Illustration: Olivia Fields
You know that ultimate Swiss Army knife that has variety and usefulness you didn’t even realize you needed until you see it? That’s Ashley Nicole Black. Everything we love about women — bright, smart, beautiful — it all unfolds in one singular conversation with the California native. She’s an academic. (Black was well on her way to a PhD before she decided it wasn’t her path.) She’s politically astute. (She was a writer for Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal.) And on top of all that subtle, behind-the-scenes talent, she’s absolute comedic gold in front of the camera.
Her writing and performances on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show are some of the best work you will find in sketch comedy. There are no pratfalls or caricatures here — more like women you know in real life, played to perfection. There’s “Annoying Woman,” a social media-obsessed woman who can’t see that she’s not nearly as important as she thinks she is. Her portrayal is so dead-on that it’s actually hard to watch. Then there’s her kick-ass “Invisible Spy” character. She’s a Black woman whose superpower is simple: The masses don’t recognize her as a threat. Her wink-and-a-nod approach to character portrayals are full of Cheshire Cat smiles and deep eye-rolls — mellow but still side-splitting.
On New Year’s Eve, the comedic do-it-all checked in with LEVEL as she made her way to her mother’s house to ring in 2020. Despite some early technical difficulties, she was earnest and engaged instead of being frustrated and completely over it. For this reason alone we’ll let her eat her grits any way she likes.
LEVEL: What was your biggest leap of faith?
Ashley Nicole Black: Leaving the PhD program was a leap. So few Black women get their PhD that if you are capable or have the opportunity, you feel like you have to do it. But I wasn’t comfortable in that environment. It just wasn’t my purpose. You know?
Of course. And your success clearly supports that.
I think so.
You were part of a staff at ‘Full Frontal’ that really pushed the envelope of late-night television. How important has the show been to the late-night landscape?
When Samantha Bee started, she was the only woman host with a late-night political show. We were really just serving a population that had not been catered to at all. Women do follow politics. And we do have opinions. For some reason, people think women don’t watch late-night — or follow politics.
Now, on ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show,’ you have an entirely different audience. Was there a lot of pressure in terms of writing and creating a show that represented a wide variety of Black women?
Not at all. We have a wide variety of Black women in the room sharing our stories. I’ve been doing comedy for a decade now. I have 10 years of jokes and stories I wanted to tell! It had been pent up because the outlet for Black women just wasn’t there.
So y’all were ready.
Yes! [Black women] have been doing sketch comedy for years but through the lens of someone else running the show. We finally got to run a show and we had all these ideas and characters and stories that we hadn’t had an outlet for.
The show has had a ton of guest stars, from Angela Bassett to Lena Waithe, which is pretty amazing for a first-season sketch show. Did you have any favorites?
Look, I got to sing with Patti LaBelle. I still can’t believe that happened.
How did that happen? This is a brand-new show!
Right? I’m just a goofy little comedian and I had this very dumb idea for a sketch: Every time you end a relationship, Patti appears and sings “On My Own.”
That’s hilarious. It would not work without her! Did you think she would actually do it?
I could not believe it. Patti LaBelle agreed! While we were shooting, I was just looking at her in disbelief. Am I really doing this sketch with Patti LaBelle?
Outside of starring on ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show,’ what are you most proud of this year?
I’ve gotten tweets from people who feel so seen by the work we do and that really makes me happy. That’s what excites me, shining a light on people who have only seen themselves represented while being punched down upon. That makes me feel really proud.
Which sketch really got it right, in terms of representation?
Basic Ball, where we pay tribute to the ballroom scene. Except, it’s the ballroom scene for regular folks. I have a friend who’s a drag queen and she reached out to me. She told me that sketch is loved in the drag circles. Sketch comedy has never addressed this community in a positive way. They were talking about how it nailed the culture for them.
Bob the Drag Queen is in that sketch — he’s a legend in the culture. It was cool to see him there.
He’s so funny! Bob improvised so many of those lines. We had our mouths hanging open. It made us think — how would we have found out how funny he is if a space didn’t exist for him?
“People told me that if I lost a ton of weight maybe success would come. So being successful in my body as a plus-sized Black woman is a flex.”
What do you anticipate being your biggest flex for 2020?
This is going to sound really lame. I remember when I first started acting and people told me that if I lost a ton of weight maybe success would come. So being successful in my body as a plus-sized Black woman is a flex. I feel like every time I show up, I’m killing it.
Mad TV or In Living Color?
We weren’t allowed to watch television growing up so I didn’t get to watch either!
Who would you nominate for the next Incoming?
Laverne Cox. I love her. We don’t talk enough about how every time she’s on the red carpet she has a cause and she’s there to uplift another group.
What’s on your grits, salt or sugar?
Sugar for breakfast, but a plate of shrimp and grits is always welcome.
We’re going to have to end the call now.