Robin Thede is the creator, star and showrunner of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” whose third season premieres Friday on HBO. (Erik Carter)

Robin Thede, sketch comedy savant, is breaking barriers and paving roads

9 min

After Hollywood spent the better part of two decades sleeping on Robin Thede, it’s only appropriate that the sketch comedy impresario isn’t overly interested in shut-eye nowadays.

Thede instead tends to get by with three or four hours of sleep and wake up at 4 a.m. during production of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” the Emmy-winning HBO series she created and stars in. Among the 42-year-old’s early-morning tasks: touching base with her head writer about last-minute punch-ups to the scripts; checking in with her department heads to make decisions on props, hairstyles and costumes; and handwriting thank-you notes to the day’s guest stars.

Since Thede appears in most of the show’s sketches, the showrunner then slips into the hair-and-makeup chair while fielding questions about everything from upcoming casting to location scouting. After going over her lines on the shuttle to set, she rehearses her scenes and talks to the director about lighting, blocking and other technical touches. Once Thede is done shooting her sketches — and assessing the footage between takes — she shakes her characters, heads home to learn her lines for the next day, gets to bed around midnight and does it all again.

“Her energy is pretty contagious,” co-star Gabrielle Dennis says. “She’s just really living out her dream. It’s kind of hard to fall asleep at the wheel because you’re just full of all of this adrenaline.”

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

A Black Lady Sketch Show,” the first series of its kind entirely written by, directed by and starring Black women, returns for a third season of its absurdist shtick Friday on HBO. Thede’s trailblazer bona fides have only grown since the critically acclaimed show premiered in 2019, with the writer-performer inking a multiyear deal to develop shows for Warner Bros. and continuing to craft Black-women-fronted projects at her production company, For Better or Words.

“This sounds like a lot,” Thede says through nervous laughter 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 it’s fine because this is what I came here for — and there were many days where I had plenty of time.”

Thede comes from humble roots: Her parents both worked in education, and she and her sisters grew up in a cornfield-adjacent trailer park in Davenport, Iowa, just off 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 due to her father’s affinity for Robin Williams, had a performative edge from a young age. By the time she was 13, she was shooting short films with a 16mm camera. For three summers, she toured with a puppeteer group run by her local church.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be a White man 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 argue, a more relatable perspective. I definitely don’t come from a place of trying to punch down or talk down to people in any way, and it’s really important for me that I have a sense of fairness in what I do. I just think that comes from being raised by decent people.”

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

Over the next decade, Thede grabbed writing and performing jobs on such scattered TV endeavors as Ted Danson’s “Guy Walks Into a Bar,” David Alan Grier’s “Chocolate News” and Frank Caliendo’s “Frank TV” — often as the only Black woman in the room. She also wrote for awards shows and penned jokes for the likes of Chris Rock, Kevin Hart and Mike Epps. But she always found time to perform onstage in sketch groups, including the all-Black woman troupe Elite Delta Force 3, which served as comedian Larry Wilmore’s introduction to Thede’s underappreciated talents.

“When Robin was onstage, she was just funny all the time,” Wilmore says. “It made me think, ‘Man, this type of thing should be on television.’ And this was in the mid-aughts, I think? Nobody was trying to do an all-Black-lady sketch show back in those days.”

After a stint as the head writer of “The Queen Latifah Show,” Thede applied in 2014 for Wilmore’s late-night Comedy Central series “The Nightly Show.” She was up for only a staff writer position, Wilmore recalls. But after arriving for her interview hauling a binder stuffed with countless jokes, bits and other ambitions, Thede walked away as the first Black female head writer in late-night history. When Wilmore hosted the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2016, she also sealed her place as the first Black woman to lead that event’s writers’ room. And by 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 until Robin Thede, no one imagined a Black woman could” be a head writer, says Black, who believes Thede’s breakthrough paved the way for her own writing job on “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and the launch of Amber Ruffin’s talk show on Peacock. “If you really think about going from ‘no one’s ever done this before’ to ‘now several women get to do it because of the example that you set,’ it really can’t be overstated what a tightrope that is.”

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.” Skipping sympathy, Rae promptly peppered Thede about what was next. When Thede said she had been shopping around an idea for a high-concept sketch show featuring all Black women, Rae offered to board the project as an executive producer and take it to HBO as a part of her deal with the network.

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

“I knew I wanted to make a cinematic narrative sketch show for Black women with grounded experiences in a magical reality,” Thede explains. “So it’s really important for me to hit all of these things — characters that you want to come back but also narrative, because I’ve never seen a ‘Black Mirror’-kind of sketch show where there’s a full beginning, middle, twist and end.”

Season 3 goes all in on that convention-shattering formula, as the ongoing interstitials follow the four doomsday survivors (played by series stars Thede, Dennis, Black and Skye Townsend) through a mystery-driven and Easter-egg-laden journey of self-actualization. As the trailer revealed, several fan-favorite characters from the stand-alone sketches are returning as well. 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 through a world that treats Black women as invisible.

“It took Robin a while to really bet on herself, but she did the right thing by getting so much experience,” Wilmore says. “To me, the first show that Robin had, it 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 marginalized and when your voice is shut out for so long, or when you’ve been scrapping to get to the top, sometimes that really just births new ideas and fresh takes on things,” Dennis adds. “It’s so ingrained in her DNA at this point that she can’t help but be the trendsetter.”

In a tribute to not only Thede’s hard-earned clout but 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 makeup of her writers’ room remains as awe-inspiring as ever.

“I just love being able to look around a room of Black women and to see them on their first day also looking around, going, ‘Oh, I’m sorry — I’m just taking in the magnitude of what’s happening,’ ” Thede says. “They’re always kind of shook at that first meeting.”

As Thede awaits a Season 4 renewal of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” she is working toward getting two movies she scripted in front of cameras: the zombie satire “Killing It” for Amazon and the haute couture comedy “Fashionably Black” for HBO Max. Although her previously reported “Perfect Strangers” reboot for HBO Max fell through, she says she has TV projects in development that run the gamut from animated series to reality competitions and real estate shows.

Peering ahead, Thede’s overarching vision is clear: “I just want to keep playing with the boundaries — and breaking them.”