Ashley Nicole Black is an L.A. native who’s living the dream as a writer for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee on TBS. Since the show began, Bee’s commitment to advancing talented women and people of color has been evident, and Black, a Second City–trained writer and performer, became one of her protégés. Now Bee, Black and the rest of the Full Frontal team are up for a Primetime Emmy for outstanding writing (they won a Creative Arts Emmy last weekend for their work on the special Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner). Black is only the second black woman to be nominated for the award (along with Amber Ruffin this year) and has something to say about being a spokesperson for people of color, “fat success” and the truth.
What was it like to grow up around Los Angeles?
So I grew up in Walnut, which is east of downtown. We’re like right across the street from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [set in West Covina], but pre-that, nobody knew anything about where I lived. If they replaced two white people with two black people on that show, that’s the makeup of my hometown. It’s an incredibly diverse area — It was utopia. I didn’t realize what the rest of the world was like. Then I went to UC Santa Cruz, and then I moved to the Midwest, and I felt like I'd moved 10 years back in time. Chicago is known for being super segregated. In my high school, there was no quorum of any race. We all just hung out, and to move from that to a completely different place … it’s difficult.
Most people know you as a correspondent/performer on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. Did you always know you wanted to write and perform?
That’s my best way of working. I’m a writer-performer. I didn’t discover writing until I was at Second City. It’s a Chicago-based tradition to both write and perform. There’s always waves of whether that’s in demand, though. When Tina Fey came out of Chicago, it was the hot thing to write and perform, and now people are interested in writer-performers again. I always knew there was a sense in the industry that they didn't want to hire writers who wanted to perform. I fully expected to be just a writer when I got hired at Full Frontal, but Sam always had in her mind that she wanted me to be on camera.
What’s it like working with Sam Bee?
Working with her is such a gift. There’s nothing you write that she can’t do. I mean, we wrote her a musical. She elevates everything. There’s something weird about being a writer and seeing it exist in your head in the most perfect form. But that’s what you get with her, its most perfect form. I get to watch her work and steal from her as a performer. She is truly one of the best interviewers in the world, too. I can watch her do the whole interview, and she has this ability to get people so comfortable. I try to steal that. I have seen a guy invite her to Thanksgiving dinner, to his home, during an interview, not as a joke. She has a way of making people feel very comfortable and very heard. She’s just obviously really funny, and she knows how moments are going to edit together. I’m more of a live performer but I’m learning how to do what she does. The ability to make a human being be very heard and seen and honest with you … when you do an interview, it takes a certain amount of time to get to that point. But interviewing uses the same skills I use in improv, being very present with people, being able to pick up on those little body-language cues.
You’ve interviewed a fair number of people who either have very different political opinions or who seem like they could be hostile to you. Does it ever jar you emotionally to do that?
I’m in work mode. If I’m at work, I have a goal, either to communicate something or get the other person to communicate something, and I’m working toward that goal, if I’m going to be upset by something, I get upset back in the hotel later. If I’m in the interview, I stay focused on what I need to get out of the interview, and trying to get people to represent themselves honestly. Sometimes that’s negative, but my job is to honestly represent the experience that was happening in that time and place. It might mean I have to listen to them say something negative. So I don’t take it personally in that moment. If someone says something negative to me, I did my job getting an honest opinion.
With news breaking constantly, do you ever get to take a break and turn off?
People always tweet at us when we’re off. We gotta take a break sometime. You go back and spend time with your family, and you stop watching the news. It takes me a few days before I can go cold turkey. Right now, I’m here staying with my family, so they’re watching the news. My dad and my brothers were not engaged in politics before. My mom, yes, but them not as much. Since the last election, they’ve become more engaged. On a week like this, they’re like, “Let’s talk about —.” I say, “You should watch it, but I don’t want to watch it.” If we’re off, I know Seth [Meyers] is gonna cover it on his show. I know John Oliver is going to cover this. It’s hard but you have to prioritize taking care of yourself. Everybody needs to take a break from the news. It’s been bad for so long. It’s going to continue being bad. When we take a break, we know the other shows are on it.
What’s your favorite story you’ve worked on for the show?
I really loved when we did “Ms. Robot,” which was on cybersecurity. It was something not a lot of people were talking about. Matt Mitchell had been teaching these classes of underserved black people how to code and protect their identity for years, and I went and talked to him. It was fun, silly — I got to dance on a rooftop with Talib Kweli! But I also got to share a story not widely known. There was a party scene of people in that segment, and these weren’t extras. These were all the volunteers and teachers, and they were so happy anyone was going to talk about this topic, because it’s hard to get people to care about anything.
So do you feel like you’re bringing something different to the table than other whiter, maler people might?
Anything that I have an emotional attachment to, usually if that’s the case, I know I’m looking at it in a different way than most people. Before, when I did comedy, I felt like I was always trying to explain my worldview to people because it was different. But now it’s my strength. One time when we were working on the street, we met this woman who was head-to-toe dressed like a pirate in Brooklyn. My colleague wanted to interview her, and she came up to me, and she said, “You can’t be what you can’t see. Because you’re out there, there are people who see this as a possibility.”
Is your family proud of you?
My family is super religious. My dad is a minister. People are like, “Do they hate that you do this?” And they love it so much. You’re putting something out there that’s trying to help, and I guess sometimes you have to swear that much to do it. I was a really shy and weird kid, so I think they’re happy I have the ability to talk to people at all. My mom used to literally force me to go outside, and I used to prop my book up on the handlebars of my bike and ride in a circle.
What’s your typical day like? Are you just reading the news and getting depressed for eight hours?
I usually get in around 9:30 and start reading the news. We also have the TV on, but I prefer reading to watching the television. The paper will tell you what is happening, the TV will tell you how people feel about what’s happening. We get to take the weekends off now. Monday or Tuesday, we work on the topical pieces. That’s when you have the news on all day hoping to spot a clip. We don’t write in a room. We have a meeting to talk about the tone of the structure of a longer piece, and then everyone goes off and writes on their own. But I get tired of commentary. The news is bad enough, but what’s more tiring is a lot of times — Jeff Lord was the worst example — people will say things that are just blatantly untrue. He would be on CNN, lying, and nobody corrects him, and that’s what drives me crazy, and I’m screaming at the television.
Is there anything to feel good about?
It’s interesting because right now is such a depressing time, but it is also very hopeful. I feel like the George Zimmerman trial was a real noticeable breaking point where things started getting really bad. Every time I wrote an article, I got so much nasty stuff on the internet, heard people I’ve been friends with for years saying racist stuff. [The Southern Poverty Law Center] was saying hate and racism is on the rise, and I kept saying this — “It’s bad!” — and I had so many people saying, “I just don’t see it.” It’s not like police are killing more people. It’s just that they started making it news every time. I slowly watched people start to see it. During the campaign, that process was accelerated. People having been saying the GOP is dog whistling. They’re not dog whistling anymore. They’re just outwardly OK with racism. It’s depressing, but it’s hopeful how many people in the past couple of years have woken up and are interested in doing something about it. It feels like a completely different world today than the Zimmerman trial.
What does “people waking up” mean to you?
I think it means we’re taking the burden off of people of color to do the educating. One thing that would happen a lot before was a couple of years ago, people would be like, “I wanna know all about racism,” and so you try to tell them, and then they get defensive, because it’s a normal human reaction. Even if you as a white person only do it once, it’s happening every day to black people. As more info is available, it frees you up. It’s like, “Google it.” I don’t have to walk you through this, if you choose not to engage with these things that exist. I even created a reading list. If you don’t actually read it, you’ve shown me you’re not interested in learning. You’re more interested in my time than you are in the knowledge.
What do you think people might not understand about your job?
I think the general public, a lot of those people don’t know shows like ours are written. I think they see Jimmy Fallon or Sam go out and say whatever is on their mind. All television is written. But another thing people don’t get is what goes into our interviews. A lot of times, they say, “You’re going to edit this together to make me sound dumb.” No reputable show does that. Jesse Waters does that on Fox. We don’t do that. We don’t have to. The dumb things people say, that’s usually the first thing they say. I have to work past the dumb thing to get into the interesting stuff. Anyone who comes off looking bad on our program, they said that dumb thing five times and we’re sure about that. We don’t make jokes at people’s expense. Our goal is to make fun of the people in power. When we talk to regular people, we’re trying to find out what they think. We might make jokes about it but not those people. People walk up to you and say stupid shit all the time. We’ve talked to people who were so irredeemably racist, and we did not put those people on TV. People will walk up to you and say, “Are you CNN? Fake news!” They’re dumb. You push those people aside to get to the people of substance. We put the people on who are trying to figure something out. You don’t have to trick people.
There was only one black woman who’s been nominated for an Emmy for writing on a late-night show or variety series before you. How does that feel?
Prior to me, Wanda Sykes was nominated for late-night writing. I was the next one and there’s 20 years in between us. I don’t really care about being interviewed, but if someone reads this article and says, “I can be a late-night writer,” that’s fine. I did an interview with Cosmo, and so many people said, “That made me want to start writing.” My whole first three years in comedy was people telling me to quit. You have to have an inner fortitude to keep going until you get good, and if you don’t have anyone to point to who looks like you, it’s harder. So I got nominated for an Emmy? I’m gonna shout it from the fucking rooftops, and this year it’s me and Amber Ruffin and Mindy Kaling and Lena Waithe, and as a plus-size woman, I feel an extra responsibility. As people of color, it’s still so far to go, but with plus-size people … I just want people to see fat success.
What wisdom do you want to impart to people?
I want people to know that when you see a woman get to where I’m at or where Sam is at, you should see how much more work went into them getting to where they are. You know how much harder she had to work to get in the room to do it. When I see a woman on the screen, there’s an extra big, “Yes, she did it!” She survived the cold three years to get to this point.