This sketch — a recall to season one’s “Basic Ball” — was shot on location at RSI Locations in Pomona in an abandoned medical campus. “We had a lot of tinsel and our title card lit up with lights, and we wanted to bring those elements into this sketch,” explains Chao. Due to the high angle of the ceiling, this room, which is in reality a small banquet hall, resembled a church room. Chao and Yu lit up the room with “a rainbow of colors”, with Chao noting that the funeral scene “wasn’t about the loss of life, but more about a celebration of life. We filled it with big, bold statements and flowers to make it a nicer atmosphere.”
That mixed tone also applies to the atmosphere on set. “This is a sketch comedy show, so we feel like we’re working fast, but being stupid about it,” Yu says. “I don’t know if we’ve ever worked on something where everyone takes it so seriously.”
Yu adds that the speed at which the production works requires a certain amount of professionalism. “All these sketches are really mini movies,” she says, and putting all the pieces together for so many sketches requires an incredible amount of planning. “It’s intense and immense, and it’s really helpful to work in the art department with people who have that approach. All our work is in preparation, and the more we prepare, the better it will be.”
Chao also notes that this sketch was shot out of sequence, which created more challenges for the art department. “We dressed up the room for the funeral ball and then we had to restore it to its original state before the start of the sketch,” she explains. Yu adds, “There are no pick up days on this show — we’re filming and we’re out.”
One of the things Cindy and I like to joke about with Robin [Thede, A Black Lady Sketch Show‘s star and creator] is bad Zillow posts,” says Michele Yu, citing intricately staged real estate listings as inspiration for the homey setting of this sketch. “Sometimes we run into a real winner – like, this is what you do to attract [buyers] to your property?”
Cindy Chao and Yu filled this space – the sketch was made on location in an empty house – with items with cheeky catchphrases. “It’s about women who live, laugh and love through life,” says Chao, “but [the reveal is that they are running] a sweatshop in their house”, in which other women craft tea towels and mugs with inspiring quotes.
A framed poster that read ‘In this house we cuddle’, pillows commanding you to ‘pray boldly’, a clock that tolls when it’s ‘wine hour’ – all of these lent a realistic silliness to the sketch and led to hilarious improvised comments from Thede and co-star Ashley Nicole Black.
But Chao and Yu didn’t just decorate this set with a funny decor. “You always need works of art, and there are certainly plenty of places where you can put freed up artwork. You just go to Hollywood Studio Gallery, you get a bunch of stuff and you hang it on the walls,” Yu says. A Black Lady Sketch Show, something created to celebrate black women. We realized this was an opportunity to showcase other black female performers. It’s not much harder to reach black women [artists] who may like the exposure, who enjoy being involved in the process, and who may get a kick out of seeing their work on screen. ”
That effort is not only a show of goodwill and solidarity, but also heightens the authenticity of a location – especially in this sketch, set in a black woman’s house. “That makes some of these interiors feel more real and specific, rather than just renting another landscape painting that’s easy to remove,” Yu says.
This sketch — another recall to a character from season one — was also shot in an empty classroom at the RSI Pomona location. “There was a beehive,” Chao recalls of the room, which had to be cleaned before their team could start dressing the room, which isn’t unusual. “Many of these locations [need to be fixed up] before we even get to work designing the space.”
The elementary school classroom required a lot of background detail, from the drawings on the blackboard to the posters on the walls, some of which were made with construction paper and glue to resemble children’s artwork. The latest items included scientific signs, such as one about volcanoes, and posters celebrating the black’s literary achievements — including recreations of the book covers for Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird singsToni Morrison’s loverOctavia Butlers Dawn and Alice Walker’s The color purple.
“Our core mission is to celebrate black women,” says Yu. While the humor in each skit may not lead to that goal, Chao and Yu bring that celebration to each of their set designs.
This set emphasizes the production designers’ ability to add stories to the background of a scene. “Cindy and I have been working together as a team for over a dozen years now, and we have an indie film background,” Yu says. “We have a [talent] to make the most of what you have and use all the resources you can to tell the story. Every inch of space on a set is something that could support a story.”
That consideration applies to imagining how the characters in the sketches would decorate the spaces they inhabit. “The pace of this show is so fast and fast,” says Yu, whose first job is to find the basic items needed in each setting. Once those are identified, they begin to think about who the characters are and how they can help tell their story: “We try to understand the person as a character, where they come from and what they would choose for themselves.”
Yu also adds that although the production prep took place during the Trump presidency, the sketch was set in the Obama era. “It was such a relief,” she says with a laugh, “because we got images of the… [former] president and his wife, as opposed to who the president actually was when we were preparing.”
This bomb shelter, in real life, was a drab space used for storage at the Petroleum Club in Long Beach, which Yu describes as “a very old-fashioned oil managers’ club.” During production, the show was on location for a week, using different rooms as the venue. (A singles-night sketch was recorded at the club’s restaurant.)
This sketch in particular alternates between two locations. The club’s rock-walled lobby served as a corporate reception, where a security guard (another recurring character from season one, played by Black) talks on the phone with a bomb control expert (played by Thede), who is interrupted to celebrate his birthday. impending retirement in his office when Black’s character asks for help defusing an explosive device.
Special features immediately appealed to Chao and Yu when they found this space: the large, lowered light fixtures in the center of the room, plus the mirrored smoke-glass wall panels on either side. “We really leaned into the mirrors,” says Yu, who adds that the reflective walls allowed the DP to operate with “cool lighting.” “We decorated the whole room with multiple desks to suggest that other people were working,” Yu added of the extra details for the scene, including the party balloons and a half-eaten cake.
The end result, however, was a dark office and a tightly shot character on Thede, with cool blue-green lighting coming out of the ceiling. “The suspended ceiling lights were perfect,” Chao says of the room’s eye-catching feature, which gave an almost supernatural feel to the sketch.
While much of Chao and Yu’s extensive work in this sketch is only visible for fleeting moments, they don’t discourage them from their detailed efforts to create the world in which a sketch like this takes place. “We have to be very creative with the spaces because we never know what will actually go into the cut while we’re dressing them,” explains Yu. “We really need to dress the whole world just in case.”
This story first appeared in the August 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.