BET's New Late-Night Host Robin Thede Won't Talk Trump 24/7

"Black people have been through way worse than Trump," says the host, who previously served as head writer of Larry Wilmore's 'Nightly Show,' as she builds her new weekly "news party" produced by Chris Rock.
Courtesy of WME

Presidential tantrums have provided copious fodder (and ratings gold) for late-night hosts from CBS' Stephen Colbert to Comedy Central's Trevor Noah. But BET's weekly The Rundown With Robin Thede, premiering Oct. 12, won't rely so heavily on POTUS. "Black people have been through way worse than Trump," says Thede, the former head writer for Larry Wilmore's since-canceled Nightly Show. "So I don't need to be so alarmist as other people." Not that she plans to pull punches with Trump. Her Chris Rock-produced show — "we want it to feel like a news party" — targets a black audience but welcomes anyone who's "woke," she adds. "It's going to be funny as fuck."

How are you feeling just weeks ahead of your first show?

Good! We're getting stuff in the can for our pretaped segments. Most of the show is live to tape the same day and there's only so much preparation you can do for that. I guess I should feel more nervous, according to what people tell me, but I'm not; I'm just excited.

How much will your show focus on Trump?

Not as much as other weekly shows. This is a show we're doing for BET and black people didn't vote for Trump; we already know he sucks and we knew that before he was elected and we know it since. As it matters to our audience, we will discuss Trump. But that being said, this show is a mix of politics and pop culture stories. So we don't have to talk about Trump 24/7. There are certainly episodes that will go by where we may not mention him at all. Now, given the political spectrum, it's hard not to — especially when he makes black people the brunt of a lot of his ire. But we certainly don't rely on him to be able to produce a great show.

How will your perspective on Trump be different than others in late night?

The most obvious answer is that I'm a black woman, so there's that. But different from that, I'm not a "This is the end of the world" sort of person. A lot of the attitude about Trump is, "We're all going to die!" and it is very alarmist. I'm more rationally opposed to Trump. When he tweets things about destroying North Korea and that football players should just be grateful, we'll definitely cover that. That matters to our audience like it matters to everybody else. My attitude about it is black people have been through way worse than Trump so I don't need to be so alarmist as other people are. But I'm definitely not going to be kind to him, either. 

Everyone has offered their take on Trump instigating the backlash about NFL players taking a knee. What's your take?

This whole attitude that black millionaires should just be grateful is appalling. It's exactly what people said during the Civil Rights era, during Jim Crow, during slavery — that black people should just be grateful that they're free post-slavery or grateful that they can go to school before Brown v. Board of Education or grateful that they make money in 2017. We are categorically being treated by him as second-class citizens who don't deserve the same rights as the rest of white America. It just doesn't make any sense. For the president to be commenting on this stuff and getting in the nitty-gritty and cursing at them and calling them out by name and saying vulgar things while he has much more important things to worry about is telling about who is in office.

How has the current late-night landscape influenced what the show has ultimately become?

I've been black my whole life. There's no difference in how we speak out against racism, bigotry, homophobia and sexism. These are things I've always spoken out about. On The Nightly Show, we got to do it regularly, and I did it in front of and behind the camera. In creating my own show, we felt there was a void in the space where black people are spoken to in late-night comedy directly. There is no show that is created to speak directly to black people. Trevor Noah does a great job but that show is for Comedy Central's audience and we have BET's audience. That will be our primary focus. But at the same time, while that isn't the only thing that makes us stand out, it is what helps determine our content. We don't have to worry about stepping on anybody else's toes and vice versa because there's just some stories that Jimmy Kimmel, no matter how progressive he gets, he won't cover women trapped in R. Kelly's basement (Laughs.). We have our own unique corner of the market. Because there are so many offerings in the late-night genre now, there's something out there for everybody. We invite everybody to watch. Yes, this show is made with a focus on BET's primarily black audience, but obviously if you're woke or you want to learn more and hear it directly from the perspective of a black woman, then we'd love for people to tune in on Thursday nights. 

Who are you watching?

I watch everybody just because I'm a student of the game. John Oliver's deep dives into subjects are unmatched. Sam Bee's passion for politics is unmatched. Seth Meyers and Kimmel are breaking it down in a way where people who weren’t necessarily tuned in to The Daily Show crowd would get. The Daily Show is taking risks and including a lot of diverse voices out there that are missing. And Stephen Colbert is fantastic. I'm glad that they're using their platforms to help keep America sane. I'm going to help in that effort as well and also give America a little rhythm while we're at it! (Laughs.)

What lessons did you take from Larry Wilmore and The Queen Latifah Show?

The thing I learned the most as an exec producer/creator and host of a show is that your job isn't to make people happy; it's to create a working environment where they can do their best work. Behind the scenes, that's my biggest lesson and that came from Larry. On camera, I've learned lessons from Queen Latifah, Larry, Kevin Hart, Sam Bee, Chris Rock — they've all been mentors for me. But especially from Chris, the message for performance is to be truly authentic. Kimmel talking about his son, Seth using Amber Ruffin, the people who are excelling right now are doing so because they're passionate and they're personal. If you start from a place of personal connection, people will feel that and understand that, even if they don't agree with you. In the late-night space, we're getting away from this "fake news" sort of character and into more people pouring their heart into the comedy.

You're the only woman of color with a late-night show. How will that inform the show?

I don't want people to tune in just because I'm a black woman; I didn't get here just because I'm a black woman. I've been in the game a long time and this is something I've worked for and a craft I've honed and I hope people tune in more than because I'm a black woman and an anomaly. Even if they tune in for that, I hope they stay for the content. The show is a comedy first and foremost, but in that it's going to be truthful, authentic and a lot of fun. We want it to feel like a news party, not like a "fake news" show. You're getting information and context about what's going on in the week but at the same time it's fast-paced, fun and a little more dynamic than some of the other shows.

How will you use digital to help elevate the linear show?

Our show is a mix of in-studio monologues — "The Rundown," which runs down the week in politics and pop culture with fast-paced jokes on all the stories we've chosen to highlight that week. But it also is sketch, short documentary pieces — which is our take on the traditional field piece. And we're also doing pop-up concerts around New York, where we feature up-and-coming or established artists in surprise locations around the city. Every time we shoot something outside of the studio we film a component piece for our digital space. We post original videos on Facebook and Instagram. We're also doing a podcast. After "The Rundown" on Thursday nights, you'll get The Ran-down on Friday afternoons with a celebrity surprise guest. We don't have a celebrity guest proper on the show because it's only 20 minutes of content a week after commercials and we don't have time to talk about somebody's latest movie.

Who is your dream guest?

I'm not into showcasing people who are controversial or people tuning in to see a train wreck. So, Michelle Obama and Beyonce. They're universally likeable. Late night can give people a respite from the craziness and comedy is meant to make people laugh, and talking about Trump, we can still bring joy. That's my attitude about life and the show. It's going to be funny as fuck. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.