Making A Scene
For the second season of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” the comedy series imbued its very particular Black lady point of view onto one of the world’s most famous paintings, with “The Last Supp-her”…
For the second season of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” the comedy series imbued its very particular Black lady point of view onto one of the world’s most famous paintings, with “The Last Supp-her” — a sketch that takes the Bible and turns it on its head, all while recreating Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.
In Variety’s Making a Scene presented by HBO, creator, executive producer and star Robin Thede is joined by the show’s head writer and co-executive producer Lauren Ashley Smith and director Brittany Scott Smith to explain how the sketch went from page to screen.
All credit for the idea goes to “A Black Lady Sketch Show” writer Holly Walker.
The pitch began as “this kernel of an idea about wanting to reimagine an event that everyone’s always familiar with, but doesn’t often see women or Black women part of the conversation,” according to Lauren Ashley Smith.
“The way her mind works is so, so wild,” Thede says of Walker. “She said, ‘What if there were women disciples and they actually had to sit at the kiddie table behind the Last Supper?’ And after that we were just done.”
From there, the cast and crew went back into the annuals of their vacation Bible school days to execute a concept that is layered with as many hidden meanings as it has jokes per capita.
What resulted was a three-and-a-half-minute joke fest, which finds ways to send up everything from the “real story” about Paul and Saul; to the Judgment of Solomon; to jokes about locusts and disciplettes; to the appearance of a high-heeled sandal, to which Thede’s character quips, “Everyone can’t resurrect an ankle.”
The first step was crafting the characters — Ruth (played by Ashley Nicole Black), Priscilla (Thede), Hannah (Skye Townsend) and Mary Magdalene (Gabrielle Dennis)
“Ruth is super annoyed and feels cheated out of her due as a writer and she’s really driving home the feminist thing,” Lauren Ashley Smith explains. “We have Priscilla, who is there simply to gossip. And Hannah, who is so self-conscious about her fraternization, let’s say, with her community, that she’s not listening.”
She adds: “It’s just such a funny and fun dynamic to play three women who have such strong, clear character games, and none of them are really internalizing what the other three are saying.”
Thede found inspiration for Priscilla in Kim Wayans’ Benita Butrell from “In Living Color,” explaining that she relied on the idea that “there’s always a gossip in every era.”
From there, each woman’s costume and hair and makeup were carefully designed to be a subtle reference to their character traits.
“I’ve only worn my actual hair twice on the show and that’s one of the sketches,” Thede notes. “We knew that we were going to do some sort of braid crown for Ashley’s character, and Skye was going to have braids, because we figured, even back then, Black women were braiding their hair.”
With Dennis’ Mary Magdalene acting as a foil to the other characters in the scene, the team planned for her to stand out. Her hunter green dress is a nod to the curtain gown from “The Carol Burnett Show’s” “Gone With the Wind”-inspired sketch.
“We loved the idea of Mary Magdalene having a look for hair and makeup that was out of the time period,” Lauren Ashley Smith explains. “She has like a 90-inch weave. She has an exaggerated line on her eye. She’s wearing lipstick and is contoured … indicative of her obsession with image and being the one that’s ahead. Just turning the knife for the women by having her come up looking like an Instagram model.”
When Brittany Scott Smith first read the script, the director was immediately inspired by the dialogue and the characters, saying that the sketch instantly reminded her of a reality show. Ultimately, the director crafted a shooting plan that mimicked the “ABLSS” network mate “Succession.”
“[We thought,] ‘Oh, we could really get into the HBO of it all and have the cameras moving constantly,’” Brittany Scott Smith explains. “We’re doing snap zooms, we’re finding the dialogue and we’re coming into the conversation so it feels like the audience is sitting at that fourth seat at that table.”
Where “ABLSS” typically shoots with two cameras, the crew employed three — a steady cam and two cameras on a swivel — to make sure they were able to catch all of the action.
Of course, the production had a back-up plan for shooting the scene, in case things went awry, but the “Succession” plan turned out to have its own benefits, once the women were on set, dressed in their biblical looks and Thede made a special request.
“I said to Brittany, ‘We have to make time for improv today.’ Once we got those outfits on, we were like, ‘Oh we know these women,’” she recalls. “Some sketches are like, ‘It’s all on the page and you want to execute perfectly’ … but in this instance, all of us were just going crazy. So Brittany said, ‘Go off.’”
While Thede already revealed that the “loaves and fishes” run of jokes was improvised in one take, what audiences don’t know is that there were more jokes cut out of that section, including a particularly clever reference to Pontius Pilate and a bucket list trip to Cypress, which Thede performs in the video above.
Thede recalls riffing with her co-stars for seven to 10 minutes each take, estimating that there are another five and a half minutes of edited jokes from the sketch. But her greatest achievement of the shoot was the fact that “all the improv was Bible appropriate.”
“I come from a very saved family and I got nothing but text messages saying, ‘That sketch was on point. It was accurate,’” Lauren Ashley Smith says. “I have numbers I hadn’t even had saved from reverends saying, ‘I loved that sketch.’ So that was a huge relief and an excitement.”
“Someone did check us that Paul was not Saul until after Jesus was crucified. However, I feel like those people need to just enjoy the show,” Thede adds with a laugh.
“A Black Lady Sketch Show” seasons one and two are streaming on HBO and HBO Max.