Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry. Last week, history made, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Now, it was a serious moment in our national history, but it was presaged by a far less serious one, a comedic moment in our fictional history.
Actress 1: What in the baby hair?
Actress 2: It's a black lady courtroom.
Actress 3: Black lady courtroom.
Multiple: [singing] Black lady courtroom, black lady courtroom.
Actress 3: Black lady--
Actress 4: Yes, you all shouldn't be dancing.
Actress 5: I have been sitting in this courtroom for 20 years, and I have never seen-
Actress6: I'm sorry, your Honor, we'll--
Actress 5: -melanin this poppin'.
[laughter] Cicely Tyson would be very proud.
Actress 2: Thank you, your Honor.
Actress 4: Why would she be proud of that?
Actress 1: [chuckles] All right.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's right. I'm talking about the 2019 courtroom Kiki sketch from HBO's A Black Lady Sketch Show. Now, if you haven't seen the show, that sketch is just one example of its singular brand of hilarity. A Black Lady Sketch Show is a testament to just how wonderfully weird and insightful things get when some of the best black women comedians gather. The show's success owes a great deal to the vision of its star and creator, Robin Thede.
Robin and her talented team of collaborators just launched the third season of A Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO. I sat down with Robin to find out what to expect from this new slate of sketches.
Robin Thede: It is epic. It's bigger and better than ever. We are doing things that-- Our second season was shot entirely during the COVID pandemic, as was our third. The second one was really early. It was in 2020. It was intense and we couldn't have a lot of the things that we normally would want to use, a lot of background extras, kids, animals, people in close proximity to each other. It was difficult. In season three, we were able to relax some of those things as our whole set was vaccinated.
We still worked in PPE and all of that good stuff, but we were able to do some of the bigger momentous things with stunts and choreography and crowds and kids and animals and all that stuff that we wanted to do back in season two and weren't able to. We have 40 plus guest stars, everyone from Vanessa Williams, Ava DuVernay, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson. so many people. The list goes on and on. It's amazing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Look, you do break some of those rules. The rules about don't work with animals, don't work with kids, right? You are just to be clear, a very beautiful human being, but you are not afraid of very physical comedy. What makes you courageous in your comedy?
Robin Thede: Thank you for saying that. We are not afraid to work with any of those things. We are literally-- Nothing is off-limits on the show, but it can't be. If you want to make a sketch show, it has to be this magical reality where a unicorn can show up, wherever if necessary. I think for me, it's just about how can we continue to challenge what sketch comedy looks like.
Originally, I set out knowing we were going to be on HBO to create the most beautiful cinematic sketch show that had ever existed. Obviously, also one of the funniest. The visuals are just as important as the jokes for us, because I want people to feel like they're transported for that half-hour that they're watching the show.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. That point about the sets, about the being transported goes to, and I almost hate to say this, a recent tweet. For those who don't follow you on Twitter, help folks understand the difference between a skit and a sketch.
Robin Thede: Lord, thank you. A sketch is written. They take us months to write. Not one sketch, but they go through a long process of editing and they have full beginning, middle, end. On our show, they have twists right before the end. They have a narrative story. They have fully developed characters. A skit is like what you do at your junior high pep rally, where the quarterback goes on stage and pretends to be the cheerleader or whatever.
Typically a skit is not written. They can be written, but they're just a loose interpretation of comedy, which is very good and fun. I have a lot of skits that I like, but a sketch is something that professional-- Of course, I'm a professional, but that writers write and has fully realized narratives and characters. It's why I put sketch in the title of the show. It's why it's called A Black Lady Sketch Show and people still go out of their way to go, "I love A Black Lady Sketch Show. My favorite skit was when--" I'm like, "Ah." It's like nails out a chalkboard to me, but I am also a sketch comedy nerd. Of course, I think most people think sketch and skit are interchangeable. To purists, they know that they're very different and that one is highly offensive to the other.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, that's the thing when you love your craft. For me, if you send me a letter with a split infinitive, I have to work really, really hard to ever try to take you seriously again.
Robin Thede: Exactly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I get it. The thing though about a sketch, about that production, about the fact that you can already tell me so much about season three means that you're not responding just week to week about what's happening in the world. Is there a trade-off there that ever feels unsatisfying to you?
Robin Thede: No, not at all. I was in topical comedy for five years in Late Night before doing the Sketch Show and it's the last thing I wanted to be doing. [chuckles] I was exhausted. I don't want to chase the news cycle. Everyone's really excited because obviously Ketanji Brown Jackson. We are thrilled about everyone's reposting our favorite Black Lady Courtroom Sketch.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Courtroom Kiki.
Robin Thede: Courtroom Kiki is being posted all over the place, which we love. People are like, "Oh, we can't wait till you do a Supreme Court sketch." I'm like, "I finished writing this show last August and we finished shooting it in December of 2021. There's no making a sketch the week of-- We are not Saturday Night Live." That's the magic of what they do, but the magic of what we do is that we get to create this narrative universe where we get to have recurring characters and tell these stories that are current, but not topical.
The show's always going to feel relevant to today, but it's never going to tackle something from the week's news. I think that's how we stay relevant, honestly, because we don't have to chase those stories and compete with other shows that have to do that. For us, we only tell the stories that can uniquely be on A Black Lady Sketch Show. That's how we avoid crossover because there's a lot of people that write sketches for the internet and for television and there's a lot of the same group think about what should be a sketch.
For us, it's about, we don't want anybody thinking that we are doing the same sketch that they've done. We've had to carve out our own universe and make sure that those sketches really fit within what we do and what we do only.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've talked a bit here about the sketch part. Let's talk about the black lady part. What does it mean to say it's a black lady sketch show? Is that about who it's for, who it's by, who it's about, some combination of those?
Robin Thede: For me, when I named the show, I just didn't want people to be confused when they tuned in. I didn't want them to be like, "Where are the white people?" It's like, "I just put it in the title. You literally know what you're tuning into." It's also a who's on first joke. If you say, "I'm watching A Black Lady Sketch Show." Somebody will say, "Which one?" "No, A Black Lady Sketch Show." "Yes, but what's the name?" That was always fun to me too. Now, it's about who makes it, who it's for, and the point of view.
It's also a political take, if you think about it. It's a political action for us to even be in this genre. It has been so heavily dominated by men and particularly white men that-- Not since Chappelle and Key & Peele and the Living Color obviously being the pinnacle of black sketch comedy. We've never had black women taking the forefront and being in the driver's seat. For me, it was also a declarative. It was saying, "No, this is what it is, and this is what you're going to get."
At the end of the day, the show is universally funny. It's specifically cast, but it's universally funny. Also, the irony is that so many people who are not black ladies watch this show and enjoy it. I think that again is a political statement, it's saying-- Not even just political, but this evening of the playing field. It's like, "I don't know what you thought you were going to get when you watched this show, but you're going to end up laughing even if you don't get all the jokes."
Comedy is universal and that is the normalizer. I always want to tell these modern black stories where we just get to be normal and we're not always super strong. Or on the other end of the spectrum, we're not seen as criminals all the time or whatever. It's just this way of portraying us as modern black women who can do a myriad of things great and small. I think that was where all that came from.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's true being modern black women who specialize in the holy impossible. They can do all things great and small. It's true both in the content of the show, but also in the reality of who's on and making the show. You are not a newcomer to this world. I know, for me, one of the most exciting things is to work with young talent and then watch them go off and become exceptional stars in their own right.
How are you feeling these days when you turn on the television and see that incredible Abbott Elementary? [laughs] The pause you took. I could tell this show has meant a lot to you. I get it, it means a lot to me too. It's fantastic.
Robin Thede: I love this show. No, I feel this is how Lauren Michaels must feel when Bill Hader goes and makes Barry. When Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell and all these amazing people leave the show and go on to all of these amazing things. That was the whole intention of this show, was to develop a legacy and a stomping ground through which all of these amazing performers, writers, producers, department heads can come through and do their greatest work so that they can achieve their dreams. I tell them on day one, "You are underestimated everywhere else, but that's not going to happen here."
The proof is in the pudding, you guys don't even know yet, but there are many other cast members who have come through the show or who are currently on the show who are working on amazing other projects. We all know that Ashley Nicole Black has been a writer-producer on Ted Lasso. The things that they do between when they shoot this show are phenomenal. Ashley Nicole Black, I'm going to say it here will be nominated for at least Emmy's on two different shows if not three this year. It's going to be insane. I think Quinta can easily win an Emmy for her performance and along with her cast, they're so incredible.
They met on A Black Lady Sketch Show. She met Sheryl Lee Ralph on A Black Lady Sketch Show in a viral proposal sketch. She met Tyler in our Rome and Julissa Sketch season one. All of that comes from the nucleus of this show. That is the entire point, I know people are in my mentions dragging me all the time. "Where is Quinta? Why isn't Quinta on the show?" I'm like, "You can watch her Tuesdays on Abbott Elementary. That is where you should be supporting her. She's moved on to this incredible project and that is exactly the point."
I know people just want to see her on everything as do I, but the whole point to me is that my joy comes in watching them achieve their dream. I've achieved mine with this show and now they get to go achieve theirs because of their involvement, in small way to their involvement here, which is great.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate hearing that this show is in part the realization of a dream for you, but I do have to ask what are some of the other dreams, what might be next in the future?
Robin Thede: I just love breaking genre boundaries. I love going into-- When I went into Late Night and saying, "Okay, yes, I'm only the fourth black woman to host a Late Night Show. Let's continue to define what this can be." When I went into sketch, "I'm the first black woman to create a sketch show, first black woman to be nominated for all the--" There's always a bunch of first. I was the first black woman to be a head writer in Late Night.
I just keep going, "Oh, where are we not invited? Okay, I'm going to go into that area and make room for us." Because I don't take for granted any of the access that I've been given or been working really hard for. I just think what's the point if I'm not kicking that door open for so many behind us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I do have to take the moment to just share this with you as you say that. Tears come to my eyes because I remember and you very may not. This was years ago, A Black Lady Sketch Show had not even launched yet. I think it must have been 2016 and it was The White House Correspondents' dinner, I was at the bar afterward. I was very much in a very bad place in my life, you were very much in a very good place. I can remember you walking-- You were just walking and I watched you started to pass. Then you saw me out of the corner of your eye and you turned around, you stopped talking, you came, you said, hello, we talked for a moment.
It just always really impacted me and I haven't ever had a chance to just really say thank you for that, and how much it made me a fan of you as a person, in addition to a fan of your work.
Robin Thede: I'm totally tearing up too. I do remember that moment. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was really important. Literally, you're right, I walked past, but then I was like, "Wait," and I was like, "I have to say something to her." Yes, you were going through a lot, but I also just felt really compelled to share with you how much your work meant to me and that it was so important that you can up going despite everything that was going on. I think my stories-- Those are times when I think, "Yes, Robin, take your own advice." I made this show because my Late Night Show got canceled. I was going to make this show anyway, but I wasn't going to be on it.
Then Issa Rae said to me, "We got to do you this together. Yes, of course, you have to be on it." There's moments where I have to check in with myself and say, "Yes, you're down right now, but this isn't your story, so many people want this." I think, "Oh my God, what if I would've just wallowed in self-pity and not made this sketch show because I was just stuck? What would've been prevented for so many others if I would've done that?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm so glad that you made this show and that you're continuing to make it. Right, Issa, of course, you have to be in it. Robin Thede is the creator and the star of A Black Lady Sketch Show. It's now in its third season on HBO. Robin, thank you so much.
Robin Thede: Thank you.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.