tv review

A Black Lady Sketch Show Is Pure, Funny Fire

Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson, Robin Thede, and Gabrielle Dennis as a Motown group with a misogyny problem in A Black Lady Sketch Show. Photo: HBO

“Sometimes I wish I was just an okay bitch,” says a member of the Bad Bitch Support Group in the first episode of A Black Lady Sketch Show.

Her comment is met with gasps of horror from the pedicured, glossy-lipped women who surround her. Just being okay, when you can be bad? Why would anyone want to do that?

A Black Lady Sketch Show, a new half-hour HBO comedy series created by Robin Thede, host of the prematurely canceled BET talk show The Rundown, subscribes to a similar philosophy. It never settles for just okay. Every sketch starts on one level, then keeps building on it until you have no idea how hilariously far from Earth it’s going to go. Anchored by four extremely versatile, hilarious black women — Thede, who also previously served as head writer for The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore; Ashley Nicole Black, formerly of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee; comedian Quinta Brunson; and Insecure’s Gabrielle Dennis — A Black Lady Sketch Show isn’t just funny. Its sketches are consistently clever and surprising, often concluding with twist endings that add a whole other layer to the jokes that had us rolling a couple of minutes ago.

It’s also very much what its title implies: a series dominated by black women and shaped by their viewpoints. While race informs a lot of the comedy, it’s never explored in relation to whiteness. In fact, there are no white people on this show, at least in the six episodes I’ve seen. Whiteness in this realm is, basically, irrelevant. Between A Black Lady Sketch Show, Sherman’s Showcase, and South Side, it’s a great moment for black-centric TV comedy, one that will hopefully last much longer than just a moment.

Right from the opening credits, in which puppet versions of the four principals engage in various forms of bad behavior while Megan Thee Stallion blasts on the soundtrack, A Black Lady Sketch Show establishes itself with confidence and hot girl summer attitude. The first episode, which debuts Friday night on HBO, features the first parts of a sketch that recurs throughout the season in which Thede, Black, Brunson, and Dennis spend a girls’ weekend at Thede’s house while a catastrophe unfolds outside. Their primary concerns, though: Who’s still got R. Kelly tracks stored on their phones, and why black women really should sleep with a head scarf at night.

Another recurring sketch casts Black as Trinity, who’s a perfect spy because she’s the kind of black woman who is routinely ignored or deemed unimportant by society. At one point while chasing down a target, Trinity runs into a T.J. Maxx–type store. “It’s a trap,” she whispers. Within seconds, several well-dressed shoppers approach her, asking, “You work here, right?”

The bits on A Black Lady Sketch Show slyly and inventively highlight the challenges of being a black woman in America by pointing out society’s unfair expectations or unfair lack of expectations. A riff on the FX series Pose stages a competition called the Basic Ball in which an authentic lack of glamour is what’s rewarded. (“The category is … clinical depression.”) One of the house leaders in this parody of the show? Mother Exhausted From the House of Tired.

In another sketch, Thede plays a woman coerced by her co-worker to try going without makeup, Alicia Keys–style; when she does, an increasingly alarming cascade of emergencies ensue. When two women decide to go to a new neighborhood soul-food restaurant to support the community, a series of events make that increasingly impossible. (The restaurant has a “bring your own silverware” policy, and honestly, that’s the least of its problems.) Even a reboot of the sitcom 227 — in which Thede does an impression of Jackée’s Sandra that is so accurate, it could fool federal authorities — veers in wild, unexpected directions. Moments of shock or horror constantly collide with comedy in ways that make A Black Lady Sketch Show much more interesting than a mere delivery engine for laughs.

While the core cast holds it down in most scenes, there are great cameo appearances sprinkled throughout the season. Issa Rae, who’s an executive producer, shows up, as does her Insecure co-star, Yvonne Orji. Legends like Angela Bassett and Patti LaBelle make appearances, as does Thede’s former boss, Larry Wilmore. Veterans of classic sketch-comedy shows, including Garrett Morris of Saturday Night Live and David Alan Grier of In Living Color, do pop-ins as well, implying that A Black Lady Sketch Show is a successor to those greats. It certainly seems like it could be. This is TV’s best new sketch-comedy series, out of the gate, since Key and Peele.

But I hesitate to refer to A Black Lady Sketch Show as the new Key and Peele, because that would do it a disservice. It’s absolutely its own thing, a fact that comes across with joy and humor in episode six’s “Black Lady Courtroom” sketch. Slowly, the courtroom stenographer, the bailiff, the defense attorney, the prosecutor, and the defendant realize that all the people in the courtroom are black women. Then the judge, played by Yvette Nicole Brown, walks in and she’s a black woman, too! They can’t believe it. They’re supposed to get down to business, but they can’t stop themselves from singing out, “Black lady courtroom!” whooping it up, and cackling.

That moment is like A Black Lady Sketch Show is miniature. It’s a happy surprise, filled with laughter, that celebrates black women. It’s also long, long overdue.

A Black Lady Sketch Show Is Pure, Funny Fire