After majoring in broadcast journalism at Northwestern University to keep her parents happy —“I was going to move to Los Angeles to pursue comedy professionally, but my parents were so scared,”—Thede began her career by writing for shows like Clunkers, Real Husbands of Hollywood and The Queen Latifah Show before becoming the first Black woman to serve as head writer on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore in 2015. Two years later, she launched her own late-night show on HBO called The Rundown with Robin Thede. “I never had any intentions on being a journalist by trade,” says Thede. “I was being a dutiful daughter who got into the best journalism school in the country, so I picked the major that allowed me to be on television.”
How A Black Lady Sketch Show Became a Reality
Thede sold a sketch show to another network while she was hosting her late-night show for HBO. But then her high-profile gig got canceled in 2018, so friend Issa Rae gave Thede a tough-love call she didn’t know she needed. “She said, ‘So, your show got canceled. What are we doing together?’ I was like, ‘Geez, way to have sympathy on my hard day.’ She said, ‘I don’t give a f*ck. This is opening the world for you to create your next thing.’ She really kicked me in the pants, so I said, ‘I’ve got this sketch show but I just don’t think the money’s gonna be right.’ It wasn’t quite where I needed it to be because I wanted to make a super narrative sketch show. So, she said, ‘Bring it to HBO.’ We were on the air nine months later.” (Rae is also an executive producer.)
Though Thede’s goal is to make the show universally funny and relatable, the cultural specificity remains paramount. Look no further than sketches like the ‘Black Lady Courtroom’, with guest star Yvette Nicole Brown presiding over an all-Black court, and cast member Ashley Nicole Black as Trinity, a spy who can go undercover anywhere because—as she’s so painfully aware—no one pays attention to a Black woman like herself. “It’s called A Black Lady Sketch Show,” Thede says. “If we’re not specific to the culture, what are we doing?”
How She Cast the Show
Besides an extraordinarily talented ensemble that includes Black, Gabrielle Dennis, Skye Townsend, Laci Mosley and Thede herself, the show has fast become the go-to stop for Black actors and comedians on TV. Rae has made several appearances in sketches, as has Brown, Amber Riley (Glee) and David Allan Grier. Plenty of A-list talent has stopped by too, like Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, Khandi Alexander, Laverne Cox, Lil Rey Howery, Jesse Williams, Lena Waithe and Ava DuVernay.
“I’ve been in this business 20 years and I’ve just forged a lot of relationships behind the scenes with folks, so I’m lucky in that way. Even in the first season before people knew what the show was, they wanted to be a part of it. The idea sounded cool, and it was about time, you know? And of course, the HBO of it all makes it attractive for people. Now we have a reputation for taking care of our guest stars, and three of our guest stars have been nominated for Emmys so hopefully more will come. I think it’s a place where they’re safe, where they can be funny and free.”
How She Achieved the Look
Thede can’t say it enough: she’s not making skits for a show like Saturday Night Live. The production values alone for A Black Lady Sketch Show make Thede’s show stand apart from the rest.
“The show is very hard to make, especially the way we make it,” Thede says. “It’s like shooting 50 short films and the writers’ room is just the beginning. The production of it is a massive undertaking that I don’t think anyone understands. Everything’s on location, there are 40-plus guest stars and hundreds of characters. We have to create unique hair, makeup and wardrobe. I still can’t believe our glam team, honestly. They deserve all the Emmys. There’s just nobody else doing it like this. I set out to make the most cinematic sketch show in history, and I feel like we are there.”
What People Think
Thede admits that she’s often asked whether it’s a challenge to come up with so many funny skits. “I’m like, no. Am I crazy? Should I feel pressure?” she says. “The thing is, I’ve been doing this for so long. I know people don’t realize that because the other sketch shows I was on were canceled quickly. But I don’t feel any pressure. I always have sketch ideas. I always have amazing writers who have amazing sketch ideas. I have a great cast who have amazing talents. Just surrounding myself with geniuses has helped me not to feel that pressure.
“Do I feel an obligation to deliver a better season than last? Of course, but I always say I’m only in competition with myself to do better.”
After studying music and opera at Arizona State University, the Kansas native got her start by playing a liquored-up party girl who applies to be Carrie’s assistant in the first Sex and the City movie. She yukked it up on Inside Amy Schumer from 2013-2016 and had her own Comedy Special called Bridget Everett: Gynecological Wonder in 2015.
But her most memorable work has been on the cabaret circuit, as a bawdy crooner with a tendency to strip, spit wine, and occasionally mount her fans in the audience. “You gotta make a living,” says the comedian, who has developed quite the cult following. “I just finished doing a run of shows at Joe’s Pub [in New York City]. It was modified because times are changing. But we still had a lot of fun.”
How Somebody Somewhere Became a Reality
After scoring a development deal at HBO in 2018, Everett called friend and uber-producer Carolyn Strauss about helping her put together a show with writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. “I think a lot of people have seen my live show and have been like, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be fun to do something with her?’ But we never could figure it out. So, I got lucky with Carolyn, Paul and Hannah.”
Thureen suggested a show based on Everett’s life growing up in Manhattan, Kansas, where she swam competitively and participated in show choir. In Somebody Somewhere, Everett plays Sam, a 40-something singer who returns to her Midwest home to care for her dying sister. While her days are spent working at a test-grading center and helping her family cope with the endless disappointments of life, Sam finds joy by performing in an underground cabaret at a local church.
“By the end [of the pitch] I was so overcome with emotion. I’ve always kind of done things like, follow my gut, you know? There were a lot of personal elements in it, like the singing aspect and the sister who passed away, and Murray Hill as Fred Rococo. Murray’s one of my best friends in New York, I lost my sister, and music is the great love of my life. I figured the more personal we made it, the better. It felt more interesting to think about, what if somebody like me never went to New York? I love my hometown, but I left it for a reason. Family for many people is complicated, and I was in a place where I never really felt like I belonged, even though I had a lot of friends. That shaped me, but in a good way.”
How She Cast the Show
One of the more endearing qualities of Everett’s show is how the entire cast looks like actual average people, not Hollywood’s version of average people. “That starts with who’s number one on the call sheet. I don’t look like your typical leading lady,” Everett says. “We wanted that to be reflected all the way down the call sheet. It just feels like a truer reflection of the people I see in my life. I have some very beautiful friends, but they’re not top models. You know what I mean? We cast people we could see on the streets of the ‘Little Apple’, which is what we call Manhattan, Kansas.”
Everett was also hands-on when it came to outfitting her actors. “We didn’t want the Midwest to be represented as corny. When I lived there, I used to just wash and go and grab something comfortable. There weren’t a lot of options for a plus-size woman. So, I would just buy T-shirts and cut the neck out. I just wanted it to feel real that way.”
How She Achieved the Look
Though it’s semi-autobiographical, Somebody Somewhere is actually shot in the suburbs of Chicago, not small-town Kansas. “I think it would have been really self-conscious,” admits Everett about the possibility of shooting back home (though production did get some B-roll in Manhattan). “The fact that we did it in Illinois felt like we were in our own little world and in a little bubble. It never felt like, Oh my, holy shit, this is gonna be on HBO.’
Fortunately, the folks back in Manhattan are pleased with the results. “I think my hometown is happy and that is probably one of the greatest reliefs, because my brother and my mom still live there, and I don’t want her to walk around town with her head hung in shame.”
What People Think
Initially, Everett worried the show wouldn’t resonate with HBO subscribers. “I was nervous for a number of reasons. It’s very personal, so I felt like if people didn’t like the show, they didn’t necessarily like me, you know? But more than that, I was nervous because it doesn’t feel like a cool show. It’s not built as a comedy. I think of it as a slice of life. And I was just concerned that because it wasn’t cool that it might not catch fire. Carolyn says it’s a show that likes to wear its heart on its sleeve, and I think that’s true. I think that we got lucky. I think the more specific you make something, the more universal its appeal if you get it right. So, while it’s not doing Game of Thrones numbers, it has found its audience and they seem to be very enthusiastic. The show is a nice bit of sunshine for the sort of hell that everybody’s been living through right now.”