The host of The Rundown with Robin Thede may be the only African-American woman with her own late-night show, but that’s not why she hopes you’ll tune in. “I know I have something unique to offer,” says Thede.
This isn't quite what you'd expect to hear about someone who would eventually end up hosting her own national cable talk show.
And yet, it's how Robin Thede's rise to the top began - according to her mom.
"When she was about three, she and her older sister would play school, but Robin never talked. Ever," Phyllis Thede says of her daughter, now the host of BET's The Rundown with Robin Thede. "I was a little worried, so I took her to the doctor.
"He said, 'Can you talk?' She nodded her head 'yes.' She knew how to talk. She just didn't because she had a sister who did it all for her. Then, a few days later, she came up to me and said, 'Mom, can I have a drink of water?' And there's been no turning back since then."
Phyllis is not joking, but apparently her daughter has been, ever since. Thede's comic career has led her to work with the likes of Queen Latifah, Larry Wilmore and Kevin Hart and to her current gig hosting The Rundown. A weekly half hour of timely pop-culture sketches, political commentary and field pieces, the series features something no other late-night talk show has: an African- American woman as host.
That's not the reason she hopes people will watch. However, it is a reason she's confident that her viewers will find something no other current late-night series offers.
"I wanted to bring something to BET and the black community that hadn't been done before," Thede says. "There are a lot of white guys on TV, but there's an untapped market for what we're doing. Being the only black woman in late night allows me to cover things differently and address with authenticity issues that affect black women.
"I know I have something unique to offer, a point of view and perspective on news stories that others don't. I think people are tired of hearing the same voices in late night. Those shows do well, but women and people of color are people we want to hear from, too."
Audiences definitely seem to be listening to what Thede has to say. After The Rundown's debut last October, The Hollywood Reporter praised the show for instantly settling "into its voice, with a completely distinctive set of punchlines, references and comedic targets." Vanity Fair raved that Thede "has an energy all her own: a little dark, but also mischievous and, at times, winkingly conspiratorial, even when she's covering heavy material."
Meanwhile, Time listed a Rundown sketch parodying The Handmaid's Tale (called "The Hairmaid's Tale") as one of its top 10 late-night television moments of 2017. Deadline.com also named the show one of its top 10 new series of the year.
This success, according to Thede's BET bosses, is a direct result of the host herself. "Robin's commitment to honest yet funny commentary about things happening in our country and communities across the world is unmatched," says Connie Orlando, BET's head of programming. "As a network, it's our responsibility to ensure our audience understands they have a voice and perspective that deserves to be heard, and every week Robin stands up to anyone who dares challenge otherwise."
Getting her voice heard has long been a special skill of Thede's. Okay, so there was that slow start when it came to speaking, but it didn't take long for her to start developing opinions and sharing them. Growing up in Davenport, Iowa, she became a news addict from the moment she started watching television.
"When I came home, the five o'clock news was on," Thede recalls. "We'd eat dinner. I'd do homework. Then it was the 10 o'clock news, so we'd watch that. When we weren't watching Must See TV, we watched the news. Even as a little kid, I would mock newscasters, and my sister and I would do these fake newscasts. It was important to know what was going on in the world."
As a regular television viewer, she quickly realized one thing was missing from nearly everything she watched: people who looked like her.
"When you aren't seeing someone like you doing what you want to do, it seems like that thing is exclusive to others," says Thede, who was named after one of her father's favorite comedians, Robin Williams.
The first performer she remembers relating to was Whoopi Goldberg. While Thede says she "didn't understand who she was, I was captivated. I didn't know black women could do that. I could see that black women were able to do what white women could do in comedy. I knew then that I wanted to go to Hollywood but just didn't know how to do it."
Her first step toward California came when she turned 13. After answering a local TV station's want ad for outgoing students to work on air, she became one of the hosts of a local news show, Quad-Cities Kids to Kids. On this Saturday-morning series, young correspondents interviewed local newsmakers such as zookeepers and teachers.
Thede did that for four years, before heading off to study journalism at Northwestern University. While in Chicago, though, she discovered Second City comedy classes — and everything changed.
"We went to see her do shows in Chicago and knew she was going to do bigger and better things," says Phyllis, now an Iowa state legislator. "Going to Los Angeles after that was clearly just the next step, because Robin's never been afraid to put herself out there. She is fearless and will throw herself 100 percent into anything she does. And I can really see that with this new show she's created."
Upon arriving in Hollywood, Thede found small roles in sitcoms like All of Us and Buppies while also writing for several BET awards shows and the short-lived Fox sketch show In the Flow with Affion Crockett. She went on to script episodes of BET's parody series Real Husbands of Hollywood and become head writer on Queen Latifah's syndicated 2013 daytime talk show.
Then, in 2015, Comedy Central was looking for a new companion piece to run after The Daily Show. Larry Wilmore came on board to host The Nightly Show, and when he needed a head writer, he knew precisely whom to call.
Years earlier, he'd seen an L.A. comedy troupe perform, and one woman in particular stood out. That's when he began following Thede's career, so when her name came up in discussions for his show, it felt like a perfect fit.
"She had the right combination of sensibilities," Wilmore explains. "She had improv skills, she understood late night's style of comedy and she could perform. I always felt she could be one of those true multipurpose talents that are hard to find. Plus, she's not only smart and funny — she is an unabashed lover of pop culture. I don't know how she keeps up with it all, but she can slip in a Beyoncé joke as easily as a Trump joke."
Wilmore admires Thede's ability to be "a fierce defender of black-girl magic — she makes sure that black women are not going to be invisible."
She is just as impressed by his ability to communicate with an audience. "I learned everything from Larry," she says. "He taught me you can't punch down with your comedy. You can't go after the powerless. Too many people make that mistake. It's easy to make jokes about people who are struggling, but Larry taught me how to write a great joke with something smart to say."
Thede and Wilmore remained friends after comedy central suddenly pulled the plug on the nightly show in 2016, after more than 250 episodes. When Thede told him she was working on a new series for BET, Wilmore admits, "I was mad that I wasn't doing it with her! When she told me what the show would be, I thought it would be perfect for her. a combo of pop culture, politics and sketches is something she can do well."
The Rundown isn't BET's first attempt at a late-night talk show. From 2009 to 2011, the network had The Mo'Nique Show, one of a very small group of post-primetime comedy series to feature a black female host. (Wanda Sykes had a show on Fox for one season in 2009, and Whoopi Goldberg had a syndicated show from 1992 to '93.)
That scarcity of minority women is what inspired Thede to create something "that will stand out from the pack" of the white, male-dominated world of late-night TV.
She partnered with Chris Rock and Jax Media (Full Frontal with Samantha Bee), and they actually used their own money to create a pilot for The Rundown.
"I had gone to meet with Jax about a different project and started talking about other things," Thede recalls. "They said, 'If you were to do a late-night show, what would it be?' I said it'd be a mix of politics and pop culture, including sketches. I named all the things I liked in late night, and they said, 'Okay, we'll take it.' I didn't even realize I was pitching, but within two months we'd made the pilot and sold it."
At outlets other than BET, she kept hearing that "people loved it, but they had no place for it. I knew what that meant. They didn't want to take a chance on a show with a black woman who wasn't a household name. It was frustrating getting that feedback, and even those who had interest wanted to change it to be something that wasn't authentic for me."
Network executives may not have known what to make of a black woman hosting a comedy show, but many of Thede's late-night peers have become fans. She says Trevor Noah, Jordan Klepper, Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers are just a few of those who have offered support. "There really isn't a competition anymore," she says. "Everyone has found their own space."
Still, according to Wilmore, Thede is "competitive in a good way. That's why I feel good about where she's heading. She's not just doing a show. She really wants to make her mark on the world, and she's not kidding around. Nerves aren't something that I've ever sensed coming from her. It's just the opposite. There's a restlessness with her, where getting to do The Rundown couldn't come quickly enough."
While Thede's humor often springs from her experiences as an African-American woman, she is confident all viewers can find something to relate to within that realm — as long as they get past their preconceptions and tune in.
"If you're a regular white person going about your life, you may not have conversations of substance with people of color, or even with women," she says. "I think it's important for people who don't look like me to watch, because they'll get a much clearer view of the world than what they can see on the news. This show is a celebration of black community, thoughts and opinions and can be eye-opening for a lot of people who don't interact with black people on this level."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2018