What do an American comedy show whose cast is almost exclusively made up of Black women and a Canadian series starring two Black men, an Asian man and an Indigenous man have in common?
They’re part of a wave of diverse sketch comedy shows that suggest the profile of race-based comedy is on the rise.
HBO’s great A Black Lady Sketch Show is about to air its third episode Sunday. And TallBoyz, the CBC series starring a new troupe of diverse male comics, arrives Sept. 17. There’s also Comedy Central’s Alternatino With Arturo Castro, which airs on Much Tuesdays.
There’s nothing new about race-based comedy and any standup special by a comedian of non-white ethnicity will eventually meander over to the topic — which is ikely to happen when Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready launches on Netflix on Tuesday.
But the concentration of diverse talent in shows like Black Lady and TallBoyz feels new.
Robin Thede, the brains behind A Black Lady Sketch Show, has long been a groundbreaker, having been the first African American female head writer on a late night show (The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore). She hosted her own late night show, The Rundown With Robin Thede, on BET from 2017 to 2018.
“Now obviously there’s never been a sketch show created like this, a show run by a Black woman, created by Black women, written by Black women, starring Black women,” Thede told the AV Club. “So I think for me it’s good in a way because you stand out in the landscape of hundreds of television shows, but there is responsibility with that and there is pressure with that …
“But the reason why we called A Black Lady Sketch Show ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’ instead of ‘The Black Lady Sketch Show’ was that hopefully there will be others and it will just be one of many,” she added.
Thedes told The Associated Press that only a handful of Black women had ever been on sketch shows, despite the plethora of talented African-American female comedians she knew.
Indeed, Saturday Night Live, the granddaddy of sketch shows, has been criticized for lack of diversity in its casts, specifically Black women. In 2014, it hired Sasheer Zamata and promoted writer Leslie Jones, both of whom are Black, to regular cast status, although Zamata left the show in 2017.
While SNL with its predominantly white cast has surged back to relevancy with its Trump-related bits, politics is a small part of the milieu of these new sketch series but also not entirely the thing.
Deep cultural cuts and stereotypes are there to be skewered, but there’s also a desire just to be seen and to get laughs out of people. A Black Lady Sketch Show’s first episode, for instance, feels surprisingly science fiction-tinged with a gag about the apocalypse that runs through the show.
TallBoyz, meanwhile, has some sharp bits but also a youthful sweetness, based on pre-screening the first two episodes.
It pokes fun at things as culturally loaded as “driving while Black,” colonialism and being mocked for bringing ethnic lunches to school. But whether skewering topics with local resonance like Toronto transit cops and the Ontario sex-ed curriculum, or more general subjects like boy bands and gym culture, the comedy seems grounded in the idea of friendship.
The four-man troupe behind the show — Guled Abdi, Vance Banzo, Tim Blair and Franco Nguyen — won just about every comedy ensemble award they could before landing the series. Nguyen likens this comedy to different cuisines, which weren’t always appreciated in this city but have become something to be celebrated.
“There have always been talented performers. We’ve always been good, but now there are new generations of people who will give it a try, whereas there was a time when no one would try it,” says Nguyen.
“Sometimes you’ve got to plate it a certain way. Sometimes you need real pioneers of the art; sometimes you need a Kim’s Convenience or something like All-American Girl, or Fresh Off the Boat, Family Matters and Sanford and Son. Like, all these shows exist so that people start building their palate a little bit, so they go, ‘OK, this is delicious.’”
Sketch comedy tends to come in waves and CBC’s all-female Baroness von Sketch Show — which returns for its fourth season Sept. 17 — is part of the resurgence, especially since it has helped kill the outdated idea that women aren’t as funny as men.
Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson is the buzziest show in recent memory and also features some diverse cast members, including Robinson’s Detroiters compatriot Sam Richardson.
Speaking of Netflix, its drive to own the comedy market has fuelled a proliferation of standup specials, but another part of the appeal is that it’s a lot cheaper to film one person in front of an audience than a show with mutiple cast members that requires sets, extras and, depending on how elaborate a sketch is, special effects.
“Honestly, every show that gets on the air is a f–king miracle,” says Bruce McCulloch, a veteran of the seminal Canadian sketch show The Kids in the Hall and an executive producer of TallBoyz.
But it was “oddly easy” to get CBC to bite on TallBoyz, he says.
“To speak to why is that, (CBC) felt like it really is of now. These guys, at their age, with their relationships to themselves and to the world, is something you don’t often see. So I feel like they went, ‘This is something that (we) don’t have, that we need to’ … I feel like they leapt at this in a really positive way.”
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With files from Debra Yeo and The Associated Press