TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Robin Thede, is the creator and one of the stars of the HBO comedy series "A Black Lady Sketch Show," which is nominated for five Emmys. She spoke with our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley about the show and her career. Tonya is the host of the podcast "Truth Be Told." Here's Tonya with more.
TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: For a long time, Robin Thede had this idea What if she created a comedy sketch show solely written, directed and starring Black women? Believe it or not, that hadn't happened before then. Now, "A Black Lady Sketch Show" is in its third season. Here's a clip from the latest season, a sketch called "Don't Rain On My Buh-Raids," where Thede plays a meteorologist giving the weather forecast in a way that just about every Black woman would appreciate.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW")
ROBIN THEDE: (As Amanda Barnes) Well, Tulsa, looks like we have more showers and storms in the forecast for today as a cold front makes its way across the state like a wide-toothed comb on wash day. The rain continues on Tuesday, so I'm not recommending a wash-and-go style just yet. You need to go wash and go bundle up with some Malaysian, Brazilian, Peruvian, kinky straight, kinky curly - doesn't matter. Anywhere from five- to eight-pack should do it if you want to get on these IG levels of beauty, you know what I mean? By Wednesday, hump day, the winds are going to pick up and so will your lace fronts, so it's got to be secured.
MOSLEY: Robin Thede holds the distinction of the first in many regards. She was the first Black woman head writer ever for a late-night talk show, writing for "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore" and from there went on to host her own late-night show on BET called "The Rundown." This summer, "A Black Lady Sketch Show" was nominated for five Emmy awards, including outstanding variety sketch series. Robin Thede, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congrats on your Emmy nominations.
THEDE: Thank you, Tonya. I appreciate it.
MOSLEY: Yeah. You know, in addition to some of your other firsts, you were also the first Black head writer of the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And it made me think that - I mean, you're basically proof that being the first still happens for people of color in America. I'm just wondering how that feels to hold that distinction in 2022.
THEDE: Yeah. I mean, it doesn't feel great because it feels like we should have made more advancements, you know? I mean, being the first Black woman to be a head writer in late night, to be the head writer of the White House Correspondents' Dinner, you know, the first Black woman to create a sketch series, the first Black woman to be nominated for a number of awards related to that sketch series, I mean, it's like all these firsts happen every year. Our team this year is the first all-Black team to be nominated, and hopefully, we'll win. So yeah, we're always setting these firsts.
And at a certain point, you really focus a lot less on the firsts and a lot more on keeping the door open so that we don't have to be the first anymore. And that's what has been my focus the entire time, really. It's like, yeah, it's great to be the first, but we just feel like we're at such a place in history that it's almost - you know, it's bittersweet to be the first. You're like, wow, that's an accomplishment. But you're also like, wow, there were so many other talented people before me in history. It's sad that it took this long.
MOSLEY: Right. Because you aren't the first to actually try. You're the first to succeed in many regards when it comes to this, yeah.
THEDE: Correct. And if it wasn't me, it could have been anyone else. I created the show, and I had sold it to another network, and the money wasn't right for the budget. And I had to stand on principle and say, if I'm going to be the first Black woman to create an all-Black woman sketch series, sketch series, American sketch series in general the first, it has to be right and it can't look like crap, you know? And for the budget that they had, it just would have looked like any other kind of fly-by-night sketch show. And then I brought on the cast, all of whom could have equally created their own sketch shows, and guest stars, too, people like Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Gabrielle Union, so many amazing guest stars. We've had, I think, almost 100 in three seasons, and they have not been asked to host "SNL." They have not been asked on other sketch shows.
And so we're creating this space because although we're the first, we don't want to be the last. And I called it "A Black Lady Sketch Show" specifically for that reason because I wanted it to be one of many, not the. I didn't want it to be "The Black Lady Sketch Show" and then close the door behind us. I wanted to leave it open. So we try to be the voice - a voice in the culture but not the voice. You know, we try to be a voice in the culture and represent the diversity amongst Black women. I think the biggest thing for me that - the biggest compliment I get from this show is, like, I see myself in that show and that it's all types of different Black women who say that. And that's really critical because we're not just one type of person. And I think the media at large for so long has portrayed us as only one thing. And so it's so great to be able to play hundreds of characters across all these talented women and to show that range.
MOSLEY: Your co-stars on "A Black Lady Sketch Show" are immensely talented. They're able to go in and out of characters in dynamic ways. In fact, many times when I'm watching the show, I'm like, oh, my gosh, this is the same woman that was in the last one. I couldn't even - they just transform. What was the process in finding them?
THEDE: Oh, I knew them all. So, I mean, it's like - it's so funny. Like, people have been like, how did you get a room full of Black women writers? How did you find so many? And I'm like, first of all, there were six. But the great thing is, like, even when I was staffing up first season, I texted 24 Black women comedy writers, many of whom were Emmy nominated or had Emmys. Most people thought, oh, you had to get, like, brand-new writers who had never written. I'm like, no, I got vets.
And so I think the common misconception is that for writers and performers in comedy, especially sketch comedy, that the Black women just aren't there, but that's not true. There are so many Black women sketch comedians and comedians who could and should be on this show, and we just haven't had the space or time to get them on. But I'm trying desperately. It's why we have so many guest stars, why we have cast come in each year and really show their skills because - I mean, Gabrielle Dennis and I have known each other for a long time. And I remember she got a sketch show on Showtime that she and I were both up for years ago with Damon Wayans. And then Ashley and I were working in New York together. She was on "Sam Bee" while I was on "The Nightly Show" and "The Rundown." We became really close. She's also my Second City sister.
I've known Quinta for a number of years and knew how funny she was over at BuzzFeed. And then Laci Mosley, Skye Townsend - all these amazing, incredible actors. But that first season was me just literally texting them and being like, hey, I got six episodes on HBO. Come be in this sketch show. That was it because I already knew what they could do, and HBO trusted that I was bringing the right cast together.
MOSLEY: I want to talk a little bit about the process and the writers room, and we know that for a long time, writers rooms, even for shows about Black people, didn't actually have many or any Black writers. Your writers room is made up of all Black women, and I just need to know what that's like. Can you describe what that's like?
THEDE: It was a real challenge for all of us to, like - I don't know - feel like we weren't, you know, dreaming. I think for the first season, it was really, like, wow, this is crazy. And I think, you know, when it comes to pitching ideas, people had to shake off this idea that they had to explain themselves or their Blackness before they could pitch. But, yeah, I think it's always a bit of a shell shock to come into a room and not have to say, OK, well, you know the singer Patti LaBelle? It's like, yeah, we all know her. You don't have to explain it before you pitch, you know? So I think it's always an adjustment because we are so used to having to justify our presence in other writers rooms and to not feel like a token, you know? And I think that that's - that's really tricky, and it's - in our room, it's just something that's taken away so we can do our best work.
MOSLEY: An example is a sketch from this latest season called "Funeral Ball," which is set at a funeral for a man named Claudatious. And as if a funeral for someone with that name couldn't get even - like, couldn't get dramatic, the service turns into a drag ball. And the pastor who swoops in is the "Legendary" Bob the Drag Queen. We actually have a clip where Bob the Drag Queen introduces the secret lives and secret wives of the dearly departed Claudatious. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) My husband, Claudatious, was a righteous man, a king whose only sin was a love for dessert Big Macs. You know that, Roger. Every night for 82 years, his favorite snack before bed was ox tails, gravy, a little gummy worm. Oh, I'm going to miss him so.
CALDWELL TIDICUE: (As Bob the Drag Queen) It's too sad up in here, sister soldier. I can't let you send my big brother Claudatious away like this.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, my...
TIDICUE: (As Bob the Drag Queen) Y'all know how we do. It's the funeral ball. (Vocalizing). You're dead. Now, give it up for Claudatious from the legendary house of high blood pressure. Now, our first category is insisting on a solo knowing damn well you can't sing. If your name is not in the program but the spirit moves you and you think this is your time, please make your way to the floor. Her, Ms. Thing, Yes. Mariah can't carry a note. She's serving the children. Is she singing? Is she screaming? We don't know. Yes. Come through, Ariana Gran-don't (ph). Patti LaBelle, but she can't sing for hell.
MOSLEY: Robin, can you please take us to the writers room for this one? It wouldn't be so funny if it wasn't true. A lot of things can be revealed at a person's funeral.
THEDE: (Laughter) That's true. This is the sequel to Season 1's "Basic Ball," and we wanted to expound upon the dynamics of a Black funeral. And what better way to do it than with a ball. So yeah, I mean, Bob is epic and legendary and just incredible, and we were so excited to have Bob back. But yeah, the characters are just kind of taking you through all the random people you'll see that might show up at a Black funeral, could be secret wives, secret kids, people who are just there to eat the corners off the mac 'n cheese, you know?
THEDE: It's like - it really is - you know, we try not to really exaggerate. We try to really just find those things that are going to resonate with the audience. And even if you're not Black watching it, you're going to learn something about Black funerals while you're laughing and watching the incredible dancers. And we got a bunch of dancers from all the different houses from the show "Legendary" and beyond in the ball culture. So we always try to make that really authentic every year.
MOSLEY: You mention folks who are not Black being able to relate to the show. It has been written - many people say that the show is universally relatable. What have you heard from audiences who are not Black or female about the show?
THEDE: Yeah, I think that - you know, our comedy is specifically written and specifically performed, but it is universally funny. I think comedy is the universal language. And what have I heard? Just that people love it. I mean, across the board, I hear the same things. I think that just the things people relate to are different, right? There's a sketch, Season 1, called "No Makeup," which has to do with a woman who goes to work with a full face of makeup every day but she's an hour late because she has to beat her face. And her coworker says, just come without makeup, who cares? And she's like, OK. And she shows up, and she suddenly turns into a zombie and dies because people think she looks like death without makeup. And that's just, like - that's a very relatable thing, I think, for a lot of people.
And then, we have really specific sketches like the "Funeral Ball" and "Don't Rain On My Buh-Raids" that are very much about Black experiences. But I think the ultimate throughline for all of these is really that it's Black women portraying these universal ideas with specific cultural references that either make you feel seen or allow you to feel educated about the Black community in an authentic way.
Again, not that we can speak for every Black person but that we are able to show you something that's not us being a criminal on "Law & Order" or us being, you know - whatever, right? A strong Black woman even, right? That's a stereotype. Not every Black woman is a strong Black woman. Sometimes, you're strong; sometimes, you're weak, you know? Sometimes, you suck; sometimes you're great, you know? So I think we just want the latitude to be able to show the world that. And we don't do anything specifically in mind to cater to audiences with any, like, specific, educational goal. We're just trying to represent things that we find funny and things that are culturally specific to us so that they can then go out in the zeitgeist and other people can feel that same thing.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robin Thede, creator, showrunner and writer and co-star of the sketch comedy series "A Black Lady Sketch Show" on HBO. The show is made up of an all-Black, female cast and received eight Emmy nominations for its first two seasons and is currently nominated for five Emmys for the third season. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TENDENCY'S "MELODIAS PARA FRESTYLE")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and we're talking with comedian and showrunner of "A Black Lady Sketch Show," Robin Thede. In 2015, Robin became the first Black American woman to be a head writer for a late-night talk show, "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore."
It's not very common to see showrunners and creators also star in their own shows. What is it like for you to do all the things? How does one manage all of those roles at once?
THEDE: You know, showrunning is the ultimate job, right? So showrunning - for those who don't know - are - is the running of the entire show. You're the CEO of the corporation, right? So I'm dealing with everything from hiring and firing to overseeing my head writers and my writing staff to overseeing our hair, makeup and wardrobe departments, our transpo, our legal - you know, legal things that we have to deal with with the show or - not, like, lawsuits, but like, you know, oh, can we clear this music, or can we use the sound effect from what library? Like, every little tiny detail of the show, I'm involved in as the showrunner. And I'm the first one in, the last one out.
So it's a yearlong process for me, from hiring all the way through delivering the show and doing all the social media and marketing with HBO. So it is a nonstop job. And then on top of that, I show up most days, and I'm also in some crazy wig or beard or mustache playing a character. So the acting almost becomes - almost - I won't say it is - but it almost becomes secondary to the showrunning because the showrunning is so all-consuming, and there really aren't a lot of people who do that, especially not the way that I do it.
MOSLEY: You're originally from Spencer, Iowa. What is the town of Spencer like?
THEDE: I have no idea. I was born there and lived there for two months as a baby and moved immediately.
MOSLEY: Where did you move to?
THEDE: Davenport, Iowa. I grew up in a trailer park and then spent summers on the South Side of Chicago with my mom's mom - with my grandma - and my cousins 'cause my mom was like, yeah, we live in Iowa; but you need some culture. So (laughter)...
MOSLEY: Is it true that you were a shy kid?
THEDE: Yes. Yes. I had a stutter as a kid. I was - yeah. I was shy a bit. But, I think, by the time I got in junior high school, I had gotten rid of my stutter for the most part, and I wasn't being bullied like I was in elementary school. My elementary school was extremely white. And, you know, kids there were relentless and mean and - to my sisters and I. And so I think that in junior high, I had more of a diverse student population. And, you know, I think I got to find my people a little bit more in junior high and high school for sure. And that was helpful because my family, you know, was loving and kind and amazing - not only my immediate family, but all my cousins and grandparents and all of that. So, you know, school was a bit of a shock for me in elementary school because I wasn't, you know, used to being teased and all of that stuff. But, I think, by the time I got older, I learned how to use comedy to deal with that and to also just stop caring, you know, what bullies said.
MOSLEY: You graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in broadcast journalism and African American studies. Were you planning to use that degree to become a broadcast journalist?
THEDE: Never. I was running a sketch group while I was there that's still there called Out Da Box. And it was how I got scouted by Second City. And so, yeah, no. I was doing sketch from day one. And my parents just kind of had an agreement that I couldn't move to LA until I had a degree. So I went to the best school that had the best on-camera program that wasn't acting. They said, don't get an acting degree; get a real degree, which, you know, is a very Midwest thing to say. So I got a degree in the only other thing that let me be on camera, which was journalism. But no, I was never going to do that as a career.
MOSLEY: Your mom, Phyllis Thede, is a state representative in Iowa. And like many mothers, she told you that you could be anything you wanted to be when you grew up.
THEDE: Well, my mom taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be, full stop. And I knew that from a kid. I could just never really reconcile my lack of finances or lack of access with what that meant, you know? So I was like, yeah, I can be president. But it's like, I just couldn't see a path to it. And then I, over the last 20 years or so, have figured out that path - and maybe slower than others, certainly slower than others have in the business, but at my own pace.
And I didn't have this sort of, like, entree into the business. I didn't know anyone. I didn't understand how to be a writer. I didn't understand how to get on a TV show. I didn't understand about agents. So I figured that out on my own but with the echoes of my parents - my mom and my dad - telling me, just figure it out. You can do whatever you want. There are no doors that are closed to you.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview guest interviewer Tanya Mosley recorded with Robin Thede, the creator, showrunner and one of the stars of the HBO series "A Black Lady Sketch Show," which is nominated for five Emmys. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. And Lloyd Schwartz will review newly reissued Judy Garland movies in celebration of the centennial of her birth. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Robin Thede, the creator, showrunner and one of the stars of the HBO series "A Black Lady Sketch Show." The show is written, directed and performed entirely by Black women. It's in its third season and is up for five Emmys. Thede became the first Black woman head writer of a late-night talk show when she worked on "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore." When Wilmore hosted the White House Correspondents' Dinner, she became the first Black woman to head the writer's room for one of those dinners. She hosted her own late-night show on BET called "The Rundown With Robin Thede." Robin Thede spoke with our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.
MOSLEY: You were a head writer for "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore." Here's a clip of you on the show back in 2016, educating Larry on the nuances of Black women's nonverbal communication, from the single hand clap to the double hand wave. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW WITH LARRY WILMORE")
THEDE: Well, let's move onto our next gesture, OK?
LARRY WILMORE: Sure. OK.
THEDE: This is the double hand clap versus the double hand clap on syllables. All right.
THEDE: Now, this one is easier to spot, but it can be deceptive, OK?
WILMORE: All right. OK.
THEDE: So check this out. All right.
WILMORE: All right.
THEDE: Yay (clapping), great job on your performance.
WILMORE: Oh, yeah. That's good.
WILMORE: Yeah. See, that just looks like regular applause.
THEDE: Well, that's correct, because it is.
WILMORE: Oh, OK.
THEDE: But compare that to the double hand clap on syllables.
WILMORE: Syllables. OK.
THEDE: (Clapping) What did you say to me, Larry?
WILMORE: I didn't say anything.
THEDE: (Clapping) Don't interrupt me, Larry.
THEDE: I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding.
WILMORE: Oh. Oh, OK.
THEDE: But now you can see how effective it is right? Yeah, yeah. The double...
WILMORE: Oh, wow. Yeah. Man, I was scared.
THEDE: Yeah. Yeah.
THEDE: The double hand clap on syllables is used to emphasize a point.
WILMORE: That was so effective, Robin.
WILMORE: It really emphasizes an angry point, right?
THEDE: Oh, yeah. Well, not necessarily.
WILMORE: Oh, OK.
THEDE: It's tricky because it can be used for anger or excitement, such as, (clapping) oh, my God. These shoes are on sale.
WILMORE: (Clapping) Nice. That's crazy. Man, that's great.
THEDE: OK. Now, only we're allowed to do that.
WILMORE: Oh. Oh, I'm sorry. OK.
MOSLEY: OK. I loved this one so much because it is true. We - you know, we're all on Zoom these days. And I find - what do I do with my hands? - because I need to articulate to the people in the meetings (laughter) the Black lady way. Larry says that it took you a while to bet on yourself. How do you interpret what he means when he says that?
THEDE: I think, when I was doing my own late-night show, he was like, yeah, this is you. But it's not what you really want to be doing, you know? And he's known me since my early sketch performing days. And so I think he just knew that the sketch show was really, you know, what my ultimate calling would be. But I don't - I believe everything in my career has happened exactly how and when it's supposed to, and that I spent the better part of 15, 16 years writing for others. And that's a long time, you know? This day and age, that doesn't happen, you know? A young comedian, everybody is like, oh, that's the hottest person. And they have a sitcom they're starring in all of a sudden, you know?
But that didn't happen when I got into the business in - properly in 2002. The industry just wasn't like that. UPN and CW were starting to go away. And there was no Black programming mainstream for a few years. And then there was the writers' strike. And then there was the recession. Everything got cut back. But now we've got so many TV shows on the air that we've had more chances to do this. And I know that if I would have tried to do "A Black Lady Sketch Show" before the time that I did, the industry wouldn't have been ready. And it wouldn't have happened, you know? So I think everything happens in divine timing.
MOSLEY: It takes a very talented person to write for someone else and also capture their own voice. All of the folks that you have written for in the past happened to be very popular Black male comedians. In what ways did writing for those heavy hitters really help you define your voice?
THEDE: Well, what I became was an excellent mimic. So I knew the types of jokes that Mike Epps did versus Kevin Hart versus Larry Wilmore, right? So I could write for each of them and nail their cadence because of my improv and sketch skills. As an improv and sketch comedian, my job is to mimic, to create characters, to do impressions. So being able to do that as a performer helped me a lot as a writer because where I can jump into, you know, a character that I do an impression of, I can also do that with my pen, right? So I can also mimic the joke style and know how to craft a joke for each of them as well as the way I would tell that joke, right? So I think my performance skills allowed me to become a better writer in that way.
MOSLEY: Who were maybe some of your comedic idols growing up?
THEDE: Oh, gosh. Whoopi Goldberg, Kim Wayans, you know, and then, of course, those who were gone by the time I was an adult, like Moms Mabley and all these amazing comedians who came before. And - but I remember seeing Whoopi Goldberg's one-woman show. She had taken it to Broadway. And they played it on PBS. And of course, I was too young and too poor to go to Broadway to see it. I don't - I can't remember. It was early '80s, I think. But by the time it came on PBS years later, I remember watching it as a kid and just being like, wow. This woman is amazing. Like, it was so cool how she was switching between characters so seamlessly. And I remember her with that towel wrapped around her head and...
MOSLEY: Oh, yeah.
THEDE: ...Playing that character so different from what she was. And that was fascinating to me. I didn't know you could do that. And then by the time "In Living Color" came out, I was in elementary or junior high. I can't remember. And Kim Wayans just blew me away. The whole cast blew me away. But Kim Wayans, for me, was the one who showed me it was possible. And then, of course, I watched "SNL" growing up with my dad. He used to let me watch it. But I didn't see a lot of us on there.
MOSLEY: You mentioned that this idea for a sketch show that centered Black women was something that you'd had this idea for years. What was it specifically about that intersection, not just a Black show, a Black sketch show, but a Black lady sketch show?
THEDE: Well, being a Black lady, you know, it was nice to - (laughter) it was nice to get my friends together to make it. But, yeah, I started in college performing with all Black sketch groups. And then at Second City, I was doing shows with nothing but Black women a lot of the time. And that was so fun. And then when I got to LA, I was in, I think, five more sketch groups with only Black women. And so this is something that I've done many, many, many times and live on stage. And so I wanted to bring that to television. You know, being a fan of shows like "The Whitest Kids U'Know," you know, like - and "Kids In The Hall" and "Strangers With Candy" and all these other shows that were very, very white but were able to carve out a niche, I was like, well, why can't we do that for Black women? You know, we'd had "In Living Color," "Chappelle," "Key & Peele," but they were all really focused for the most part on Black men. So I was like, OK, everybody's had their thing except for Black women. Like, we need this. And so I think it was just about cornering the market from a group of people who hadn't been included in the party. And that was Black women.
MOSLEY: Do you have any characters that are your favorites that you just love to do?
THEDE: I love doing all of them, honestly, everything from somebody who just has two lines to, you know, the most popular ones like Dr. Haddassah and Chris and Shenedra (ph) and all these characters. But no, I don't have a favorite. I know people want me to pick.
MOSLEY: Is it like picking your favorite child kind of thing?
THEDE: No, it's not that because I don't think I'll offend any of my other characters. But (laughter) I think that it's really just - I enjoy each of them differently. And the best moment for me is when I get into hair and makeup, and I get to, like, slip into that character fully and walk on set in character and never break until we call wrap for the end of the day. And I think that's just really fun because you have to remember, when I'm dressed as Haddassah or Chris or whoever, I'm also the showrunner. So I'm, like, talking to my department heads and giving people, like, you know, approvals and instructions and stuff fully in character, which I find hilarious because they have to take me seriously when I have, like, you know, blacked-out teeth or a bald cap or scars on my face or...
THEDE: You know, whatever, or a mustache, you know? So I find that to be genuinely hilarious on set but something that the public doesn't get to experience. But I just think it's so funny because, you know, the boss doesn't normally look like that on most shows.
MOSLEY: Can you describe Dr. Haddassah for those who haven't seen the show?
THEDE: Yeah. Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, pre-Ph.D., is a charlatan of sorts, a saleswoman of sorts, a conspiracy theorist of sorts. A hertep is what we call her. She's somebody who doesn't believe women should really work outside of the home and that they need to serve their king, who is ideally their husband, at home. And she has her own king, Supreme Rameek. But she's just somebody who spouts a lot of conspiracy theories about the world. She has her own television show called Black Table Talk.
And she is somebody who's very unexpectedly risen to be one of the most popular characters on the show. But she is - yeah, she's fun because she gets to say all the things that I think sometimes we see online or in other places. I've known women like this who constantly think everything is a conspiracy. So I'm excited to see where she goes in future seasons and what her influence will be.
MOSLEY: Robin Thede, thank you so much for this conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW")
THEDE: (As Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman) Oh, you thought a pandemic was going to stop me? Start up that Spike Lee dolly shot because I've been silent for too long. That's right. It's me - Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman. Google me, then throw your smartphone in the trash. It's making you stupid. See, see, see - 5G was created to infiltrate our brains with the devil's propaganda - TikTok. Tick, tock - you're wasting your fertile years on the ground. The only five Gs I recognize is "Da 5 Bloods," five triumphant Black men going back to steal the oppressor's gold from Asia.
GROSS: Robin Thede is the creator, showrunner and one of the stars of HBO's "A Black Lady Sketch Show." It's nominated for five Emmys, including outstanding variety sketch series. She spoke with our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of the podcast "Truth Be Told." After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "Emily The Criminal," starring Aubrey Plaza. This is Fresh Air.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new independent drama "Emily The Criminal," Aubrey Plaza plays a Los Angeles woman who turns to credit card fraud to pay off her debts. The movie had its virtual premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and is now in theaters. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: For a while now, it seemed as if there's no role too absurd or outrageous for Aubrey Plaza to play - an Instagram stalker in "Ingrid Goes West," a naughty nun in "The Little Hours," a flesh-eating zombie in "Life After Beth." The character she plays in "Emily The Criminal," an art-school dropout who masters the art of credit card fraud, sounds almost low key by comparison. But if this is one of Plaza's more straightforward dramatic performances, absent her usual deadpan comic touches, it's also one of her strongest. She holds us at nearly every moment of this engrossing Los Angeles noir about a woman whose luck ran out long ago and who decides to seize control of her life and livelihood.
Emily is technically already a criminal when we meet her. She has an aggravated assault conviction on her record that's made it hard for her to find steady work, let alone pay off her $70,000 in student loans. She barely gets by making food deliveries and sharing a crowded LA apartment with two roommates. Plaza plays the character with an outsider's toughness. Emily grew up in New Jersey, and we can hear it in her accent - but also the shrewdness of someone who knows when to fight back and when to go with the flow.
That talent suits her well when a lucrative but illegal opportunity comes her way. Her task is to buy some pricey electronic equipment using a phony credit card, then slip out before the theft is detected. The merchandise gets picked up and resold, and Emily gets paid $200. Not bad for an hour's work. It's supposed to be just a one-time thing, but Emily is soon hooked and coming back for more.
The man who oversees this operation and takes her under his wing is Youcef, a Lebanese immigrant played by the charismatic Theo Rossi, from shows like "Sons Of Anarchy" and "Luke Cage." Youcef realizes that Emily makes a pretty good crook, partly because few people suspect her of being one. The movie tacitly acknowledges the racist and sexist assumptions that would give a white woman an advantage in this line of work. But it also keys us into Emily's feelings of fear, anxiety and exhilaration as she starts taking on bigger, higher stakes jobs. Soon, she's got her own little racket, printing the credit cards and arranging the sales herself. In this scene, she meets with a customer in a parking lot who tries to rip her off. He's played by the late Ricarlo Flanagan, who died last October after shooting this role.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMILY THE CRIMINAL")
AUDREY PLAZA: (As Emily) So it's 600.
RICARLO FLANAGAN: (As Mike) Six? No, it's three - 300.
PLAZA: (As Emily) No, 600.
FLANAGAN: (As Mike) It said three online.
PLAZA: (As Emily) No, no. I texted you six. I'll show you.
FLANAGAN: (As Mike) Three hundred.
PLAZA: (As Emily) For real, man? It's - we're in broad daylight.
FLANAGAN: (As Mike) Oh, what's up? You're going to call the police? I mean, we could just steal this [expletive] for free.
PLAZA: (As Emily) All right. All right.
FLANAGAN: (As Mike) Three hundred.
PLAZA: (As Emily) Sure, no worries.
FLANAGAN: (As Mike) Come on, now. Where are you going? Hold up. Hold up.
PLAZA: (As Emily) Six hundred - yes or no?
CHANG: As the work gets more dangerous, Emily realizes she's going to need more than the pepper spray in her purse to defend herself. The writer-director John Patton Ford, making a solid feature debut, skillfully ratchets up the tension at key moments. And Plaza is both vulnerable and fierce as a woman having to figure out her own fight-or-flight responses in real time. One botched early job leads to a car chase that's all the more harrowing for being so realistically staged. Youcef guides Emily through every step of her enterprise, and Plaza and Rossi's chemistry deepens as their characters' initially combative relationship gives way to romantic sparks. Naturally, their emotional bond will complicate their business dealings in all sorts of ways, some more believable than others.
As things start to unravel, the movie's third-act plotting gets a little too ragged for its own good. But if "Emily The Criminal" isn't always successful as a genre exercise, its thoroughly gripping as a portrait of a woman always operating in survival mode. It's telling that even with her new source of income, Emily doesn't take anything for granted and never stops working every angle. She keeps trying to land an interview at an upscale ad agency where interns are expected to work full time for free. She keeps her food delivery job, even though the pay is lousy and the benefits nonexistent. What millions of American workers endure day in and day out, the movie suggests, is no less exploitative than any of Emily's illegal activities. The movie may be called "Emily The Criminal," but it reserves its harshest indictment for the society that made her what she is.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. Judy Garland was born 100 years ago, and in celebration of the centennial, Warner Brothers is reissuing some of her films on Blu-ray. Lloyd Schwartz will have a review after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLARK TERRY'S "IMPULSIVE")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This year marks the centennial of Judy Garland's birth. You may have watched some of her films when she was star of the month on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Warner Brothers has been reissuing her films on Blu-ray. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is going to review the most recent of those new releases.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT NOT FOR ME")
JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) They're writing songs of love but not for me. A lucky star's above but not for me. With love to lead the way, I've found more skies of gray than any Russian play could guarantee. I was a fool...
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Judy Garland's poignant rendition of "But Not For Me" was the high point of Busby Berkeley's 1943 version of the 1930 Gershwin musical "Girl Crazy," not only because she's in such beautiful voice, but because she seems to be singing completely without artifice. From the very beginning of her career, audiences found Garland so lovable because of her rare emotional honesty. The only film I know in which she actually sings badly is Ziegfeld Girl from 1941, and she does it on purpose. In the story, her father is a retired vaudevillian who coaches her to punch out every song, and she's awful until she finally follows her own unerring instincts. She demonstrated those instincts in 33 feature films, 30 of them musicals, before her death at the age of 47. This year, the centennial of her birth, Warner Brothers has been reissuing a number of her films in gorgeously restored Blu-rays, joining such previously released classics as "The Wizard Of Oz," "Meet Me In St. Louis," "Easter Parade" and "A Star Is Born." These new additions also reveal that her most exuberant songs were as good as her tender ones because her joy of singing is so genuine as in the title song from her first film with Gene Kelly. It's his very first movie, and she generously gives him the melody while she sings impeccable harmony.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR ME AND MY GAL")
JUDY GARLAND AND GENE KELLY: (Singing) The bells are ringing for me and my gal. The birds are singing for me and my gal. Everybody's been knowing to a wedding they're going. And for weeks, they've been sewing. They've been sewing something old and something new so - something that is blue so they can make a trousseau for my gal. They're congregating for me and my gal. Look here why. That's the parson waiting for me and my gal. And sometime, we're going to build a little home for two.
GARLAND: (Singing) Or three.
GENE KELLY: (Singing) Or four.
GARLAND: (Singing) Or five.
KELLY: (Singing) Or maybe more.
GARLAND AND KELLY: (Singing) In love-land for me and my gal.
SCHWARTZ: One of Garland's most underrated films is "The Harvey Girls," a 1946 Technicolor musical Western. The best-known song is Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren's "On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe," the only Garland song after "Over The Rainbow" to win an Oscar. It begins as a novelty number, with Garland's train pulling into the station. But it doesn't stop expanding until it becomes a kind of American epic. At the climax, Garland and the entire ensemble, with their arms rotating like pistons, practically turn into the train itself as it leaves for parts even further west.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE ATCHINSON, TOPEKA AND THE SANTA FE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All aboard.
GARLAND: (Singing) All aboard.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) We came across the country lickety-split, rolling 90 miles an hour fit to be tied (ph).
GARLAND: (Singing) I can't believe I'm here at last.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) When you go traveling, it's natch (ph) for you to At (ph), Tope (ph), to Santa Fe (ph).
GARLAND: (Singing) I can't believe that everything would go so fast. Then you...
JUDY GARLAND AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...Pull that throttle. Whistle blows. A-huffing and a-puffing and away she goes. All aboard for Californ-I-A...
GARLAND: (Singing) ...On the Atchison...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the Atchison...
GARLAND: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka...
GARLAND: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka and...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka and...
GARLAND AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
SCHWARTZ: The 1950 musical "Summer Stock" was Garland's last film for MGM, her company since she was a teenager. It's about Gene Kelly wanting to put on a show in Garland's barn, which she vehemently resists. It was a period of great turmoil for her with dramatic fluctuations in her weight and her ability to perform. Her major number was added months after the rest of the film was completed. Suddenly, she was 20 pounds thinner and had traded her baggy farm overalls for a fitted tuxedo jacket and a tilted black fedora. She seldom looked more sophisticated or glamorous. The song she chose was Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's great revivalist tune from 1930, "Get Happy." It seemed like advice she was giving to herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HAPPY")
GARLAND: (Singing) Forget your troubles. Come on, get happy. You better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah. Come on, get happy. Get ready for the judgment day. The sun is shining. Come on, get happy. The Lord is waiting to take your hand. Shout hallelujah. Come on, get happy. We're going to the promised land. We're heading across the river to wash your sins away in the tide.
SCHWARTZ: I'm not sure that any of these musicals are among Garland's best films, but they include some of her very best work. And each of them reminds us that Judy Garland was not just a legend, but a major and indispensable artist.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HAPPY")
GARLAND: (Singing) Forget your troubles. Come on, get happy. Chase your cares away.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. His most recent book is called "Who's On First?: New And Selected Poems." It's published by the University of Chicago Press. He reviewed new Blu-ray editions of Judy Garland musicals released by Warner.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Congressman Adam Schiff about serving on the House committee investigating Jan. 6th and having led the first impeachment of Donald Trump. We'll also talk about Schiff's memoir, which has just been published in paperback with a new afterword. It's called "Midnight In Washington." I hope you'll join us. I am Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HAPPY")
GARLAND: (Singing) Get ready for your judgement day. Come on, get happy. Chase your cares away. Shout hallelujah. Come on, get happy. Get ready for the judgment day. Sun is shining. Come on, get happy. Lord is waiting to take your hand. Hallelujah, come on, get happy...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.