‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ Creatives on How to Write and Act for Comedy

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The following interview for our Spring 2021 BackstageFest, a virtual celebration of the year's best and buzziest TV, was compiled in part by Backstage readers just like you! Follow us on Twitter (@Backstage) and Instagram (@backstagecast) to stay in the loop on upcoming interviews and to submit your questions.

Created by Robin Thede, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” premiered on HBO in August of 2019 and became one of the most well-received shows of that year. Thede’s energetic, quick-witted dialogue written for a core cast of Black women has electrified the sketch comedy scene. Season 1 alone snagged three 2020 primetime Emmy nominations and a TCA Award for outstanding achievement in sketch and variety. Unsurprisingly, just after the cast wrapped filming for the second season, the show was renewed for a third, and audiences couldn’t be more excited. Producer and writer Lauren Ashley Smith, writer and actor Ashley Nicole Black, and actor Gabrielle Dennis sat down with Backstage as part of our inaugural BackstageFest to discuss the brains behind the laugh-out-loud show and to offer advice for sketch comedy writing and performance. 

According to Smith, a successful writer’s room is built on diversity.
“I think a misconception about a room that’s all Black women writers is: They all have the same general background. That could not be further from the truth. The women in the writers’ room have been more different from each other than I’ve been in writers’ rooms where I’m the only Black person or the only woman. We have such a diverse depth of experience. That’s what you want in a writers’ room. You don’t want everyone to be on the same page because ideas will just start and finish in the same spot. Ideas get a lot more traction; they go a lot further. People who have different religious backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, that adds to the richness, and that’s why you get to see characters on every end of the spectrum and between on the show because we have such a diversity of interest.”

Black gives an example of how she and her team materialize their ideas and run with their instincts when writing.
“I usually start all of my ideas, whether it’s a character or a location or whatever the idea for the sketch is, it’s always something that’s happening in real life. I have a friend in real life who is the biggest hype woman in the world. She’s just so positive, and I knew I wanted to base a character on her because she’s not the only person in my life like that. That is really a trait of Black women: that we’re so supportive and hyping of each other. So I was saying this in the room, and one of the other writers said, ‘We do that too much! The other day, my friend lost her job and my other friend said, “Come on unemployed!” ’ That took it from an idea of a person to a character.”

Dennis says young artists should challenge themselves and find true confidence in their ability, but also find a passion outside of the business.
“If it scares you, do it. Challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. It’s that tried and true, ‘If you believe it, other people can.’ I would say, not dimming your light or lessening yourself within your abilities, worrying about what other people are doing, what other people may think, just staying true to yourself and tapping into what it is that makes you special. For me, it’s not only a balance of the art, of what we do as creatives and as artists, it’s also the human side of that. I think all of that intertwines, and it’s very important to find something outside of that space to escape from, to release, to find other joy…. It’s about really finding something outside of the business, I think, not forgetting you’re a whole human being first and not just an artist.”

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