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Review: 'A Black Lady Sketch Show'


Sketch comedy has been a staple on television from its very beginning. But a sketch show created, written, directed by and starring black women is something new. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says HBO's "A Black Lady Sketch Show," debuting Friday, is well worth the wait.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: This is the sketch show you never knew you needed until it appears in a burst of groundbreaking comedy. Let's start with their take on one of those YouTube marriage proposal videos featuring a flash mob, where Ashley Nicole Black reacts a little more realistically.


ASHLEY NICOLE BLACK: (As character) Why would you propose? You just lost your job.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Surprise - I quit my job to devote myself to organizing this flash mob full time.

BLACK: (As character) You quit? You told me you got fired. I cussed out your boss.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) This is a viral proposal. It's what you always wanted.

BLACK: (As character) No, what I always wanted was to find a black lady therapist and network. But I guess I dream too big.

DEGGANS: Or that moment in church where the pastor asks anyone who needs prayer to speak up and a mom takes the microphone with an awfully personal request.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Church, I want to ask you to please pray for my daughter Kylie (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Yes, take your time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) She needs a man. Anybody here today that is single and has good credit, raise your hand and shout unto the heavens. Hallelujah - (speaking in tongues). Yes, Lord.

DEGGANS: And there's more - a woman who gets serenaded by Patti LaBelle every time a guy dumps her, a female street gang with a parental leave plan and star-crossed lovers who commit social media suicide by deleting their Instagram accounts.

This all comes courtesy of a murderers' row of writers and performers assembled by Robin Thede, the former head writer of Comedy Central's "The Nightly Show." The idea - to build a show that was a love letter to black women in comedy. It blows apart stereotypes about what black female comics can do by tackling just about anything, like this moment where Thede plays a militant activist who gives a toast at her sister's wedding reception.


ROBIN THEDE: (As character) I've told you many times via group text address me as Dr. Hadasa Olayinka Ali Young (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You can't just put doctor in front of your name, Haley (ph). Only Oprah can do that for you.

THEDE: (As character) Congrats to the newlyweds, Kwame (ph) and my beloved baby sister, who still embraces her devil name, Hannah (ph).

DEGGANS: Thede united a wide cross-section of writers and performers. Up-and-coming talents like Ashley Nicole Black from Samantha Bee's "Full Frontal" and Amber Ruffin from "Late Night With Seth Meyers" join Thede and executive producer Issa Rae from HBO's "Insecure." Stars who dropped by for cameos included David Alan Grier, Laverne Cox and Angela Bassett.

Thede has said the writers' room felt like a sorority, where no one had to explain their race or their gender. For black women who've had to make their way in the white male-dominated world of TV comedy, it must have felt like a freeing experience, which leads to the show's coolest sketch, a running gag that appears in all six episodes. It features moments with four black women who've gathered for a fun weekend together only to find a calamity wiped out the rest of mankind. Here, they play a uniquely personal game of Never Have I Ever.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) OK, never have I ever done a walk of shame.

QUINTA BRUNSON: (As Quinta) You've never done a walk of shame?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I wasn't ashamed. OK? Quinta, go.

BRUNSON: (As Quinta) OK, never have I ever sent love poetry to Cornell West and gotten a cease and desist in return.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Man, this game is stupid.

DEGGANS: The comedy comes from many angles, with some jokes rooted in black culture, others in black women's unique experience, and many more are funny in a universal way. "A Black Lady Sketch Show" is a shining example of the great work you get when equality comes to comedy. The only criticism I have is that it took so long for us to get here. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALICIA KEYS SONG, "GIRL ON FIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.