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Issa Rae Brings Exciting and Fresh Comedy to TV. Again.
July 29, 2019  | By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES – TV has always been fond of sketch comedy.

It's gone from Sid Caesar and Milton Berle to The Kids in the Hall and Saturday Night Live. It's had the full range of people, as long as your range consists primarily of white males.

But now there's the flip side – two shows centering on all-female casts. 

The first, A Black Lady Sketch Show (top and right), with four black women at the core, debuts Friday at 11 p.m. ET on HBO. "It hadn't been done before," Issa Rae said. She produces the show and is in some sketches, but says this was propelled by Robin Thede and "her passion for comedy."

The second, The Baroness Von Sketch Show, will start its fourth season Oct. 30 on IFC. The president of programming for AMC Networks (IFC's parent company), David Madden, has already renewed it for a fifth season and sees this as resisting trends: "With a few great exceptions ... sketch comedy has historically had men at the center."

Yes, there have been key exceptions in the past: Carrie Brownstein co-led IFC's award-winning Portlandia, and Tina Fey was a head writer who gave SNLsome strong years. Actresses – from Carol Burnett to Gilda Radner to Kate McKinnon – have been at the core.

But black female sketch stars? SNLhas often had a void there; once, it even had a sketch mocking itself for that. Viewers might assume there were no formidable choices available.

Thede begs to differ. "I know so many black women in comedy," she said. "I had my choice when it came to casting and writing the show. It was just an embarrassment of riches."

At the core are Thede, Quinta Brunson, Gabrielle Dennis, and Ashley Nicole Black. Among other things, they're in the show's one continuing element, as the world's last four survivors of the apocalypse.

Beyond that are the endless guest stars (some male); even Oscar-winner Angela Bassett (left) does comedy.

There are only six episodes in this first season, but they're elaborate, leaping across genres.

"There's horror," Thede said, "There's action thrillers. There's musicals. We just wanted to show that black women can be more than one thing...It's like 40-some individual films.

Yes, films; this is shot movie-style, director Dime Davis said. Everything we've done is cinematic.

That means using real settings, Thede said. "It was important for us to shoot everything on location. We had one stage day; (otherwise), we were all over."

That's something her show has in common with Baroness von Sketch (left)which packs more than a dozen sketches into a half-hour, each with its own setting.

The von Sketch idea began when Meredith MacNeill returned to Canada after 13 years (and a lot of Shakespeare) in England. She was 37, a single mom, and living with her parents. That's when she talked to Carolyn Taylor about an all-woman sketch show. Taylor brought in Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen.

Unlike MacNeill, those three had worked on previous Canadian comedy shows. Whalen created two shows -- Instant Star and Little Mosque on the Prairie– and was head writer of This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Still, she said, she's the exception.

"I was often the only woman in all-male rooms," Whalen said, "and it's like speaking another language. I can speak white-male-comic very well. I know exactly what makes them laugh. I know where their areas are, but (they don't) necessarily know where our areas are." 

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