Robin Thede Teases ‘Epic’ Return of ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ on Variety’s ‘Through Our Lens’

Over the last two decades, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” creator and star Robin Thede has broken down barrier after barrier for Black women in comedy, culminating with her Emmy-winning HBO sketch comedy series that epitomizes the phrase “for us, by us.”

At the center of the show’s success is its particular Black lady perspective. Cast members Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Skye Townsend riff on relatable themes, like ashy skin, hair woes and the politics of the Black church, and present them with a healthy helping of Black lady joy.

“We value authenticity above anything else, and we know that calling something ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show,’ it’s got to feel authentic to Black ladies,” Thede tells Variety, sitting down to discuss the series and its road to the screen.

This special “Through Our Lens” interview shines the spotlight on creatives who’ve embraced their unique life experiences and used their cultural and ethnic backgrounds to shape some of the most striking and original narratives in entertainment today.

“We really try to create grounded experiences for Black women, but in this magical reality where anything can happen — where [recurring character] Dr. Hadassah can create a ‘Red Table Talk’ type of show with Gabrielle Union, or we can be aliens or we can be otherworldly beings or murderers or priests,” Thede adds.

Most important, though, is the opportunity to “play all of these things without it being filtered through someone else’s lens.”

It all starts in the writers room, where Thede has assembled a group of Black women to pen sketches from their personal experiences and points of view. In fact, the show is staffed front to back with people of color — including a series of Black women directors to helm the show, Black women in the hair, makeup and wardrobe trailers to ensure the wigs and weaves have the flair they deserve, and an Emmy-winning troupe of Black women editors to sharpen it all into focus. The diversity behind the scenes (which also includes Black men and other people of color on staff) has helped the show carve a profoundly different path in the otherwise white, male-dominated sketch world.

As creator, executive producer, writer and showrunner of “ABLSS,” Thede is the driver of a cultural revolution in comedy, putting Black women at the forefront. But her road to this point has been a lifetime in the making.

Thede adopted comedy as a superpower when she was a young girl. “I started making people laugh pretty early, and I liked that. I was shy as a kid. I had a stutter. I didn’t talk till I was like four years old, not one word,” she jokes. “And, I know, I’m making up for it now.”

Growing up in an Iowa trailer park, Thede’s family didn’t have much, so she used her comedic gift to perk everyone up when times got tough.

“If my parents were down, or they were struggling financially, or we didn’t have enough to eat, I knew I could make them laugh,” she recalls. “Then I started writing and shooting sketches on an old broken video camera we got from the Goodwill.”

Her childhood scene partners were her sisters — joining her in parodies of “Ricki Lake” or “Jerry Springer” that they’d edit using two VCRs connected together. It was all about making comedy that they wanted to see about things that they could relate to, which Thede continues to do today, just with a much bigger budget.

She went to college at Northwestern University, then was scouted by Chicago’s Second City soon after and what followed was a professional comedy career that has spanned 20 years.

Thede has worked with best in the biz — writing for comics including Mike Epps, Kevin Hart and Anthony Anderson. She was the first Black woman to serve as head writer on a late-night talk show with “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” plus she was lead writer at the 2016 White House Correspondents Dinner. And she’s learned plenty of important lessons along the way.

“[Larry] was a great help to me. Jon Stewart was a great help. Chris Rock, Queen Latifah,“ she recounts. “So many people have been have poured into me over the years, whom I’ve worked with and worked for, and I just soaked up everything that they told me.”

Those experiences helped Thede land her own late-night show “The Rundown,” which led to “ABLSS” landing at HBO with a straight-to-series pickup. The creator is likewise inspired by her peers like “ABLSS” executive producer Issa Rae, who has changed the perception of everyday Black folks through “Insecure,” or former “ABLSS” cast member Quinta Brunson’s work on “Abbott Elementary.” But it was a recent episode of Misha Green’s “Lovecraft Country” that Thede says changed her life.

“If there was a logline for the episode, it was that the character realizes she can define who she is for herself,” Thede says, referencing episode 7 of the series, titled “I Am,” which focuses on Hippolyta Freeman’s (Aunjanue Ellis) journey through time as she uncovers just how powerful she is.

“That seems very simple. But to me as a Black woman, I was never told that,” she reveals. “I mean, my mother said you can be who you want to be, right? But it’s telling her, no, you define who you are. You aren’t defined by what people tell you you can do…You get to say, ‘This is my name, this is who I am, this is what I do.’ It took all the limits off, and I just bawled.”

Thede describes the episode and its scenes as “revolutionary.” Watching it reminded her, though she’s worked very hard to get to this point, that “I’m not my career, I am a whole person. And defining who I am as Robin is really cool. And I think that’s a privilege that [Black women] are not really afforded.”

She explains: “So much of our lives is spent with people telling us who we are and what we can be and what we can do. And they tell us by shutting the doors; they tell us by lack of access. They tell us by lack of resources. They tell us by not sharing salary information. They tell us by not making clothes that fit our bodies. They tell us by not having hair products in the drugstore that work for us. They tell us by not having hospitals and fresh food in our communities. I can go on and on and on. I mean that’s how they tell us who we are. And so to think about this way that we can define who we are without the eye of the oppressor … in the allegorical way. The oppressor is the system.”

As such, Thede has made it her mission to buck against definition and stereotypes and create an environment where everyone can bring their full selves to the screen and behind the scenes of “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” And by creating a platform for others, the benefits boomerang right back to her.

“I try to be a showrunner that is empathetic and teachable. I cannot be the only one with all the answers. I trust people who I hire to be the best they can,” she says. “I tell them that you were underestimated everywhere else you were, and that’s not going to happen here. And they live up to their potential and beyond. I’ve watched it happen every day — people who didn’t think they could do something excel at a massively high rate. And it’s because I’m not telling them who they are or what they can do. I’m saying, ‘Just go, shine, be the thing. And if you need help, we’re here.’”

Ahead of the launch of season 3, which begins airing on Friday, April 8, Thede sums up what’s to come when the show returns. “I’ll give you one word — epic,” she teases. “It’s huge; you’ll see from the moment the first sketch starts, it is an event.”

After producing two seasons of the sketch show amid the pandemic, Thede and her team have gotten creative in finding ways to make the show “bigger and better” than ever.

“We have over 40 celebrity guest stars. We have humongous set pieces, stunts, choreography, original music, it’s just jam packed,” she notes.

The season is again comprised of just six episodes, and to assuage the concerns of fans “dragging” Thede in her mentions about its short length, she promises that these episodes are very dense.

“You’re going to get the most sketches you ever gotten,” she explains. “We’re going to stretch that half hour within an inch of its life.”

Watch the full interview above.

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