A version of this story about Robin Thede and “A Black Lady Sketch Show” first appeared in the Emmy Hot List issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
It’s not easy for new shows to break into the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category, which shrunk from six nominees all the way down to three this year, and includes such formidable contenders as “Saturday Night Live,” the most nominated program in Emmy history, and “Drunk History,” which has been nominated in all six years of the category’s existence.
But Robin Thede’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show” joined “SNL” and “Drunk History” as a nominee this year, making it the first Black-run sketch show nominated since “Key & Peele” in 2016 and the first-ever sketch show created, run, written and acted almost exclusively by Black women.
“My goal from the beginning was to provide a place where we could play in ways that we never had, especially for Black women,” said Thede, who created the HBO show after her BET talk show, “The Rundown With Robin Thede,” was canceled. “I wanted to create a narrative sketch show where Black women could live grounded experiences in a magical reality. I wanted to create a home literally and figuratively for my cast, a safe space for us to create without stereotypes, without preconceived notions of what Black women in comedy can do.”
The show, she added, “is, like, my seventh sketch show, and none of them have gotten past their first season, or even like six episodes. So for me it was about taking things I had learned from other shows and applying them to the one that I wanted to make.”
But she never considered abandoning the sketch format, for which her dedication goes way back. “I’ve just always loved it,” she said. “I was named after Robin Williams, and my dad and I watched ‘SNL’ for years every Saturday night together. ‘In Living Color’ was absolutely pivotal, and Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman show — they showed me that Black people could play this range of characters.
“And as a kid, I was shy. I had a stutter. I didn’t have a lot of friends early on. And so I retreated into characters, which were the way that I could socialize and live a life that was different than my upbringing in our trailer park. I think every comedian has a way they became funny, some sort of trauma. And for me, characters were a way to retreat into a life that was different from the one that I had. That’s the way I coped.”
The show’s framing situation has the four main cast members — Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Quinta Brunson — stuck together after some unspecified end-of-the-world event. Some of those scenes are eerily prescient in these pandemic times, with the women isolated from everyone else on earth — but that’s not to say that Thede was surprised when the setting started to come true.
“Unfortunately, no, I was not,” she said. “I just thought, ‘What’s the ultimate thing that Trump is going to allow to happen to this world?’ The show is not overtly political, but subversively it is. And I was like, ‘Well, Trump’s going to get us all killed, so why don’t we just extrapolate that into an end-of-the-world scenario where these four Black women survive the apocalypse in a quarantine house?’
“Am I surprised that it came true? I would love to say yes, but I’m not. I’m sorry that a sketch show had to predict that, but what comedy does best is exaggerate the truth.”
Among the nominations for “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is one for director Dime Davis, the first Black woman ever nominated for directing a variety series. “She’s incredible, and the cinematic nature of our show is unlike any other sketch show out there,” Thede said. “I’ve worked in a lot of television, but this show in particular, I know how much people work themselves to the point of exhaustion to make it great and to make it cinematic and to make it everything that I wanted in my vision. And I don’t take that lightly, you know?”
The nomination was part of a record-breaking year for nonwhite nominees, but Thede is adamant that people shouldn’t think that the nominations came because voters were influenced by the Black Lives Matter protests.
“I don’t want people to take away that Black people were nominated because of the social justice demands,” she said. “You can’t argue that anyone who was nominated didn’t deserve it. When you look at “Insecure” and “Little Fires Everywhere” and “This Is Us” and “Watchmen” and our show, these are all shows that deserve the nominations that they got. There were no pity nominations. I truly think this would have happened regardless and deserved to happen regardless.
And I think that it just sucks because we don’t get to celebrate together. A lot of my friends are nominated and it’s great to be in such an amazing company, but we obviously can’t gather at the ceremony. That makes it a little bittersweet.”
Read more of the Down to the Wire issue here.