It’s 9 A.M. on an unusually bleak summer Thursday morning, but Robin Thede is wired and bursting with the type of energy a little kid has on Christmas morning. She gives her publicist a quick crash course in the art of taking the perfect “plandid” OOTD post, which she’ll share with her 48,500 Instagram followers. She scurries from the couch to a large table holding a basket of oranges and apples and leftover napkins and flyers. “Can you move those papers off the table? Can’t pose in front of a dirty background,” she quips, before releasing her infectious laugh and apologizing for her impromptu photoshoot. “Take your time,” I tell the comedian. “It’s your day.”
Well, technically, it’s the day before her big day: Friday, August 2, when she’ll make her next giant mark in TV. In 2015, she made history as the first black female head of a late-night writers’ room during her tenure at The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, then again in 2017 with her own late-night program, The Rundown with Robin Thede. Tonight, her new HBO series, A Black Lady Sketch Show, premieres. But it isn’t just any ol’ sketch show. It stars four black women—Quinta Brunson (Quinta vs. Everything, Broke), Ashley Nicole Black (Emmy Award winner and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee vet), Gabrielle Dennis (Rosewood, Luke Cage, The Bobby Brown Story), and Thede. The half-hour sketch comedy series has only black female writers, and is executive produced by two black women, Thede and Insecure’s Issa Rae. That’s history made, again.
“Black people lead the culture, musically, comedy-wise, and black women absolutely lead the culture in fashion, in music, and in comedy, but we don’t get credit for it,” she tells me. “I think [ABLSS], for me, is a way to just kick down that whole door and provide an outlet for us.” That influence is clear; the sketches cover everything you might discuss in the group chat: Why are black women often overlooked within the workplace? Am I a basic bitch? Can I still listen to this singer even though social media says he’s canceled? Better not speak too soon, though. “I have three jokes that I’m convinced will get me canceled, but I’m not sure,” Thede jokes.
It all started with a call from Rae, a friend of Thede’s. While shooting for The Rundown, Thede began to develop ABLSS and shopped it around to a few networks. Then, The Rundown was unexpectedly canceled and she received what she thought was a “consoling” type of phone call. “Issa called me the day The Rundown got canceled and said, “What are we doing? Let’s do something together. You’re free now. Let’s go,” she recalls. “So I was like, ‘Oh, you called me to tell me I’m employed? And she said, ‘Yes.’”
Thede pitched their idea to HBO over dinner and received the network’s approval before they had even ordered their food. “It wasn’t a hard sell, and this show was one that didn’t need development,” she continues, “so they just ordered it straight to series, and in a little over half a year, we’re on the air, which is crazy.”
Ahead, Robin Thede discusses being a black woman in comedy and what the magical world of A Black Lady Sketch Show is like.
Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl” is the theme song for A Black Lady Sketch Show. Are you having a #HotGirlSummer?
I mean, I haven’t been out here thotting and bopping in these streets but I feel like it’s a hot girl summer to release A Black Lady Sketch Show, you know? I’m living my best life—hat’s what hot girl summer is, right?
As I watched ABLSS, I kept saying to myself, “I feel seen.” Can you recall a show or movie that you felt represented?
In Living Color. That show was so impactful to me that I felt seen as a black person. But as a woman in sketch, the only time I felt seen was when I saw Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman show on PBS that she had done decades ago. I was like, “Wow, look at her playing all these characters.” I love Maya Rudolph and I love Leslie Jones, but I think there’s been less than 10 black women on SNL in almost five decades, which is crazy.
Aside from Whoopi, who are some of your comedy icons?
Chris Rock is a mentor of mine, Larry Wilmore, Jon Stewart, all the people that have helped me along in my career and taken me under their wings and made sure that I continued to rise and had these opportunities to create my own things. Wanda Sykes has been a great friend and mentor as well—she doesn’t give a fuck about anything. When I came out with my late night show, she called me immediately and we did not know each other. She was like, “I got you, whatever you need. Let me know. How can I support?” And Whoopi Goldberg too has been very supportive. We’ve never met and I’ve got messages back saying, “Whoopi says good luck,” and it’s like, That’s crazy! That’s how it’s supposed to be.
Women supporting women, like you recruiting a team of black women for ABLSS.
I love seeing women in the writers’ room and black women in the writers’ room. On this show, we had nothing but black women in the writers’ room, nothing but black women behind the scenes setting up props. Also, our director is a black woman. I created it; I’m a black woman. It’s just really fun to be able to level the playing field; we don’t have to explain ourselves when we come to work, we don’t have to explain the joke, we don’t have to explain the fashion and the hair. We don’t repeat one hairstyle in this entire show and we have over 100 characters. That’s crazy and it’s something that only black people can do.
I remember reading your Lenny Letter a few years ago. It began: “I’m a black, female late-night comedy writer. Stop laughing, I’m serious. We exist.”After being in the game for so long and being one of the only black women, if not black person, in the writing room, what did that do to you mentally and emotionally?
Before it was always like, How am I going to break in? I wanted to be on SNL, I wanted to be on The Daily Show. I auditioned for those shows many times. The Daily Show, I think I auditioned six times for, never got it. But God always has a different plan and it’s always better than what you could’ve dreamed. For me, it’s so good that SNL didn’t work out, it’s so good The Daily Show didn’t work out. Being a head writer, being the first black woman to be a head writer in late night, then I was able to hire the second, Lauren Ashley Smith—she was my head writer at The Rundown and now she’s with me on this show.
But I don’t want to be the first anymore, and I don’t want Lauren to only be the second. We want droves of people. We want this to be normal. We want this to be not questioned when we walk in the room. “Oh, do you have the wrong room?” It’s like, “No, I work here.”
I belong here.
Yeah, I belong and I’m important, and I have something to say and I’m not just writing black things. People don’t realize it, but black women have to write for everyone. We don’t just often get to walk in a room and write for ourselves. We’re often writing for other people, so we have to not only know how to write our own stories but everyone else’s as well.
If you had to describe A Black Lady Sketch Show, what would you say?
It’s a narrative sketch series with black women living grounded experiences in a magic reality. You’re going to get recurring characters, you’re going to get stories that come back, you get to check in with people throughout the season. It’s literally black girl magic in sketch form. It’s really, really different. It’s fun, it’s cinematic. It’s beautiful.
I feel like casting all black women was such a public statement.
It absolutely is. My whole goal with this show is to show the diversity of what black women can do and the diversity of what we are. We’re not all the same. We’re funny in so many different ways, so to show that, I needed it to be a level playing field and I needed it to be all black women so that no one feels like a token. I wanted to show black women could be strong but also weak. Flawed, but also flawless. Amazing, but also terrible and murderers and awful. I think only through the power of that are we able to break open the possibilities for black women in comedy.
You touch on topics like cancel culture and unrealistic beauty standards. Did you pull inspiration from social media?
Oh yeah, for sure. Social media was a big influence for us because Black Twitter is such a part of our experience. Twitter and Instagram have brought black people together so much. I grew up in Iowa. I had to search for black people. We are such purveyors of taste and culture online, and we have a lot of sketches that talk about stan culture, about fashion, about cancel culture, about a lot of that stuff. We want people to feel seen, want people to feel like, “Oh shit, I was just talking about that,” and they’re [also] going to disagree with a lot of the stuff we say.
I’ve watched ABLSS and I don’t think you’ll be canceled.
It’s just jokes. But I try not to be mean. I don’t think the show is mean. We don’t punch down. If we do make a joke about a celebrity or something, it’s somebody who can take it, but there’s no reason for us to be slamming people.
How did you get all those celebrities to shoot ABLSS?
Honestly, I thought we were going to get seven or eight. We literally pitched it as one or two celebrities each episode. There’s 21 in the trailer and we have at least double that in the series. There’s way more people who aren’t even in the trailer. Lena Waithe is in the show and we had nothing for her to do and she was like, “Bitch, what am I shooting? I have this day free.” I was like, “We’ll figure it out.” Then we made a part in a sketch for her. That was the other thing, we didn’t write for celebrities. Well, Angela Bassett, we knew we wanted her to be the bad bitch.
What’s the purpose of comedy right now?
Two things. The purpose of comedy, I think, is to level the playing field and bring people together because everybody can laugh at something that’s funny. But also because of the political climate we’re in, I didn’t want to touch politics in this show. I wasn’t about to bring Trump up in this show. For what? We already know how we feel about him. But I think comedy now, and always, has gotten us through everything. Comedy got us through World War II and through slavery in a lot of ways. Please don’t make that the headline.
What does it mean to be a black woman to you?
It means a lot, right? On the good side, it means being creative and talented and hardworking and layered. On the bad side, it means being misunderstood and discounted and overlooked. Despite your talent, you have to be ten times better to get half as much. Being a black woman is complicated, but it’s beautiful and I wouldn’t want to be anything else. I think the sisterhood we have is unlike any other community. I think that’s really important and it’s something that we’ll always treasure.
What do you do for self-care?
People always ask me this question. I work so hard, I don’t know. People are like, “You got to pay attention to yourself!” And I’m like, “I’m very rich. I’m fine.” That’s a joke, but I try to get massages when I can. I love to travel, I just haven’t been able to because the show has consumed my life for the past year.
Never not working.
Never not working. God willing, we go back to a season 2.
A Black Lady Sketch Show premieres on August 2 at 11 P.M. on HBO.