Robin Thede doesn’t do humility.
“Black women are the most educated, the most successful but the most humble, also. And I hate that for us,” Thede tells ESSENCE.
The A Black Lady Sketch Show creator and star has paid her dues, working in the entertainment industry for over two decades, and shares insights based on her personal and professional experiences.
“I realized that humility was getting me nowhere. And humility for Black women gets us nowhere. We are taught, ‘Be humble, sit down,’” says the comedienne, who notes that she means no disrespect to Kendrick Lamar or his 2017 hit, “Humble,” in her statement.
While Thede urges against being wantonly “cocky, or annoying,” she says that Black women must speak up for themselves and highlight their accolades whenever possible.
“Why do we work so hard, if we’re going to diminish our accomplishments? It doesn’t make any sense to me,” she continues. “Say, ‘Yes, I am great!’”
After 21 years of grinding in the entertainment industry, there is no question of Robin Thede’s greatness. Indeed, the world has recognized her successes—and Robin Thede, naturally, is set on acknowledging her accomplishments, too.
Named after the late actor and funnyman, Robin Williams, some might gather that Robin Thede’s career in comedy is prophetic. But as Thede tells it, she is no overnight success. It took years and years to master her craft. In fact, the comic began mimicking characters as soon as she started talking.
“I’m obsessed with characters and impressions,” says Thede. “I think I would sit in front of the TV and just mimic. It’s how I learned to do Jackée [Sandra Clark, on the sitcom 227] and people that I saw on TV. It’s how I learned to do their voices.”
As a child, Thede often watched “Saturday Night Live” with her father. She also drew inspiration from trailblazing Black women in comedy, like Whoopi Goldberg and Kim Wayans. As a tween, Thede continued her comedic pursuits, recording her first short sketch on an old handycam—Thede was 12 or 13 at the time. In college Thede was a founding member of Out ‘da Box, Northwestern’s Black student-led improv group and after graduation from college, went on to study at the world-famous comedy institution, The Second City. It was on this journey that Robin Thede understood comedy to be the avenue by which she’d serve the world.
“I’m not good at anything else!” Thede guffaws, her laughter filling the virtual meeting room. While Thede reflects on why she chose comedy as her gift to the world, she still finds opportunities to chuckle at herself. After all, laughter is a “powerful, powerful magic” as she describes it.
All jokes aside, there is no question that the “A Black Lady Sketch Show” creator has many talents.
The multi-hyphenate not only devised her very own HBO sketch comedy show, she is also the series’ showrunner, executive producer, writer and star, amongst other responsibilities. But this isn’t the first time that Robin Thede has starred in her own program. In 2017, the comedian created, executive produced, and hosted BET’s The Rundown with Robin Thede and remains one of few Black women to host on late-night television. In fact, Thede is a Black woman of several “firsts.”
In 2015, Thede made history as the first Black woman to be the head writer for a late-night talk show, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. A year later, the five-time Emmy nominee became the first Black head writer for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. And in 2019, Thede was the first Black woman to create a sketch comedy series, A Black Lady Sketch Show.
“When you create a sketch show, you can’t be derivative of what’s been done in the past. So the real prize of A Black Lady Sketch Show is that it feels different,” says Thede. The creator notes that there is a familiarity that ABLSS shares with other sketch comedy shows of yesteryear – Chappelle’s Show, Saturday Night Live, In Living Color or Key & Peele. They’re each centered around short vignettes (ie. sketches) and are similar in tone. But with its scripts specifically drawing upon the experiences of Black women and its cast of Black women, Thede’s brainchild remains in a lane of its own.
Thede agrees that ABLSS dwells within a unique sphere. “A Black Lady Sketch Show is this Black lady cinematic universe to be able to create this world where only we exist, but we get to exist in the best forms of ourselves, in the worst forms of ourselves. And there’s no judgment from other eyes.”
In its fourth season, which returns to HBO on Friday, April 14, ABLSS has solidified its unique space in comedy. The show’s writers’ room consists exclusively of Black of women – a rarity in Hollywood. This season naturally stars Thede, joined by Gabrielle Dennis and Skye Townsend, featuring three newcomers—DaMya Gurley, Tamara Jade and Angel Laketa Moore. This season’s guest stars include Tracee Ellis Ross, Jackée Harry, Tank, Kym Whitley, Issa Rae, Jay Ellis, Colman Domingo and Omarion, among others.
Fans will quickly notice that the forthcoming season draws upon several recurring characters and storylines, including a few favorites: the show’s resident ‘Her-tep,’ Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, Pre-PhD; the “Black Lady Courtroom”; and the bible sketches (which previously included “The Last Supp-her” and “The Res-herrection”). Sketches are dense with jokes – audiences will be crying tears of laughter during the season. The beauty of ABLSS sketches is that they are not only wildly funny but also tremendously researched and thought out. The attention to detail is evident across production, from writing to make-up, from costumes to set design.
For Thede, the richness of each sketch is based on its narrative arc and storytelling. The self-proclaimed “Comedy Nerd” is also adamant that audiences know sketches are not skits.
“I’m going to put you on game: We only do sketches, skits are very different,” Thede explains. “A skit is something that you just kind of throw together. It doesn’t have a script. It doesn’t really have defined characters.”
Thede likens skits to a haphazard performance in middle school, whereas sketches are more methodically thought out, with a storyline and an arc.
“A sketch has a beginning, middle, and end. It has three-dimensional characters. It has recurring bits,” the executive producer continues. “99 percent of people think that ‘sketch’ and ‘skit’ are interchangeable. And they’re not.”
This meticulousness speaks to Thede’s success—characters and stories, especially in comedy, must be nuanced and lifelike. These insanely clever, yet rich and meaty narratives draw audiences in. This level of mastery, coupled with her tenacity and belief in self has placed Robin Thede at the helm of a comedic empire. But the comic says her career truly began to soar when her work included service to others.
“For many years it was about me. What can I get? What can I do? And I was struggling,” the executive producer comments.
“My career blossomed once I made it about other people. From The Rundown to The Nightly Show and certainly A Black Lady Sketch Show, everything changed for me once I made it about providing opportunities for others. And it lifted me.”
From the careers launched by ABLSS to the raucous laughter and the moments of joy that each sketch provides, Thede’s legacy, and the legacy of A Black Lady Sketch Show undoubtedly incorporate others. Thede speaks with a level of maturity reflecting wisdom and personal growth.
“Our lives are not about us. It’s what we leave everyone else with. And if you get to take something with you as a result of that, it’s even better.”