It should go without saying that any variety series with an episode (ahem, Emmy-nominated episode) entitled “Peek-a-Boob Your Titty’s Out” is not here to play. But HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show” has been riotously rooting in irreverence for four seasons (very sadly, the recently aired fourth season was to be its last), and production designers Cindy Chao and Michele Yu have been there for the whole wild ride.
“The way Michele and I work is very organic,” said Chao, who is enjoying her second consecutive Emmy nomination along with her work partner. “Sometimes with a time crunch we will have to separate, but overall, we are designing together, scouting together, and coming up with great brainstorming ideas and concepts together.”
And this season alone involves designing dozens of scenes and backdrops for a six-episode go-round, including a large array of builds and location finds, something showrunner and star Robin Thede wanted from the start.
“We usually start with at least 50 to 60 sketches on page,” Yu added. “And from there we prep all of them as much as we can. And then sometimes for unforeseen reasons, a few sketches get cut. So, for Season 4, I want to say we actually shot 46, maybe a little bit over.”
“Robin didn’t want to be constrained by a genre or by any particular expectation of what the show was supposed to be. She often says that’s why she calls it ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show,’” Chao said, stressing the A. “She intends it to be something that opens the door to many, many more sketches featuring black women. So, design wise, it leaves us feeling free to explore.”
Added Yu: “Robin really wanted the show to have a very cinematic but grounded and authentic look to it. She didn’t want something that looks like it was shot on a stage.”
And given that sketches take place everywhere from casinos to courtrooms to ancient B.C. to airplanes to R&B sensation Omarion’s palatial pad, it required a lot of coordination from departments, including VFX (recalling the cinematic aspect) to the editing bay to, most especially, the costume/hair/makeup department, which often was the tip-off for the comic brio to follow. And some sketches — like Thede’s hilariously single-minded and malaprop-prone Dr. Hadassah) — have been fan favorites throughout.
“I always feel like we should talk more about ‘Courtroom Kiki,’ because it’s legacy sketch we all love so much,” Chao said about the judicially based mainstay that featured actors like Issa Rae and Yvette Nicole Brown, both of whom have received Emmy nominations for their work on the series, on which you can expect anyone from Angela Bassett (also a former nominee) to Colman Domingo to Jackée to Bobby Brown to appear. “And it’s a sketch that really epitomizes what ‘Black Lady Sketch Show’ does so well, which is to celebrate the joy in your community, right?”
The duo used everything from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to a golf resort redressed as a casino to bring sketches to life this season. But one of the skits they got the most props for (not quite literally) was the uproarious “Baptism Runs on Dunkin’,” which created a set for a basketball court that also happens to double as a funeral parlor. “We were in a chapel at a cemetery and had to turn the ball court,” Chao said. “And that was one that we got a lot of funny compliments on, because people would walk in and be like, ‘This really feels like a basketball court!”
Chao and Yu (whose work can also be seen in Disney+’s “American Born Chinese” this year) credit Thede’s virtuosic mind for much of their output, and also for allowing them a literal seat at the table for text reads (“I don’t know why that’s not more standard practice in the industry,” says Chao.). And both women clearly already miss this gig with all their hearts.
“[The basketball set] was very special to our hearts because that was actually the last set that we shot for the season,” says Yu with a small frown. “Back then, we had no idea that was going to be our last set of the entire series.” But could the show find new life elsewhere? “I know we still have a lot more in us,” adds Chao. “So, if anybody wants to pick the show up, please do!”
“A Black Lady Sketch Show” is now streaming on Max.