Robin Thede to Host Chris Rock-Produced BET Late-Night Talk Show (Exclusive)

Rock and the former 'Nightly Show' head writer talk with THR about the state of late-night and what to expect from her forthcoming weekly satirical show 'The Rundown,' set to bow in the fall.
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Robin Thede, Chris Rock

BET is getting back into the late-night space.

The Viacom-owned cable network has ordered weekly late-night show The Rundown With Robin Thede, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

Picked up with a 24-episode order and set to launch in the fall, the 30-minute news satire series will be hosted by former Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore head writer and contributor Thede. She will executive produce alongside Chris Rock and Jax Media's (Full Frontal With Samantha Bee) Tony Hernandez, Lilly Burns, John Skidmore and Genevieve Aniello.

Each episode will see the comedian take on the week's headlines in politics and pop culture with a fast-paced, no-holds-barred show that will feature social commentary, sketch comedy and pop culture parodies.

For her part, Thede is the first and only African-American woman in history to serve as head writer on a late-night comedy show (for Comedy Central's Nightly Show). In season two of the series, she transitioned to serve as both a writer and performer before being promoted to a series-regular castmember. Her bits included White House Creative Media Relations Branding Strategy Consultant Bluejasmine Steeplechase as well as Black Lady Sign Language and popular segment "Who Dis?!" Thede also was head writer for Wilmore at last year's White House Correspondents Association Dinner and served in the same role on the syndicated Queen Latifah Show. The Rundown expands her relationship with BET after she wrote on the first two seasons of The Real Husbands of Hollywood.

The Rundown serves as a reunion for Rock and Thede, whose first writing assignment was on the 2014 BET Awards that the former hosted. To hear Thede tell it, the two have remained close since and Rock has become a mentor figure to her. The show also serves as a reunion for Rock with Jax Media, who produced his feature Top Five.

For BET, The Rundown arrives as the cable network was identified as one of six core Viacom brands that the media conglomerate is focusing on during its rejuvenation under CEO Bob Bakish. (The others include Paramount Network, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Comedy Central.)

The Rundown marks BET's latest late-night entry and follows The Mo'Nique Show, which ran for two seasons in 2009 and 2010. For Rock, meanwhile, The Rundown becomes his third late-night series following FX's Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, which ran for two seasons on FX and FXX in 2013, and his Emmy-winning The Chris Rock Show, which ran for five seasons on HBO.

Why Robin and why now?

Rock: I worked with Robin on the BET Awards the year before I did the Oscars and thought she was a little too good to be in the writers room; I thought she could be in front of the camera, too. I thought that show went really well and a lot of it was thanks to her. I always say when you're dealing with talent on this type of show, the talent has to actually have the ability to run the show, too. It's not enough to just be funny and smart; you have to kind of be a producer anyway. This was a no-brainer in that sense: hiring someone who is good and funny in front of the camera and amazing behind the camera. Robin is really talented and she deserves a shot. I'm happy BET stepped up and think people are going to like her.

How did this show come together?

Thede: It's a good sophomore album! Nightly Show got canceled in August and I took a vacation and wanted to get back to work. I got a lot of other job offers, but I had it in my mind that I was going to create something for myself. I took a general meeting at Jax Media and they asked if I was going to do a show, what that would be. I rambled out what would become The Rundown. They bought it in the room. I brought Chris Rock up in the room on a lark, and they'd produced Top Five with Chris. A couple days later, they called me back and told me Chris was in — I didn't even know we were asking him! Chris got the quick rundown of the show — pun intended — and he signed on without seeing so much as a presentation or hearing the pitch from me.

Chris, it's a small community at the top of the comedy crop, and you've been known to have huge comics turn up on tour with you and vice versa. Will courting talent be part of your job at Robin's show?

Rock: It'll definitely be part of the job. All these shows rise or fall on the person. You can have the most amazing guest in the world — but what did you watch David Letterman for? David Letterman. Did you really care who is on Jimmy Fallon tonight or Ellen DeGeneres? No; it's really about them. Early on, my job is not to tell people what to do. You do what Lorne Michaels [Saturday Night Live] used to do: "You might not want to do 'blank.'" "Are you really sure you want to do 'so-and-so'?" You point out things that might be potholes and make sure that every decision they're making, they're making with a passion and not a quick judgment. To me, the secret to being a good comedy producer is hiring your boss. Pick somebody who in six months will not even think about listening to you. If six or eight months a year after you've hired that person, you're still the boss, you've hired the wrong person. Lorne Michaels picks Conan O'Brien, and I'm sure Conan is not listening to Lorne anymore. That's why Lorne is so great — he always hires his boss. Richard Pryor is my stand-up idol and Woody Allen is my movie idol, but Lorne is my comedy producer idol. Hire your boss. That's what everybody gets wrong. They want to hire someone you can control, and that's always a bad move. 

How involved was Chris in the creation of the show?

Thede: He was really involved with the pilot and was there pitching jokes when we filmed it. He's really good because he's a "teach you how to fish and not give you a fish"-type mentor, in that he'll tell you why a joke doesn't work and why and I'd go rewrite it and it'd get a laugh. He trusted my instincts and talent enough to hand-hold me. He's always challenging me to be better.

How involved will Chris be on a weekly basis? Will Chris have any regular segment on-screen?

Thede: It's just me! We don't have any plans. We're going to incorporate celebrities into sketches and field pieces with me. But we don't have any regular correspondents, and Chris is not on-air talent in the structure of this show. It's up to him if he decides to be in something or not. We'll see. When he is in town, I know he'll make every effort to be with us — if the pilot is any indication. It's certainly not an in-name only EP credit.

Rock: We spent our own money on this, me and Tony, by the way, and we spent our own money on the Kamau pilot, too. But technology is amazing: You can watch rehearsals anywhere. I'll be involved a lot and a little at the exact same time: I'm going to be involved a lot, but if you can tell, then something is wrong; then her voice isn't coming through. I could definitely pop in [for field segments]. I'm always down. We have to let her get established; it's always got to be right — but I still have a career! I have no problem being in something hot!

How much will race and racial politics be a part of the show? It's a satirical show, but there's just so much going on politically …

Thede: This is what's so great and awful — there's so much to talk about. We're on Black Entertainment Television, this is going to be a show that is absolutely geared to a black audience and told from a black, female perspective. Does that limit it to only race issues? Absolutely not. It's going to be things that matter to the community, but it's also a recap of politics and pop culture from the week. It's things that matter to my audience and to people who care what I think about things that happen during the week. If Bill O'Reilly calls a woman "hot chocolate," this is definitely going to be a show you want to tune in to hear what we have to say about it. When that stuff happens and other shows comment on it, it's always as an observer, not as a witness. As a black woman, I can tell you how that would make me feel and tell you the jokes that would make sense to me and the community that BET serves. Race will be a part of it because of who I am and where we are [as a country], but I didn't set out to make a show about race.

The late-night landscape is very competitive and hard to cut through. How will The Rundown differ and stand out?

Rock: You get the natural thing of there's no other black woman in late night! But that's not enough to carry a show — but it absolutely will help; it's not going to be a hindrance, I'll say that. You essentially have seven guys doing a version of the same show, so you have a handful of networks not addressing 55 percent of the audience. It's odd. That's not even counting color or ethnicity. I like all those guys, but find it really hard to believe. Here's the weird thing — and it's a network thing — all those guys are great, but are seven white guys funnier before you get to any woman or a Latino? I don't think so. By the time they offer something to someone who is a minority, they're too big for the job. That's the problem. They never really take a shot with new talent when it comes to a woman or a minority. I'll get an offer for a late-night show now, but the reality is I probably should have gotten it in 1995. That's when Conan got it. That's when white guys get it — on the ascension. But no one really makes that jump. So they'll offer Ellen The Tonight Show now when reality is they probably should have offered her The Tonight Show in 1992. Take a chance. George Lopez, they gave him a talk show 10 years after they should have given him a talk show. They waited until he was the most famous Mexican guy in the world and then he gets an offer. Michelle Wolf is as funny as can be and should have her own show. So I have to hand it to the good people at FX for taking a chance with Kamau. It's not the black thing, it's that they took a chance — and that's rare.

Chris, what did you learn from your experience with Bell's FX show that you'll be applying to Robin's show?

Rock: The show was doing fine when it was once a week. Robin has a lot more experience coming into this than Kamau did behind the scenes. Even Kamau, who is a talented guy, I don't think every night was his thing. What he's doing on CNN is perfect. John Oliver [on HBO] knew every night wasn't his thing. I couldn’t even go every night; that's a whole other beast. It takes tremendous talent. You have to care about it more than anything else in the world and you have to not care about it anything else in the word. The guys who can do it every night, they're special humans. Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon, that's some Gordon Gekko shit. That's a drive few of us have. And it's no crime to not have it. As I see Kamau now, I think: "I guess I picked the right guy!" This was just the wrong thing for that time. But I'm proud of it.

Robin, what did you learn from your experience on Comedy Central's Nightly Show and how will that impact what The Rundown will be?

Thede: The show starts to become what your audience wants it to be. People start to tune in for your opinion on the things that matter to them. Social media plays a big role in that. There's the phenomenon of "black Twitter," and other shows treat that as a thing they put in the case and observe. Whereas The Rundown, I think we can integrate that more into the lifeblood of the show because that's how we communicate because we haven't had a late-night show to satirize everything that's going on in politics and pop culture — that is our late-night show, and now we'll actually be able to see it on screen.

Is there something specific you're bringing with you from Nightly Show?

Thede: Going back to The Nightly Show, I learned that a daily format was not the best way for me to talk about everything. Some of the things you have to incorporate that are breaking every day may not be as important two days down the line. We can take more of a helicopter view of the week and pick out things that spoke to our audience and have fun with those and tailor it. We're opening the show with a topical sketch that spoofs something from the week. This week, it could be Ivanka Trump and Berlin or Serena Williams' pregnancy. The field pieces will be more evergreen and tackling topics at a longer clip. But they'll always have a politics-meets-pop-culture spin to them. I never want to do something that's totally politics or totally pop culture, because I don't think there's a line anymore. That's the impetus of my show: It's the intersection of politics and pop culture and how everything is interrelated, now more than ever. If I'm going to be the only person on the show, my talents are best used where I can pre-tape some sketches — because I come from a heavy sketch background — and I can go out in the field and interact with people I want to hear from or my audience wants to hear from — and I can satirize things that are going on in the week.

How is the show structured?

Thede: We'll have occasional musical performances. We'll start the show with an opening sketch that will spoof something from the week. Then we'll do the in-studio segment with the live audience where we go through the rundown. We're only going to hit topics with a couple of jokes because it's a literal rundown on the massive screen that says the topics that we're going to cover. We are not doing any 12-minute deep dives on why black lives matter. We can get into longer-form topics in the field pieces, which will be our third act. Those will either be longform sketches, field pieces or musical acts. Then the tag in the fourth act with a funny thing at the end. It's a really well-rounded show that takes advantage of all the things I do. Viewers can expect a layered show that if you don't like one thing, just wait 30 seconds because it's going to change and move really fast.

So there won't be a celebrity interview portion?

Thede: I don't like watching people sit down and talk to celebrities. There's nothing wrong with it, but when you only have 30 minutes a week, you have to give people stuff that's going to make them feel entertained and informed in the most compact way possible, and I'm not sure interviews are the best way to do that. But if Beyonce wants to sit down with me and talk, she can have the entire show! (Laughs.) We'll mix in a little of that in a pre-taped format, but I want it to be something we can highlight in the most comedic, entertaining and informative way possible. It's more fun incorporating celebrities into sketches and field pieces in unexpected ways.

Thede is repped by CAA

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