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Robin Thede looks to build legacy in HBO comedy sketch show

Jonathan Landrum Sr./Associated Press | 9/6/2019, 6 a.m.
Robin Thede knew plenty of talented African-American female comedians, but only a few were getting hired on popular TV comedy ...
Robin Thede

Robin Thede knew plenty of talented African-American female comedians, but only a few were getting hired on popular TV comedy shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV.”

So Ms. Thede decided to create her own show featuring some of the industry’s funniest black women. The comic-writer-producer-actress is breaking new ground with her HBO comedy series “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which airs Friday nights.

The six-episode series offers sketches written and performed by an all-black female cast. It stars Ms. Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Quinta Brunson. Guests, mostly black women, include Angela Bassett, Kelly Rowland, Marsai Martin, Lena Waithe, Patti LaBelle and Natasha Rothwell.

“It’s a culmination of a lifelong passion for sketch,” said Ms. Thede, a co-producer of the series with Issa Rae, who also makes an appearance. “When black women do get on sketch shows, we really stand out. But there are only a handful of black women who have ever been on sketch shows. Why not stack the deck and put them on all at once on one show?”

Between each sketch, the four ladies huddle up inside an apartment after a mysterious apocalypse wiped out the rest of civilization. The cast plays more than 100 different characters in sketches exploring a variety of comedic story lines. There’s an invisible plus-size black woman spy, for example, and sketches about ashy skin and unexpected marriage proposals.

That type of variety is the point, Ms. Thede said.

“I wanted to do a show that was challenging the views of black women in comedy for a lot of people and showing we can do anything. We can play men, women, aliens or whatever we want. It’s all sorts of genres, styles and characters in this show,” she said. “We’ve never seen black women like this before. ... In a way, this show is a love letter to black women.”

Ms. Thede became the first female, African-American head writer of a late-night talk show in 2015, with “The Nightly Show with Larry Whitmore.” She created and executive produced BET’s late-night comedy series “The Rundown with Robin Thede,” which was canceled after one season.

Shortly after that, Ms. Thede pitched the idea for “A Black Lady Sketch Show” to HBO. She said the network bought it “within minutes” after a dinner with her, Ms. Rae and executives.

“I never shot a pilot,” she said, adding that the network’s quick approval showed “how confident they were in me, the idea and the partnership between me and Issa. It’s one of those ideas that when people hear it, they go, ‘Yeah, of course. Why not?’ It feels like something we’ve been missing.”

Ms. Thede said Ms. Black, Ms. Dennis and Ms. Brunson were “no-brainer” choices. They didn’t audition for the roles, she said, because she already knew “what they brought to the table.”

Ms. Dennis was a stand-up comedian early in her career before she starred in Netflix’s Marvel’s “Luke Cage” and as Whitney Houston in the BET miniseries “The Bobby Brown Story.”