Yes, We Sketch TooWhat “A Black Lady Sketch Show” Means for Comedy

Gabrielle Dennis, left, Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, and Robin Thede in A Black Lady Sketch Show. (Photo credit: HBO)

As Black women slowly carve space for themselves in comedy—a market that seems more saturated now than it’s ever been before—sketch comedy continues to offer less opportunities than stand-up. Though Esquire has begun calling the recent wave of new sketch series a full-on comedy revival, the landscape has looked rather bleak for Black women sketch comedians—even after Saturday Night Live, the longest running sketch comedy show in America, responded publicly to its lack of Black women players in 2013 when Kerry Washington called out the lack of Black women characters on the show.

The producers joked, “we agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future…unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.” The apology wasn’t promising. Anyone looking for a sketch comedy show on television that makes room for multiple Black women and showcases their full comedic range might have been at a loss—until A Black Lady Sketch Show debuted on HBO on August 2. It’s no small feat that ABLSS is the first sketch-comedy show to be directed by, written by, and starring Black women, and given the limited history of Black women in televised sketch series, the show’s mere existence is somewhat of a miracle. 

Sketch comedy has long been a genre that disrespects and tokenizes Black actresses. For more than 40 years, SNL has been a cornerstone of sketch comedy, and the series has largely failed its Black actresses. Danitra Vance, the show’s first Black woman repertory player—and first known lesbian one too— has been all but lost in cultural memory. In the 1985 sketch “Shakespeare in the Slums,” Vance stands on the fire escape of a tenement building in character as Flotilda Williams, an actress playing Juliet in the latest production of “Shakespeare in the Slums.” As she renders Romeo and Juliet’s most famous speech, Flotilda dutifully peppers her performance with colorful explanations to her audience—lines like, “People in plays talk to theyselves a lot” and “Adieu…that mean bye.”

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The humor exists in the juxtaposition of Shakespeare with her unyielding and unruly African American Vernacular English—the sort of speech an audience might expect from a dark-skinned, “slum”-inhabiting Black woman named Flotilda but not of a classical actress. To a contemporary audience, Flotilda might seem like a regressive caricature. She is not unlike the other characters Vance played during her single season on SNL: recurring characters like Cabrini Green Jackson, a pregnant 17-year-old offering sex education to other teens, and Latoya Marie or ”That Black Girl,” an actress struggling to land roles because of her race in a parody of the 1960s sitcom That Girl. Vance was relegated to playing different versions of Black women during her brief SNL tenure despite her clear comedic brilliance.

Yet, Vance is doing something special here as comedian Marina Franklin notes in an interview with Vulture. The double-consciousness at play in “Shakespeare in the Slums”—the skirmish for the limelight between Flotilda and Juliet—is a sort of meta-representation of the double-consciousness one might imagine SNL agitated in Vance. Specifically, one might see two Vances in “Shakespeare in the Slums”: one constrained by the roles SNL imagined for her and a second Vance that shines through Flotilda. After all, Flotilda performs Shakespeare with such bravura because of Vance’s own extensive classical training as a Shakespearean actress, and she manages to captivate her audience in such a limited role because of her charm and high-energy comedic chops. Flotilda is aware of an audience that Vance seems to be even more keenly aware of, and in her masterful hands, the sketch becomes a display of the actress’ capabilities even on a show that underutilized her talents. In another world, Vance would’ve been a household name.

A little over three decades later, Sasheer Zamata quietly announced her departure from Saturday Night Live after four seasons of being underutilized. In a March 2018 post-departure interview with Elle, Zamata seemed to hint at the fate that Vance met 30 years before she did: “I’d rather take a risk and do my own thing in a way that makes me happy and feel fulfilled than get lost in the shuffle and hope that someone puts me in their thing or makes me a part of their machine…” Zamata’s “lost” is resonant as both her and Vance’s talents seemed obscured on SNL. In some ways, Zamata entered a space where she couldn’t win. SNL hired her after they were bombarded with criticism for not having Black women players, and the show still required her to both transcend and assimilate in hopes of making a name for herself.

Though SNL has launched many white female comedians to superstardom, including Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Melissa McCarthy, Zamata’s tenure seemed to re-expose rather than heal one of the show’s remaining scabs. Since Zamata’s departure in 2017, Ego Nwodim has joined Leslie Jones—who faced online harassment due to her position on the show alongside her role in the 2016 Ghostbusters remake. This issue isn’t just limited to SNL. Sketch comedy has been slow to ditch the white boys’ club branding that has marked it since Your Show of Shows blasted the form to television audiences in 1954. This is not to ignore the talent that those like Kim Wayans brought to In Living Color in 1994 or the talent showcased on Mad TV and Chapelle’s Show in the early 2000s. Sketch comedy has even diversified since Key and Peele debuted in 2012—2019 alone has seen a reboot of All That and the debut of Broad City alum Arturo Castro’s Alternatino.

Holly Walker, Robin Thede, Quinta Brunson, Daniele Gaither in A Black Lady Sketch Show (Photo credit: HBO)

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Enter ABLSS: In many ways, A Black Lady Sketch Show is a culmination of Robin Thede’s long sketch-comedy career, which has included performing improv at Second City, being a part of the all-women sketch group Elite Delta Force 3, and appearing on Key and Peele. ABLSS is only one of a series of firsts for Thede: She was the first Black woman to serve as the head writer of a late-night show, and the first Black woman to be the head writer for the White House Correspondents Dinner. The show’s strength is that its aware of its novelty and its subtle nods to its sketch comedy predecessors, with appearances from Garret Morris of SNL and David Alan Grier of In Living Color.

Helmed by executive producers Thede and Issa Rae and co-executive producer Lauren Ashley Smith, the show features a stunning core cast of Black women: Gabrielle Dennis, Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson, and Thede herself. While the series’ prowess stems from a level of Black female creative control never before seen on TV, not to mention the endless list stars set to make appearances, including Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Kelly Rowland. Quinta Brunson’s involvement is also of note. From BuzzFeed to a YouTube Red series to a series for Facebook, Brunson’s career path points to the ways digital platforms have begun to fight their way into comedy. Like Executive Producer Issa Rae, YouTube ultimately brought Brunson’s razor-sharp comedy to the attention of Larry Wilmore of The Daily Show, with Wilmore and Brunson slated to collaborate on CBS series Quinta and Jermaine.

A Black Lady Sketch Show is unique in that way. The series’ magical realism has real range—from a take on the familiar Black American meme of a zealous church congregation to a couple of absurdist sketches on office life that have little to do with Blackness at all. It’s radical to see Black women engage in the outlandish antics we have seen white men engage in for years without the constraint of roles like SNL’s Cabrini Green Jackson or the token Black friend to white women who overuse the word “ghetto.” On a 2011 episode of WTF with Marc Maron, Chris Rock explained his 1993 SNL departure for In Living Color saying, “I wanted to be in an environment where I didn’t have to translate the comedy I wanted to do.”

More than 20 years later, A Black Lady Sketch Show seems less concerned with translating Blackness to a white audience than it is with celebrating Blackness, flaunting Blackness, and just being—rather than playing—Black. Perhaps the subtler revolution here, second to the incredible list of firsts attached to the show, is the joy at the heart of ABLSS. A prominent sketch riffs on just how much fun Black women can have so much that it sometimes hurts. Some might view the fact that Black women still need to trailblaze and achieve firsts in 2019 as an indictment of the state of comedy, but perhaps A Black Lady Sketch Show’s Black, female vision is the only way these sketch comedians could get their due given the history of the genre and its gatekeepers. Being “That Black Girl” is a certain kind of spotlight; being a Black woman on a show dedicated to celebrating funny Black women, to giving them the creative freedom they deserve, is another. 

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Kriska Desir is a recent graduate of Tufts University, where she studied English and Film & Media Studies. She writes cultural criticism, screenplays, and relatable (over-sharing) tweets.