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A pandemic, three Emmy nominations and a racial (maybe) reckoning happened between the time A Black Lady Sketch Show was renewed by HBO and when its second season actually aired. But creator and star Robin Thede says that the message of her variety series — “celebrating Black women” — is timeless enough that current events didn’t force any rewrites. The season’s delay did, perhaps, make it possible for Gabrielle Union to schedule an appearance as herself in the sketch “Black Table Talk” opposite Thede’s Dr. Haddassah, a self-described academic who frowns on working women. The two friends spoke to THR about improvising during the scene (including an extended post-credits riff in which Dr. Haddassah professes disgust over Union’s literacy) and the significant platform that ABLSS gives to Black women.
How did the “Black Table Talk” sketch come together?
ROBIN THEDE Gab, I don’t know if you remember this, but we were in D.C. at a friend’s party after season one and were like, “We have to do something together.” I said, “Who do you like on the show?” and you said Dr. Haddassah. So then we wrote it, and originally it was Gab and her illustrious husband [Dwyane Wade], and then he had conflicts and had to go shoot other things, so we put a cardboard cutout of him and it honestly was the best decision we could have made. It was so funny and so silly, and Gab was just game from day one. And the day we shot this, you said, “The craziest thing about this is I was the first guest on Red Table Talk and on ‘Black Table Talk.’ ” I had forgotten and you reminded me.
Gabrielle, of all the characters on A Black Lady Sketch Show, what was it about Dr. Haddassah that made you want to interact with her?
GABRIELLE UNION I was supposed to do season one and I couldn’t get out of, you know, my other jobs, so she was like, “OK, season two, we’re going to figure this out.” So I said, “Yo, I’m obsessed with Dr. Haddassah, she’s fucking hilarious to me. So if you can figure out anything for me to do with Dr. Haddassah, I’m in.” So when she presented the idea, I fell out. Aside from having been on Red Table Talk, just knowing what Red Table Talk means to the culture — where you go to really tell the truth or clear the air — it’s funny because there is this segment of the population that swears that I control my husband. They think I dress his ass in the morning, they think I make all the decisions, they think whatever happens to anyone in this household, I’m like Geppetto, and they’re all like Pinocchio. So I thought that was funny, the concept.
How much improv was involved?
UNION I roll with Thede. I don’t want to say we’re constantly doing bits, but we’re constantly doing bits. There’s always a gag. I just stay ready with her in real life, much less on set. There was what was in the script, and then they’re like, “OK, we got that one, let’s try this,” and they’ll just throw something out. I’m like, “Don’t tell me, I just want to be reactive.” So by the end, the sketch is over, and we were just riffing, like about the reading.
THEDE The last third of that sketch was not scripted. Honestly, we could have put four more minutes in the sketch. We had to add those fake credits so we could just get more of that hilarious stuff Gabrielle was talking about, being in a book club and all this stuff. When you talk about people understanding the assignment, she came that day so open and so like, “I know what ‘Black Table Talk’ is, I know this character.” She came to it not only from her comedy perspective, but when Gab’s on set, everybody was like, “Oh, that’s a real actor. That’s what it’s like to be around someone who’s a professional.”
THEDE The hardest thing for most people to do is to play this heightened version of themselves, and she was so clear. I mean, the writing is great, obviously, but she was so clear about how she was going to be with Dr. Haddassah, and really trying to take it seriously to the comedic extent, but then there’s moments where I don’t know if you were really breaking or if you were doing that as a comedic choice. There were moments where you looked like you were on the edge of breaking, but I think that was actually intentional and it made the cat-and-mouse game that much funnier to me.
UNION I like that you think this was a choice. Dude, you’re funny. You kept throwing stuff out. You never want to laugh your way through a take and it just jacks up the sound, so I was trying to keep it together. In life, and on that set, she’s literally one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. You never know how people are on set, because we’d never worked together. I just know she’s funny, she’s my friend, but watching her command that stage and be so in command of Dr. Haddassah, and you guys did how many more skits that day?
THEDE At least another one, if not two more. It was a long day.
UNION Watching you go seamlessly in and out, and run the room … I’m a fan lucky enough to work with Michael Jordan, that’s what it felt like.
THEDE Oh my God, stop it! That made my day. It’s funny to hear you say we’d never worked together before. I still feel like you just came to my job and we hung out. If I thought about it like we were “working together,” I would’ve probably been nervous.
Gabrielle, throughout your career you’ve often been asked to address the experience facing Black women. How does A Black Lady Sketch Show speak to these issues in a unique way?
UNION I think the joy of A Black Lady Sketch Show is there has been, and in some circles still is, the mother ship of comedy sketch shows — the show that is setting the trends and is culturally biting and provocative. But it’s like, provocative to whom? As talent, it’s supposed to be the thing that you chase. You’ve really made it if you’ve been asked to host [SNL]. Having watched the show for as long as I can remember, it just hasn’t seemed to be a place that sets Black women up for success. When one of my friends, who I believe is one of the most genius comedic minds to have ever lived, comes up with this show that really moves the culture, that speaks to our community, that truly gives not one, two, three, four but plenty of opportunities to Black women to shine — that’s what we’ve been waiting for. Yes, we all tune in when Taraji [P. Henson] or Regina King gets to host SNL, but it’s few and far between, and they both have been in the business for over 30 years. You’re just now catching on? Well, here’s a show that gives us a platform to kill it every week. We’re not new to this, we’re true to this. For us, by us, where we can truly be seen and understood and set up for success.
Season two was delayed because of the pandemic, and in the interim there also was a racial reckoning in which it seemed like the general public was starting to think about issues that people of color, specifically Black women, have been talking about for a long time. Did the events of last summer affect the writing of this season at all?
THEDE First of all, was there a racial reckoning? There were protests and uprisings, but have people fundamentally changed how they think about race? Maybe some people, but by and large we have a lot more to do. The writing was finished in February of 2020. It’s shit that we’ve been talking about for decades. Black people have always been saying, “You need to listen to us, stop killing us, value us as whole human beings.” It’s just that last summer some people decided to listen. It never changes our message. We’ve been saying the same thing, and we were already on the air and well on our way to three Emmy nominations. It didn’t change a single, solitary thing. We don’t worry about anything but celebrating Black women on our show, and so our focus has never shifted, and it won’t.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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