Skye Townsend’s got jokes, but her commitment to the craft of comedy is no laughing matter. From her meticulous way of crafting unforgettable characters, to her fundamental understanding of humor as a tool of survival, it’s no wonder she’s caught her big break as a core cast member on the groundbreaking, Emmy-nominated program that is HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show.
Los Angeles born and raised, Townsend’s had quite the untraditional introduction to the world of comedy. But, her years worth of producing viral Beyonce impressions, perfecting her improvisation while hosting star-studded red carpet events, and booking smaller acting gigs, have clearly prepared her to become the emerging star that she is today. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Skye about her experience filming the show, and a few other fun things she currently has in the works. I encourage any lover of comedy to truly soak up the wit-infused wisdom she has to offer.
Tell me a bit about yourself before your current success. What was your foundation, and when did you realize comedy was for you?
Before I did the show, I grew up around comedy. That was always in my household. I was always around aunts and uncles who were really funny. I knew that I liked making people laugh, but I didn't consider myself a real comedian because I didn't have proper training. I didn't go to improv school. I was actually doing music before I started acting. I was a songwriter, so I would work at record labels and work for artists at 17 years old. I liked it, but it wasn't as fulfilling as acting.
Eventually, I transitioned into acting, and I knew making people laugh was a different type of high. That's when I knew I was really home. I used the internet to get my foot in the door. I was around a lot of connections but didn't want to be “that girl.” I thought maybe I should try to use the internet. I used YouTube, Vine, and all of these platforms to get into [certain] rooms and, from that, began auditioning seriously as an actress.
A Black Lady Sketch Show saw wildfire success with its first season, and the significance of your booking a core role for season 2 can’t be understated. What about this show made you think you’d be a perfect fit, and did you have any concerns at all about joining a cast that had already developed a working chemistry?
I was hoping that if I came in, I would have the ability to be as strange as I am. What's been really beautiful about the show is they allow us to pitch ideas. I love very quirky, unique, strange comedy. I love Mike Myers, and Austin Powers was one of my favorite movies. I [also] love Jim Carrey. So, when I came on I said, “Am I going to be allowed to be strange?” And they said, “If that's who you are, we’ll allow you to shine.”
Black women are so many different types; there's no box that they can put us in. I was a little nervous because people have bonds, and it feels like a family. I was praying that when I joined, there [would be] some type of new energy and that people [would] receive me well. They let me be the weirdo; I'm not mad at it!
Sketch comedy is a beast of its own, especially in terms of character development. As I hear it, you’ve been really hands-on this season, crafting highly detailed mood boards for every single one of your characters. Can you elaborate on your approach to building memorable characters?
I always try to pull inspiration from the people I know first and foremost. I think we always look at celebrities or our favorite talents for inspo, but at the end of the day we are surrounded by incredible characters with incredible quirks and unique things about them.
When I create a character, I like to assign my body roles [from] head to toe. Whether my fingers or my eyes have a job for that character, or my posture is different, I really try to make sure that I'm involved head to toe, versus just changing my voice. It's not as exciting to just hear a voice change if you're not completely becoming the character. For me, mood boards help to let the people involved in the show into my brain and see what I had in mind when I read those words. It's like them hopping in my brain for a second, the way that I see it.
I really wanted to come on this [show] and be hands-on. It would be doing the work lazily if I just threw it all in their hands, and I had the opportunity to share. It was amazing that they allowed me to share my ideas. That was a really important part of the process for me to realize these people into entire human beings, versus a voice.
I love watching the outtakes at the end of every episode of you and the rest of the cast breaking character and improvising lines. I’m curious how much of your performance is scripted vs. improvised, and which character was the hardest to stay in character for?
A lot of it is scripted because the network has to approve what we're doing. But once we get on set, we do a few takes as scripted and then the director says, “It's time to have fun!” At that point anything goes. That's the really exciting part on set. From that you'll see sketches where a whole chunk was improvised, and people have no idea because it's flowing so well. It's really exciting to be able to run wild with comedy because if it goes in a different direction, a great comedian can meet you where you're at.
As far as the hardest character to stay in for me, it was definitely Nona Love. It was freezing. Everyone was in winter coats and hoodies, and I'd just have to shake it out and get into character. And Ashley was killing me as the fan. She committed so hard that day; she was screaming from the depths of her throat. I couldn't stop laughing because I was on stage and it really felt like [having] fake fans. Ashley almost broke my character that day a few times because she committed so hard and made it so much fun.
You not only act, but you have a background in music as well. One of my favorite skits of yours this season is “Ya Nona Love To See It,” where your character serenades a crowd of fans with a song about air. “Air” is apparently the first original song from the show to be widely released on streaming platforms. What was the recording process like for “Air,” and do you plan on releasing more music of your own in the near future?
It's really funny because the second I decided to walk away from music, it started to come back into acting in really strange ways, whether it was my own music or playing a singer on Lucifer. With “Air,” Robin had written the lyrics and [told me] just do your thing when you go to the studio; play with it. It was really fun because of course I'm used to recording music, but I was recording music in character.
Nona doesn't sing the way I do. Her voice is higher and squeakier; she's more annoying. It was really weird recording a full song in character. For me, that was a very fun challenge because, down to the harmonies and the backgrounds, you're not singing like yourself. But as soon as I got in the studio, I missed it so much. I really want to somehow dabble back into music, but I know I just have to pace myself and make sure that every project makes sense in the order it is in. I miss music all the time, I really do.
Perhaps my favorite thing about this show is how it positions Black women to be, say, and do almost anything they can imagine on-screen. Even behind the scenes, the show is very intentional about hiring Black women in any and every role on set you can think of. How has working in such an affirming environment impacted your perception of self in an industry such as yours?
When I report to set, I'm used to always having to cover my own back. I'm used to bringing my makeup bag, my flat iron, my edge control, [and] my brushes just in case I have an emergency. To know that I can report to set fully myself and that I was in good hands was the most incredible experience because I could show up with cornrows or with [my hair] half blow-dried, and they knew what to do.
It takes so much off of an actress to show up and know that somebody is not going to panic when they touch your hair. That's a horror story we've heard for years; how it's still going on, I don't know. It took off so much stress to know that our foundation would be matched properly, that our hair wasn't going to break off [from heat damage].
It was amazing to be around Black women and to also be in a space where we embrace how different we all are. Ashley is very smart and political; she's a reader. Robin is very Alpha; she's a Leo. Gabrielle is this very serious performer who, in the corner, will be looking at her lines when she has a break. Lacey is this flexible, crazy gymnast who just wilds out. Me, I'm very quirky. When I'm not glammed up, I love being as in my body as I can. We see how unique we all are and just play to those strengths.
The past year or so has been especially tough for the Black community, as we continue demanding justice for Breonna Taylor and all of the other lives taken at the hands of police. I remember some of the relief I saw on my timeline when season 2 of the show was announced, with folks excited to have some way to escape the constant tragedy, if only for half an hour. How has it been for you navigating tragedy as a Black woman, while also actively bringing joy to others?
One of my favorite quotes is from Carol Burnett, and she said, "Comedy is just tragedy plus time." I think the most powerful, incredible, tapped-in people understand that humor is survival. It is finding a laugh despite anything. I think a misconception is that comedians are always happy; no. Comedians can be dark, they can be depressed, they can be sad. But we love joy enough to continue spreading it despite that.
I think it's important as a comedian No. 1 to say something, and No. 2 to use your platform properly once you get the attention from what you've said. On this show, we make jokes, but we make you think. Even Nona Love—she's screaming for help and her fans can't even hear it because they love her so much, and that's a real thing. When I watched it I got goosebumps. It reminded me of Selena and gave me chills; they couldn't hear her cries because the obsession was so deep. There's stan culture; there's obsession.
I think with Black people getting an escape with this show, there's enough “real” to know that there's substance, but it's not too heavy. And I think that's a really wonderful balance because it's not airhead comedy. You really have to sit for a second and digest some of the jokes, but sometimes we don't want to see the trauma. Sometimes we don't want to see that kind of pain. Sometimes we want to see somebody stub their toe and let that be as painful as it gets.
It's an honor to be on a show that makes things a little bit lighter and... to know that we're part of the decompressing. But it's still a responsibility to be aware of what's going on despite being the funny ones. Funny people are not always happy, but we understand that our job is to pass on joy and hope that it comes back to us. By doing this show, a lot of the joy came back to me. It was really beautiful.
Beyond A Black Lady Sketch Show, is there anything else in the works for you, Skye? Any last words of wisdom you want to leave us with?
Besides the show, I do have a podcast called Unpack 'n Bounce Back. It's a five-star podcast if I may say so myself! We created it over quarantine because my cousin and I just wanted to share our stories and do it in a way that felt so honest, authentic, and transparent [that] people kind of go, "Did they just say that?...I felt that!"
We just dropped the second season, and it's been amazing. It really fills a side of me that I never really get to tap into. I [also] just shot a couple projects that I can't talk about yet, but it's been amazing to see the ball rolling after doing the show. I'm looking forward to giving people more of me in doses.
My best advice is very simple: do what you love. I think I've gotten so much love and compliments regarding the show where people say how much fun I looked like I was having, because I was. It's so important to understand that we always have a choice in what we do in this life. If you hate your job, you can quit; you can figure it out. There's always a way if you really put your mind to it.
I know that sounds corny. Sometimes it may take years to get to the position you want to be in. But if you really love what you do, you'll fall so much in love with the work that when the wins come, you can't even believe it because you love the work so much. That's where I'm at—focused on the work. Whatever comes after that, whatever accolades, that's a blessing. I love what I do so much that I'm just honored to do the work.
Top Image By Antoinette A. Brock
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Jamilah Horton is a graduate of Wellesley College with a B.A. in Cinema & Media Studies and Africana Studies. She lives in Harlem, NYC and enjoys watching and critiquing the latest films and television shows, especially those that center Black women and femmes. Subscribe to her YouTube channel That's A Wrap TV for more!