You may know Ashley Nicole Black as the writer and star of HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, but before she made the pivot to comedy, she was deep into a Ph.D. program at Northwestern University. Her parents had bought her a package of improv classes at The Second City, “so I would have something fun to do, as a hobby,” Black says, and the rest was history. She joined the writing staff for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and recently began writing for The Amber Ruffin Show (the first late-night network talk show hosted by a Black woman).
The writer and comedian called from Los Angeles to break down what it was like filming the second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show in quarantine—alongside series creator Robin Thede and stars Gabrielle Dennis, Laci Mosley, and Skye Townsend—as well as give some insight into her other pandemic hobbies, one of which included watching every single Marvel movie that has ever been made.
What did you learn from working on the first season of A Black Lady Sketch Show that you really wanted to implement in season two?
That’s a good question. I think what you’ll see in season two is some of those comedic moments playing longer. We realized we could take a little more time with some of the comedy and the silliness.
You were in the middle of getting your Ph.D. at Northwestern University when you decided to pursue improv. What made you realize comedy could be your job?
I had a couple of really good teachers. One of the first teachers I had was Norm Holly, who taught in the conservatory at The Second City. He very quickly pulled me aside to say, “You’re really good at this,” and convinced me to audition for professional jobs when I was in my first classes. When I started writing, I had a writing teacher. I had written a sketch that should have been funny, but it was really dark and based on something that was going on in my life. It was so dark that it made the teacher cry when she read it. After class she pulled me aside and said, “You’re a writer, you should make people feel something with your words.” No one had really identified to me that I could be a writer. At The Second City, you have to write to get on stage and perform, so I was writing, but I didn’t see writing as its own separate thing that I was good at until someone told me.
What did you learn from the hyper-intellectual space of academia that you felt you could bring into your comedy writing and performances?
On both Full Frontal and The Amber Ruffin Show, I am taking complex ideas or long histories and making them digestible in a comedic format. Recently, on Amber Ruffin, there was a segment about anti-Asian-American violence, so that involved taking a couple hundred years of history and condensing it into a seven-minute subject, but also making it funny without making fun of the subject matter. We sprinkle some laughs throughout so people want to engage with serious subject matter. Having gone to grad school and learning how to make an argument, and learning how to be a teacher and seeing how people learn—having that information and adding the comedic sensibility to it has served me well as a writer.
Were you always funny growing up?
No, not at all! My family has just gotten used to the idea that I’m a comedian. I was a sensitive, painfully shy, and very moody child. My mom says every day she picked me up from elementary school, I was crying. [Laughs.]
How much of your real self do you write into the character you play in the interstitials on A Black Lady Sketch Show?
In season one, I was not there when they wrote that character. There are some similarities between me and her—she’s a grad student, which I used to be, and she really enjoys giving a speech, which, I will say I am sometimes guilty of. [Laughs.] What’s really fun about that character is the whole, healed person who’s been to therapy that you are is not the funniest version of you. The funniest version of you is the one who actually leans into all of those flaws. That character is very arrogant, and not as willing to listen to other people. Those things that you fight in yourself because they don’t belong in polite society are the funniest traits to bring out in a character and to get to play.
It’s such a treat to see all of the guest stars who pop up on the show, and I’m sure you can’t spoil who might appear in season two, but is there a guest star who was unexpectedly very funny?
Obviously, Patti LaBelle is hilarious. I don’t think that was unexpected. [Laughs.] Just seeing how excited and gung ho she was about a sketch show—she’s such a huge star and has been a legend her entire life. I will say this about all of the guest stars, they didn’t treat it flippantly. They all brought their full selves and their full talent to a five-minute sketch. That was very cool to get to experience the fullness of Patti LaBelle standing right next to you while shooting a sketch.
Let’s get into the Culture Diet questions. What’s the first thing you look at in the morning?
Unfortunately, the answer is Twitter. [Laughs.] That’s actually not true, I’m on a group chat with a bunch of amazing comedy writer ladies who I’ve been friends with since our Second City days, so that’s the first thing I read since we’re all in different time zones. Then I read Twitter.
Is Twitter how you get your news?
Yes and no. I read the real news because that’s also part of my job. Twitter is where I see how different communities are processing the news. The mainstream news is like the official record of what’s happening, and then I make it a point to follow a lot of disabled activists, Native activists, Black activists, so I can see how the news being talked about, affecting, being processed by different communities that don’t have that voice in the national media.
What books are on your bedside table?
I don’t think I’m alone in this, but I’ve had such a hard time focusing enough to read a book in the pandemic. My friend Chelsea Devantez started doing a podcast called “Celebrity Book Club” and because of that, I’ve been reading, along with her, these celebrity memoirs. I never thought I’d be the person to get into that. Two of the best books I’ve read recently have been Jessica Simpson and Mariah Carey’s memoirs. I have always been a fan of Mariah Carey, obviously, because everyone is, but the way she talks about race is so smart and detailed in a way that makes me realize: we always needed Mariah Carey to tell us about race, we just didn’t know it.
What is the last thing you Googled on your phone?
The Anastasia Pro Pencil—the little pencil that you use to do the lines under your eyebrows.
What television shows have you binge-watched lately?
I, like everyone, got so fully obsessed with WandaVision, and now The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, that I have gone back and watched almost the entire MCU just to fully understand Wanda’s vision.
How do you feel after watching 23 Marvel movies?
It was actually perfect for the pandemic, because those movies are really engaging and the good guys are pretty much always going to win, if not by the end of this movie then by the next one. What do we need more than that right now?
Is there a song or album you’ve had on repeat lately?
I tweeted recently that I was shocked to discover I’m a Little Mix fan. Spotify introduced me to their song “Happiness” which has definitely been my bop this week. There’s a trend now of soft, breathier singing, which I like, but I like that they’re doing an older-school belting.
What’s the last concert you went to?
Normally, I’m not a huge concert person. I don’t like getting other people’s sweat on me—but after this pandemic, y’all might see me anywhere!
What’s the last piece of art you bought or ogled?
One of my great shames is not knowing if art is good. People are like, “You just know if you like it or not!” But I feel really nervous about liking the right or wrong art.
Are you into astrology at all?
Very minimally. You can’t be in L.A. and not be into it, but I’m nowhere nearly as into it as most people are.
What’s your sign?
Do you feel like it’s accurate for you?
One hundred percent! Robin Thede just sent me a thing last night that described the different sides of the Gemini, with something that I had absolutely done to her.
Final question: what’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
I wash my face, and when my dog sees me going to wash my face, she lays on my pillow to try to take my spot on the bed. So after washing my face, I wrestle my dog to the other side of the bed so I can sleep.