May 28, 2021
By Jake Uitti
Photography by Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO
When HBO first partnered with now-world-famous show-runner, Issa Rae, for her television show, Insecure, the sky was the limit. Today, with Insecure headed into its fifth and final season, having made its way into the hearts of many adoring fans, Rae’s footprint on HBO remains large. Thankfully. In her own way, she has helped to usher in more diversity to the channel and a keener eye for more so in the future.
One of the shows Rae has helped bring to HBO is A Black Lady Sketch Show, which stars the quartet of Robin These, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis, and Quina Brunson. This season, the show added Laci Mosley and Skye Townsend. The show features sketches, recurring characters, and a flare for the surreal that equates to an important new series.
We caught up with Black and Dennis to talk about how they got into entertainment, what it was like to build the show from scratch, what it was like heading into the show’s second season and much more. The season finale of A Black Lady Sketch Show appears tonight, May 28, on HBO.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you tell your first joke or write your first good piece that made you want to do more stuff like that?
Ashley Nicole Black: Oh, that’s such a good question! You know, I think all Black kids know this, you have to do these church performances and you have to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the church on Easter. And I was always that kid whose mom would be like, “You better memorize your poem, you better memorize your poem!” And I wouldn’t do it. One time, I didn’t memorize my poem, so I went off script and improvised and got a laugh and I was like, “Oh, I like this!”
Gabrielle Dennis: I went to performing arts school, so I want to say my earliest memory of actually writing anything—because, usually, I was just a performer doing other people’s work. But there was one year, maybe fifth or sixth grade, I don’t remember how old I was, but I do remember that it was in drama class. We were responsible for writing our own play. I wrote this super dramatic but with funny moments soap opera! Which was so inappropriate for my age bracket. My mother had this sparkly mermaid gown, which was very long, and wearing it, you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t in somebody’s daytime drama! And the laughs that I got, because it was just so ridiculous and grown up for the age we were, I remember the appreciation and how fun the script was and how people enjoyed it. I went, like, “Huh, I wrote that!”
Ashley, how did you land on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee coming out of the Second City in Chicago and what did you learn from that Emmy-winning experience?
Ashley: Yeah, I started at the Second City and a lot of the people that have come out of there, you know, they’ve ended up on late night shows. So, I started doing writing packets, trying to get a writing job. I had done a couple but when I got the Full Frontal packet, it truly felt like someone had described my mind and written it down on a piece of paper. Like, if you had described my ultimate late night show that I would create, that’s what they were trying to create. So, it was really one of those moments where it was like, “Oh, this is for me.”
I did a packet for that show and was hired as a writer. That was my first job in television. And, unbeknownst to me, when they had looked into me—because, you know, before someone hires you, they Google you. People act like they don’t, but they do. [Laughs] So, they’d seen some performances that I had done, which were up on YouTube. Samantha already knew she wanted to hire me as a correspondent but didn’t tell me.
I was working as a writer, 100%, dedicated and focused on writing. And I think part of me showing that I was so focused as a writer and writing jokes for her and not asking about performing at all, she already had that in the back of her mind and then invited me to also perform, which was such a great gift.
Gabrielle, how did you land on Insecure, what was that process like and what was it like for you to be in such a bizarre TV love triangle on the show?
Gabrielle: [Laughs] Yeah, I was also a big fan of the show and it’s my second time being part of a bizarre love triangle! But it was just a great experience. I did a traditional audition. The casting director brought me in, saw me and I booked it that way. And it’s interesting, that was my first time working with [show-runner] Issa [Rae] and I think that was Issa’s first time seeing me be funny. Not necessarily on camera but off camera.
I remember we were all in the waiting area in between takes one day. We were just in this very strange room with old photographs and pictures of these old black and white photos. I literally gave characters and descriptions to every person. Just for some joy and laughter at that time. And Issa was like, “You’re so funny, people need to see more of your comedy.”
Cut to maybe a year and a half later and this sketch show comes around. So when Robin [Thede] dropped my name, she said, “Oh yeah makes sense.” So she was on board with it. But yeah most of my jobs have been traditional auditioning and going the route, the slow process. I haven’t had a lot of hook-ups, I don’t know a lot of people! I don’t really get out and “network” as I should.
But, luckily, it’s just one of those things that you never know who’s watching. It’s been my blessing that my reputation has spoken for me in a lot of instances. So that when people are ready to hire me, I’m verified and vouched for. It’s such a blessing that Robin—that was a full-circle experience from back when I was doing standup comedy.
She remembered and knew me. So when this opportunity came up, I was one of the names that she had been wanting to work with for a while. It was just kind of cool, you know? To get that call. My journey was the traditional training, school, auditioning, the whole 9 and then it takes you 10-15 years to be an overnight success!
Ashley: That also speaks to your consistency, though, Gabrielle. Don’t write it off! Because for Robin to have seen you be funny 10 years previous. Then when she brought you up to Issa, she had seen how funny you were a year previous, that’s a decade of funny that went into that! That’s not just an audition! That’s consistency!
Gabrielle: Well, thank you. That means a lot coming from who I dub one of the most hilarious women that I’ve ever met. You’re brilliant, smart and so funny!
How did you two first meet each other?
Ashley: Well, we met on the show. We hadn’t met before the show. I think one of the first things we did—well, no, you would have come in to talk to the writer’s room. Because all the actors come into the writer’s room and say what kind of characters they like to play or what talents they have. Obviously, Gabrielle is a singer, dancer, does it all. But I feel like, you have those little conversations. And as a writer, you try to hold onto something about the actor. But I feel like you don’t really get to know them until on set.
I feel like Gabrielle is so crazy talented, it would be easy to be intimidated. Especially for me, because I am a comedian. Not an actor. I definitely come from a comedy background! But you also can’t be intimidated by Gabrielle because she is so sweet and she’s always eating all the snacks on set. Like, we’re cool, we’re all comfortable. Even though I’m, like, staring at her when she’s acting because she’s so good!
Gabrielle: Aww! Yeah, I’m a huge Ashley Nicole Black fan. I think I’m probably—I “stan.” I can’t say I stan the most because I think so many people stan Ashley Nicole Black and rightfully so! But yeah we met on the show and I was first taken aback by her writing and just her overall artistry. I think she’s very smart, just brilliant. She’s laid back and likable and lovable.
Then just to see her—I’m just in awe of people who are multitalented and can do multiple things. So, to be able to see her create that character, the Invisible Spy, which was such a hit because it speaks to so many people. We all feel like we’re invisible at some point at some stage or aspect of our live. So, to tap into speaking to so many people with this one character, I just that was brilliant.
Everyday you get to go to set and work with these girls and see what they’re able to do—we got to record music for one of our sketches, which was really fun! We had dance rehearsal. So, we had a lot of moments to get to know one another and experience each other’s talents. I’m not sure what she’s talking about “she’s not a comedian, not an actress.” She is both! She’s been representing very, very well and doing the whole gamut.
What was it like to get the show off the ground? Do you write weekly like SNL or is all done beforehand? Also, is it “harder to write comedy” today, as some say, than it was years ago?
Ashley: For this show, we don’t write it weekly like Saturday Night Live. We write the whole show and then we shoot the whole show, which is more like the cable model. And because of COVID this year, we actually had finished writing before COVID and then couldn’t get to shoot until months and months later because we were delayed by COVID.
So, it’s really a testament to the writer’s room that the show feels fresh because I think, as Gabrille was saying, writing things that are relatable and that are human and based in real life makes the show feel like it was written this week. Even though it very much was not!
You know, it’s an interesting question: is it harder to write comedy? I would say no, because comedy is how I respond to the stresses and difficulties of the world. In this case, we had written the show before COVID. But even if we were writing during it, I feel like people don’t want to still keep hearing about COVID and that’s what I was hearing about from my standup friends who were trying to do standup during quarantine.
But there are other things going on in your life, those stresses you have with your family, especially if you are quarantined with people, your relationships, all of that kind of stuff is so relatable and so universal. To me, that’s always where my comedy comes from, my personal experiences and experiences of my friends and family. So, no matter what’s going on in the world, that stuff’s always interesting.
What are also the funniest characters to me are people who maybe even when they’re in a crazy situation, and this is the situation of our characters in the interstitials, the world is ending, the apocalypse is happening and we are still bitching with our girlfriends.
Because that is how human beings are: the thing that’s right in front of you and the person you care about and love is often the most important thing going on, even if the apocalypse is happening outside. I think that’s so funny but it’s also so human. To me, that’s why I would not say that comedy is harder to write in this time.
Gabrielle: I don’t write on the show but I’ve written outside of the show. But because writing isn’t my first talent, it’s all challenging. Comedy, to me, is a bit more fun to write, however. As a performer, comedy is more challenging in the sense that it takes so much more energy. Because it’s about timing, your muscles—everything just has to be in sync. Not to say that dramatic acting doesn’t require energy, especially when you’re crying and stuff like that.
But the muscles that we use for this show, I got home physically exhausted. Like I played a game in the sketch. Every portion or my vertebrae is used, my shoulders—I lean back far. I’m busting cartwheels, I’m busting splits, twerking. It’s all kinds of physical comedy that I really, really love to do but because of that it makes it a little more challenging in that It’s a little more exhausting. Because you’re not just using your words, you’re using so much of your physicality.
Just trying to stay on par with these girls and staying on top of your lines and staying on top of your timing. It’s a rhythm thing. So, it’s a little more challenging to execute comedic timing and execute comedic timing. It requires more energy. But I enjoy it. Anytime somebody wants to pay me and get in front of a camera, I’m always there for it!
Was making the second season different from the first? Any favorite moments along the way?
Gabrielle: Well, the major difference obviously was having to work around all of the COVID protocols and things like that. That was the first thing in your face when you show up to set, you’re dealing with the reality and the way the world is. We were tested every single day. You go through the process, you wait in your trailer, you have to make sure you’re cleared. So all of those things.
Eventually you get to melt all of that off of you by the time you go through hair and you go through makeup. There’s this excitement and energy because we do want to escape from what’s outside and what’s going on with the pandemic. So, there was definitely that element, which, for me, I found frightening that first week and a half. It was a little challenging. I almost had a meltdown because I’m a germ-a-phobe and it was a very scary time.
But it felt great eventually because I knew these girls had my back and I knew the show was protecting us at all costs, by all means necessary, making sure we were safe. All of that helped refuel my sanity and so did being focused on the work and excited and feeling joy. For me, it was a lot of fun. Every time we have amazing guest stars, that’s always a joy. Like Kim Wayans—she’s our Black comedy royalty in this space.
To be able to work with her, I literally squealed when she showed up! I yelped! Those moments are highlights for us. To be able to work with these entertainers that we look up to and respect. But more so for me, it’s just a joy watching my cast mates explore, my cast mates grow. To be able to root them on and be able to see them knock it out the park, I find them inspiring every single day.
The only difference between season one and season two is that we were dealing with the pandemic. But there was always joy. For me, I felt a little more comfortable in season two. I felt like the outsider in season one, like most people don’t know I come from comedy. So, I felt a little more loose and free. Like, okay, people accepted me in season one. So, let’s get loose.
Ashley: I co-sign a lot of what Gabrielle said because, for me, season two—first of all, we had so much fun. I think in part because it was a pandemic and work, we were tested every day, everybody was tested every day. So, it was like, here is a place where we can be really safe and play. It felt so good to get to play. Knowing that the audience would get to experience that fun too, eventually, when the show came out was great.
For me, the difference from season one to season two—you know, season one of a show, you’re figuring out, “Can we do this, can I do this?” Coming into season two and knowing the show really well, we were able to come in with just complete confidence and that just made it so much fun. Knowing where you could push the boundaries or knowing that I could go to hair and be like, “How long of a pony tail are we able to make?” [Laughs]
And knowing the players really well—to me, the most fun are those big group scenes. Especially having Skye and Laci this season in the cast, they are so funny! Everyone is so funny in such a different way that when you add those two new people it’s like two new different styles of comedy to play with.
To me, the most fun were those days we were in book group scenes like Courtroom Kiki and getting to watch everybody do their thing and everybody’s at the top of their game. It’s so much fun. Literally we do this first take and Gabrielle does a flip across the courtroom and you’re like, “Okay, this is what we’re doing today!?” It was something like that everyday.
What do you love most about what you do?
Ashley: I love making people feel seen, all people but also particularly Black women. And one of the coolest things about this show is people responding to us and telling us they feel scene. Gabrielle mentioned my character, Trinity. The number of people who have come up to me and been like, “I. Am. Trinity!” of every race, every gender. That was something that was so specific to my experience as a plus-sized Black woman. But then I found it was a universal experience for so many people.
I love getting to meet people, before COVID, and having them tell us that. Or people tweeting at us. One of the things that’s been great this season is that there have been so many plus-sized women tweeting at me about fashion. Our costumer does such a great job. People are like, “Where can I get that shirt? Where can I get that skirt?” Because they see someone on TV who looks like them, who’s wearing their size and they can go out and buy it. For plus-size women, that doesn’t happen very often on television.
So, it makes me feel so good as an artist that we can create something that makes so many people feel seen and feel heard and loved and understand and, of course, make them laugh. And it’s people that I never could have even imagined that we were making this show for. But it makes me so happy when I hear that they love it and feel the love we put into making it.
Gabrielle: Like Ashley says, it’s all about representation and making people feel seen. But for me at the core it’s about bringing joy to people. To bring that joy and escapism from life for that brief 20-some-odd minutes that we’re on television. It just means a lot when you get the comments like, “This really helped me get through this hard time.” Or “I really needed this, this was a horrible week and this is a great way to button up my horrible week!”
To see how people are so appreciative of that and how they are in need of that. Unfortunately, our world doesn’t seem like it’s getting easier everyday but it is nice to know that there are outlets like our show that people can go to and have that one moment of not worrying about all of the trauma going on in the world or in their personal lives and sit down and enjoy some laughs.
That means a lot because mental health is very important. Who knows what the comedy in our show brings to people that takes them out of a dark place, even if it’s just for a moment in time. I think that’s a beautiful thing and what comedy has the power to do. I’m just proud to be part of a show that lends itself to something like that.