Robin Thede Is on a Mission

LOS ANGELES — “I’m so glad we’re all here.”

Robin Thede, the creator, showrunner, writer and star of HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” was talking aloud to no one in particular at a photo shoot earlier this month, beaming as she surveyed a room populated by what could accurately be called “a Black lady P.R. team” and “a Black lady stylist team” (not to mention “a Black lady journalist”).

Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, the weather was uncommonly dreary, but Thede brightened the mood by pulling silly faces between camera snaps, trading favorite one-liners from the 2006 goofball comedy “Talladega Nights” and grooving along to the ’90s R&B playlist bumping out of the nearby speakers.

The shoot was part of a press blitz to promote her show’s fourth season, which premiered this month, and Thede cultivated an environment ripe with the same elements that make the series shine: an easy air of familiarity, an unbridled playfulness and an informal sisterhood of Black women flexing their professional and creative muscles.

Since its 2019 debut, “A.B.L.S.S.” has racked up 13 Emmy nominations and three wins, while propelling the careers of cast members like Quinta Brunson, of “Abbott Elementary” fame, and Ashley Nicole Black, the “Ted Lasso” producer and writer.

Season 4 brings more of the show’s signature elaborate custom wigs, over-the-top accents and daffy scenarios, including a Senate hearing on livestreaming raunchy bachelorette parties and a tea-spilling talk show hosted secretly in a workplace ladies’ restroom. There’s also a new crop of celebrity cameos from performers like Tracee Ellis Ross and the sketch comedy veteran Debra Wilson and from friends of the show including Yvette Nicole Brown and Issa Rae, who both received Emmy nods for previous guest spots. (Rae is also an executive producer.)

Thede and the returning players Gabrielle Dennis and Skye Townsend are joined by three newcomers — the TikTok star DaMya Gurley; the singer-actress Tamara Jade, best known for a run on “The Voice”; and the Instagram comedian Angel Laketa Moore. Together, they take the show to new heights of physicality by flipping, twerking and hitting splits at a breakneck pace. Even their lines are delivered at a rapid-fire clip.

From left, DaMya Gurley, Tamara Jade, Skye Townsend, Gabrielle Dennis, Angel Laketa Moore and Thede in the new season, which brought in three new cast members.Credit…Tina Thorpe/HBO

“People are going to feel exhausted after each episode,” Thede said. “This season is all about physical comedy and stupid sound effects — we put so many basketball sneaker squeaks in places where they don’t belong!”

New onscreen shenanigans and foley fun aside, the show’s mission is unchanged: to provide a showcase for the talents of Black female writers, directors, editors and crew members who are otherwise underrepresented in the TV industry.

“I’ve been making the same show for five years,” she said, adding, “I insulate myself with a crew of 110 Black women and we all support each other.”

Before creating “A.B.L.S.S.,” Thede hosted her own talk show, BET’s “The Rundown,” and achieved two comedy “firsts”: first Black woman to become head writer for a late-night show (“The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore”) and first Black woman to be head writer for the White House Correspondents Dinner (in 2016). But she prefers to focus her attention on who’s got next, and how she can help them get there.

Once the photographer’s cameras and lights were packed up, Thede sat down to talk about her dedication to helping Black women level up and the adorable obsession that helps keep her grounded. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

As in previous years, you’ve added some performers for the new season. Were there any challenges in getting the new cast members up to speed?

No. I think it’s the benefit of having done multiple seasons — they were such students of the show that they already knew it. All three of them, [before they were cast], had tweeted: “I’m going to be on ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show.’” I love that! Thousands of women do that and tag us in it. That’s what this show’s supposed to be — it’s not the “Robin Thede Sketch Show,” the “Gabrielle Dennis and Skye Townsend Sketch Show.” It’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” The audience feels a part of it.

From left, Dennis, Thede and Townsend during shooting for the new season, which includes several recurring characters and celebrity cameos.Credit…Tina Thorpe/HBO

We see quite a few recurring characters come back in Season 4. Is that because the actresses really enjoy playing those roles, or was it more about responding to audience feedback?

We don’t bring characters or story lines back unless we really feel like we have something good. We have the Coral Reefs back; we have “Courtroom Kiki” back. It’s really about if we have a new take on it that’s funny. Of course, we take into consideration if the audience sparked with the character. But even if they didn’t, we don’t care. We love exploring [the characters’] lives, 360. There was this little character Blade that Gabrielle played two seasons ago that didn’t have a single line. Then we learned that Blade had become this magician later in life, in “Track Girl Magic,” in Season 3.

Sometimes, it’s those little one-line characters that can come back and surprise people. I always tell people, if you invest in the Easter eggs and the larger allegory of the show, you’re going to get so much more out of it. But even if you don’t, you’re going to get pure laughs.

Where do the sketch ideas come from?

We try to capture so many different types of Black women on the show that you don’t feel you’re just watching the same type of person over and over again. What I always try to challenge our writers to do is take two disparate things and put them together. This season, one of our writer-producers, Corin Wells, came up with a sketch where she said, “OK, what if we merged the N.B.A. Slam Dunk Contest and a baptism at a Black church?” I was like: “Yup! I’m here for it!” We took two very familiar experiences — basketball and church — and made an absurd combination. We did the same with a number of sketches because the show has one foot in reality, and then the rest of it is up in the air in this magical reality.

Is your creative process different now than it was in when the show started?

Every season is special in its own way, and the cast always has some sort of change, and the writers are different. I find that very freeing because it’s like, “Ooh, now we get to play with a whole new set of skills!” Every season, I approach with the curiosity and excitement of a 5-year-old.

With the first season, people were like, “Do you feel pressure?” and I’m like: “No. Should I?” Having run shows and created shows, I know that all I can do is create a good show. I always feel a certain amount of responsibility to represent us correctly, but I also know that I can’t be the voice of every Black woman, so I don’t try. If I was trying to do that, I would feel an intense amount of pressure.

“This should be a platform you can use to get to your next level,” Thede said. “Everyone who leaves elevates, and that’s a beautiful thing. That’s exactly the intention.”Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

When you’re one of the only ones, it can often feel like there’s an expectation for you to ——

I’m the only one. I’m the only Black woman who’s ever created a sketch show for American television. A couple of us have had variety but not pure sketch. But I hope that changes. I don’t want to be “the only.”

Your editing and writing teams have gotten some Emmy recognition over the past few years. Do you think that attention has helped widen lanes for Black women on other shows?

I don’t work on other shows, so I don’t know. My hope is that by showing the quality of work that we do, people won’t be so scared to hire Black women in their rooms. The proof is in the pudding, because people poach our writers every season. It’s hard for us to keep them for multiple seasons because they get hired and promoted and move up. And that’s the point — with the cast, the crew and the writers. This should be a platform you can use to get to your next level. Everyone who leaves elevates, and that’s a beautiful thing. That’s exactly the intention.

When you’re not writing or in production, how do you spend your days?

I never reveal anything personal, but this I can share: I’m obsessed with Corgis. I went to the Corgi Winter Nationals this year, which is where they race Welsh Corgis at Santa Anita Park on the grass, most of them running the wrong way. I took a bunch of my friends who were like, “This is going to be so weird,” and they loved it. L.A. has so many dumb things — red carpets and “cool” Hollywood things. I don’t remember industry parties, but I’ll remember the Corgi Winter Nationals.

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