’re able to play characters that break people’s stereotypes or pre-judgements about what we can do. I’ll continue to push those boundaries in all the work that I do.
Is there any subject you won’t touch as a comedian?
Nope. [Laughs] My rule is that anything can be funny as long as it’s well written, but I think my other rule is that I don’t like to punch down, which for me means I don’t like to make fun of people who are helpless or make fun of something people can’t help. I don’t think it’s funny to make fun about someone being short or fat or tall, those are just things that just are. But you can make fun of someone for making a silly remark or having a silly opinion.
I try to really do comedy that isn’t mean and doesn’t punch down, but other than that, there’s really nothing that’s off limits. I think you can talk about most anything as long as you do it in a smart and thoughtful way. I think where comedians get into trouble is when they try to go into taboo subjects, but they don’t do it in a way that’s productive or do it in a way that’s mean.
Which female comedian did you relate to most, and made you want to be a comedian yourself?
When I was a kid, Whoopi Goldberg was the first black woman I saw on a sketch show, and she was just so pivotal when I was growing up, and continues to be an icon to this day. She was the first black woman I saw who just really made me laugh, and I continue to be in awe of her to this day.
Is Whoopi coming on the show?
No, I wish, she sent her love, but she was in New York working on The View, but hopefully we can try to get her if we get a second season.
What do you hope audiences around the world take away with them when they watch this show?
I’m not sure how black women are perceived outside of America, I’m sure it’s different everywhere, but I think that the image of black women that’s projected on American television is often very one-dimensional, very one-note. They’re always the very loud kind of eye-rolling black woman, and I think what I hope internationally and domestically, that people take from the show is that we can be so much more, and that comedy is universal.
It really warms my heart to hear you say that “I really love this character”, or “this character made me laugh”. That’s the point, we want to have appeal around the globe to be able to showcase the real talent of the women on the show.
A Black Lady Sketch Show is available on HBO GO on Saturdays at 11am.