Robin Thede’s Emmy-nominated sketch series “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is back for Season 2 — packed with many new characters for its core actors to play, while donning dozens of wigs (sometimes more than one in the same sketch) and acting opposite new and returning guest stars. But the road to get there wasn’t easy.
When Thede tells Variety “we’re not playing this year,” she isn’t just referring to the “elevated” content that is “pushing those boundaries even further” and really centering “Black lady joy.” She is also talking about producing such content amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The second season was a rollercoaster of a production for Thede and the “Black Lady Sketch Show” team. The show was five days away from kicking off work on the new season when the pandemic shut down the world in March 2020. HBO initially advised that production would be shut down for two months, which turned into four months, which turned into six, and just kept stretching on.
“All of that really challenged me as a showrunner,” Thede tells Variety, explaining that she’s been working on this season for about 18 months, maybe longer.
Thede always set out to create a bigger and bolder version of the show that boasts all Black women in its core cast and writers’ room, and features two Black women (Lacey Duke and Brittany Scott Smith) directing the six-episode season. But due to pandemic-forced shifts in the schedule, Season 1 star Quinta Brunson was unable to appear in the new season, so now the cast consists of returning players Thede, Ashley Nicole Black and Gabrielle Dennis, alongside new featured players Laci Mosley and Skye Townsend.
Pointing to Black and Dennis, Thede says, “What these women are doing on camera is nothing short of miraculous because it was absolutely during a whole global pandemic — the height of it — and they brought their A-game.”
All the while, Thede, the writers and producing team were working with COVID compliance experts, figuring out how the show could go on safely. But all credit goes to her cast and crew for staying the course, she says.
“I said ‘OK, we’re coming back’’ and I explained how we were going to do it, these women said ‘OK, let’s go,’” she recalls. “Not that we didn’t have apprehension and fear. Of course, we did. We dealt with that every day. But it didn’t stop us.”
Thede and the show’s team are still wrapping up post-production on the “dense” six episodes that make up the new season and, while she can hardly contain her excitement for fans to see what they’ve cooked up, her co-stars are even more anxious.
“A little secret,” Thede reveals, “Gabrielle and Ashley have not seen anything.”
“The trailer got me so excited,” Dennis says, “and Robin’s excitement is so infectious. Like if she’s good, I’m 1,000% good, because there’s way more pressure on her than me.”
But the pressure was on the entire cast to get it right when it came to safety. As one of the first productions back, it was a big responsibility, but everyone was dedicated.
“We created this amazing bubble on the set that just felt like so safe, and so fun and so full of love,” Black says. And then this year, this is gonna sound so cheesy, but I was really grateful for my improv training.”
Learning how to manage the very scary situation of stepping on stage in front of an audience and not knowing what would happen next helped Black prepare for the uncertainty of working mid-pandemic. “Every day we would come in and get tested for COVID, and that would give you some reassurance. And then it’s like, I have to tap into my training and find peace, and be the funniest I can be,” she says. “And we played so many crazy characters this season. I was like, ‘This character is not thinking about COVID, she’s just tried to find a man.’ And that is the only thing on her mind. So, I can just tap right into that mindset.”
Dennis adds that knowing that the series would bring audiences joy — and created some joy for the actors making it amid all of the heaviness of the year — helped her get over her fears of going back to set.
“I was very much taking in way too much toxic information by way of watching the news and all day, so there was this relief and excitement when I got the call,” Dennis recalls. “But they did such a great job of preparing us. We got to ask as many questions as we needed to ask, we got to talk to medical experts.”
“It really felt like we’re part of this tribe that wanted to protect us and take care of us. And that’s why I tease Robin and call her ‘Mama Bear’ because I know where it starts,” she adds. It starts and stops with Robin because of health and safety for her team is very, very important. And so that made me comfortable to get up off my couch, finally shave my legs and wear some clothes.”
Going through it together, Dennis says, was a bonding moment for the troupe, like they’d become “a singing group or an all-girls superhero troupe.”
“It was just kind of exciting to kind of get out of that toxicity of the weight of what was going on in the world and have this escape to go to work with people that you adore, you admire and you respect. People who are just so funny and so talented,” she says.
After the core cast was ready to go, Thede then had to recast about 99% of the guest star lineup, making personal phone calls asking, “Hey, can y’all come do the show please?”
“I don’t think anybody knew we were in production again, but [many of the previously booked guest stars] were either working on other things by the time we got back, or they were just scared to shoot during COVID, which we understood,” Thede says. “So, all the guest stars that we had booked right before we started shooting in March of 2020 were gone. It was a lot of change and a lot of things we had to pivot, but it’s worth it.”
The list of guest stars who signed on for Season 2 includes exec. producer Issa Rae, who pops up again in the “Black Lady Court Room” sketch, which this year, adds a Black lady jury; Omarion, who busted out some of his own impressions on set; Amber Riley, with whom Dennis shared scenes in both scenes and calls “honest and pure in her performance,” and Jesse Williams, who Thede says plays a “very unexpected role.”
Black shouts out Miguel’s performance as one to watch, as well, saying, “He’s a cool singing guy, we haven’t seen his funny side yet. He’s so funny in this sketch and I think people are going to be like ‘I didn’t know Miguel had that in him.’”
Also on the roster are Skai Jackson, Laz Alonso, Kim Wayans, Ayesha Curry, Lance Gross, Wunmi Mosaku and Ryan Michelle Bathe.
“The thing about this show is we never want to take you out of a sketch with a celebrity,” Thede explains. “We want you to feel like even more excited about the sketch you’re watching. So, we’re very careful that it’s written in a way that it doesn’t make you just get distracted by the celebrity. That they’re also striking the right tone and that it doesn’t feel like we’re just shoving someone in who doesn’t belong.”
And the team is already thinking ahead to Season 3. After the rollercoaster of an experience producing this season, Thede knows it’s never too early to plan ahead — or form a backup plan.
“We need Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, Blue Ivy, Kaavia [Union Wade],” Thede says. “We need Michelle Obama, Oprah, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Tiffany Haddish, Tracee Ellis Ross, Halle Berry.”
“These are all women we have already spoken to. And I will say that none of them has told us ‘No’ yet.” she adds. “They have not also told us ‘Yes.’ However, I think everybody gets what we’re trying to do now.”
“A Black Lady Sketch Show” premieres April 23 at 11 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max.