On the Set of ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’: How Robin Thede and Co. Manufactured a Well-Oiled Laugh Machine
It’s late March and “A Black Lady Sketch Show” creator and star Robin Thede is working with the show’s editors to put the finishing touches on Season 4 of the half-hour HBO comedy.
“First season,” she tells Variety, “I was like, I want every third line to be a joke. Second season, every other line. Now, literally every line is a joke, even the setups to the punchlines. It’s crazy.”
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With sketches that riff on relatable themes — like hair woes, ashy skin and the politics of the Black church — “A Black Lady Sketch Show” frames the world from a Black woman’s point of view. Even when the subject matter has nothing to do with Blackness, the show’s existence is impactful, a sentiment Whoopi Goldberg underlined during a recent episode of “The View.”
“You have invited an entire room of Black women to write comedy. This is unheard of,” Goldberg told Thede, who’d been inspired to pursue a career in comedy after watching Goldberg perform in the 1980s. “There are not rooms full of white women writing comedy. So this is a huge thing.”
Goldberg’s praise put a final stamp of approval on a theme Thede had begun to recognize while working on Season 4. “It’s about expansion of the ‘Black Lady’ universe,” Thede says. “It feels like we’re in an era of self-creation — of defining what this universe can be, and removing any limitations that we may have had.”
However limiting the landscape was for Black women in comedy before “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” Thede and her crew have sent the pendulum swinging in the other direction, with the first three seasons earning 13 Emmy nominations — among them three wins, including back-to-back trophies for its editing staff. And in 2022, Bridget Stokes became the first Black woman to win for directing a variety series.
“I want it to be an institution,” Thede says. “We’re building alumni that go on and work everywhere, not just in front of the camera. All these people behind the camera leave with Emmy nominations or wins.”
The empire-building has already begun. Former cast member Quinta Brunson went on to create and star in the megahit series “Abbott Elementary,” while Ashley Nicole Black won an Emmy as a producer on “Ted Lasso.” It starts, Thede believes, with fostering an inclusive culture behind the scenes. “I always wanted to create the type of set that I want to be on as a performer — one that embraces me, that celebrates all our body shapes, our personalities, everything that we bring. The show is more than what I could have dreamed.”
Last December, Thede was fighting back the giggles on set.
It was just after noon, and the Coral Reefs, an all-women “gang” clad head to toe in ballerina pink, were talking about their return to work after a couple years of pandemic “tele-banging.” Three cameras rolled while Thede and her castmates welcomed the crew’s new “gang sign language interpreter” and rattled off office-related jokes. “One more reply all from you, and I’m going to unsubscribe you from life,” the gang leader warned a comrade before critiquing another for turning up on the job with her pink Dickies wrinkled. The excuse: Her iron stopped “packing heat.”
It’s the type of culturally specific joke-writing that makes “A Black Lady Sketch Show” distinctive, and the sketch features the show’s full ensemble: Core cast members Thede, Gabrielle Dennis and Skye Townsend lead the action, joined by featured players DaMya Gurley, Tamara Jade and Angel Laketa Moore, plus guest stars Issa Rae (also an executive producer) and Tracee Ellis Ross. Take after take, the troupe toggles between the script and “fun runs,” where they show off their improv skills.
During one such run, Rae improvs a line but cracks up before she finishes. “Please do that again,” Thede says, “but don’t laugh.” Now she’s laughing, too, and when Ross marches onto set as the lavender-clad leader of a rival crew, the workplace turf war really begins to pop.
Pour one out for the employees who reply-all. 🍺 You know who you are.
All four seasons of #ABlackLadySketchShow are now streaming on @hbomax. #ABLSS pic.twitter.com/oE76YeqMqT
— A Black Lady Sketch Show (@BlackLadySketch) May 20, 2023
Emmy-winning editor Stephanie Filo sits next to me at video village, silently jotting down time codes for lines that made her chuckle. As often as they can, one of the show’s editors is on set watching the sketch play out so they have a greater sense of what felt funny in the moment when they get back to the edit bays. It expedites the post-production process, given that the team turns around an edited sketch every two to three days.
Variety was the first magazine invited behind-the-scenes of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” where a wrap day tradition was witnessed: For the crew’s lunch break, Thede brings in a DJ to amplify the celebratory mood. (The DJ spun Beyoncé’s “Renaissance,” delaying the restart of production for a few minutes while everyone twerked to “Break My Soul”).
Between setups, Thede gives a tour of the intricately designed set, pointing out Easter eggs hidden in the background. Super fans will recognize the logo for Millstone — the mysterious company connected to Thede’s zany recurring character, Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, Pre-PhD — which has popped up in dozens of sketches throughout the series.
Production designer Cindy Chao says finding secret places to hide those references is the most fun part of the job. “Not only does it tie all the seasons together, but it also gives the actors and Robin a surprise, because sometimes they don’t even know what we’re going to be putting in.” (Thede’s favorite Easter egg this season is in the background of the “Bridgerton”-inspired “Frock of Shit” sketch: “It’s out of focus, but it’s a hand-painted portrait of me from the 2021 Emmys with a little Welsh corgi. The amount of detail is insane.”)
Michele Yu, who makes up the other half of the Emmy-nominated production design team, adds that part of what makes “A Black Lady Sketch Show” so unique is Thede’s “visionary” approach to world-building on screen.
“Other shows have the benefit of years, sometimes decades of content, but they haven’t built worlds,” Yu explains. Sketch comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live,” “Mad TV” and “In Living Color” have signature sketches, but Thede is building a broader mythology. “They have built styles that you can recognize, but Robin is trying to create a holistic story where core characters cross. It’s not something we’ve encountered before.”
For nearly nine hours, Stokes conducts a comedic symphony, finding a way to capture each throwaway line or goofy facial expression that might make the sketch funnier. “The bar has been raised,” Stokes says in between takes. “The comedy is really singing. Honestly, the hardest part is not cracking up behind the camera.”
Planning a new season takes up most of Thede’s year: the writers room (with co-head writers Chloe Hilliard and Monique Moses) kicked off in June 2022, with production getting underway in October. The crew filmed six episodes in 30 days, their fastest shoot yet.
As showrunner, writer and executive producer, Thede is involved in all phases of the production, giving the series a singular vision.
“The same person can answer all the questions, and you’re going to get the same answers,” Thede says. “It’s what Michaela Coel does. It’s what Issa Rae does. It’s important that you’re at every step, because you don’t want the tone to shift.”
And she pays attention to every little detail. For example, this season, the show switched cameras from the Alexa Mini to the Sony Venice. Why? “It gave us a little bit more latitude with lighting,” she explains. “I can geek out about the tech stuff all day. My favorite person on set is the gaffer.”
Staying geeky, Thede explains how a team of four hairstylists, led by department head Shavonne Brown, created more than 200 hand-sewn wigs and hair-pieces this season, including a rainbow-colored design modeled after Cardi B, where each waist-length layer of hair was dyed individually. “Only Beyoncé gets this kind of wig work!” she says.
The same care went into costumes, the majority of which were built or created by a 11-person department of costumers, shoppers and a seamstress. Under the leadership of costume designer Michelle Collins, the team ensures that every fit is perfect for the cast, background performers and more than 20 guest stars, including Rae, Ross, Omarion, Kyla Pratt, Jay Ellis, Sam Richardson, DJ D-Nice, Jackée Harry and Colman Domingo, who appears as Dr. Haddassah’s latest guest on “Black Table Talk.”
Likewise, the purview of Jacqueline Knowlton’s makeup department goes far beyond a perfectly executed lip and lash, but also includes customizing nail art, transferring the Coral Reefs’ face and neck tattoos, as well as applying the beards that transform the cast into male characters.
“They push themselves so hard. And it’s not like they’re given unlimited funds. We’re still a sketch show at the end of the day,” Thede says. “There are shows that are twice as expensive as ours that don’t look anywhere near as cinematic.”
Because Thede has such a clear vision and yet gives the below-the-line departments leeway to execute their ideas, the set runs like a well-oiled laugh machine.
“The family vibe fosters collaboration among departments,” Stokes says. “We can all weigh in, and the best idea will win.”
Thede recently ran into a couple of past guest stars — “Hashtag Booked” duo Danielle Pinnock (“Ghosts”) and LaNisa Frederick — who delivered what she considers to be the best compliment. “‘Being on that set changed the way I look at myself and my expectations for any other set that I’m on,’” Thede says they told her. “They’re like, ‘If I’m not treated as well as I was treated over there, then I’m not having it.’ I think that’s so cool.”
The key to building a successful “Black Lady” universe, Thede has found, is being at the center of it without being the center of it — and allowing everyone to shine.
“It’s real, mutual love and respect that creates the opportunity to do your best work,” she says. “We just have a good time. It can be a big, unwieldy beast at points, but I think because our machine is in such good order, no one person feels overwhelmed.”
“Except,” she adds with a laugh, “for me.”
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