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Casting funny women of color couldn’t have been simpler for Robin Thede

When the former NU student and ‘Rundown’ host needed comic talent for HBO’s ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show,’ great writers and performers were ‘ready to go.’

Robin Thede created and stars in “A Black Lady Sketch Show” on HBO.
Provided photo

When “The Rundown with Robin Thede” was canceled by BET in July 2018, the late-night talk show’s host didn’t stop to ponder her next move. Instead, Thede immediately teamed up with Issa Rae, creator and star of HBO’s “Insecure,” to pitch “A Black Lady Sketch Show” to the premium cable network, which scooped it up immediately.

The next steps were simple. Thede reached for her phone and texted three other women she knew would be perfect for the show: Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Quinta Brunson. One year and over 100 unique characters later, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is airing on HBO at 10 p.m. Fridays.

The show follows a traditional sketch comedy format, with short segments that tackle issues from misogyny in music to the absurdity of modern beauty standards through a “bad bitch support group.” The difference, as the name would suggest, is that the creative control of the show is completely in the hands of African American women, who also comprise the core cast.

“This is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time,” said Thede, the show’s creator, executive producer, writer and star. “What I want the world to know is that it was super easy for me to find three other women to fill out the core cast, because we’re out here and we’re doing this work and we’re really good at it.”

The strength of “A Black Lady Sketch Show” lies in the chemistry and diverse talents of that cast. Black, who is also a writer for the show, is a former writer and correspondent on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” where she earned six Emmy nominations and a win for variety special writing; Dennis has played roles on shows ranging from “Rosewood” to “Insecure” to “Luke Cage,” and Brunson is a comedian and Second City alum who rose to viral stardom with a web show and through her role as a producer at BuzzFeed, before leaving the company in 2018 to pursue other television opportunities.

Gabrielle Dennis (from left), Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black and Robin Thede lead the cast of “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”

This is not to mention the scores of famous black women who make memorable cameos on the show, including Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Patti LaBelle and, of course, Issa Rae.

“I have dozens of black women comedians I’m a fan of, and putting together this cast was really a no-brainer,” Thede said. “Each of them brings something really unique and special to the show and they’re all very different, and it did not take much to convince them to come.”

An Iowa native who attended Northwestern University, Thede is not new to sketch comedy. At NU, she founded the student group “Out Da Box,” which is still one of the campus’ most popular comedic groups, according to the university’s website. That led her to a role at Second City in Chicago, followed by writing gigs with “The Queen Latifah Show,” “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” the White House Correspondents Dinner and countless more comedians, specials and series.

Robin Thede (right, in makeup) appears with Quinta Brunson on “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”

Her wealth of experience in the medium has given her a refined perspective on the direction she wanted “A Black Lady Sketch Show” to go.

“I want to be able to make comedy that doesn’t hurt people and that makes black women be seen in a light that we haven’t been seen before … and that’s the point: We’re opening the door for much more to come behind us,” Thede said. “We don’t have to be the eye-rolling best friend all the time.”

On “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” that light shines brightly over a sprawling thematic surface area. The first season includes scenes from the end of the world, a spy thriller and a gang orientation, to name a few. One sketch, a modern-day love story, is done entirely in iambic pentameter.

“These are award-winning writers and comedians, and I think one of the great parts of this show ... is that I get to show the world how truly easy it is to assemble black women comedians,” Thede said. “People want to act like it’s really hard and it was literally just me casting and hiring writers out of my phone. ... We’re out here, we’re doing the work, we’re experienced and we’re ready to go.”