When the team at Jax Media, the production company behind Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Broad City, and Inside Amy Schumer, asked Robin Thede what kind of show she would create if she could, Thede didn’t hesitate for a second.
“I was like, ‘a weekly mix of politics and pop culture told in my voice with sketch and docs about social justice issues,’ and they were like, ‘great, let’s make that a show,'” Thede recalled. “I always knew these are the things I would love to do in late-night, but I had never put it all together until I said that sentence. And I was like, ‘Damn, I just pitched them a show and they just bought it,’ which was insane.”
But one look at Thede’s resume and it won’t seem like such an insane bet on Jax’s part. Thede served as the head writer for The Queen Latifah Show and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, with additional writing credits for the BET Awards, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and the NAACP Image Awards. Along with her experience as a writer, Thede is also an alum of the comedy troupe Second City, making her current job as host of The Rundown on BET a perfect blend of all of her passions.
If Thede makes pitching a game-changing show and landing a position as its executive producer and host sound easy, remember appearances can be deceiving. During the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Thede talked about how she rose through the predominately white boys’ club of comedy, not being handed the microphone, and the importance of what she calls “reckless confidence.”
When Thede entered the field of TV writing, she was by no means deluded with thoughts of gender and racial diversity. Inclusion in front of and behind the camera is a well-worn struggle, one that has seen incremental progress that Thede has been active in engineering. Case in point: Along with House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, Thede was successful in advocating for new legislation in the New York State Assembly. Thanks to their efforts, the Television Writers’ and Directors’ Fees and Salaries Credit will give up to $5 million in tax credits for hiring female and minority writers and directors in New York.
“For the first 10 years of my career as a writer, I never worked in another room with a woman–it was all men,” Thede said. “I was referred to as the ‘girl writer’ in one room for two years. And when I was allowed to speak, it was when they had something the female characters were going to say. It is tortuous and awful.”
She added that comedy, in particular, is a sector of the industry dominated by white males, leaving her talent vastly underappreciated for years. “I just had to be 10 times better,” she said.
“It’s really hard not to get bitter,” Thede continued. “I’m not going to say I never got bitter, but I will say I never let bitterness overcome me and I never let it motivate my actions. If I ever felt motivated by bitterness, I didn’t move until I could get out of that space.”
Robin is in an advantageous position with The Rundown. She’s both a voice for the black community and also helps establish the voices of a new wave of writers. According to Thede’s estimation, she has the most diverse staff in late-night with 75% of her 40-person team being women and/or people of color.
“Usually what happens is that they’re working in underling positions and they haven’t been trusted to grow. And they haven’t been given that responsibility even though they’ve been in that position years longer than their white male counterparts,” Thede said. “I told everybody at my show, you’ve all been underestimated. And it made some of them cry. I interviewed every one of them, and I said I know that people have underestimated you and that stops now. I expect you to be everything you can be today and here, and it’s why our show is doing as well as it is, and I know it will continue to grow because I demand excellence.”
That demand for excellence in others, but most importantly for herself, has been integral in Thede’s success. After leaving The Queen Latifah Show, she didn’t work for four months because she knew she was going to be the head writer at The Nightly Show–not because anyone told her so, but because she told herself that. She said she refused multiple offers while waiting for the interview with Wilmore. And when the call finally came, she showed up with 30-page binder filled with pages on how she would run the room and what she would bring to the show.
“It was undeniable–they had to hire me. Larry was like, ‘I didn’t even know I was going to hire you, but you showed me that I had to.’ Everything was piled up for me not to go out on that limb,” Thede said. “Even on my worst day I’m never lacking for confidence.”
Admittedly, times were often tough for Thede as she was establishing herself in the entertainment industry, but she made the decision to never work a day job or even consider a fallback career. “I worked at the Gap in college and since then I’ve never did anything but my passion,” she said. “There was no plan B. There were times when I had $7 to my name and was like, maybe I should get a job? And then I was like, nah. I just have this reckless confidence in my ability. ”
“My confidence is backed up by hard work,” Thede continued. “I know how hard I work. I have a million things going on at any one time but it’s all in service of this goal of creating content that is smart and makes women and people of color feel heard, and that breaks barriers.”
On the first episode of Thede’s after-show podcast The Randown, The Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. was a guest and told Thede that “You get to make the jokes that I wish I could make.” By filtering topical events and pop culture through the lens of a black woman on a network catering to a black audience, Thede has the allowance to make jokes Trevor Noah, Wood Jr., Samantha Bee, or Sarah Silverman can’t make. It’s been a gaping void to fill and one that Thede is beyond qualified to do.
Granted, The Rundown just premiered earlier this month, but given the response so far–and Thede’s beast-mode drive–it’s poised to join the ranks of must-watch late-night programming.
“I created the microphone–it’s not like somebody just handed it to me,” Thede said. “I wanted this. It wasn’t foisted on me. It’s something I worked really hard for years to get. BET said from day one, just do you–so it feels like freedom more than responsibility.”
She added that the No. 1 goal is to produce an quality show–one that strives for everything to be elevated, informative, educational, and above all else, super funny. “I have a really high standard for what we’re doing,” she said. “So if that doesn’t find an audience, it won’t be for lack of quality and it won’t be for lack of trying.”
The Rundown with Robin Thede airs Thursdays at 11/10C on BET.