In a time when many folks are either shouting or crying over the Trump administration, it helps to have someone like Ashley Nicole Black encouraging laughter. Black — a writer and on-air correspondent for TBS’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee — has settled in well to her role as a political comedian, perfecting a balanced blend of “punching up” in her jokes and smart, hilariously worded observations about the current political climate.
Black, who has been a part of Full Frontal since it started in late 2015, has degrees in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies from UC Santa Cruz and Northwestern and did a stint at improv legend Second City, so the 32-year-old California native has been making people laugh for years. And people are finally paying her the attention she deserves. Black is currently nominated for her second Emmy in comedy variety writing; last year’s nomination made her the first Black woman nominated in the category in almost 20 years. (Wanda Sykes was nominated four times — and won once — for her work on the Chris Rock Show back in the late ’90s/early 00’s.)
From her sharp writing each week for Samantha Bee, to her on-air spots where she celebrates Black History Month and teaches us how to request a FOIA using a makeup tutorial, it’s clear that we sorely need her talent: she finds the funny in topics that are otherwise depressing or frightening. Plus, she’s chimed in on occasion for Grok Nation’s Feminism 101 series. Is it any wonder that we’re big fans of hers?
We recently asked Black how she balances intense politics with comedy, whether she considers herself an east coast or west coast gal, and tried to dig for some dirt when it comes to her boss, Sam Bee.
Grok Nation: Do you have a special formula for how to turn even the most depressing and hate-filled instances into comedy gold? On a related note, does the writers room have enough therapy cuddle puppies for you all?!
Ashley Nicole Black: I’ve requested the puppies many times… not sure what’s happening to all my comment cards. Unfortunately, I don’t have a formula. I have always been the kind of person that my natural reaction to hurt or upset makes other people laugh. I think extreme honesty is often funny to people.
GN: Are there any topics or people that are off limits?
ANB: There are always stories that we look at, and look at, and research, and realize that for whatever reason, we don’t have a comedic angle on it yet. Sometimes those get cut loose, sometimes we just keep them in a drawer until we find an angle. I’m of the opinion that anything can be made funny, but some things (particularly those things that may hurt a marginalized group of people) are a lot more difficult to make funny than others. And some are so difficult that it may not even be worth trying.
GN: You’ve had the chance to work with some pretty awesome guest stars that have appeared on Full Frontal. Is there any particular experience that stands out for you?
ANB: Obviously, meeting Cory Booker was a life highlight! But one thing that really stands out for me as a writer, was getting to write for actors I’ve loved for years. I’ve gotten to write speeches for two of my favorite actors — Tony Goldwyn (President Fitzgerald Grant on Scandal) and Allison Janney (CJ Cregg on The West Wing!) — and have them deliver them exactly the way I pictured it in my head.
GN: What’s one thing you can share about Sam that won’t get you fired?
ANB: Here’s a good Sam secret™: Sam has one thing in common with Sean Spicer: she chews a lot of gum. Like a lot of gum. An unnatural amount of gum. We have a big gum drawer in the office that is always full. Personally, I hate chewing gum (my mouth is lazy and it gets tired), which is probably why I’ll never be as funny as Samantha Bee.
GN: While the work you do on Full Frontal is comedy, you’re tackling a lot of topics that for many can be a lot to bear. How do you practice self-care with your particular job?
ANB: I’m still figuring that out! I try (and fail) to keep politics/news to work hours. I try to unplug from the news whenever we take a break. I know people are always tweeting at us that they wish we wouldn’t take weeks off. But I really, really, like being sane, you guys.
GN: What was going through your head when you reported from the RNC, talking to folks about Black Lives Matter?
ANB: I was really surprised by how much misinformation was out there about BLM. I had incorrectly assumed that people’s opposition to Black Lives Matter is all racist. But a lot of it is based in misinformation. Most people claimed either that they “weren’t racist”… or more often that they “didn’t want to be thought of as racist.” But they all shared the belief that BLM had engaged in a lot of violent activity and killing… even though they couldn’t name any specifics. Probably because there aren’t any, because BLM is not a violent organization. But also probably because of how Fox News operates. They are always pushing a narrative of racial tension, so they will often trump up stories to make them sound worse than they are, or more sinisterly, they will report on a years-old story over and over again, to make it seem (to the viewer who isn’t paying close attention), like something has happened multiple times when they’re really just continually talking about one outlier incident.
It all adds up to Fox viewers having a feeling of unease that BLM is violent, without having any specifics to report about why they dislike them, which causes a lot of cognitive dissonance. And of course, believing that a group is violent when it isn’t is what leaves you open to accusations of racism, and the last thing they want is to be accused of racism, so they’re very wary of even talking about the issue. Basically, doing that piece, I learned that Fox (and other conservative outlets) is screwing a lot of people over by putting them into the position of having to defend the indefensible without any facts to back up their beliefs… which makes it harder for them to talk about those beliefs, which creates the surprising distance between liberals and conservatives we started to become aware of during the election.
GN: You’ve lived in LA and now live in NYC. Do you have a preference or does each have it’s own charms?
ANB: I prefer the food in L.A. and most of my decisions are food based so… L.A.
L.A. and NYC are both great, the lifestyles are very different. I feel like when I’m in L.A. I’m much healthier and more active, and when I’m in NY, I go out more and experience more new things. The stereotypes are true!
GN: You work on one of *our* favorite shows. What are some of *your* favorite shows at the moment?
ANB: There’s so much amazing TV on right now! But despite that, I’ve been going back and watching old favorites. Or ‘comfort shows’ as I call them. I’ve been watching a lot of old Parks and Rec episodes and enjoying watching a semi-functional government.
GN: What are your desktop musts — tools of the trade you can’t work without?
ANB: My desk and walls are covered in bright colorful things that bring me joy, notes from friends, and gifts. It’s nice to glance up and be reminded that people like you. Because not being able to come up with something to write is a TERRIBLE feeling. I usually have at least three different beverages on my desk, one caffeinated, one water, and one either sugary or alcoholic, to switch between. And I have a unicorn tape dispenser that reminds me of a community of unicorn-obsessed writers I’m a part of.
GN: Are you working on any projects at the moment (besides FF) that you can tell us about? The world wants and needs more Ashley Nicole Black!!
ANB: *lips are sealed emoji* (but seriously, my biggest project these days is trying to get enough sleep to remove the circles under my eyes…)
GN: When can we expect our invite to your wedding to Senator Booker?
ANB: I proposed. Ball’s in his court.
GN: What advice do you wish you had heard when you were starting out?
ANB: Everyone sucks when they first start doing anything. Obviously, because they haven’t learned how to do it yet. The thing I notice is that people who “look like” they should be doing that thing (ie. white men in comedy) are told “One day you’re going to be good, stick with it.” and the people who don’t (i.e. everyone who is not a white man) are told “Just quit. You’re not good at this.”
If you really want to do something, and it fulfills you, and you get joy out of doing it, don’t quit. You’ll eventually get better at it. And all those people who told you to quit will fade into the background.
Catch more of Ashley Nicole Black’s work on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, when the show returns to TBS on September 13th!