Robin Thede, expert in sketches, breaks down barriers and paves the way

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After Hollywood spent the better part of two decades sleeping on Robin Thede, it’s only fitting that the sketch comedy impresario isn’t too keen on turning a blind eye these days.

Instead, Thede tends to get by with three or four hours of sleep and waking up at 4 a.m. during production of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” the Emmy-winning HBO series she co-starred in. created and in which she plays. Among the first-morning tasks: touching base with his editor about last-minute adjustments to the scripts; checking in with her department heads to make decisions on props, hairstyles, and costumes; and handwritten thank you notes to the day’s guest stars.

Since Thede appears in most sketches of the series, the showrunner then slips into the hair and makeup chair while answering questions about everything from upcoming casting to location scouting. After going over her lines on the shuttle to set herself up, she rehearses her scenes and talks to the director about lighting, blocking and other technical touches. Once Thede is done shooting her sketches — and evaluating the footage between takes — she shakes up her characters, goes home to learn her lines for the next day, goes to bed around midnight, and starts again.

“His energy is quite contagious,” said co-star Gabrielle Dennis. “She’s really living her dream. It’s a bit hard to fall asleep behind the wheel because you’re full of all that adrenaline.”

“We do the same writing and performing work, except she also does this other work, and I’m exhausted at the end of every day,” adds Ashley Nicole Black, who starred alongside Thede and Dennis. in all three seasons of the Show. “You really can’t overstate how difficult what she does is. And not only does she do it, but she opens the door for so many others to walk through behind her.”

“A Black Lady Sketch Show,” the first series of its kind written entirely by, directed by, and starring black women, has returned for a third season of its absurd shtick on HBO. Thede’s true trailblazer has only grown since the critically acclaimed show premiered in 2019, with the singer-songwriter signing a multi-year deal to develop shows for Warner Bros. and continuing to create projects featuring black women at her production company, For Better or Words.

“That sounds like a lot,” Thede says through a nervous laugh during a video chat from her Southern California home, as she dons a t-shirt with the slogan “Phenomenally Black.” “I work seven days a week, but that’s okay because that’s what I came here for – and there were a lot of days when I had a lot of time.”

Humble roots

Thede comes from humble roots: Her parents both worked in education, and she and her sisters grew up in a trailer park adjacent to a cornfield in Davenport, Iowa, right next to the Mississippi River. . (Her mother, Phyllis, later entered politics and is now a six-term representative in the Iowa General Assembly.) But Thede, who got her first name because of her father’s affinity for Robin Williams , had a performative edge from an early age. At the age of 13, she was shooting short films with a 16mm camera. For three summers, she toured with a puppeteer group led by her local church.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be a white guy who grew up with money and went to Harvard,” Thede says. “But I think it’s evident in my comedy that I have a different perspective and, I would say, a more relevant perspective. I certainly don’t come from a place where I try to hit or talk people out of any way, and it’s really important to me to have a sense of fairness in what I do, I just think it comes from being raised by decent people.

Season 3 of "A dark lady sketch show" stars, left to right, Skye Townsend, Ashley Nicole Black, creator Robin Thede and Gabrielle Dennis.

Influenced by comedic touchstones such as “ComicView”, “Saturday Night Live” and “In Living Color” – a program she still calls her “holy grail” – Thede joined campus sketch group Out Da Box at Northwestern University in Illinois and enrolled in the conservatory program of Chicago’s revered improv troupe, The Second City.

Over the next decade, Thede held writing and performing roles on scattered television projects such as Ted Danson’s “Guy Walks Into a Bar,” David Alan Grier’s “Chocolate News,” and “Frank TV.” by Frank Caliendo – often as the only black woman in the room. She has also written for award shows and written jokes for Chris Rock, Kevin Hart and Mike Epps. But she always found time to perform on stage in sketch groups, including the all-black Elite Delta Force 3 female troupe, which served as comedian Larry Wilmore’s introduction to Thede’s underrated talents.

“When Robin was on stage, she was just funny all the time,” Wilmore says. “It made me think, ‘Man, this kind of thing should be on TV.’ And that was in the mid-‘s, I think? No one was trying to do an all-black sketch show back then.

After a stint as head writer for “The Queen Latifah Show,” Thede applied in 2014 for Wilmore’s late-night Comedy Central series “The Nightly Show.” She was only applying for an editor position, Wilmore recalled. But after arriving for her interview with a binder filled with countless jokes, morsels and other ambitions, Thede left as the first black head writer in late night history. When Wilmore hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2016, she also sealed her spot as the first black woman to lead that event’s Writers’ Room. And while hosting “The Rundown” on BET from 2017 to 2018, Thede became the fourth black woman to headline her own late-night show.

“From the beginning of television to Robin Thede, no one imagined a black woman could ‘be head writer,’ says Black, who believes Thede’s breakthrough paved the way for her own writing work on “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and at the launch of The Amber Ruffin Talk Show on Peacock. “If you’re really thinking about going from ‘no one’s ever done this before’ to ‘now multiple women can do this because of the example you set’, it really can’t be overstated how much of a challenge that is. tightrope.”

The next step

Thede says she got a call from just one person the day “The Rundown” was canceled in July 2018: her friend Issa Rae, the star and co-creator of HBO’s “Insecure.” Unaware of the sympathy, Rae quickly informed Thede of what was to come. When Thede said she had been looking for an idea for a high profile sketch show featuring all black women, Rae offered to come on board the project as an executive producer and bring it to HBO in the under its agreement with the network.

A year later, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” was on the air. While centering the perspectives of black women was the foundation of the show, Thede also knew she wanted the endeavor to be unmistakably cinematic, with carefully composed shots, compelling visual effects and on-location filming. In another break from sketch tradition, the framing device featured in each episode — interstitials about a group of black women surviving the apocalypse — unfolded like a serialized story.

“I knew I wanted to do a cinematic narrative skit for black women with experiences grounded in magical reality,” Thede explains. “So it’s really important to me to touch on all of those things – characters that you want to come back to but also storytelling, because I’ve never seen a ‘Black Mirror’ type sketch show where there’s a beginning , a middle, a twist and an end.”

Season 3 pulls out all the stops on this earth-shattering formula, as ongoing interstitials follow the four apocalyptic survivors (played by series stars Thede, Dennis, Black and Skye Townsend) through a mysterious, egg-laden journey. self Easter. actualization. As the trailer revealed, several fan-favorite characters from the standalone sketches also return. Among them: Thede’s Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, a hertep with a fiercely misguided sense of authority, and Black’s Trinity, an ace spy who moves undetected in a world that treats black women as invisible.

“It took a while for Robin to really bet on herself, but she did the right thing by gaining so much experience,” Wilmore said. “For me, Robin’s first show wasn’t quite there. I think she was still trying to be something she thought she should be, whereas ‘Black Lady Sketch Show’ is pure Robin. “

“When you’re sidelined and your voice is muted for so long, or when you get rid of it to get to the top, sometimes it gives rise to new ideas and new approaches,” adds Dennis. “It’s so ingrained in her DNA at this point that she can’t help but be the trailblazer.”

In tribute not only to Thede’s hard-earned influence, but also to the show’s enduring appeal, this season’s roster of guest stars – including Ava DuVernay, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Wayne Brady, Vanessa Williams and Wanda Sykes – is loaded with recognizable names. And the unprecedented composition of its writers room remains as impressive as ever.

“I love being able to look around a room of black women and see them on the first day also looking around, saying, ‘Oh, I’m sorry – I’m just taking into account the magnitude of what’s going on’ ” said Thede. “They are always a bit shaken when they first meet.”

As Thede waits for a ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ Season 4 renewal, she’s been working on getting two films she scripted in front of the cameras: the zombie satire ‘Killing It’ for Amazon and the high comedy “Fashionably Black” couture for HBO Max. Although her previously reported “Perfect Strangers” reboot for HBO Max flopped, she says she has TV projects in development that run the gamut from animated series to reality competitions and real estate shows.

Looking to the future, Thede’s overall vision is clear: “I just want to keep playing with boundaries – and break them.”

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