Meet the Visual Masterminds Behind Some of Your Favorite TV Sets

Cindy Chao and Michele Yu talk about their production design work on “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and working on a set led by mostly BIPOC women

Production designers Cindy Chao and Michele Yu.

Courtesy of Max

Words by Nguyên Lê

For four seasons of the Emmy-winning series A Black Lady Sketch Show now, showrunner-star Robin Thede and her company have jaunted, joked, and jabbed around the sets designed by the same two people. And since we’re talking about consistency, it’s been more than 15 years now that L.A.-based Cindy Chao and Michele Yu have been a production design duo.

Like milk tea and boba, they have an unparalleled compatibility, which Yu says is built on folding variety into their work process and being able to depend on each other: “That’s all I needed to know this was going to be a partnership that could keep going.”

Their work on A Black Lady Sketch Show has made them nominees for one Primetime Emmy and two Excellence in Production Design awards, which, in the bigger picture, only add to the show’s glow of acclaim. All four seasons of Thede’s work, known for being a varied showcase of Black women in the comedic landscape, are currently on MAX (that means He won’t have Bought and Oppressed us anymore, Dr. Haddassah).

On behalf of JoySauce, I got to chat with the pair to further discover the many charms of a multicultural and women-first collaboration, hidden references that amplify the fun factor, and all that awaits in their newest project, Disney+’s American Born Chinese.

Nguyen Le: Do your designs take into account that the sketches can change tones or genres? I notice that they tend to turn to horror. Speaking of, this reminds me of both of your work in the Vicious Circles segment in “V/H/S Viral”…
Michele Yu: Oh, yeah. That’s a deep cut!

Cindy Chao: Yeah! That was many years ago.

NL: Anyway, back to the original point…
MY: So every season, Robin makes sure that a good chunk of the crew is invited to the table read just to watch, literally, like, this huge stack of scripts—usually cut into two parts. We’re able to watch them read through every sketch, so that we can understand the cadences, what they’re going to do with it, where they might take it and where they might improvise. We don’t always get the benefit of sitting down for a table read! It is so helpful because every sketch is so different, from how it reads on the page to how they’re going to perform it.

CC: The show really showed us what it’s like to work on a production led by mostly female department heads, getting to the heart of that and feeling the empowerment—it’s such a positive experience. It really, really inspired us to be to lead by example as Thede would do with her shows. All departments talk to each other. We’re in all the meetings together, even though it’s not specifically for our department. We all know who’s doing what. It’s super collaborative and very formative.

NL: Fun, too, I hope!
MY: All of those women are expert improvisers. And they have such good ideas. And they’re so smart, they’re so fast. I’ve never been a performer, so it’s always very mystical to me, but they’re just pulling things out of the air, and they hit and they land. It can’t help but inform what the rest of the set feels like. There are long days, like on any show, but there is an effort from above more so than on other shows, perhaps, to make sure people can have a reasonable life outside of work. Folks being able to go home, at a decent hour, and turn off and get away from work as they need to.

CC: That’s why so many of us come back each season, I think.

NL: Many recurring names.
CC: Oh, yeah. Especially this season that we had the same departments coming back because it’s just all family. And why not have a great time?

NL: Do you get the chance to stretch the sketches’ ideas and themes beyond the actors and their lines? I think I can see that happening in, say, season one’s “Gang Orientation” when you have the gang leader’s lectern being a treadmill…

CC: We pitched so many Easter eggs for the show. Even the title cards, you know, in season one, we were brainstorming ideas and pitching them to Robin in the writers’ room. It was great to even have the opportunity to do that. For this season, there were some props that didn’t get scripted that we would pitch and we would execute—like in “The Mange-her” there are these “stone-carved” foam fingers that say “#1 Jesus” or “Baby Jesus.” You could see them in the background. Robin also just loves coming to set and seeing some of them. She likes to be surprised sometimes. Same with the “Snitches Get Cross Stitches” sketch. A lot of those [quilted quotes] were scripted, but she also told us to put other stuff in there so they could run with their improvisation.

MY: I think we have more Easter eggs in [season four] than we’ve ever included, all to encourage folks to sort of find them and make their own connections and theories about what's going on…You should look in the background, pay attention to the set dressing and the props—even something on somebody’s fridge is probably a callback to a different sketch from two years ago…Our set decorator Lizzie Boyle is someone we’ve worked with a very long time now. Her department has such a massive job because we’re on location a lot. That means quick turnarounds, a different set, different location every single day—sometimes. We all have brainstorming sessions about how things should be, but she also has a lot of input into what makes it in.

NL: Right.
MY: And more of a thing we’ve tried to do since the beginning is to incorporate artwork by real Black women artists. As much as we can we and [set decorator Lizzie Boyle] reach out to artists who have interesting work, are up-and-coming, and she sources all of this beautiful artwork created by real artists who are getting to see their paintings, drawings, and sculptures up on the screen. The show is all about celebrating Black women and culture, and so if we have the opportunity to bring a little bit of the real world into it and give folks a bit more notice for their work—it’s like, why not?

NL: Could people see this as a great example of collaboration between Black and Asian communities, especially when there are very specific narratives about us—if not exactly positive—in professional settings?
MY: It’s kind of an interesting question! What Robin has done is hiring a crew that she kind of hand-picked, folks based on the talent she sees in them. It’s a conscious effort to give opportunities to Black women and women of color. But she’s also hiring people, based on who she knows will get the job done the way it needs to get done and will be a good collaborator. As much as our department heads are mostly women of color and Black women, we also have every kind of person in our crew. Behind the scenes, it’s the most diverse crew we’ve ever had.

CC: I think Robin wants to work with people she trusts that she can collaborate with, have a conversation with, because this is her baby. She wants to create an environment where we’re all like family. For every season, we all come back because it’s such a safe, trusting but fun and loving, positive experience. It’s the way Michele and I operate, too, when we’re hiring for our crew.

MY: The show, it is so much about recognizing that very specific programming can be a hit, you know? That speaking to a very specific audience that has not been spoken to, has not had the benefit of its own HBO comedy show, can be very successful. And that you can create a show staffed with crew all supportive of the cause and make it an Emmy-winning hit. All you really need is to have trust in the creative choices of the people you’re hiring, and [to know] there is an audience for these culturally specific stories. 

We think this is a unique show because it has all sorts of people behind the scenes coming together to tell a specific story and experiences [while] also realizing that we can all see ourselves in these stories. There’s so much to celebrate, to laugh about together. Cindy and I are so happy to have been invited to support and contribute to this world.

NL: For aspiring production designers, just a couple of lines as to why they should tune into American Born Chinese to see your work?
CC: There’s so much—it’s literally a show that merges something that’s real, that people can relate to. That was our opportunity to show what an immigrant household looks like with all the details. But then there’s also the fantastical element with Heaven, and the creative concepts we came up with to portray with a contemporary Chinese Heaven.

I think it’s different, and super exciting because a lot of it is stuff we grew up with. Our parents were watching Jade Channel, or those very old soap dramas that took place in period China. I could remember drooling over those sets. And just being able to show that to an American audience is something I’m really proud to share in American Born Chinese. We’ve only really gotten to see that in Hong Kong and international films. I hope that our work nailed it.

MY: It’s so nice that this year Cindy and I get to talk about these two shows that really show how the industry is opening up to new kinds of stories. So, to the folks out there reading this interview and thinking about becoming production designers—but maybe haven’t seen themselves reflected in a lot of media, watch shows like these and realize that there’s a lot of joy in creation, and more projects are being greenlit that reflect different kinds of people. And we’ve been lucky enough to work on two of them, right?

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Published on June 29, 2023

Words by Nguyên Lê

Nguyên Lê is a Vietnamese-English bilingual film critic, writer and translator. He also likes to think he's an amateur cook and photographer, assuming there will never be a time when the kitchen catches fire or the camera is gifted to the ocean. His portfolio site is here, his Twitter is @nle318 and his Facebook is @nguyen.le.334.