A Black Lady Sketch Show, the HBO sketch-comedy series created by Robin Thede, has been renewed for a third season and nominated for five 2021 Emmys, including Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. The show has generated a host of recurring characters, two eerily prescient post-apocalyptic framing devices, and GIFs galore. It provides a spotlight for Black women and their comedy to shine. That’s womEN — plural — in every sketch, like it’s no big deal. As conversations continue about how to get even one dark-skinned woman in a project, it’s refreshing to see a show where that isn’t a concern.
Beyond being #brave, though, the show breaks the rules of sketch comedy to take it to strange new places. Sketches on ABLSS always make wild turns, or twist in on themselves. If you like a straightforward We have the one joke and we are going to hit that joke four times model of sketch comedy, then A Black Lady Sketch Show will be a challenging watch. But if you’re a fan of silly shit — genies, purgatories, Gilligan’s Island-style amnesia — this is the Black lady sketch show for you.
In order to construct a guide to the most essential ABLSS moments, we’ve narrowed the field to the top ten sketches from the show’s first two seasons. There are gorgeous performances going unsung in this completely unranked and unordered list. Skye Townsend’s platitude-spewing R&B songstress, Punkie Johnson’s Us-like dance-move biter, and Laci Mosley’s desperate lesbian commentator come to mind. But if a cream must be cropped, here are the ten best sketches from ABLSS so far.
“Bad Bitch Support Group”
Angela Bassett and Laverne Cox guest in this support-group sketch for women who need to shine 24/7. The sketch is one of the crowning glories of season one, a mission statement of sorts. It starts with cool guest stars, the recurring players are doing very heightened voices, and it all goes weird at the end. Everything you need to know about ABLSS is encapsulated in this one sketch.
“I Wish a N**GA Would”
ABLSS is one of the more magical realist sketch shows in recent memory. Lots of comedy shows have supernatural, magical, nonsensical elements to them, but many ABLSS scenes play out like fables. This one is a classic “Be careful what you wish for” situation, with a dude that pops into your house every time someone says “I wish a n**** would [blank].” These are Stardust-level fey folk rules, folks. Another great thing? This sketch gets a callback in a later scene about a wish-granting genie. The cosmology of ABLSS is internally consistent and strong.
“The Basic Ball”
Bob the Drag Queen emcees the only ball for women who emphatically do not have their lives together. This one is the shadow self of “Bad Bitch Support Group,” lifting up basic bitches where the other sketch problematized bad bitches. Most other sketches feature okay bitches and sus bitches, so the entire bitch spectrum is explored.
Puns are fun! Thede plays a woman who has to explain her poor performance on a date to a whole press pool of interested parties. Everyone in this sketch hits the cadence of their character perfectly, which is what sells a classic mapping sketch like this one.
In this sketch, three women (Thede, Gabrielle Dennis, and guest star Amber Riley) weigh in on one second of a Black woman’s leg and complain that it doesn’t represent their experiences as Black women. This is one you can’t find online, I think because it seems to be directly commenting on the show’s reception. It could come off too salty to make your “You know what? Fuck you!” embeddable, you know? But the frustration coming off the page on this one is wonderful and relatable for anyone who has tried to speak their truth, only to be shouted down because your truth isn’t someone else’s truth as well. They don’t even feel adequately represented by a TV-sized mirror. It’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, not The Black Lady Sketch Show. But until HBO revives Astronomy Club, ABLSS has to be all things to all HBO viewers.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one is immune to Bell Biv DeVoe. Potential family-reunion spats are diffused by the intro to “Poison,” perhaps the best song to come out of the entire New Jack Swing genre, in this season-two sketch. The arguments feel authentic, but the real joy of the sketch is hearing “Poison” a bunch of times. It only takes ten seconds max for that song to completely refresh your brain. The quintessential white people Pavlovian response song, “Sweet Caroline,” takes forever to get to the chorus.
“Black Table Talk”
Give Gabrielle Union everything. Thede’s “hertep” character lambasts a type of faux-woke grifter that, while existing before Twitter, certainly was given wings to soar on “Tariq Nasheed’s internet.” Using the Red Table Talk as a jumping-off point, Dr. Hadassah (pre-Ph.D.) interrogates Union about why she has a career, and how she can possibly be the kind of wife and mother the culture needs while also being able to read. The weaponization of the word “female” in this sketch is just one detail that makes this seemingly preposterous tableau feel all too real.
“On My Own”
Another entry in the magical realist sketches of ABLSS, this one dares to ask “What if Patti LaBelle was summoned every time you got dumped?” Could be nice! Could also be intrusive when you’re just trying to sit in the bad feelings for a minute. Ashley Nicole Black sells the frustration of this magical curse she’s found herself under, while LaBelle radiates patience for this lost, ungrateful little lamb.
Sometimes not being male-gaze-approved really does feel like a superpower. In this sketch, Black plays Trinity, a woman so average-looking that she’s basically invisible. Her foes get distracted by other women, which allows her to break and enter and decrypt and all that other spy stuff. The best segment in this series is when she meets an equally nondescript enemy spy played by Nicole Byer, and the two find solidarity instead of fighting.
“Chris and Lachel: Altar Falter”
Thede’s Chris and Quinta Brunson’s Lachel wander through season one, having just the most difficult time communicating. Their wedding is a standout: Chris cannot say “I do,” because it would rob him of his obliqueness — a characteristic he has put a lot of ego-definition into, for some ungodly reason. To be honest, if the traditional wedding vows were replaced with “I fucks with you,” would anyone really miss the “to have and to hold” stuff? For what is a marriage, if not waking up every day and agreeing to fucks with someone yet again?