Robin Thede Says Her HBO Series, A Black Lady Sketch Show, Has a More Clever Title Than You Think

Plus, how she bounced back after BET canceled her late-night show

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One year ago, BET pulled the plug on Robin Thede’s critically-acclaimed late-night series, The Rundown With Robin Thede. Now the comedian (formerly head writer for The Queen Latifah Show and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore) has bounced back with A Black Lady Sketch Show, a—you guessed it—sketch show featuring four black women (Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and Quinta Brunson) that premieres Friday, Aug. 2 on HBO. Thede created, wrote and executive produced the series alongside Insecure star Issa Rae.

The former Adweek Disruptor spoke with Adweek about why A Black Lady Sketch Show has a more clever title than people might think, what she learned from The Rundown and why her new series needed to be on HBO.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: How quickly after Rundown ended did you decide to do a sketch show?
Thede: This is the sixth or seventh sketch show I’ve done—most people don’t know that, because many of them were very short-lived—but it’s the first one I’ve created. I always work it into my shows, no matter what the genre. So it was really important to me that at some point, I create my own sketch show. I actually started pitching this show before Rundown got canceled. I thought I would shoot it in a hiatus, which is crazy; I don’t know how I would have done that.

Issa Rae called me the day Rundown got canceled and was like, “Come do your sketch show with us at HBO. Come pitch [HBO programming evp Amy Gravitt]; see what she says.” I went to a dinner and [they ordered it] straight to series. Which is insane, because that’s not how HBO works, at all! But they believed in it, and my vision, and the partnership with Issa put that over the top.

Did you choose the title so no one would ask you to put some white guys in there?
[laughs] The title serves a bunch of purposes. One, it’s a “Who’s on first?” joke: “I’m watching a black lady sketch show.” “Oh, what’s it called?” “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” “But what’s the name of it?” And yes, it’s an explanation of the show, so there are no questions. That still hasn’t stopped people on social media being like, “Do you need a white guy?”

It’s also a bit tongue-in-cheek and a bit subversive in a way, because it’s so much more than the title would suggest. We take the audience on a journey. We start with the sketches that we’re like, “Okay, they can digest these first,” and then they get wilder and wilder. By the end, they get really crazy. You have to teach people in a way. We take some really wild swings into different genres and styles.

Originally, I was just calling it, The Black Lady Sketch Show. Issa was like, “We can’t call it The Black Lady Sketch Show, because then people will be like, ‘What black lady?’ ‘Whose black lady?’” So I was like, “What if we just call it A Black Lady Sketch Show, then it could be one of many future black lady sketch shows?” So for us, it was the easiest way. We were experimenting with other titles, like The All-American Sketch Show, these stupid titles that meant nothing. But I didn’t want people to be shocked when they turned it on and were like, “Why are there only black women on this show?” So this way, it gets all those answers out and we can move on.

It’s been one year since The Rundown was canceled. Did you see that coming?
Was I surprised? Ultimately no, because it was taking so long to get the decision. It’s one of those things where you’re just like, okay, this can’t be good.

What do you take away from that experience?
BET is a channel that has to sell ads, and if they don’t get certain ratings, they can’t keep shows on. We were an expensive show and I get it. It was a business decision, not a creative decision, and I thank BET for a wonderful year of a great show that I’m really proud of. And a show that a lot of people didn’t see, because BET is not the place they go for political satire. But the people who did see it were die-hard fans of the show, and they really liked it. That’s what’s important to me.

For me, taking out this sketch show, it was very important which home I took it to. When Issa said, “Take it to HBO,” I was like, “Yeah, that will make the most sense.” Because I wanted to be clear about where I wanted to do it. That’s no reflection on what happened with BET; I think my show there was great for the network and was great for me. But with this specific project, it was important. I wanted to be able to have no restrictions and to be able to do what we wanted, but also have the cache to get the amount of guest stars [we did].

‘I didn’t want people to be shocked when they turned it on and were like, ‘Why are there only black women on this show?'”
Robin Thede

The Rundown was one of several talk shows, many of them hosted by women, to be canceled after very short runs during the past year. Execs say going in that they know those shows need time to find their voice and build a following, but then they don’t give it to you.
“Oh, we know you need it; you’re just not going to get it!” [laughs] We were lucky. We had a year. We had 24 episodes and made a really great show. I do think that it takes two seasons for any show to find its legs. But I think we found ours pretty quickly for the amount of ramp up and time that we had, and the budget that we had. But there’s hundreds of television shows, and so many late night offerings, and at the end of the day, you make the best of what you have. People like Michelle Wolf, though, getting canceled after 10 [episodes]…that is really hard. You barely get your set built, and then you’re tearing it down.

Late night is a tough game. I’m proud of the work I’ve done in late night, on my show and on others, and I think that now, sketch is a return home for me. It’s an exciting time to rebrand and have people see me outside of a host capacity, and obviously on this show I play a ton of different characters. I’m unrecognizable as some, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s fun to hide in those characters.

Do you spoof any specific brands this season?
There’s [an FX’s] Pose parody and a 227 reboot [of Marla Gibbs ’80s NBC series], but other than that, no. It wasn’t really the genre I wanted to traffic in. I really wanted to tell narrative sketch stories. So it’s really about these new characters we’re introducing the world to, that come back throughout the season, that you get to invest in. Since it’s not topical, we can’t make this sketch and air the same week, so it was important to us that the show not feel stale. Because if you do a parody today, the show could get canceled tomorrow, and then you’re stuck with a sketch that feels old.

Have you been approached for any brand endorsements, and is that something you would be interested in?
Yeah, and I have a branding agent at WME. I have been approached, but it wasn’t something I was interested in. But yes, I am open to that, if anybody wants to pay me millions of dollars to sell Campbell’s Soup. [laughs] It would have to be the right combination, but there have been some really fun brand integrations that I’ve seen comedians do that I really like. I like Tina Fey’s credit card commercials. I liked Amy Schumer’s Old Navy commercials. Any high-end luxury brand that wants to send me around the world, I’m open to it!