Television

A Black Lady Sketch Show Is the First of Its Kind. It Doesn’t Act Like It.

The cast of Robin Thede’s HBO show doesn’t need to make its experience legible to anyone but itself.

Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson, Robin Thede, and Gabrielle Dennis of <em>A Black Lady Sketch Show</em>.
Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson, Robin Thede, and Gabrielle Dennis of A Black Lady Sketch Show.
HBO

If there’s one thing to know about A Black Lady Sketch Show, the new HBO sketch comedy series built around a cast of four (you guessed it) black ladies, it’s that the indefinite article in the name was a choice. The show is the first of its kind, a sketch comedy series not only starring black women but also exclusively written and directed by them, with a supporting cast including Patti LaBelle, Laverne Cox, Gina Torres, Aja Naomi King, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, Lena Waithe, and so many more venerated black ladies.

But creator Robin Thede, herself a history-maker as the first black woman to lead a late-night writer’s room, has made a point in almost every interview of saying that while A Black Lady Sketch Show might be the first of its kind, it certainly won’t be the last. Nor does it purport to encapsulate the Black Lady Experience. In sketches that poke fun at the concept of blackness litmus tests, the show neatly sidesteps the pressure to represent a demographic that is never monolithic. And its far-ranging, genre-bending humor will be entirely familiar not just to anyone who’s spent time around funny black women, but to anyone whose time is spent steeped in a culture primarily driven by the labor and wit of black women.

In the longest-running gag of the first season, the core four black ladies (Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis, Ashley Nicole Black, and Thede) are all hanging out in Thede’s apartment, hours after a mysterious apocalyptic event that viewers quickly find out has left them the last remaining people on Earth. Black admits that she doesn’t cover her hair at night—a tenet of black ladyhood—and the confession is initially met with shock, derision, and hilariously accurate statements like “Unnecessary pain is an important part of being a black woman” and that sleeping on a satin pillowcase is like “sleeping on a roller coaster.” Eventually, the other three admit that there are tenets of black culture that they, too, don’t subscribe to: Brunson doesn’t eat chicken; Thede doesn’t like The Five Heartbeats. But their magnanimity has its limits: When Dennis confesses that she doesn’t wear lotion, she’s quickly abandoned. It’s a conversation that could have played out in the hair salon or on Black Twitter, with reaction shots that are almost lab-engineered to wind up in the arsenal of black lady GIFs.

As with all sketch shows, some of the sketches work better than others. Black’s portrayal of a spy whose secret weapon is her forgettable face was one of my favorites, along with Brunson and Dennis’ ill-fated attempt to patronize a new black-owned restaurant in their neighborhood. The show switches between them with a frenetic pace that conveys casual fluency in the language of the internet. (One of Thede’s characters offhandedly mentions being dumped in the comments of a Venmo transaction.) Though black women rarely take center stage, so much of internet culture and pop culture writ large is built on their voices. Our slang, our fashion, even our bodies have been rendered marketable—except when black women are the ones who stand to benefit. Black male comedians have, for years, relied on caricatures of black women to boost their careers while cheerfully maintaining that we are nothing but shrill harpies or silent caretakers of the community. A Black Lady Sketch Show shifts the focus back to where it should always have been.

The show neatly rebuts the assumption that establishing the black woman’s perspective as the default means sacrificing universality or relatability by tackling a far-ranging slate of topics from unrealistic beauty standards to depression to problematic wokeness (Thede’s turn as Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, who teaches a “Hertep Masterclass,” is riveting.) That this is all done in black women’s voices feels natural, if tragically uncommon on a network like HBO.

In the worlds that Thede and her collaborators have created, the existence of white people is taken for granted, and occasionally obliquely mentioned, but it’s never the focal point. A Black Lady Sketch Show is not a Black Panther simulacrum where the absence of whiteness is, at times, more keenly felt than a utopian vision of blackness. In the same way that it is assumed normal that nary a black person appears in the majority of Nancy Meyers’ extensive oeuvre or in any of the Lord of the Rings movies, the fact that there aren’t even white extras requires no explanation. Without white people on screen—and with men allowed only an inconsequential line or two every other skit—there is no one who these women have to make their experiences legible to but themselves. There is often a feeling when watching a show or a movie with a predominately black cast, that something is being explained or translated to a presumed white audience, and thus a sense of intimacy, of accuracy is lost. In not even attempting to translate, A Black Lady Sketch Show only gains.