Trinity is an “invisible” spy, accomplishing missions impossible because, as a plus-sized Black woman, society doesn’t see her.
Elisa is the leader of gang orientation, instructing new members on updated work-from-home procedures and paid parental leave policies.
Commanch Pitters II is a “Blackstorian” who explains that, in 1896, two Black women were eaten to death by zombies after being the first people to arrive at a party, a trauma that “reverberates across generations of Black people who refuse to be on time for anything, for fear of meeting certain death.”
These are the three of the approximately 30 characters—each—that Ashley Nicole Black and Gabrielle Dennis, along with their co-star and series creator Robin Thede, play on A Black Lady Sketch Show, which launches its second season on HBO on Friday.
When it premiered in August 2019, A Black Lady Sketch Show made history as the first-ever sketch show featuring an all-Black female cast and all-Black female writers’ room. As Thede told The Daily Beast at the time, “We’re just showing the world that we can do everything that other sketch shows really haven’t given us the opportunity to do.”
The series corrected the industry’s lie whenever a show is called out for its lack of diversity: that there aren’t women of color with enough experience or talent to fill the roles. “They’ve been here,” Thede said. “So that is a big lie, in front of and behind the camera, that needs to be debunked. And I think that’s what this show can do.”
Suffice to say, that’s exactly what the show did. It earned three Emmy nominations, won the Television Critics Association award for best sketch/variety series, scored the rare 100 percent fresh rating from reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes, and, maybe more importantly, inspired weekly Twitter viewing parties from enthusiastic fans relishing in sketch comedy that celebrated and showcased a Black female perspective.
“The best compliment that I ever get about this show—and I’ve gotten it a lot—is people saying, ‘I feel seen,’” says Black, talking to the Beast the week before the show’s premiere. “That’s all I ever wanted growing up as a little girl. Comedy didn’t even feel available to me because all the people you saw doing comedy didn’t look like me. I didn’t even know that it was an option for me.”
She remembers that, after the first season premiered, an interviewer asked what she hopes happens in the industry as a result of the show. “I said I hope a lot more fat people get into comedy,” she laughs. “Because there hasn’t been a lot of representation for us. The real point of it for me is for women, people of color, people with different bodies, and LGBTQ people to see themselves in a comedy show and not be getting made fun of, but being the one who’s having the fun.”
Adds Dennis, speaking with Black in a Zoom call, “Our show does a really good job of not punching down with our jokes. We uplift equally with our comedy.”
Before A Black Lady Sketch Show, Dennis was known for her roles on the TV series The Game and Luke Cage and for playing Whitney Houston in the BET miniseries The Bobby Brown Story. Black was a writer and correspondent for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, winning an Emmy in 2017, and is on the writing staff for The Amber Ruffin Show.
What strikes them about being a part of the Black Lady Sketch Show cast is being able to tap into the different sensibilities and talents that, because of the limited opportunities for Black women in television and the instinct to protect themselves against stereotypes, they’d never been able to fully embrace before.
“One of my favorite hands-down things to do is physical comedy, and I haven’t gotten a chance to do that in the past. Usually that’s reserved for men,” says Dennis.
“As artists, we train,” says Black. “When you’re coming up, you learn how to sing, how to dance, how to do Shakespeare. I did Thai classical dance in college. You learn how to do all these things, and then you get into the industry and it’s like, ‘Stand here and say the setup so the man can say the punch line.’ You don’t get to do all those things. What I love about this show is we do get to incorporate all those different styles.”
Last season there was a sketch written in iambic pentameter. That Shakespeare class paid off.
“This is going to sound weird, but I also love getting to play characters that are bad,” Black says. “When you’re the only Black woman on a show, you’re kind of representing Black women. Often you feel a pressure not to be mean or ugly or nasty because then you question, ‘Are you saying all Black women are mean?’ Now when you’re playing so many characters you can really indulge those other sides, because obviously we’re not saying all Black women are like this one character when there are 300 Black female characters on this show.”
The show also gets to make the point that not every type of person who earns the honor of being mocked—or, in this case, celebrated—has to be the outrageous, over-the-top variety. Especially when it comes to marginalized communities for which TV representation has often meant presenting the idealized version of that identity.
Take, for example, season one’s “Basic Ball,” a spoof of the ballroom competitions from Pose with categories such as “Clinical Depression” and “Just Awkward in the Body,” with contestants including “Mother Exhausted from the House of Tired” and “one of the eternal children of the House of Forever 21.” The commentary here: Unlike what you see on TV, not every LGBT+ person in the world is extremely attractive or talented. Even the normal gays deserve to be seen.
“I love that there’s so much more gay representation on television, but they’re all so hot,” laughs Black, who wrote the sketch. “I’m like, a lot of the gay people I know are just, like, dropping their kids off at preschool. Like, not everybody is this hot. So I really wanted to celebrate the basic people, of which I am one.”
Of the many systemic reasons why a series like A Black Lady Sketch Show took so long to exist, one is the fallacy that’s long-circulated in the industry: that white audiences wouldn’t relate to characters and stories revolving around people of color, or that convincing them to watch a show would require too much hand-holding to bridge a perceived cultural gap.
One of the things Black Lady Sketch Show explicitly does not do is waste its airtime educating or over-explaining its references or the experiences that may be specific to the Black community that it’s sending up in the show.
“It’s such a gift as a writer because, often when you’re the Black writer, you’re the only one,” Black says. “So you start your pitch by being like, ‘OK, here’s the thing that Black people do…’ and you kind of have to, like, educate the room. Then when you actually write the piece, you have to then build into the piece educating the audience.”
“I think the audience is much, much smarter than that,” she continues. “And I think what we’ve seen in the response to this show is that lots of people who are not Black women love this show. I feel like the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes.”
To that point, there was a decision that Thede made about the series when she, Black, and Dennis were partway through production that, while seemingly inconsequential, made a profound point. She changed the working title from “The” Black Lady Sketch Show to “A” Black Lady Sketch Show. Just because their show was the first, it shouldn’t be the only one. “What is the point in creating A Black Lady Sketch Show if I can’t open that door, you know?” she told the Beast.
While the pandemic shutdown may have slowed the reverberation of the show’s impact—season two is premiering 19 months after season one—Dennis and Black say they already see the effects of that door being opened.
“A lot of times we’re up against other images of what the country thinks and feels that we are and should be,” Dennis says. “It’s nice to have a sketch comedy show where you’re laughing with Black women and not at Black women.”
Plus, their show isn’t the only one with Black women in the forefront, and each one “helps add another step to the staircase in the right direction,” she adds. Together, these shows prove there are “other ways to take in Black women that are not in a traumatic space.”
“We’re showing our joy, our silliness, our craziness, our love of science fiction—these things that you haven’t seen a lot of Black women getting to play in this space,” says Black. “But I think we’re going to see more.”