There are moments in “A Black Lady Sketch Show” that feel truly surreal, not only in their humor — though there’s a lot of that — but in the sheer fact that those moments exist. Over the course of the six-episode sketch comedy series, audiences watch four black women debate the merits of covering or not covering your head up with a scarf at night after one of them admits she never does.
“So, no scarf? At all? Like a black chick on a TV show written by white people?”
“What happened to the satin pillowcase I got you for your birthday?”
“I had to let that shit go, OK? It was like sleeping on a roller coaster.”
These are the kinds of things that, for Black women, have been deeply embedded in our humor, in how we relate to one another, in how we kiki. To see them at the center of a star-studded HBO comedy show, which premieres Friday, is distinctly new and exciting.
When Black people create art, especially art within the mainstream, there’s often a critical response that tends to emphasize the show’s merits based solely on the fact that it exists. “Wow, look, Black women are funny. Who would have thought? Congratulations.” But “A Black Lady Sketch Show” transcends and pushes back against this flattened approach to engaging with what it’s doing. The stars of the show, Robin Thede, Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis and Ashley Nicole Black are at the top of their game. (Thede and Black were also writers on all six episodes.) The humor isn’t just there: It’s challenging, intriguing, deeply specific to Black women in a way that is deliberate and intentional.
The show’s sketches are quirky and imaginative, with skits like a viral proposal that goes wrong and an afternoon brunch at a new soul food spot that goes even worse (“Sorry, we’re B.Y.O. Utensils). One skit, featuring Black, hilariously subverts the idea of the “invisible Black girl” with Black playing a deadly CIA operative who has gotten so far in espionage because people never pay attention to her.
In addition to the skits, there’s an ongoing anchor story involving Thede, Brunson, Dennis and Black as versions of themselves, holed up in Thede’s house as they wait out the apocalypse. It’s during these interludes that all four stars truly shine, as they sip wine, play Never Have I Ever, and discuss everything from what they look for in a man to who is or is not “canceled” in the culture.
Like all sketch comedy shows, from SNL to “Key and Peele,” some skits are better than others, or some skits are funny but run a tad bit too long. There’s a moment in the stellar opening credits sequence of the show, which features its stars as puppets, in which Black’s puppet gets shot in a convenience store, which might leave some people scratching their heads.
After her BET late-night show was canceled, Thede teamed up with Issa Rae to create the new series, and she now lies at the heart of the ensemble. She is often the funniest person in any given scene, but also her sheer level of commitment to a character or a gag is kind of awe-inspiring. In one skit that pays homage to “227,” Thede does an eerily pitch-perfect impersonation of Jackée Harry to hilarious effect.
No, a show like this has never existed before, which could easily be the beginning and end of the conversation surrounding it. That’s why its title, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is so perfect ― it’s obvious, almost dismissive and it signifies what perhaps a hypothetical white male TV exec might think if he got the pitch for this show “Oh, it’s a Black lady sketch show ― like ‘Portlandia’ but for Black women. That’s the joke.”
But that’s not the joke. The show is more than just a novelty or a gimmick, it is the real deal, a funny, creative, imperfect, and constantly evolving piece of comedy inspired by the lives of Black women.