Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.
For three seasons, A Black Lady Sketch Show has delivered pointed, twisty comedy on HBO. It has earned eight Emmy nominations (including one win), made space for basic bitches in the national conversation, and provided fun cameo moments for celebrities galore. According to series creator Robin Thede, season three features more than 40 celebrity guest stars in six episodes. Twenty of them appear in the first episode alone.
Thede has worked in sketch comedy for years and was a fan long before. She has amassed a number of sketches that she shows in writers’ rooms to illustrate what can be done with the genre — including 2007’s “What Really Happened to Abe Lincoln” from The Whitest Kids U’ Know. Founded by Zach Cregger, Sam Brown, Timmy Williams, Darren Trumeter, and late “local sexpot” Trevor Moore, the Whitest Kids hung a lampshade on their troupe’s demographic makeup — just like ABLSS. The group did political sketches but also reveled in deeply stupid takes on the Civil War. “Lincoln” was a prelude to The Civil War on Drugs, the Whitest Kids’ magnum opus about that era of history. Thede expounds on her love for “Lincoln” — from Moore’s levels of rage to the floppiness of Abe’s hat. She also discusses what it’s like to fine-tune the third season of ABLSS — down to finding jokes in the sound mixing.
What do you love about this Lincoln sketch?
I rewatch it a lot. I was reminded of it last year, obviously, when Trevor Moore sadly passed away. I love absurdist comedy, and the Whitest Kids U’ Know just did some of the greatest modern absurdist comedy. What I love about “What Really Happened to Abraham Lincoln” is this revisionist history about one of our greatest presidents. It’s really funny because Trevor Moore — who plays John Wilkes Booth in the sketch — is just so frustrated with Zach, who’s playing Abraham Lincoln. He’s just being a dick, and the levels of escalation that they go to in the sketch always amazed me.
It starts so weird and just gets weirder.
The sketch starts out with them watching a vampire version of Hamlet, which could have been a sketch in and of itself. And then, John Wilkes Booth is sitting with his wife, and he’s getting really annoyed at Lincoln, who keeps yelling at the actors onstage. Now, you know, as a Black comedian, I love people yelling at the stage, because this is what we do when we go to movies. It’s a call and response; we like to give our support. I love the idea that a historical hero can be an asshole.
They do such a great job of modernizing a tale from the 1800s, but there’s all this modern language too. Abraham Lincoln is yelling at him: “I don’t know why you’re looking up at me, bitch — the play’s onstage!” It’s just one of those iconic underrated sketches.
Are you a fan of the group’s work in general?
I think the Whitest Kids U’ Know are underrated. Period. They were on two different networks for five years, but if you mention the show to a lot of people, I don’t think they know about it anymore. That’s sad, because it was silly and ridiculous. It felt like they played in a way that was unfettered by notes; they got to have so much fun.
This sketch encompasses the things that I love: revisionist history, icons being assholes, and hilarious concepts. Again, I would watch Vampire Hamlet all on its own. But then you broaden out the scene and get to see Lincoln acting like an asshole. And who knows? Maybe he was! Everybody’s like, “Yeah, Lincoln freed the slaves,” but maybe he was a dick! We don’t know! Only Daniel Day-Lewis knows.
Every time I watch the sketch, I see something different. It’s really perfect on so many levels. I make my writers watch this — and a couple of other sketches from Chappelle and In Living Color and some other shows — as these absurdist examples of how you can take something that we think we know something about and flip it on its head.
It’s crazy how many, as you say, levels there are to the sketch when it’s that short. And a lot of Whitest Kids sketches were short. Do you have a feeling for how long a sketch has to be to get on TV?
Yes, I have very strict rules about this actually. Thank you for asking. I used to say that no sketch should be over three minutes and thirty seconds, but that’s only if you don’t have a full beginning, middle twist, and end.
A Black Lady Sketch Show is, like, my seventh sketch show that I’ve written on or performed in, but it’s the first one I’ve created. All of our sketches have to have a narrative journey. That’s why I love the Abraham Lincoln sketch so much. It has the beginning where you think it’s Vampire Hamlet, then, in the middle, it switches. It becomes this conflict between two opposing forces, and there are all these beats in the way. Then you get to the twist, which is that we’ve rewritten history and that’s actually how John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln.
That has challenged what I think the length of sketches can be. On our show, we’ve done sketches that were over six minutes, which most shows wouldn’t do, but if you have a strong narrative and a full journey and characters that are three-dimensional, you can go five, six minutes without issue. But, honestly, usually anything over five minutes is way too long. And if you’re only doing one joke, or a character is just repeating a catchphrase, I don’t think they should be more than three, three and half minutes.
This sketch lets you know right from jump that it’s going to be dumb as hell, because it starts with Hamlet talking to a white Othello about vampires. How do you feel about your work being called “dumb”? I personally think it’s a compliment — it takes no thought to find it funny.
It is, 100 percent! I remember in the first season, we had a joke where we said that a dude that Quinta and I had dated had a “Flintstone dick,” and everyone was like, “What does that mean?” We define it in the dialogue as “you have to use your feet to make it work.” I remember, even in the writers’ room, I said the joke and the writers were like, “Some of us get that joke; some of us don’t.” And I said, “That’s fine, because you’re all laughing.” It’s a joke where, even if you’re really confused, it sounds funny. And it’s a dumb joke; it’s so stupid. But to me, when people are like, “Oh my God, you are so dumb. I hate you,” I’m like, “Thank you so much!” You can’t run up to an accountant and be like, “Oh my God, you so stupid for these numbers!” But in my job, it’s the highest compliment.
The sketch takes one of the few universally beloved presidents and asks: What if he was an asshole? If we’re being honest, I don’t think there is a president who wasn’t an asshole in some way.
Correct. Lincoln freed the slaves, but if you really examine why he freed the slaves, he’s not as noble as we would be led to believe. The net good of it was great, but there were some really fucked-up things that Lincoln did too. So, for me, it never feels like a stretch to think that a white man living in the 1800s while slavery was still in vogue would’ve been a dick. He had ultimate power. He was part of a society that believed that enslaving Black people was okay — and that murdering Indigenous people was okay. He was a product of his time. He would be a bit of a dick.
The group has said that they did this sketch for years, and they never bought a stovepipe hat. Zach would just make one out of construction paper before every show. Your show has very high production value while Whitest Kids has a very intentional DIY energy. I’m sure you’ve done plenty of both.
Oh yeah, all of it.
What changes when the production value goes up like that?
You know what the change is? Half of my closet at home used to be props, wigs, and costumes, because it was so DIY. Now, I do not have one wig or prop in my house. So that’s the difference for me: I don’t have to go to the dollar store and craft something together to make it work.
I’m thinking about when one of my sketch groups was going to Chicago to do a show and we had prop guns. We had taken out the plugs that make them look fake, and we got stopped by security. They were like, “Why do you have all these guns?!” And I told them, “We’re a sketch-comedy group — it’s not what you think!” [Laughs.] We got detained a little bit by TSA. But, yeah, gone are the days when I had to take prop guns on an airplane, because they didn’t have any there and we certainly couldn’t afford two sets.
It’s much more of a collaboration — having a whole five-person team to do props. We try to be very specific about them on the show. We put a lot of Easter eggs in with art design and production design. I don’t think people really know this as much as they should — and I should talk about it more — but there’s an Easter egg from another sketch in every sketch. They’re visible, and you can see them if you really know the show. In season three, in the interstitial story line, we’re going to give people some answers they’ve been waiting for since season one. If you rewatch all of the seasons, you’ll see how everything is interconnected, and a lot of that has to do with props and production design.
Do you have an example of a small Easter egg to get people started on this hunt?
There’s an easy one in season one in the “Invisible Spy” sketch. When Trinity goes to the record label to take down the crime boss who turns out to be Nicole Byer, behind her are a bunch of gold and platinum records. The one right behind Nicole’s head is by Claude and the Boppers. They are a Motown group from a sketch called “Motown Meltdown” earlier in the season. Things like that connect the show.
And that has come from the show being collaborative?
Members of my team, many of whom have been at the show since day one, love coming there, because they know that they also have a voice. My writers, my production design team, my props team, hair, makeup, wardrobe, our director, everybody — they all can come and say, “Okay, I have this idea for this; is this what the writers intended? And if not, will this elevate it comedically?” It continues with props, set design, shot choices, the color and sound mixes. As we mix the last two episodes, we’re finding jokes now, audio-wise, that we didn’t even realize were there.
What’s a joke that you’ve found in the props or audio mix?
Sometimes it’s really funny to hear something fall. This is kind of Sketch Comedy 101, but, if someone falls down, you enhance that sound. It’s always funny. But the absence of sound can be really funny as well. In the Last Supper sketch last year, where Mary Magdalene is haranguing her three best girlfriends by making them sit at the kiddie table, Skye’s character — she’s an ex-ho always feeling guilty about having slept with a bunch of men — is like, “What, you’ve never slept with anybody for loaves and fishes?” Ashley’s and my characters are like, “… What?” It’s just a moment of silence that sets off this moment of us yelling at her — horribly embarrassing her character. There are moments when we weaponize silence rather than enhancing sound to make something funny.
We think about all of that down to the most minute detail, because we look at these as short films. When it’s the next sketch, it’s a whole new language we’re using. What’s really cool about this season is that some of these characters that have been in their own worlds are going to start to meet. So that will be interesting, too, because now you’re mixing different styles when characters meet. Whose universe is stronger? We’re really pushing the boundaries of what dumb comedy can be.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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