It’s not a unicorn—though it looks like one. It’s a Black woman riding a unicorn, filming a promo commercial for her upcoming late night talk show. Why a unicorn? Because she has a lot in common with this mythical creature. This fall, Robin Thede attempts a feat very few Black women have done—hosting a late-night talk show.
The Rundown Featuring Robin Thede premieres this fall on BET.
While Thede has big shoes to fill, she is not the least bit concerned. After hopping off her “unicorn” (actually a horse wearing a glittery horn), she walks off set to chat. Petite and cheerful with a winning smile, Thede rocks a satin two-piece pant suit. While she’s not showing an ounce of skin there’s still a conservatively sexy vibe. When she sits down in her trailer to chat with a reporter, she makes direct eye contact, has a sturdy handshake, a strong smile and gives out two genuine compliments.
She is clearly all set for her late-night close-up. "This show is a culmination of everything I’ve done as a comedian, an actress and a writer," she says. "I know what I want to see on late night. So I am going to be true to myself."
Now, if you watch sketch comedy—you probably know Thede. Otherwise there’s a good chance you might not be familiar.
“People know me but sometimes they don’t know from where,” says Thede. “Some know me from Funny or Die. But a lot of times people just say: Did we go to high school or are on your TV?”
As if on cue, someone watching the filming proves her point. A greying man holding a briefcase stops and watches her talk to the producers while getting her makeup touched up. He points to her and then whispers to a nearby reporter.
“What’s her name?”
When told, he nods. “She’s got a show coming out right? Yeah. On BET.”
Calmly, he walks away. The fact that he doesn’t seem like the type who would know about her show a month before it airs doesn't surprise Thede.
“I’m serious when I tell you that people of all demographics come up to me and know who I am—even if they don’t my name,” she says. “He was white and 50-something, so he probably saw me on The Nightly Show. If it had been a Black girl under 21 who’s into social media, she probably saw a sketch on YouTube. I don’t take this for granted. It means something to me.”
Rundown executive producer Chris Rock told Thede that the best time to have someone host a show is when they’ve done the work but they are not yet a household name. “There is something to be said about getting to know someone through their show,” says Thede. “And this show is 100% me.”
Thede believes that there is void in late night television that she can fill. And when she talks about the things that she would have covered in this space, it makes sense. “Remember the Shea Moisture ad controversy?” Thede asks. “Current late night can’t cover it the way we can. What about the Bill O’Reilly sexual harassment controversy? I find it very interesting that many of the women who accused him of sexual harassment were African American. That’s something we needed to dissect on late night! There’s a lot of room to get into what matters. This is Black Twitter on late-night!”
But when it comes to Black Twitter, that could be dangerous territory. She (and the show) can be loved by the entity—or not. Indeed, “Black Twitter” isn’t even a thing that can be properly defined or explained. What we do know is that, collectively, a single hashtag can take a person down.
“I get that too,” says Thede. “I’m a card carrying member of Black Twitter and I get it. I know comedy is subjective. My voice is my voice. I will have a podcast the day after the show to interact with people who watch the show. Some will love it. Some won’t. I’m prepared for that.”
She’s also prepared to dive into late-night comedy at a time where it’s tough to find a damn thing funny in today’s political climate.
“That's my job,” says Thede. “On this show, I have to think: what can we do to make the audience feel better? All day—until 11 pm, you’ve had to see insanity on your Twitter feed. This half hour is self-care. We’re speaking to you. And we know how to take the pain we may be in and carefully find a way to process it. It can be done.”
If anyone can do it, it’s Thede. She’s been writing since she was a teenager growing up in Davenport, Iowa. At 13, she and her sister were using their parents’ 16mm camera to write and film sketches before she even knew it was called a sketch. At Northwestern, she ran a sketch group and was ultimately pulled into the legendary Second City comedy theater to fine tune her craft.
“That’s when I knew what I was supposed to do,” says Thede. “And that I could do it.” She quickly began landing gigs. And then she decided to audition for the sketch-comedy mother lode: Saturday Night Live. Thede shrugs at the memory. “I didn’t get it.”
Immediately, she decided to dream a new dream.
“Why did I need to wait for someone to put me on their show? It was time to get on a path to having my own show.”
A few years of writing and creating and performing led to a stint on The Nightly Show. (Where she made history as the first Black woman to be the head writer on a late night show.)
As soon as the show was cancelled last year, things began to fall into place for her to have her own show.
Now, let’s get back to Thede being a unicorn. There have only been three women in television history to do late night television: Mo’Nique, Whoopi Goldberg and Wanda Sykes. (Aisha Tyler hosted Talk Soup but it veered from the traditional late night format) All shows were relatively short-lived.
“This is an insanely tough field,” says Thede. “Especially for Black women. I know this. I also know this is a wonderful time to be here.”
Thede sits up, claps her hands and looks up in a quick mock-prayer.
“Do you understand that I saw Taraji, Mary J. Blige and Kerry Washington in an Apple commercial directed by Ava Duvernay! As a grown woman that was a pivotal moment for me. I had never seen three well-known Black women just laughing and having a good time in a commercial. It was magical!”
Thede is about to spark her audience in the same way when she brings a smart, sharp and witty Black woman’s approach to late-night television. When reminded of this she falls silent.
“Well,” she says. “I don’t want to get all teary…”
It’s too late. The tears well up. But somehow she pulls it together. Because like a unicorn, she’s magical.