Reality TV

A Black Lady Roundtable: Making a Sketch Show About Black Joy During a Pandemic

Everything was going according to plan for A Black Lady Sketch Show at the end of 2019. Fresh off an Emmy-nominated first season that spawned a bevy of viral moments—like “No Makeup” and “Bad Bitch Support Group”—the cast and crew of the HBO series were ready to get back to creating comedy about Black women, starring Black women. Then 2020 happened. The show “became this sort of phenomenon,” said Black Lady Sketch Show creator, showrunner, and star Robin Thede. “And then it was just this grind to a halt.”

During the shutdown, Thede and head writer and executive producer Lauren Ashley Smith put their heads together to figure out how to get the show up and running again as safely as possible—and brainstorm what might still be funny in a post-pandemic landscape. “It was just Lauren and I grinding it out over Zoom and me writing all night having fever dreams, which is when I do my best writing,” said Thede. On Friday, April 23, those fever dreams will become a reality when the second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show hits HBO Max and airs at 11 p.m. EST on HBO.

Earlier this week Vanity Fair Zoomed with Thede, Smith, writer and cast member Ashley Nicole Black, and cast member Gabrielle Dennis about their glamorous guest stars, the expansiveness of Blackness, and making comedy during tragic times.

Vanity Fair: The first season of A Black Lady Sketch Show featured interstitial sketches about a catastrophic event that ended the world and forced the cast to effectively quarantine together in Robin’s house. That aired in the summer of 2019. So can you predict the future?

Robin Thede: [Laughs] Look, I saw Trump installed as president—not elected. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before the end of the world actually happened. I was like, Oh, he’s going to kill us all. So I worked with the writers to come up with this interstitial story line that featured four women quarantining at a house at the end of the world, which felt very stupid and weird at the time to many. And yet it was quite prescient. It is an interesting framing device for the show that ended up being very, very timely, unfortunately.

So much of season two felt timely and topical without being exploitative of the moment regarding coronavirus and Black trauma.

Thede: We started writing two weeks after season one ended in the fall of 2019. And so the interstitials and what was going to happen in season two was already written, again, prior to the pandemic…You know, we don’t really address coronavirus. There are two jokes in the first episode in passing, but that’s it. We did make a conscious effort to not do it when we had to rewrite when we came back after the industry shut down in the spring.

Lauren Ashley Smith: I think the cool thing about working on this show, and having the ability to really celebrate Black womanhood and Blackness, is that if you think about the “today-ness” of whatever our experience may be, it’s not ever that new. Like, COVID is probably the newest part, but none of the rest of it is super new. So it feels topical by nature of the fact that stuff doesn’t change.

I think that for COVID, we just were like, you know, if it comes up, it comes up. But for me there was always going to be a disconnect, because we wrote the season before it hit. If I’m seeing people living in a world where COVID doesn’t exist, but I’m speaking about it, then I start to have a time-space reality rift that I don’t want to think about as a viewer. So from our end we were like, let’s take that burden off of them and let them laugh.

Thede: And we knew no one would want to see that. We knew we were coming out in the spring. And so we were like, okay, we’re going to be 19 months off the air. The last thing people want to see is us in masks doing characters. It’s not going to be funny. As Black people, we’ve all lost people to COVID. It’s very serious. We don’t deal with it seriously because in this world, we don’t want those women to have suffered from that. We just don’t want to traffic in trauma. This is a show about Black joy.

Tell me about how far into season two you were when you shut down.

Smith: We had kind of just finished the writers room. Robin and I think about this moment—we talk about it probably once a week—because it was right as COVID was starting. There was a press conference on the TV. It was eerily quiet in the office.

Thede: Remember, Gabrielle [Dennis] had come in in that yellow jumpsuit? She had just come from a fitting. Ashley [Nicole Black] may have been in the building.

Smith: We were excited [for season two], but we weren’t really acknowledging or understanding what was before us. And then outside on the street, a woman screamed, and we both jumped out of our seats. We were like, “Oh, my goodness!”

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