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Gabrielle Dennis Will Gladly Injure Herself for Comedy

Photo: Randy Shropshire/Deadline via Getty Images

The fourth season of HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show introduces a wrinkle into the through-line that connected the first three seasons of the show. Gone are the interstitials of the cast quarantining together after a mysterious apocalyptic event. In their place are segments called “Actors Behind the Lens Speaking Seriously,” where an “actor” from the previous sketch is interviewed about the sketch they just appeared in. Of course, this is A Black Lady Sketch Show, so the “actors” are broad sketch characters too, and their interviews immediately devolve into wild tangents.

In one of these segments during the sixth episode, cast member Gabrielle Dennis gets a chance to flex. Within a span of 20 seconds, she drops in and out of four different characters, switching her voice and reconfiguring her face completely to inhabit each one. One moment, she’s Noemié Marceau, a pretentious French actress in crisis. Then she swivels her head and becomes Karlie Chanel, a presentationally sunny inspirational speaker. It’s an impressive display of range, one Dennis has demonstrated across the dozens of characters she’s played on A Black Lady Sketch Show — where, along with creator Robin Thede, she is one of two remaining original cast members — and one she puts to use in her other current roles as Cass, the warm but unfulfilled heart of Apple TV+’s dramedy The Big Door Prize, and Tasha Lewis on Netflix’s multi-cam The Upshaws. The three shows couldn’t be more dissimilar, but Dennis feels equally at home in all of their worlds.

Ahead of the season finales of A Black Lady Sketch Show and Big Door Prize — seven days before SAG-AFTRA called for a vote to authorize a strike — Dennis spoke about how A Black Lady Sketch Show has evolved since its first season, the ongoing WGA strike, and more.

It’s rare for actors to be in the cast of three shows on air at the same time. How much are you able to zoom out and appreciate that as it’s happening?
It’s funny — I don’t think I realized that until someone started tweeting about it a couple of weeks ago, and I was like, Oh, I guess that’s unique. But I think I’ve just worked so hard for so long, I haven’t really grasped it. I got so focused and locked into the work because I’ve been shooting everything back-to-back or simultaneously. But the fact that all of these producers and showrunners have been able to make the space available for me has been a blessing. And each of these shows has a fan base that really, really loves it. It’s definitely something I’m proud of.

How have you seen A Black Lady Sketch Show grow and evolve since the first season?
I think every season just feels like a fresh, new opportunity to play. Our cast has changed so much from season one, so it’s a new opportunity for the writers to create different characters that fit these different performers. And as an original cast member, I’m able to go in and find a way to incorporate some of the characters we’ve already established, while finding new ways to play with different talent too. It’s been exciting to watch me and Robin — having been there from day one — grow our timing and ability to riff off each other, and almost read each other’s mind. There’s a scene we did where we are on a treasure hunt, and I’m literally just mirroring everything that Robin’s doing. We can now do full improvised physical comedy, because we’ve grown with each other over these past four seasons. We have this sisterhood. It’s still the only show of its kind, and that’s something really special

Who’s your favorite recurring character you’ve had a chance to play?
It’s probably a tie between Mary Magdalene and Elisa. Elisa probably wins, just because I love doing physical comedy and she really allows me to stretch that muscle, even when it’s by accident. In the last season, we did an Elisa sketch where we were at a retreat, and I went down into this split — I wasn’t planning to land in a split, but I fell into a split — and they kept it on-camera. That’s how engrossed physically that character lets me get. I’m always injured. I’m always breaking skin, bumping something, or hurting myself, but in the moment, I don’t even realize it.

I missed the “Teacher Who Needs a Win” this season. I was hoping we’d get an appearance from her.
I know. I love her so much. I wish we got more Ms. Miller. What I loved about her was —  specifically that first season — we did a lot of hard turns where sketches ended somewhere different than we thought they were going. And with that character, I was able to play these legit, grounded, actor-y moments, but then also find some funny. With that sketch, a lot of people were like, “Why did I tear up? Why am I choking up at this thing, but also laughing?” That little three-minute clip really took the audience on this emotional roller coaster.

There is one “Actors Behind the Lens Speaking Seriously” interstitial where you get a chance to cycle through a bunch of different characters in quick succession. How difficult was that to do?
It’s difficult, but you just kind of rehearse it. Vocally, it’s easier to dive into some of the voices than others, and I wanted it to feel as seamless as possible. So I think we switched out one or two of those voices, because I wanted them to feel as distinct as possible. But it was an honor that Robin and the team entrusted me to accomplish that multilayered moment in 30 seconds. Like you said, it was four or five different voices, and then adding the physicality to it for each one. I really loved how those interstitials buttoned up in the season finale.

This is off topic, but I stumbled across some small clips of your old stand-up online and I thought it was really good!
Thank you! I didn’t even know that was still online. That was from back when I was putting stuff together for my Saturday Night Live reel. I was one of the girls they flew out when Kenan Thompson made that comment about not having a Black woman on the show. A complete bucket-list experience that I was able to cross out: SNL flew me out, and I got to test for that. I tested the same year that Leslie Jones got it, with a whole crop of funny, funny ladies.

What else do you remember about that experience? 
The producers at the show thought we were weirdos, because we were just so excited. Most of us were friends, or we knew each other in this small circuit of Black comedians. Going there, the vibe was like, Whoever’s gonna get this, we’re rooting for them. A win for one of us is a win for all of us.

Back then, I had this flip camera — when the flip camera was still a thing — and I was walking around with my flip camera and interviewing people behind the scenes and just being a complete weirdo. One of the producers was like, “This is very interesting. We’ve never seen this dynamic among people competing against each other. Usually, you all go to your separate dressing rooms and you don’t talk to each other the entire time.” And I was like, “Oh, well, maybe I should go get focused on my audition, but I just feel like this is fun!” There was all of this excitement being backstage and rooting for each other and cheering each other on.

Robin has spoken about not wanting to write too many sketches that feature a traditional straight-man character. But as Cass on The Big Door Prize, it seems that role often falls to you. Do you like being able to show that side of your range as much as you like playing big, broad characters?
It’s hard, because I’m used to not being the straight man. I find my little moments here and there, but for the most part, it’s very hard to reserve myself and not find a moment to jump in on the jokes. But what I love is that I get to be in this comedy space but also showcase a little bit more of my theatrical background. It’s a nice balance for me. And I won’t say the work is easy, but it’s definitely easier than running around and doing all the physical comedy.

The show’s tone is hard to pin down. It feels like a light comedy, but it’s also a sci-fi that deals with big, existential issues. How much did you have to go back and forth with showrunner David West Read to understand what the show is shooting for tonally?
I don’t feel like I understood the tone until I saw the first episode! Even leading up to the first press tour, I was like, “Guys, how do we wrap this up in one or two sentences?”

I think, based on where you are in your life personally, the existential themes of the show will guide you on whether it falls more toward comedy or drama for you. Some people walk away feeling … I don’t want to say depressed, but it’s very rattling to their system in a way. You watch the show and it’s asking these existential questions, and when you sit down in a quiet room by yourself and try to interpret the parallels in your own life, it can get dark quick. That’s why I love that there is the comedy element, because it could be a show that gets very dark.

The Big Door Prize was recently renewed for season two, but I imagine the writing of it will be delayed by the WGA strike. Do you have any thoughts about the strike you would like to share? 
I’m very pro-union, and I’m just hoping that the writers are able to get what they need out of their contracts. Obviously, it all starts there. Unless actors are going to get on-camera and just start improvising television from here on out, we’re back to reality TV. I’m really hoping that things come to a favorable compromise for the writers so we can all get back to work, but we’ll support them as long as we need to. Hopefully it won’t go too long, because it does affect so many people, but they’re doing the right thing. The whole point of unions is to have your voices heard. And I plan on getting on the picket lines and showing my support. I have a lot of writer friends, and I really value and appreciate the work they put forth for me to do my job.

Gabrielle Dennis Will Gladly Injure Herself for Comedy