There’s No Room For Limitations On ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’

Robin Thede promises Season 4 of the Emmy Award-winning show will be bigger than ever.

Robin Thede is feeling herself. And for good reason.

The show that she created, “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” is thriving in its fourth season and just as importantly, the Black women who have worked on this oasis of a show are in their bag.

“For me, Season 4 is legacy building,” Thede told HuffPost. “That’s what I keep saying is we’re creating this world, this legacy where all these people in front of and behind the camera get to thrive, just get to thrive and get to leave better than when they came.”

When Thede created this show in 2019, she knew she wanted to make Black women feel seen in sketch comedy in ways that the industry often fails to do. As the first Black woman to become a head writer on a late night show, Thede was fed up with Hollywood trying to place Black women in a box. When executive producer Issa Rae called Thede after the cancellation of BET’s “The Rundown With Robin Thede,” the 43-year-old took her show to HBO and within nine months it was on the air.

“I couldn’t have told you 4 1/2 years later that we would have 13 Emmy nominations and three wins,” she said. “I never would’ve thought that. I just wanted to make that thing that was in my heart since I was a kid.”

The narrative sketch show — based on a magical world but grounded in reality — has boasted cast members “Abbott Elementary” star Quinta Brunson and “Ted Lasso” producer Ashley Nicole Black in previous seasons. It also has had a bevy of heavy-hitting guest performances from Angela Bassett, Yvette Nicole Brown, Kyla Pratt, David Alan Grier, Jackée Harry, and Bob the Drag Queen, among many others.

The new season, which premiered on April 14, stars series veterans Thede, Gabrielle Dennis and Skye Townsend as well as “Black Lady” newcomers DaMya Gurley, Tamara Jade and Angel Laketa Moore. And Season 4 guests include Tracee Ellis Ross, Colman Domingo and Jay Ellis. Fresh off another Emmy nomination, Thede wants everyone, Hollywood especially, to know that her show is a reminder to stop placing limitations on Black women — on screen and off.

Thede prides herself on making sure her team remembers that and leans into expansiveness ― with the show and bragging on their talents. She wants Black women everywhere to feel that same energy.

“I’m done with humility. I don’t know her. We don’t do that. Black women are the most educated group in this country, and yet we are the most humble. We downplay everything,” she said. “We’ll be a CEO of a company and be like, ‘Oh, it’s not that big of a deal.’ Yes, it is. Brag on your shit and tell people when they tell you, ‘Congratulations, you’re great,’ ― say, ‘I know. Thank you.’ Let’s be kind to ourselves and let’s celebrate ourselves.”

For “I Run This,” Thede discusses the power of an all-Black women writer’s room, what her Black lady support system means to her and the bittersweetness of being “the first.”

Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photo: Getty

Tell me about your own personal journey. What is the same and what is different from when you started Season 1 to now?

I don’t think I could have ever imagined how much the show would become its own thing. I always had this dream, because I’ve done so many sketch shows for other people, whether it’s writing or starring in them, and it was just kind of like I’ve learned so much from these great people, now it’s time for me to apply that.

I think I was thinking about that on a real kind of micro level, and I didn’t anticipate how much a show would mean to Black women everywhere. I was in Paris and a woman stopped me and was like, “I love your show.” I didn’t even know we aired it in Paris, but we aired all around the world. We aired in 30 countries, which is crazy to me that we can bring that Black womaness to every part of the globe. It’s really dope to me. I couldn’t have imagined that in Season 1. I think the reach and the span of the show, the bigness of the show, I couldn’t have anticipated.

Speaking about expansiveness, I think about how beautiful and important a tool such as imagination is, and how your show is really a prime example of that, especially with the premise being “Black woman living grounded experiences in a magical reality.” What is the importance for you personally and professionally to be able to stretch your imagination and use it in this way for us on a global stage, especially for other Black women around the world to see?

Imagination is key to making a show like this. Without imagination, you cannot imagine all of the crazy characters in the world we’ve created. There’s also a story within a story. Anybody who has watched a show knows that our interstitial storyline is a show in and of itself. So I think that the level of creativity, the level of imagination that goes into a show like this is unmatched.

What we’ve realized is that we get to tap into our imaginations more than we ever have been asked to do on any other shows. And it’s really limitless what we found that can be. I think we’re still discovering just tiny corners of this Black lady cinematic universe. It just gives it unlimited life and at the same time, we want to leave these grounded experiences, but in that magical reality. Even as big and as crazy as the sketches get, we always want to have one foot on the ground so that people watching can say, “Oh, I relate to this. Me and my girls talk about this. That’s dope that they took it to a crazy level, but I get it.” We don’t want it to be so far removed that you don’t have any sort of relationship to the narrative or the characters.

You have an all-Black women writer’s room and that should be celebrated, but it also shouldn’t be an anomaly, especially because there are all-white male writing rooms out there, and we don’t bat an eye. Talk to me about the energy in your writing rooms and how it feels when you walk in and see this variety of women who look like you, that come from different experiences and backgrounds and all that.

The writer’s room is all-Black women, but it’s the most diverse room I’ve ever been in every year, even with new writers. We work really hard to get Black women who have different experiences, who grew up in different places, who came from money, who didn’t come from money, and everything in between. Because for me, it was important to show the world that on “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” you’re going to get so many different types of Black ladies that your opinion, your idea of what Black women can be is going to expand, because we’re going to show you so many different things. That starts in the writer’s room, and that’s where we really get to start to incubate those ideas and explore those characters that remind us of our mom, our aunties, but also surprise us. And it’s like, “Wow, I never knew a Black woman like that.” So I think we even get to learn more about ourselves as well.

Thede's Dr. Haddassah has become a fan favorite on the show.
Thede's Dr. Haddassah has become a fan favorite on the show.
Tina Thorpe/HBO

How do ideas become sketches?

My writers come in with 100 ideas on day one. We write the show pretty quick, in only a couple of months. It’s not like we have a year to sit there and come up with sketches. They got to come in ready on day one, and I do, too. The ideas always need to have a beginning, middle, and an end so we know where we’re going because it is a narrative sketch show. So it’s not about just doing one joke over and over, for the most part we still have to have a story that we’re telling because it’s HBO, and I wanted it to be cinematic and narrative. And I want you to tune in for the stories, and I want you to be invested in the characters, and I want you to say, “Oh, my God my favorite character is back!” I want people to say that and tune in for that.

So what we have to do is really beat that out in the room together. We’ll say, “OK, I have an idea where a bunch of Black ladies come into a courtroom and they realize that everyone working there is Black, and then they try to be professional, but they can’t because they’re so excited that it’s all-Black ladies in a courtroom.” That was actually Ashley Nicole Black’s idea in the first season. And I was like, “Great, go write that.” That made full sense to me.

But then some of them, like the Roman Julissa sketch from Season 1, which took kind of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj stans and made them the Caplets and the Montagues, it was something that I had an idea of, but I wasn’t sure quite how to execute it. So in the room, we kind of all workshop that more together. Some of the ideas come in pitch perfect, and we go write them. Sometimes I’ll just write sketches and not even tell the writers, and then we’ll just read them in our internal table read out loud, and they’ll just be surprised by them. But then other times we work for days and days and really try to mold something to get it right. I think there’s a variety of ways that the process goes, but it all starts with preparation and the writers, because we only have six writers, and then we have writer producers on top of that. We don’t have as many as people think. So it’s a lot of work on them. It’s fun, but it’s hard. So I’m really glad to see them getting the recognition that they have because they work so hard.

It took everything in me not to start singing “Black lady courtroom!”

Black lady courtroom, Black lady courtroom! But that’s the point. We want that in your ear. We want to say, “See, see, see,” [and] we want you to say, “What about three?” We want you to say all these things because we want you to take these characters with you in your life and bring that joy outside of those 30 minutes. I love when people take our lexicon and use it in their everyday lives because that’s what it’s for.

The show is that, and when you were asking me about how the show has changed from Season 1 to Season 4, for me, it’s like, “Oh, the show is not mine anymore. It’s become y’all’s.” And that’s the point. It should be, you should have it. You should use it the way you want to use it. You should manipulate these characters the way you want to, you should use these phrases, these jokes, these sketches as joy in your life. I think that’s what’s dope, too.

I want to talk specifically to your Black lady support system in the community that surrounds you. What has that meant for you to be able to not only have this Black lady support system show up for you, but also be able to do that for others coming up?

That’s the joy of doing this show, is that I am not only supporting Black women, but they’re also supporting me. It’s a two-way street, and we can’t do it without each other. I cannot make this show by myself. I am heading it. It is my point of view in a large set of ways, but it’s also the writer’s point of view, and I don’t determine every sketch ― if a sketch is funny, it’s funny and it gets on.

My actors also, my cast, Gabrielle Skye, our former cast members, Ashley and Quinta [Brunson] and Laci [Mosley], our new cast members, DaMya [Gurley], Tamara [Jade], Angel [Laketa Moore]. There’s so many Black women that get to come away with such a rich experience in front of the camera and then behind the camera. We have dozens of writers who have come through this show in four seasons, and it’s so dope to also see Black women in the camera department, in the sound department, hair, makeup, wardrobe, costumes. Because those women are working at the highest level on HBO, on an Emmy award-winning series.

Our directors Dime Davis, Bridget Murphy Stokes, so many great directors. We’ve had a few others, Brittany Scott Smith and Lacy Duke, all these amazing directors who have come through and really now been Emmy-nominated and Emmy-winning. Our Black lady editors who have won two times in a row. And to see all of that excellence around. And the coolest thing to me is the industry cannot say we’re not out here working at the highest level. And I know they love it because they come and poach all of my crew and my cast when we’re not shooting, which is great. They need to work all year. But it is like, yeah, I found these people, but you can find them too. We’re all here. We’ve been here, we’re doing the work.

And then from our guest stars, people like Angela Bassett, that was the first guest star we ever booked. And she said, “I’m doing it because no one asked me to do comedy, and you trusted me to do it.” All I had to do was create the space and people feel it. These Black women feel it, these women of color. We have an all-Asian and Latinx production team, art design team, set designers. There’s so many people working at such a high level.

Wow. I also can’t imagine someone not trusting Angela Bassett to do anything.

Why would you put any limitations? She’s one of the greatest actors of our time. But that’s messed up about this business. They can’t see beyond what’s in front of their faces, and they don’t look for talent in places that they’re supposed to. So that’s my biggest message to the industry all the time: “We’re here. If you’re not seeing us, that’s your fault. Because we’ve been here, we’ve been doing this.” And the fact that you couldn’t even see Angela Bassett being funny is crazy to me. I just don’t understand people’s limitations creatively. So I’m here to show people that it’s all right there.

Gabrielle Dennis and Robin Thede in "A Black Lady Sketch Show."
Gabrielle Dennis and Robin Thede in "A Black Lady Sketch Show."
Tina Thorpe/HBO

I know that’s right.

I have to fight for it. I have to fight for it on other shows I work on and on people that come to me, and they’re like, “How do I get more Black people on my show?” And I’ll send them names, but I’ll also teach them how to meet them, where to meet them, how to get recommendations. But I’ll also tell them, “If you’re going to hire Black people on a show, you need to be hiring them to work authentically for who they are in their point of view. Don’t just be like, ‘Oh, we’ll only talk to you when the Black character has a line.’” No. First of all, we were raised in a white immersion program called America, so we know about everything. We know about everything.

If you don’t create an environment where we feel comfortable working, you’re not going to be able to hire us. When you can come work on “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” why would you go anywhere and be somewhere where you’re not valued? So I think that’s what I’m helping, too. These women leave my show, and they’re teaching other shows how to treat them. Because they’re like, “Oh, on ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ they would never do that to me.” So they have a higher sense of self and a higher sense of confidence when they go other places.

How did late night prepare you for “A Black Lady Sketch Show”?

Because I was making content every day. So on “The Nightly Show” and “The Queen Latifah Show,” we were shooting an episode at least a day and producing it in real time. So it just made me a better writer, better producer ― you got to be fast, a better performer. You have to be ready to jump on at any point.

On “The Nightly Show,” we had a segment fall through at the last minute. I think a guest fell out due to an emergency, and Larry Wilmore was like, “Write up that Black Lady sign language thing you’ve been doing.” And it was one of the biggest things I ever did on “The Nightly Show.” I had 45 minutes to do it and get in hair and makeup and get on stage; it was that fast. I think for me, with this show, I have 10 months to prepare between writing, prep, production, editing before the world sees it. So that feels like a glacial pace to me. It’s not, it’s still pretty fast, but for me, it’s the ability to move quickly, to improvise quickly, to be great without a lot of preparation, because I’ve spent my life doing the preparation.

First Black woman to be a head writer in late night, first Black woman to have a sketch show dedicated to Black women, there are so many firsts and so many things that you hold, but I’m wondering how important is that to you?

I don’t like being a first. I think it’s wack that I’m [the] first in this day and age, it’s not like it’s 1892. I hate being the first because I hate that for the business. I should not have been the first. There’s so many talented women before me who could definitely be doing this better than I could, but I don’t take it lightly at the same time. Although it’s bittersweet, that’s the bitter part. The sweet part is that means I can hire the second. I can bring in the third. I can mentor the fourth. That’s important to me. And I did that. I brought in the second Black head writer in late night. I hired the first Black woman head writer under me after I created the show.

And I continued to do that. I hired the third, I hired the fourth, I hired the fifth. That’s what I think is so cool, because I can create those lanes that weren’t there for me when I started. And although I’m exceedingly young, I can be a role model for all the girls coming up, and that’s cool. That’s really cool. But I also get to work with them 1-on-1. I get to bring them in and say, “All right, I’m going to teach you how to do this, let’s go.”

It’s my honor, but a badge of shame for the industry. But the good thing is I’m not the first in any of those things anymore, and that’s what’s dope. All I do is open the door, and they have to step in and do the work. Because Larry Wilmore did that for me, because Queen Latifa looked out for me in daytime, Larry Wilmore and John Stewart in late night, and Chris Rock who is executive producer of my show ― all those people paved the way for me, so who would I be not to do that as well. And I’m so happy I get to do that for Black women.

The show added Angel Laketa Moore, Tamara Jade and DaMya Gurley to the cast for Season 4.
The show added Angel Laketa Moore, Tamara Jade and DaMya Gurley to the cast for Season 4.
Tina Thorpe/HBO

You’re developing a new show for HBO, “Disengagement.” What should we expect with that?

It’s about a Midwest Black family whose dysfunction has dysfunction. The adult kids are kind of living back at home and the family business implodes, and they have to kind of pick up the pieces. But the problem is they show that family is an emotional pyramid scheme and they’re constantly manipulating each other. It’s kind of the vibes of “Arrested Development.” Definitely hard comedy, but I’m just excited to be able to show a Black family in the Midwest. We never really get to see that. I’m excited to explore that and hear Black people say the word “pop” instead of “soda.”

And create kind of a new normal in Black family, mostly adult characters. Because we obviously all had “The Cosby Show” and stuff like that, but this is more of an adult comedy, and I think we’ll get to explore the ways that we do emotional blackmail a little differently in Black families. And look, I’m not airing dirty laundry, but I do think that it’s important for us to have these discussions about Black family and what we do to each other for good and for bad, and explore that through comedy. So it’s not going to be heavy, but it may help you feel like, “Finally, I’m not the only one that has that aunt that calls me fat every time I show up for Christmas dinner, unprovoked.” And so I think that’s going to be a lot of fun for a lot of people. I’m really excited about it.

You still have so much more to do, but what do you want your legacy to be?

I want my legacy to be the people I serve. I want the legacy to be the people I’ve mentored, the people that will go on to hire me one day. I want my legacy to be “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” I want my legacy to be that I created opportunities for those who went on to surpass anything I could possibly do. That’s what I want my legacy to be.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

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