A Black Lady Sketch Show is the first variety sketch series written, directed, and performed by a core cast of Black women. As of last month, it’s also the first show of its kind to be nominated for three Emmy Awards, including one for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.
Robin Thede, the creator and star of A Black Lady Sketch Show, who previously hosted BET’s The Rundown With Robin Thede and served as head writer on The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, recently got on the phone with Vulture to talk about the thrill of being nominated and the status of Black Lady Sketch Show season two. Thede also discussed the prescience of the quarantine interstitials that ran throughout season one, segments that now play like a sneak preview of pandemic life; the hidden significance of a sketch that aired last season, something she’s never acknowledged until now; and her feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement and the greater number of Black Emmy nominees this year.
Congratulations on your Emmy nominations.
Thank you. We’re thrilled, obviously. Very, very excited.
I know it’s a cliché to ask what you were doing when you found out you were nominated, but what were you doing?
I was in bed wearing my Beyoncé Homecoming hoodie for good luck. Yeah, I was up watching. I’m not going to say I wasn’t.
I believe you were supposed to be starting production on the second season when the pandemic shut everything down. Is that right?
That is true. We were done writing in February, and we had gone through a month of preproduction, and we were five days from rolling. So we were ready to go, which sucked. We were so close, but the safety of my cast and crew obviously was the most important thing. We shut down even before some other shows did.
Do you have a sense of when you might be able to start?
Can you say?
We will start as soon as people wear their masks. I mean, the numbers in L.A. are not good.
I know other productions have been shooting without incident, so that’s encouraging. I want to shoot as soon as possible, but we have to do it so safely. So I hope that people understand — not just mine; a lot of our favorite TV shows will not be back when you expect them.
Have you changed anything in the scripts or did you just leave them as they were?
When we go back into production, we will look at that. There’s no reason for me to keep adjusting scripts ad nauseam. But the good thing is, our show already dealt with four women quarantining in a house at the end of the world. So that part doesn’t need to change. People ask, “Are you going to do COVID sketches?” I’m like, “No.” I have no interest in that.
I think there are some things we’ll adjust, but the good thing is, our show is written to be evergreen. I could make literally the show we made last season a year from now. It would still be relevant and nothing would feel dated. Thank God I don’t have that pressure that SNL has to have to poke fun of things in real time. I do think that some things will need to be adjusted, mostly because whenever anyone shoots within the next, at least, year, I’m assuming that there are going to be COVID protocols in place. Even if we shoot in that time frame, you’re not going to be able to have 200 extras on-set or kids and animals and kind of specialty things. We’re definitely looking at that and looking at how things need to adjust to be able to shoot in the new normal of production.
You mentioned the quarantine interstitials from last season. I believe you’ve said those are going to continue, because they ended on a cliffhanger with the doorbell ringing.
Yeah. It’s more relevant than ever.
I know everybody makes a big thing of that series of sketches being relevant. But I think the threesome sketch, where Ashley Nicole Black’s character wants her partners to wear medical masks and use hand sanitizer, may be even more relevant. I’m like, That’s just how we do it now. That’s not even a joke.
We were so prescient in so many ways on this show. Only because you’ve connected it am I telling you this, because I haven’t told anyone, but you’re seeing sort of an Easter egg within an Easter egg [in that sketch]. That is a nod to what’s going on in the larger universe and the interstitials.
There’s a hazmat suit in the deep background of a couple of the shots and the women in the house in the interstitials. Our sketches live in this universe that takes place around where they are hunkering down in the house. But that sketch in particular, the threesome sketch, is a little bit of a nod to what’s going on in their larger universe.
We at Vulture recently published a piece about your Seth Meyers interview, with the headline “Our Future Depends on Listening to Robin Thede.” I think this might be correct.
[Laughs.] Well, it’s funny because right now, not only are people talking about the sketch show, but a lot of my late-night clips are resurfacing. I have a piece that we did on gerrymandering that has to do with how Republicans are changing the lines and districts to count prisons in their population so that they look more diverse. Prisoners obviously cannot vote, but they count those people towards resources, so they get more money for their schools while counting people who can’t even vote. There’s lots of stuff that’s relevant to the election, but also to Black Lives Matter, when that was going on. My Rundown pieces always end up resurfacing when people decide to care about race. That’s what Seth was saying. He was like, “I feel like between your late-night show and this, we should have been listening to you.” I’m like, “I mean, it would have made everything easier.”
Is it gratifying or frustrating that you’ve been saying this stuff for such a long time and society is just now catching up?
People in quarantine are watching shows like Friends, and I’ve been watching Murder, She Wrote. It was just too grown for me as a kid. I’m appreciating it now, decades later. I don’t think Angela Lansbury would be mad that I’m just now discovering Murder, She Wrote. That sounds so stupid. Why would Angela Lansbury care what I think?
I say that to say I don’t feel any kind of way. I feel glad that people are rediscovering or discovering not only the sketch show but also The Rundown, things I said on The Nightly Show. I mean, I’ve been saying this stuff for a decade at least. I think it’s fine. I think information has to meet people where they are. I think the reason why Black Lives Matter finally settled in with people and is now being more understood and accepted is because time had to catch up. In 2014 and 2015, and when Trayvon Martin was killed and Ferguson happened and then Mike Brown, all these series of events weren’t enough to turn the table for America.
Time and space and, I guess, enough tragedy had to happen, and for people to be home and have the time to listen and care. I don’t think anyone’s mad that they’re listening now, that the country and the world in larger numbers is listening now. I think the time for progress is always now.
Black Lives Matter is resonating more now and, as you said, some of it is because of the pandemic and people having more time to reflect and pay attention to what’s going on. Do you feel like there was something different about the George Floyd case, as well?
When you watch someone murdered slowly for eight minutes on camera, I don’t know what kind of a human can see that and not feel a sense of being horrified and angry and feel that injustice. So many Black men and women, including our trans brothers and sisters, have been murdered at the hands of police that I wonder if the country was in a sort of fatigue about it or if they were just too busy caught up in their own shit. But either way, George Floyd’s murder showed to be the catalyst at a time when the country had no choice but to listen.
I think some people don’t believe it unless they see it. They always think, “Well, what were they doing?” There’s always that “he was no angel” defense. Look, me watching George Floyd’s death was just as heartbreaking as watching any of the others. So I’m not going to sit here and say, “Oh, yeah, the way he died made him the perfect martyr.”
I’ve tweeted this before, too, but if you have to think about, “Well, what did he do?” when you see that someone was murdered by the police, that’s inherent prejudice. It’s inherent racism. You really have to examine that, because you don’t think that about non-Black people. We don’t think that about non-brown people. And I think that’s what systemic racism is.
Being racist — it doesn’t mean you’re in the KKK. That’s what I keep trying to explain. Being racist is just acknowledging that you have prejudice and bias towards people of a different color and that those are things you have to pay attention to when you’re making decisions in your life. I think people look at it as a slur — someone saying you’re racist — which I get, because there’s a spectrum, right? There are people who are in out-and-out hate groups, and then there are people who won’t hire somebody based on their name. Or based on their application, won’t even interview them. All of it’s racism, though. And all of it has to be tanked.
In a frivolous way, in the entertainment industry, everyone’s calling this the Blackest Emmys ever, which it is just numbers-wise. But you look at the shows that are nominated: Watchmen, Insecure, Little Fires Everywhere, our show. These are shows that are rivaling all of the other shows that are amazing, that we’re up against. No one is getting a pity Emmy nomination. These are incredible shows that deserve to be recognized, and it’s about time. And if you think about it, I think we’re just becoming more visible. There have been good shows with Black people on them for so long, and they just are overlooked and not thought about. I think what happened this year is that people had more time to watch, but they also felt more inclined to watch, because I think they were feeling like, I need to do better.
So I’m glad. I’m glad that that work is being recognized. The Emmys feel very silly compared to the death of George Floyd. But it all has to do with the shift in our country in terms of Black people being seen.
Sometimes people talk about awards as being unimportant, but for the reasons you’re saying, I think they can be important, especially when you’re talking about representation. That demonstrates to people that not only are these shows important, but it gives other creative people something to aspire to.
I grew up in Iowa. I grew up around more Black people than most people would think for being in Iowa, but the majority of Black people I saw were on television. Those were my own people. Without spending time at my grandmother’s house on the South Side of Chicago every summer, it would have been my main source of most of my Black influences, specifically for hip-hop and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t get none of that shit in Iowa. But I think about people who still do not live in very diverse areas, and the only time they really interact with authentic Black stories is on television. So it’s really important not only that we’re acting in things, but that we’re creating and writing and directing. It’s so important that we authentically tell our stories so that people understand. For so long, there was so much misunderstanding about Black Lives Matter and people being like, “No, all lives matter.” We’re like, “We’re not saying that.” Of course all lives matter. We just want to be included in all those lives, and we’re not. I think that was hard for people to understand, but I think they’re getting it now.