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Robin Thede aims for laughs, longevity and legacy

Apr 20, 2023, 9:52 AM

Robin Thede poses for a portrait to promote her HBO series, “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” on Wedn...

Robin Thede poses for a portrait to promote her HBO series, “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Gary Gerard Hamilton)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Gary Gerard Hamilton)

NEW YORK (AP) — Success in television can be measured in many ways, but one of Robin Thede’s sure tell signs is longevity.

“A season four is a testament to the most appreciation, right? Because we’ve seen a lot of great shows — I’ve created a lot of great shows — that don’t last as long. And it’s not for lack of quality,” said the creator and star of “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” “There’s so many options that you have today on TV. So, the fact that people want to spend six episodes with us is great.”

HBO’s hit sketch comedy returned last week, positioned to be bigger and more expansive than ever. The three-time, Emmy-winning show welcomes new cast members, DaMya Gurley, Tamara Jade and Angel Laketa Moore, to its hilarious foundation of Thede, Gabrielle Dennis and Skye Townsend.

“My vision was to allow the most voices as possible to create this plethora of Black lady voices that lead to what the show is now and honestly, it’s become bigger than me,” explained Thede.

Supported by a staff of women of color in all departments, Thede is grateful for the fanfare, but she also expected it, saying she never heard naysayers remark that a sketch series by Black women, primarily for — but not limited to — Black women, would fail.

“No one ever said that….I guess maybe that should’ve happened. We also were so cocky about it. We’re like, ‘This is going to be great!’ Our only goal was excellence,” said Thede of her and fellow executive producer Issa Rae. “I’ve always gone, ‘This is the greatest show on earth! Why wouldn’t someone want to be here?’…I just think the concept of it was so dope that people were already on board and they wanted to support.”

This fourth season shies away from its previous mysterious, dark twist sketches and moves toward big laugh-in your-face comedy. Part of the magic resides in guest stars, and this season boasts names like Tracee Ellis Ross, Colman Domingo, Jay Ellis and Kym Whitley, while past guests like Rae, Yvette Nicole Brown and Jackée Harry return.

The Second City alum says Oscar-nominee Angela Bassett, who displayed her comedic chops in the first season, helped show the series is safe and fun for all actors. While she doesn’t hold auditions for guest spots, she frequently taps into her entertainment network and friends, saying recruiting is among the easiest parts of the gig.

The writers room, comprised of all Black women with a wide array of life experiences, backgrounds and viewpoints, begins each season with about 100 ideas and whittles it down to around 30 to form the season. Thede says the show stays funny by “keeping the voices fresh, keeping the cast fresh, much to some people’s dismay,” she said with a laugh. “I want this to be a place where people don’t stay forever. I want this to be a place that’s the jump-off to your next thing.”

So far, it’s worked: Emmy winner and “Abbott Elementary” creator Quinta Brunson starred in season one, and Ashley Nicole Black went on to win an Emmy for “Ted Lasso.”

“A Black Lady Sketch Show” show brought home two Emmy awards for last season: outstanding directing for a variety series and a second consecutive win for outstanding picture editing for variety programming.

Raised in Iowa and named after comedian Robin Williams, Thede graduated from Northwestern with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism. She’d eventually land the head writer position for “The Queen Latifah Show,” and host a short-lived, BET late-night program, “The Rundown with Robin Thede. ” She was the head writer on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” becoming the first Black woman to hold that role on any any late-night talk show. She’s also written for various awards shows, as well as comics like Chris Rock, Kevin Hart and Mike Epps.

While Black female sketch comics are scarce now, they were even more rare when Thede was growing up. She credits Whoopi Goldberg for showing her what might be possible, which she tearfully shared with the iconic performer recently on “The View.”

Thede was also inspired by funny woman Kim Wayans from “In Living Color,” the groundbreaking ’90s sketch show featuring a primarily Black cast. Thede, who says the show was “pivotal” for her, was touched when Kim said “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is forging a path similar to what the legendary Wayans did.

“She told me she was proud of me… That just means so much to me to have my heroes, my role models say to me, ‘You did it and you’re doing it, and you’re that for the next generation,’” recalled Thede. “My hope is that eventually, no one has to go on “The View” and cry to Whoopi and tell her thank you…They’ll say, ‘Oh, there were so many Black women doing it, of course, I could do it.’”

Happy to no longer be engulfed in the 24-hour-news cycle of late night shows, Thede is in the early stages of developing “Disengagement,” an HBO comedy that centers around a Black family in the Midwest, and will star in the upcoming holiday film “Candy Cane Lane” with Eddie Murphy.

While she hopes to pursue more film roles, her priority is making sure “A Black Lady Sketch Show” eases the road to Hollywood for those behind her.

“The institution of ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ is so great because it will live on beyond all of us… Dozens and dozens of Black women and other women of color have put Emmy nominee and-or Emmy winner in front of their name because of this show,” said Thede. “I don’t want me to be the singular person who’s done these things..…I don’t want them to be as impressed (with me) as I am with the few who came before me. I want them to be like, ‘Yeah, you were good and now I’m going to be better.’ That’s the whole point: surpass everything I’ve done, and hire me when I’m old and gray.”

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Follow Associated Press entertainment journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at: @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.

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Robin Thede aims for laughs, longevity and legacy