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‘We’re Funny As Hell’: ABLSS Takes Over Essence Fest

By Bradford William Davis

Robin Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson and Gabrielle Dennis explain how their upcoming sketch series gives their comedy space to flourish.

When A Black Lady Sketch Show debuts, it will feature numerous firsts: the first all-black women writer’s room (led by Lauren Ashley Smith), the first black woman sketch director (Boomerang’s Dime Davis), and the first sketch series cast comprised entirely of black women.

Those milestones are as much of a credit to the series as a testament to the failures of the comedy landscape and entertainment industry to include vital voices. Series creator Robin Thede knows this intimately, but she told the Essence Fest crowd that she feels uniquely equipped to overcome through ABLSS, which premieres August 2nd. “We break through despite being written by all-white writing staffs,” said Thede during a panel with co-stars Ashley Nicole Black, Quinta Brunson and Gabrielle Dennis. “I've created shows. I've been on TV forever. This was made for me. This is a culmination of everything I've been working towards for decades.”

The ABLSS crew took over the Essence Fest weekend with a host of events that revealed the inner-workings of the series. Saturday’s Creator’s Brunch brought together entrepreneurs, activists and artists to mingle with each other and hear Davis, Smith, and Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell discuss their creative process and the obstacles they’ve overcome to find success in the entertainment industry. On Sunday, ABLSS debuted the series premiere to attendees at the New Orleans Superdome and dropped the first trailer.

The cast expressed their excitement to build in a place that could continue to nurture their comedic gifts. Black, Brunson and Dennis all have accomplished careers in entertainment, but have primarily worked without a plurality of Black voices in the room.

“One time I pitched a sketch with a Scandal reference,” said Black, referencing the Shonda Rhimes-created drama that catapulted Kerry Washington into superstardom. “Scandal was at its absolute hype at the time, but I pitched it to a room full of white people. And someone asks, ‘What's Scandal?’”

Black took a brief pause from her anecdote while the entire crowd groaned in unison. (Because, really, who doesn’t know Scandal?)

“Being in a writer’s room with all Black women means you don't have to explain your entire cultural experience,” she continued. “Not having to explain yourself makes you so much funnier.”

Dennis has often been frustrated by getting “stuck in a box” in the entertainment industry, and shared how valuable it was to her that Thede remembered her stand-up. “Most people don't know that I'm funny, or can be funny!”

“Everybody here fucking cracks me up,” says Brunson, who said her comedy career before ABLSS was spent “either alone, or in entirely white spaces.”

“I got to be another layer of Black womanhood. My comedy grew because I didn’t have to represent all Black women.”

Instead, between the four leads, ALBSS features a diversity of experiences (more than 100 characters over the six-episode season, said Thede) that she wouldn’t want to cover entirely on her own. “Sometimes I’ll look at Gabrielle playing a role and I’ll be like, Oh my God, that’s my cousin! Then Ashley is the smart girl from class. Or Robin will do a bit and she’s being exactly like my mom.”

Everything Thede has done not just to fill a vacuum, but because they believe they can change the industry that overlooked them for so long.

“We almost named it The Black Lady Sketch Show”, because that’s what it is,” said Thede. “But then we settled on A Black Lady Sketch Show,” with Thede placing extra emphasis on A. Switching from “the” appears subtle, but she knows it was necessary. Why?

“We want to be one of many. This opens the door for many more to come.”

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