Robin Thede is about to get her own sliver of TV’s late-night audience. There’s a good chance what she says, however, will appeal to more than just a niche.
Thede is about to become TV’s only female African-American late-night host, launching “The Rundown” on Viacom’s BET this Thursday night. At a time when NFL players are protesting the way people of color are treated and the President of the United States’ view of women and minorities is often called into question, her take on popular culture and politics might be of interest to more than BET regulars.
“I’m going to be able to give a perspective that’s definitely not happening simply because I am a black woman, but I don’t want people to watch just because of that. If that’s the reason you tune in, that’s great, but the reason you’ll stay is because of what I’m saying,” she says in an interview at her office, which features a table festooned with fidget spinners. “The jokes will be pointed. The jokes will be sharp.”
And they may poke through viewership boundaries. “With any luck, given how sharable short satire videos have proved to be through social media, Thede will find herself in the newsfeeds and timelines of people unaccustomed to watching BET. – e.g.; white people,” says Danna Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication who has studied late-night shows for more than 15 years. “Wouldn’t that be some welcome news in 2017?”
Aficionados of wee-hours TV know Thede can land a punch. In her previous job at Comedy Central’s now-cancelled “Nightly Show,” hosted by Larry Wilmore, she led segments like “Black Lady Sign Language,” in which she explained the many hand gestures utilized by African-American women. She’s happy to have been head writer for, then a regular contributor to a program that was early to pronounce Bill Cosby guilty of sexual assault (“We’ll ask the question, ‘Did he do it?’” asked Wilmore at the top of an early broadcast. “The answer will be ‘yes.’”).
The simple fact is that, like Wilmore, Thede has more license than many of her late-night counterparts to speak bluntly about matters of race, gender and culture.
“Yeah, Robin doesn’t take any prisoners,” says Wilmore during an interview. When she was writing for the show Wilmore recalls, “it was one of those things: ‘Robin, you can’t just write this. You have to go out and perform it.” Thede, he adds, “may be surprised at how broad her response may be.”
Thede says she intends to offer a few fresh twists on the usual late-night hijinks. She’d like to host occasional pop-up concert segments featuring up-and-coming musicians in laundromats and bodegas – “ambush style,” she says. “They are grittier. Not these big, polished staged performances that take place in the studio.” She also intends to do documentary-style pieces that put her in interesting situations, but viewers won’t see her playing a fake-news reporter trying to get to the bottom of something. “I’m 100% myself,” she says. “People get my opinion uncut.”
She comes with some comedic firepower behind the scenes. Chris Rock is an executive producer of the show. “He just says to be authentic,” Thede says. Producers originally thought they might launch the show with a team of “correspondents” at the ready, but Rock advised against it. “He was like, ‘Not yet,’” Thede recalls. “You need to introduce yourself to America, reintroduce yourself to people who know you. Get them to know and care about you before you throw a bunch of people in the mix.”
Thede turned to comedy at an early age. Her father, she says, loved to listen to comedy records and would sit with her to watch the durable “Caroline’s Comedy Hour” on cable. Indeed, she’s named for Robin Williams. Her dad’s interests struck a chord: “I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I would sit and watch the news and mock the newscaster,” she recalls. In college, she joined an improv comedy group.
But her mother’s influence is also strong. Thede says her mom “is an angel of a woman who has always been in social-service work, and always fought for people.”
Thede isn’t late-night’s first African American female host. Wanda Sykes hosted a weekly program on Fox. Mo’Nique hosted a late-night offering on BET between 2009 and 2011. And Whoopi Goldberg did a syndicated program in the mid-1990s.
But she may be the first already steeled to face the social-media backlash and intense digital scrutiny that have become so much a part of the era. She was a big part of the team that helped Wilmore craft what ended up becoming one of the more controversial stints at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. The targets included Don Lemon, Ted Cruz and President Obama’s white hair (“Your hair is so white, it tried to punch me at a Trump rally,” said Wilmore). On top of that, Wilmore used a racial epithet and sparked controversy. The moment, says Thede, was meant for two African-American men, not necessarily for the general public.
“We knew that would chafe people, but we didn’t come there to make friends. We came there to roast the press,” says Thede. “Larry and I created that thing together one joke at a time. It was a lot of fun. I feel great about it. If you read the transcript, those jokes are A-plus jokes.”
BET wants more humor in late night, said Connie Orlando, BET’s executive vice president and head of programming. Recent research shows that “our audience loves to laugh and that our audience is often up late,” she said.
Thede intends to deliver. “You just don’t have an opinion like mine in this landscape,” she says. “And I think it’s really important.”