In this Friday’s episode of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” Robin Thede, its charismatic showrunner and star, plays the world’s worst thief. She picks fights with conspirators during a heist, wears a glittery silver wig that isn’t exactly inconspicuous, and, before stealing a diamond, takes a selfie and posts it to social media.
It’s a stylishly executed genre spoof, with a solid premise and slick split-screen editing. And yet, its polish merely supports what really makes you laugh: the flamboyant goofiness of Thede, who commits to preposterousness with deadly seriousness. Her physical comedy, kinetic and rubbery, constantly shifting and shameless, italicizes everything. When she maneuvers across the room like a member of the Ministry of Silly Walks, the whole expensive-looking production becomes part of the joke.
The truth of sketch comedy is right there in the name. Quick and broad strokes are at the core of the fun, and that can’t be entirely manufactured in a writers’ room. Take it from no less an authority than Bob Odenkirk (“Mr. Show,” “Saturday Night Live”). In his new memoir, “Comedy Comedy Drama,” he writes about his considerable experience brainstorming, acting and producing sketches, concluding that ultimately “performance matters more than writing and ideas, loony behavior trumps clever constructions.”
“A Black Lady Sketch Show” on HBO has all these elements, but now in its third season, the balance has shifted and it’s grown into, above all else, a spectacular showcase for Thede, the most influential and exciting figure in sketch at the moment. She leads a strong cast, including stalwarts Ashley Nicole Black and Gabrielle Dennis as well as the more recent addition Skye Townsend. It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t that long ago that the title sequence of this show included as many Black women as could be found in the casts of four decades of “Saturday Night Live.”
Created in 2019, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” announced its point of view about representation in its title and also in who it hired, becoming the first sketch series with a cast and writing staff exclusively made up of Black female talent. But this only gets at a small piece of the show’s impact. Its first season, still its best, featured the writer Amber Ruffin before she started her talk show, and the cast member Quinta Brunson before she left to create the hit sitcom “Abbott Elementary.”
What marks the sketches are formal pivots (in a common twist, a scene is often revealed to be an ad or documentary); a light, joyful touch; and a comedy-nerd sensibility deeply verbed in the history of television. You see this not just in the obscure references to “A Different World” or the meticulousness of a “227” parody, with Thede as a deliriously spot-on version of Jackée Harry’s Sandra, but also in the nudge-nudge casting. (Garrett Morris! David Alan Grier!)
The comedy here usually offers new spins on classic territory: sportscasters providing color commentary on mundane events, or spoofs of vampires, zombies and marginal figures from the time of Christ. In these familiar premises, Thede, whose parents named her after Robin Williams, foregrounds character and improvisations, allowing room to riff and improvise, never letting seconds go by without a joke. Tying the sketches together are scenes with the cast in a story line that involves an apocalypse you never truly believe is real. This show can veer toward darkness, but horror is a tool rather than the point. In my favorite sketch this season, Thede plays a Midwestern-nice woman with a “Fargo” accent whose affection for stitched inspirational quotes and cutesy mottos shifts from benign to twisted. It might change the way you look at small-town antique stores.
Thede has talked about her love for the wildly popular if far too forgotten 1990s sketch show “In Living Color,” which featured a talent-rich, mostly Black cast and a constantly changing writers’ room often filled with white staff members. It was more topical, celebrity-obsessed and wavering in its comic voice than “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” But what both series share is a delight in oversize personalities like Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman (Thede), a political radical whose overly enunciated delivery is a cousin to Damon Wayans’s Oswald Bates from “In Living Color.”
“I will never be enslaved,” she says with conviction, before counting the ways. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, metaphysically, biologically, specifically, pacifically, Michael Ealy, Robert E. Lee, none of the Lees.”
Perhaps because of the lasting influence of Tim and Eric, the trend in sketch comedy has been for scenes to get absurd quickly. The second season of “Three Busy Debras,” which just began on Adult Swim, is one example. On “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” Thede builds her jokes with patience, taking time to establish the world of her character before spiraling into the surreal. On last week’s episode, Thede played a croaking spelling-bee host, a chirpy morning-show meteorologist and a peacocking art-school student. Each of these are tightly drawn and fully realized before descending into total nonsense. Sometimes it comes in an aside. (“Whoever can help me find my keys outside Domino’s will immediately be crowned the winner,” the spelling-bee host says.) What they share is an outsize confidence and clueless bravado that remains, against all odds, endearing.
Even when she plays herself, Thede displays this quality. In an interstitial scene, she asks her castmates, wine glass in hand: “You know what I like about me?” After a self-important pause, she spoofs showbiz self-deprecation: “Even though I’m evolved, I’m not perfect, you know?”
Her co-stars can match her comic energy, especially Dennis, whose cartoonish characters have a mischievous eccentricity. Black provides an appealing contrast, generally playing closer to earth, satirizing more subtle character types, like an understated spy and an overly positive friend praising you for sleeping on the job. As the show has matured, it’s become less interested in lampooning the world than in creating its own.
One of its most biting sketches imagined a focus group where the wildly contradictory negative feedback about a show involved prescriptive demands. The artists returned with a new attempt that was a video of the critics. They still hated it. It’s a nice shot at the caution of showbiz today, one that comes with a hard-earned lesson: Sometimes, for a comic to find what works, you have to tune out the audience.