There is a sketch comedy renaissance taking place and I, for one, am definitely here for it. I grew up watching Saturday Night Live, MAD TV, and In Living Color, and I remember how those shows brought laughter into my home while regularly pushing the envelope with their social and political commentary. Even though I was entirely too young to stay up late to catch some of these shows, I looked forward to watching and, later, laughing with my friends about it at school.
In the 2000s, a shift occurred and there were far fewer options for lovers of sketch comedy. Though SNL remained a staple, reality television took over and viewers showed a preference for the comedy of “real” people’s lives instead. Then, low-budget DIY memes seemed to trump high-production comedy segments, and we began to see people taking comedy into their own hands. Today, with shows like Sherman’s Showcase on IFC, A Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO, and Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show on Netflix, it’s clear that sketch comedy is making a strong comeback and Black people are leading the charge.
Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show, a six-episode series, features an all-Black cast in an array of comedic bits centered around housemates living together while developing a comedy show. The cast has actually been working and performing together for several years as the first all-Black in-house team with Upright Citizens Brigade, a sketch comedy group that counts SNL’s Kate McKinnon, Donald Glover, and Aziz Ansari among its alumni. With segments that address racial profiling, sexist discrimination, heteronormativity, and Black sexuality, Astronomy Club creatively tackles serious social issues while poking fun at the often hyperbolic cultural discourse around these topics. It’s frankly one of the most hilarious shows I’ve seen in quite some time.
Of the eight cast members, three are Black women: Keisha Zollar, Monique Moses, and Caroline Martin. I talked with them to learn more about their work and how they build this show. One of the first things I noticed was how different they each are from one another. The women all have unique upbringings — Keisha jokes that she was raised “Huxtable Black,” born to “Pro-Black” middle-class Black American parents from the Midwest and California. Monique was raised in Canada, born to Caribbean parents. Caroline is biracial, born in the U.S. to an Irish mom and Grenadian dad. They are in New Jersey and she now lives in Brooklyn. We had a great discussion about their experiences as Black women in comedy, how they got into the industry, and how their unique experiences flavor their funny.
“My comedy really comes from wanting to show the strength [and] the uniqueness of the Black experience and how dynamic it is,” says Keisha, reflecting on how, despite their different backgrounds, the cast members connect on plenty of shared Black experiences.
“It was like a well-oiled machine,” says Caroline, adding that Astronomy Club was her first experience in a writers room. “Each of us would pitch four or five ideas and get to work writing individually or in groups. It was really a unique buffet platter of what our team thought was funny.”
After years of working together, it’s clear the crew has strong chemistry and can play off of one another seamlessly. The sketches work because they have edgy familiarity and clearly come from the personal life experiences of various team members. Caroline notes that the writers room was very “open” and they worked hard to make sure they weren’t tearing people down in their efforts to be funny—a cheap gimmick too many others rely on in their acts. “Every sketch was critiqued or punched up by all of our different perspectives,” she says. “It wasn’t just like one Black person and a bunch of White people trying to figure it out. It was cool that everyone was taking care of each other to give each other the right notes to make sure we weren’t being reckless. I just felt really safe in that environment.”
The women are featured prominently throughout each episode. This is a notable change from recent comedy trends. With the popularity of the now-defunct Vine app and the proliferation of YouTube-based web series, Black men have pretty much dominated much of the modern comedy scene, often masquerading as Black women in some wildly popular sketches. This isn’t surprising considering that Black men have long had tremendous success portraying hyperbolic caricatures of Black women while Black women have largely been shut out of mainstream comedy opportunities. Even shows like Saturday Night Live have a horrendous track record with hiring (and retaining) Black women as cast members. Then you add in actors like Tyler Perry, Martin Lawrence, and Eddie Murphy popularizing images of Black men portraying Black women on film, and it’s hard to avoid what often comes off more as misogynoirist ridicule than humorous homage.
“As I watch things that I really loved when I was little, I can see that they didn’t age well,” says Caroline. “Like where a man is dressing up as a woman. It’s a two-pronged attack like one, we don’t think a woman is funny enough to do this role and then two, ‘isn’t it funny that I’m portraying a different identity?’ Both things are super problematic. You really just need to make more space in the room because there are women foaming at the mouth in the room who can really destroy and be hilarious.”
Laughter is indeed the best medicine and the timely return of variety and sketch comedy shows may just be the balm our souls need during this tumultuous era of sociopolitical unrest.
For example, women like Mo’Nique, an Academy award-winning, Grammy-nominated Black comedian, called out misogynoir in comedy and argued in favor of Black women being fairly compensated. She was subsequently chastised by people of all races and genders for making too big a deal of the very real issue of discrimination.
“I’m so happy that shows like [HBO’s] A Black Lady Sketch Show and our show give Black women space. It’s important that Black women be able to write comedy and do comedy in their own way and own voice,” says Keisha. “Some people see inclusion and diversity as a trend and not something that is a value that needs to be maintained. My hope in this is that we have more shows where more Black women have creative agency in all the capacities so this isn’t just a trend, that this is a sure thing that becomes a staple and not just a flavor of the week.”
Each of the women has been deeply inspired by several Black female comedians who have come before her and opened doors for them to be able to do what they do.
“It’s a toss-up between Maya Rudolph and Ellen Cleghorne,” says Monique Moses. “Honestly Ellen Cleghorne is so funny. She never got a chance to do big things, but every role she got was really funny. I wish she’d gotten more opportunities.”
Caroline echoes Monique’s appreciation for Maya Rudolph. “As a mixed-race woman, seeing another mixed-race woman being absurd and weird and being a goofball was just awesome.”
Keisha chimed in offering praise of Whoopi Goldberg. “Her characters had a range of emotions and it would be a lie to say Sister Act 2 didn’t change my life. It did. Seeing a Black woman with natural hair in the world? Thriving and breaking gender stereotypes? I’m still like… she took roles from White men! What? In the ’80s and ’90s? Whoopi Goldberg, growing up, was just so influential to me.”
Astronomy Club reminds us of the incredible importance of having diversity in television and film, and it only strengthens the final product when folks commit to it for the long term. We need more shows that represent a range of shades and sizes; it’s refreshing to see people who look like everyday, relatable folks. And as the women noted, having Black women in the writing rooms, behind the cameras, in production, as well as being on screen is vital to long-term modern success.
Laughter is indeed the best medicine and the timely return of variety and sketch comedy shows may just be the balm our souls need during this tumultuous era of sociopolitical unrest. Even if we don’t like everything that hits the screen, we do need to ensure we are supporting these and other Black women creators so that we continue to have a range of options to choose from.