The first time comedian and improv performer Lyric Lewis realized she was funny, she was a grade schooler making her uncle’s high school-aged friends bust a gut at her humor.
“I was like, you know, five or six, like super young,” she told me over the phone. “The annoying little niece, they used to call me motor mouth, talk a mile a minute. But his friends always got a kick out of me and I feel like I learned how to joke and kind of just be funny ’cause I wanted to hang with them. So really early I tried to pick up on this teenage boy kind of guy humor just so I could hang around and so they would actually want me around.”
The 33-year-old New Orleans native proved, even then, that she was a performer. Inspired by funny women like In Living Color‘s Kim Wayans and Mo’Nique, like those actresses, she liked bringing the drama and the jokes. It’s worked out immensely for Lewis, who stars as Stef Duncan on the NBC hit A.P. Bio, which returns on Thursday (March 7) for Season 2. But before she was playing the very “cool and unique” history teacher on the comedy, she was just trying to go from funny for family and friends to breaking through on the improve scene, joining LA’s Groundlings Theatre. And while she grew up emulating the work of Black women comedians, she was pretty much the only Black woman once she finally joined the improvisation and sketch comedy theatre, known for churning out talent like Saturday Night Live alums Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. Despite moving to Saint Paul, Minnesota for junior high school and studying on a very white Syracuse campus in New York, she said joining the theatre was still the biggest culture shock of all.
“My experience was that it was still very white and very much male dominated,” she said. “There were very few places for women, especially Black women. And so, you know, at first it was hard and I found myself being defiant.”
Lewis was worried about playing anything that would be cliche, and she was very vocal about not wanting to do so, writing her characters to stray away from anything that might be deemed a caricature.
“I think for a while I didn’t want to play anything that I thought was a stereotype on stage,” she said. “I refused to because I was like, you know these white people are not going to be laughing at me neck poppin’ and smacking my teeth.”
She had good reason to not want to. Before she entered the main company, there hadn’t been a Black person in it for 16 years. But it took for her improv coach, a fellow woman of color, to get her to look at things differently.
“I was like fighting her tooth and nail on doing anything to me that was too black,” she said. “But she was like, ‘You have a chance to write what you know. You’re from New Orleans, you are from a place so rich in culture.’ And she was like, ‘How sad is it that you won’t put that up for the fear of misrepresenting it? Anything you do, anyone you play whether it’s your cousin, your mom, whatever, if they are done with love, they’ll never be a caricature. You will never be exploiting anything.'”
After that wake-up call, she took her sketch writing abilities to the next level, encompassing a wide range of colorful Black characters. Doing so helped her to snag a role on The CW’s revival of MADtv, which lasted a season. When that opportunity fell through, it then led her to A.P. Bio.
If you haven’t checked out the show just yet, Lewis can understand. There are too many streaming apps, premium channels and more being pushed into your face that sometimes you can’t help but forget about primetime network TV. But the series is very funny and very different, and the actors on it are anything but your usual cast of characters.
“I will say it’s fun, it’s a smart dark comedy, which I think there aren’t a ton of those out on TV,” she said. “The teachers, they’re just fun in very real grounded ways and love their job but also love to date and do very real things.”
“I think it’s refreshing and nice to watch a show without having to count down for the cringe moment that you know is coming. It never comes with A.P. Bio,” she added. “I think that’s impressive and says a lot about our writers that you don’t have to wait for that. You just watch the show and you’re not being like, ‘She’s Black, she got this line. Oh, Mary’s Asian, so wait for her.’ I feel like a lot of shows still to do that where it’s formulaic: ‘Wait for her to catch an attitude in 3-2-1.’ So I think it’s just a refreshing kind of slice of life to just see women of color on screen just being women and talking about anything and everything.”
A.P. Bio airs on NBC on Thursday nights at 8:30/7:30c.