Robin Thede became the first black woman to head the writers room of a late-night talk show back last October, so we’re a bit late to celebrating her groundbreaking accomplishment. But better late than never!
Named after Robin Williams by a comedy-loving father, Thede is a Second City alum and was previously head writer on “The Queen Latifah” show. She was announced as head writer of “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” several months before the Comedy Central series’ debut on Martin Luther King Day earlier this year. Like most serialized endeavors, “The Nightly Show” took awhile to find itself, but it’s recently hit its stride, in no small part thanks to Thede helping the series find its voice.
Here’s what else you need to know about Thede, based on two major interviews she’s given in the last few months:
–She doesn’t dwell on her trailblazer status. “Oh, God, I can’t think of myself that way,” she told Vulture some months ago. “I would never get my job done; I’d just be staring at myself in the mirror all day! You know what’s funny? I don’t know how many people know I’m here. And I try not to think about it. After this article, obviously, more people will know. And that’s a good thing in terms of inspiring women, I hope, and black women especially. But I never want to overshadow the work I’m doing.”
–But she’s definitely aware that, as a woman of color, she’s the exception in many writers rooms: “I am usually the only woman [in those rooms]. Queen Latifah was the first time I had ever professionally written with another woman of any color. So I’d been writing professionally for almost ten years and had never written with another woman — on all sorts of pilots, a sketch show on Fox, and [‘Real Husbands of Hollywood,’ where Thede was a staff writer]. “Has it been hard for me? I guess I feel like no. I never really thought any different of it. But being a head writer and being in a position to give people jobs or recommend people for jobs, I think about it a lot. ‘Cause I know that we’re out there. People are like, ‘Oh you’re one of the few black female writers in the business.’ And I’m like, ‘Well I’m one of the few who works consistently.’ But I know there are a ton out there and they just don’t get the jobs … ‘Cause you know, it’s the same white guys from Harvard hiring their friends.
–She’s made sure “The Nightly Show” writers room is a lot more diverse than what she’s used to from the industry: “Four out of ten are women; four out of ten are black. We have older writers; we have writers who didn’t go to Harvard. [Laughs] Oh, wait, I think we have a writer who went to Harvard! We have a disabled writer who’s visually impaired; we have writers over 50, which is not heard of in late-night. We have young writers — one’s 25. It’s a really great mix, so we get every opinion on a subject. [Laughs] For this show, it was important that we put together a team that was diverse from every aspect.”
–She doesn’t come from a typical Harvard background, either: “I also grew up dirt-poor in a trailer park next to a cornfield, and we had nothing. I mean, we were on welfare. I shared clothing with my sisters. We were on food stamps. I definitely was a bit of [a] social outcast. [Being biracial,] I didn’t really fit in with the white kids or the black kids for a while until I could figure out what was going on.”
–Part of her job is to be a chameleon: “Too many writers get stuck in the trap of writing what they think is funny, and not considering who they are writing it for. … Writing for Larry — totally different than Kevin Hart, totally different from Chris Rock, totally different from Queen Latifah, totally different from Anthony Anderson, totally different from Mike Epps.” (These are all comedians and performers Thede has previously written for.)
–But she’s sticking to the perspective of the underdog with “The Nightly Show”: “For us it’s race, it’s class, it’s gender, it’s disability, it’s anybody that’s an underdog,” she clarified. “Which to us, is anybody in the right situation. If you’re a white person in the wrong neighborhood, you’re an underdog.”
–She believes “The Nightly Show” is doing something no one else on late night is doing. “People want to understand,” she told NPR. “They want to know, ‘Well, why don’t I get this?’ Or ‘Why can’t I say the n-word?’ That’s a constant question,” she said, laughing. “But we’re going to continue to expose those nerves because it’s like we’re the only people that can talk about it.”
Here’s a recent “Nightly Show” excerpt on the Rachel Dolezal brouhaha in which Thede, Wilmore and contributors Mike Yard and Holly Walker team up for a silly but thoughtful segment: