Q & A: Full Frontal's Ashley Black
This post originally appeared on the Turner blog.
Before following her dream of a career in comedy, Ashley Nicole Black was four years into a Ph.D. degree. Now, she’s part of the tour-de-force writing team and a correspondent for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, now in its second season on TBS. As a newly minted Emmy® award-winning writer and a bona fide comedic role model, Ashley gave us the inside scoop on the life of a Full Frontal writer and shared some of her favorite moments and how she hopes to inspire others.
What is the Full Frontal writer’s room like? Are there bowls of jellybeans? Pork rinds? A politician dartboard?
Well, we don't have any pork rinds! Or a writer's room really. While we do meet in person a couple of times a week to talk about our show topics, we do most of our work online. Kind of a “virtual writer’s room.” In part because the type of writing we do is very detailed and not really conducive to writing together in a room like that, and in part because we are a bunch of introverted nerds.
How long does it take to write a show? What’s taken the longest to write?
Most of the shows are written in about two days to a week. Occasionally, we will have a piece that requires longer baking than that, because it needs more research, or is particularly difficult to write, but that is rare. We spent two weeks working on “Kris Kobach Racist Music Man,” because it’s a musical, which is harder both to write and to get approved by legal. I come from an improv background, so it’s very funny to me to go from singing whatever I want off the top of my head, to having lyrics approved by a team of lawyers.
What do you enjoy doing most on the show?
I really enjoy writing historical deep dives. I'm a nerd; I love learning about a new topic and sharing that information with everyone. I also really like interviewing experts for the same reason. It’s fun to learn about their area of expertise and even more fun to watch a Harvard professor’s eyes widen when you tell an off-color joke about his research.
What have you worked on at Full Frontal that you’re most proud of?
Not the White House Correspondents Dinner, and I'm not just saying that because we just won an Emmy® for writing it. We made that special while still writing our regular show so it was kind of like having two jobs for a couple of months. I loved watching all my coworkers rise to the occasion. We all leveled up. I got to write jokes for Allison Janney as one of my favorite TV characters ever, C.J. Cregg. The live show was so huge and making that many people laugh live was one of the best performance moments of my life.
What do you do when Full Frontal isn’t in production?
Try (and fail) to ignore the news. Hang out with my dog. I spent the entire last dark week drinking white wine in a hot tub.
As a comedienne of color, who are your inspirations or role models?
I'm always torn about the terms “comedienne” or “actress.” I used to think men and women do the same job, why have different job titles? Then I had an acting teacher who told me, “Actually your job is much harder; you have to make people laugh while fitting into the narrow definition of ‘likeable’ that exists for women.” And you know, the whole backwards and in heels thing. Anyway, I prefer the term “comedian” or “woman of valor.”
The comedians I return to for inspiration are Aidy Bryant, Paul Mooney, Ali Wong, Maria Bamford, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Seth Meyers... there are so many. But I also draw a lot from dramas and, of course, the news. The more seriously someone takes what they're doing, the funnier I think it is.
In your Cosmopolitan piece, you mention your friend actually gave you his application packet for Full Frontal, which opened the door for you. Is there anything you do to “pay it forward” to help the next generation of talented young comedians that want a seat in a writer’s room?
That's pretty much the main reason I do press. I'm pretty shy in real life and don't naturally enjoy talking about myself to strangers. But when I was coming up in comedy, I poured over every interview that every female comedian gave and read every memoir that every comedian wrote, because I wanted to know how they broke into the business. And in most cases, they glossed over the hardship. It was “I did comedy for the first time... and then ten years later, I was on TV!” It's important to me that comedians coming up see that success is not a magical thing that happens to magical people. Success is the result of working hard and not quitting (even when people tell you that you should). There really weren't any people who looked like me on television when I was a kid, so it’s important to me to show women, and people of color, and plus size people that their dreams are attainable.
Also, I tell every aspiring writer I meet to try performing live. Nothing makes you a better writer faster than not getting laughed at by a room full of people to your face. Believe it or not, not many writers find that advice appealing.
Watch new episodes of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee Wednesday nights at 10:30 p.m. ET on TBS.