From creator/executive producer/writer/star Robin Thede and director Dime Davis, HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show is a hilarious new sketch comedy series with a core cast of black women – including Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Quinta Brunson – who tell an ongoing story as hyper-versions of themselves, stuck in a house together during an end-of-the-world event, while also taking on an array of varied characters. With a slew of celebrity guests and five to six sketches jam-packed into each half-hour, the episodes touch on everything from social norms, anxiety and religion to sex, dating and relationships.
While at the HBO portion of the Television Critics Association press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with the very funny Robin Thede to talk about her two decade long desire to make a show like this, why taking this show so seriously was important to her, how quickly this show went from pitch to on the air, the process of coming up with so many sketches, having a hand in designing the puppets for the opening of the series (and a background in puppets!), how much fun it was to work with the celebrity guest cast, her hope for Season 2, and what she’d like to do next.
Collider: I love that this show has puppets!
ROBIN THEDE: I know!
How awesome is that?
THEDE: So awesome! It’s a dream come true.
Where do they live now?
THEDE: They live at Jax Media. I should not say where they live. Someone might steal them. They live in a vault at Fort Knox. They are in a building with security, for sure. They’re going to live there until we figure out what to do with them, but they’re under lock and key.
Was there a process of designing them and seeing them in different stages?
THEDE: Yes. Viva La Puppet, this company that did them, has done some of the best puppets, and they do all sorts of different fabrications. They came and did a 360 shoot of the whole cast. They literally shot our hair in close ups, especially for Ashley’s hair because it’s so involved. Then, we decided what materials we would use. My hair is felt. Gabrielle’s is braided t-shirts, or something. They took so much care designing those puppets, and they’re so much fun. We wanted them a certain size because I wanted them to be able to interact with humans, but still look like puppets. If they were too small, then they couldn’t make out with people. So, we made the heads bigger than the bodies. There’s a lot of thought that went into it. We were like, “Oh, the cheekbones need to be more pronounced here. The eyes need to be more almond shaped.” Everything was down to the finest detail, including their make-up. They hand-painted my eye color because they were like, “We can’t find green that color.” They were amazing.
Did you have any idea that you would be spending so much time designing puppets on this show?
THEDE: Yes. It was my dream. I wanted to. That was some of the most fun. It was easy because it was a very relaxing process. They would just show you amazing things, and they would bring you samples, and you could touch everything and pick their skin color, and all of that fun stuff. Then, once we got to the day to shoot it, it was after principal photography, so I was able to direct the open. Dime [Davis] directed the whole series, expertly, but she was onto another show, so I directed the open. It was crazy, seeing them manipulate the puppets. I was like, “Okay, I don’t want to tell you how to do it, but it should be more like this.” And they were like, “No, it’s okay.” I told them about my puppet background. I was like, “You know, I know about puppets.” And they were like, “Great!” They really took me under their wing, and it was just a really fun collaboration. Only on a sketch show, can you do that kind of silly stuff.
How do you have a puppet background? Where did that come from?
THEDE: I used to tour the country with a Christian puppet group, when I was 13 to 16 years old, and we had folks from the Jim Henson School come out and teach us how to puppeteer. It’s very taxing work, by the way. It takes a lot of strength training. Your arm has to not run out of blood because [you constantly have your arm up]. It’s really fun. And I never lost that training. I used to do sketch shows with Wyatt Cenac, and we would incorporate a puppet into our sketches because he loves puppets just as much. He used them on The Daily Show, and I think he’s done it on Problem Areas, too. So, I have a long history of loving puppets and doing sketch.
How did this show happen? Was this something that you’d thought about for a long time?
THEDE: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to do this for two decades. I’ve been performing with black women and men, doing live shows, for years, and I thought it was just time. I think that black women, for so long, have been complaining about, “We need more representation on SNL, or on this show,” or whatever. Well, why are we complaining? Let’s just make our own. I wanted to do that, and it was really important to me because I know so many black women who are so funny and so talented. After The Rundown, my late night show, got canceled, Issa Rae called me and said, “Let’s make something together. What do you have?” I said,”I really want to do this sketch show, and I’ve been out pitching it. There was some interest.” She was like, “Bring it to HBO.” They bought it in the meeting and gave us six episodes. It really was that easy, which is insane. People are always like, “I was in development for three years.” And I’m like, “I had no development. I didn’t have a pilot. I just made a show.” Amy Gravitt, to her credit, was like, “We’re gonna get this on air fast because we know that sketch gets stale.” We started writing in January, and premiered in August, which for any network, truly is insane. We’re really lucky to have the partners that we have.