Photo courtesy of HBO
Story by Naffie Njie/ Contributing Writer
On August 22, 1993, “Living Single” aired its first episode and brought a new face to comedic sitcoms. Black sitcoms like “Martin,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Family Matters” had been popular in the 90s. Some shows featured black women as leads like “Moesha” and “Sister, Sister,” but these shows were all family based.
“Living Single” broke that trend, featuring four black female leads. Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Kim Fields, and Erika Alexander starred as Khadijah, Synclaire, Regine, and Maxine, women with different upbringings, personalities, jobs and lifestyles. It was a groundbreaking feat for black television and one of the first of its kind.
Now in the late 2010’s, the entertainment industry is seeing a resurgence of black femme comedy and “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is an exciting advance. The show, which debuted on August 2, 2019, contains many firsts, like the first black female sketch director (Dime Davis, “Boomerang” TV Series), the first all-black woman sketch series cast and the first all-black women writer’s room.
The show stars Robin Thede (an established comedic writer who previously had the BET show “The Run Down with Robin Thede” and co-produces with Issa Rae), Ashley Nicole Black (an Emmy winning comedic writer known for her work on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”), Gabrielle Dennis (actor, singer and stand-up comedian known for her portrayal of Whitney Houston in “The Bobby Brown Story,” amongst other roles) and Quinta Brunson (former Buzzfeed writer and comedian known for her “Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date” series).
The first episode, “Angela Bassett is the Baddest B*tch” gives an interesting spin on typical sketch comedy. Topics like plus-sized and dark skinned black womens’ feelings of invisibility, cancel culture, beauty standards, and more are explored in depth.
Standout sketches include: “The Fog,” a hilarious mini-journey through the life of hair particles living in a very ashy woman’s arm; “Hertep Masterclass,” a parody of extreme “pro-black” Hotep ideologies from the point of view of a “pre-PhD” holding author and “Motown Meltdown,” a play on Motown era male R&B groups with a ridiculously funny twist. These sketches made me cackle and were different from anything I’d seen on Comedy Central or SNL. It’s also evident that sketches and characters will recur, which is a refreshing change from the usual “one-off” sketch concept seen in many shows.
The first episode guest starred Angela Bassett, Gina Torres, Amara La Negra, Lavergne Cox, Nicole Byer, Kelly Rowland, and more. The trailer boasts many hilarious and recognizable guest stars as well.
A looming cloud over the show’s progressiveness is the problem of representation within the black female community. While “black girl nerds” are a needed voice in comedy and television, it can be difficult not to exclude other black femme voices. Many of the writers and stars of the show have a similar brand of comedy and self-expression and would be considered “suburban black girls” by many. And to many groups within the black community, these types of comedies aren’t funny. Sophisticated comedy, or “Blavity Black” humor can come off as dry and unrelatable.
One sketch in particular, “Bad B*tch Support Group,” had me cringing. The sketch features a group of black women in a therapy-style meeting talking about the woes of being a “bad b*tch.” Robin Thede and Gabrielle Dennis play two of the ladies who debate what it truly means to be a “BB” and where the lines of beauty standards should be crossed. They both imitate “ghetto black girl accents” and sound forced and stereotypical. No one wants to hear suburban black girls’ imitations of hood black girls. No one.
Personally, I was hoping for a raunchier style of comedy, because “A Black Lady Sketch Show” seems pretty tame so far. It’s HBO, they could take it there if they’d like to.
So, I have mixed feelings. There has to be a way to realistically portray black women in comedy without focusing too much on one type of black woman, and without being unnecessarily stereotypical. Maybe bringing on writers with different points of view. Considering this is just the first episode, I have hope. “A Black Lady Sketch Show” may not be for everyone, but I’m excited to see more of this show and where they go with the characters and topics.
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