“I don’t want to do it again!” The wail issues from the black-clad, stiletto-shod host of BET late-night show, The Rundown With Robin Thede. Thede’s complaint is directed at the Quan, an arm-swinging half-crouch made famous by rapper ILoveMemphis, and while she’s clearly comfortable on the dancefloor—she often emerges onto her stage grooving, and hides a body roll in every episode—the maneuver is proving elusive on this frigid Thursday afternoon.
Still, do it again she must. Thede taps that same all-in aplomb she’s deployed to tackle the quandary of hot Trump supporters, the deterioration of black cemeteries, and the story of Delilah Wells, a fictional actress whose transition from the black-and-white era into Technicolor shocked everyone—because, unbeknownst to them, she’d been black all along. And after a couple of tries, she nails it, or at least sells it, and we’re on to the next thing. Quan down!
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In a field that boasts white men as far as the eye can see, a black woman hosting late night might seem like a no-brainer—a necessity, even. But the fact is that, while she’s not the first—Wanda Sykes, Whoopi Goldberg, and Mo’Nique laid the foundation—Thede’s currently the only one. The Rundown‘s segments, which zero in on black history and those who make it, stitched together with her dance breaks and quizzical cracks, have proved critical catnip. After the show’s debut last October, the weekly, 30-minute show earned praise for the singularity of its voice and vision. Executive produced by Thede, previously the head writer on The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore and the first black female head writer for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner; Chris Rock; and Jax Media (Full Frontal With Samantha Bee), The Rundown is poised for success.
When I catch up with Thede in her Midtown office the next day, the show has just been named one of The Hollywood Reporter‘s 10 best TV shows of 2017. Begging a short reprieve before our interview to Instagram the news from her velvet couch, she’s clearly jazzed. “Game of Thrones wasn’t on that list!” she says, with the tiniest dash of amazement. “When they told me, I go, ‘Oh, that’s awesome, we made it on the top ten of late night.’ But they said, ‘No, not late night—just shows, period,’ which blew me away. We’re the only late night show on there.”
Thede’s IRL patter is the same drumroll-like staccato she uses to deliver Trump takedowns, reveal secret Russian plots, or compare the FBI to ’90s R&B Group Dru Hill on the show. (Her lagoon-green eyes are, unsurprisingly, even more arresting in close range.) Her prepossessing demeanor, put through its paces at Chicago’s Second City and during regular appearances on The Nightly Show, makes it hard to remember that this is actually her first lead gig on-screen. Leadership suits Thede, and the show is emphatically molded from her vision. Who else could present a photograph of a funeral tableau, assure us it’s “100 percent real by the way, dead-ass,” and describe the deceased subject thus: “She went on to glory with three drinks, cigarettes, sunglasses, and a coat, looking like Weekend at Bernie’s.” That’s categorically a joke Seth Meyers couldn’t tell.
The Hollywood Reporter nod is far from the only validation of that vision. After just nine episodes—the year’s final episode would air the following week—laurels from the likes of Vulture, Entertainment Tonight, and The AV Club are piling up at her door. “It’s a bit overwhelming,” she admits. “All I wanted was for Black Twitter to love it, you know? I just wanted Black Twitter to be like, ‘Yes, that’s our girl!'”
More broadly, The Rundown‘s smooth landing flies in the face of at least one late-night television tradition. It’s a home run for Thede’s team, which is majority women and people of color. “It’s very validating for an industry that often says, ‘Well, there’s just no qualified women, there’s just no qualified people of color,’ especially in late night.” Because black female hosts aren’t the genre norm, they’re seen as an unknown quantity, and unmarketable. “BET was the only network that said, you don’t have to compromise what you’re making—make the product you want to make, and we’ll back it.”
Diversity reigns behind the scenes, too, as was the case with The Nightly Show (“the most diverse staff in late night at the time”). In addition to Thede, there are three black women on the writing staff; out of the nine writers, eight are black. The Rundown‘s showrunner is a black man, and three of Thede’s co-executive producers are women. BET was supportive of what she calls her “mission” to hire “a lot of black people and a lot of women,” but it still wasn’t easy to get there. “We couldn’t rely on 95 percent of the submissions from agencies because it was all white men. Even in 2017, it was all white men. I’m always in comedy clubs, pounding the pavement, I’m watching sketch shows…. People who submitted packets—writers, producers—I was like, well, send me your friends too.”
All that shoe leather made a difference. When I ask writer Ziwe Fumudoh what it’s like, she identifies one evident benefit of a writers’ room filled with something other than comedy’s usual white, male jokers: “If I want to make a joke about Kirk Franklin, I never have to explain, ‘Well, Kirk Franklin is a mid-2000s gospel singer who has popularity in the rap community.'” That communal font of references, she says, is something she’d never realized she could have: “Not having to explain yourself is great, and I didn’t know it was great until I started working here.”
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Janelle James is a comedian as well as having done a stint on the Rundown staff, and also observed a difference in writing for the two. “As a stand-up, my audience is primarily white,” she explains, “so this [was] my first time writing for a black audience, which is super exciting.” The demographic allows her to explore different subjects in different ways, like “colorism within the black community“—which, combined with James’ love of old Hollywood, led to the Delilah Wells sketch.
“As a black woman, it truly is like a dream come true to work on a show that is hosted by a black woman,” says writer Lauren Ashley Smith, who came from Bravo talkies Fashion Queens and Watch What Happens Live. Because The Rundown is on a black network and has a black host, the team gets to hone its focus, whether they’re covering black candidates in mayoral races or net neutrality. “I don’t think there are a ton of other late night shows that are scrolling through their Twitter feed or CNN or MSNBC and saying, ‘How does this in particular affect black people?'”
Take the president. A week before Thede’s team shot the pilot, Donald Trump was elected, forcing a total rewrite. “It really changed the tone of what we were doing,” Thede says. But the political upturn did not occasion radical soul-searching for her, as it necessitated for, say, a white man in the same role. “Trump was never a question in the black community.” (See the bit Thede did after Doug Jones beat Roy Moore: “You’re Welcome, America! Sincerely, Black Women.”) Now, they’re just reclaiming their on-screen time: “Black women have been a voice and such a vanguard for change, along with everyone else who stepped up and have really woken up to what’s going on.”
Yet it’s not Thede’s ambition for The Rundown to simply be defined by the racial identity of its host, staff, or target audience. In pitch meetings with networks, she’d be asked why her show would be different from existing late-night properties. “My answer was never just that it was led by a black female. I have something to say, and I have something to say that’s going to be different from the three Jimmys.” (Yes, James Corden counts.) “No shade to what they’re doing,” Thede says matter-of-factly. “It’s not the exclusion of other people—it’s about leveling the playing field.”
No shade, perhaps, but there’s no denying that The Rundown is disrupting a tiresome pattern. Thede says that, as a black woman, it’s important to provide some representation—”though I can’t represent all black people”—and that the show’s distinctiveness is its strength: “Black women…” she begins, then pauses. “Actually, people of all races and genders stop me and they’re like, ‘Thank you! This show is so good, it’s so different, it’s so refreshing,’ and that’s important to me.”
Thede’s lunch arrives, and our time is up; I just want to check in with her about that Quan real quick. “Oh my God, I was mortified,” she says. “It was garbage, and my writers were laughing at me, and they made me do it!” But there’ll always be dancing on the show: body rolls, Quan, and all. “It’s just me kind of living my black girl joy, and just remembering at the end of the day, no matter how hard this job is, it’s an absolute pleasure to do it. I want people to know that.”
The Rundown With Robin Thede airs Thursdays at 11 P.M. on BET.