In The Writer's Room, One Woman Quietly Makes Late Night History

Jul 12, 2015
Originally published on July 21, 2015 2:14 pm

How do you write jokes for a TV comedy about race and culture when there are riots over how police treat black suspects, and a gunman just shot down nine people in a black church?

If you're Robin Thede, head writer for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, you think carefully about where you focus the joke.

"The thing about tragedy, is that it causes people to react in a myriad of ways ... [and] some of them are very hilarious," Thede says, laughing. "You don't make fun of the actual tragedy. You make fun of the ridiculous ways people react to it."

Her example: The way some news outlets focused on the involvement of the gang Black Guerilla Family when rioting broke out in Baltimore last April.

"You've got people on the news saying 'Black Guerilla Family' 4,000 times because they get a kick out of saying 'gorilla' when connected to black people," she says.

That frustration turned into a bit on The Nightly Show — a montage of Fox News anchors saying "Black Guerilla Family," then Wilmore responding with a choice run of curse words.

Audience advisory: this video clip includes, well, a choice run of curse words.

"We see that and go, 'Finally, this is the stuff we can talk about,'" Thede says. "This is the stuff that pisses us off when we're watching at home, and now we have a voice."

That voice first emerged in January, when Wilmore's Nightly Show debuted in the timeslot originally held by Stephen Colbert's Colbert Report.

Wilmore made a bit of history then as the only black man hosting a major late night talk show.

And Thede also made history: She's the first black woman to serve as head writer for such a show. But she's quick to counter the notion that The Nightly Show is just a parody of Meet the Press centered on jokes about race.

"For us it's race, it's class, it's gender, it's disability, it's anybody that's an underdog," she says. "Which to us, is anybody in the right situation. If you're a white person in the wrong neighborhood, you're an underdog."

In the show's offices in Manhattan, Thede turns her blend of outrage and can-you-believe-it humor into actual jokes.

Writers and producers are plopped on couches in her office for a morning meeting about upcoming skits. The wall behind Thede's desk is dominated by a huge dry-erase board with bits for upcoming shows written out.

There's excitement in the room, because Morgan Freeman will be stopping by later to record an appearance on the show — one where Wilmore will play an Afro-wigged, platform shoe-wearing host of a '70s TV show called Soul Daddy.

But the big topic of the meeting is George Zimmerman, the man acquitted of shooting unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin, who had recently been shot at during an argument and struck with flying debris.

Thede describes a joke where a marching band tries to celebrate Zimmerman getting shot, only to have Wilmore break the news — it hadn't really happened.

Her energy is contagious. She laughs loudest at every joke and articulates Wilmore's perspective. It's her job to make sure the writers follow his style.

"Too many writers get stuck in the trap of writing what they think is funny, and not considering who they are writing it for," she says. "Writing for Larry — totally different than Kevin Hart, totally different from Chris Rock, totally different from Queen Latifah, totally different from Anthony Anderson, totally different from Mike Epps."

Thede should know; she's written for them all over the course of her wide-ranging career.

But she first began adapting to different viewpoints in childhood. Thede grew up in a trailer park in Davenport, Iowa, the daughter of a black woman from Chicago's West Side and a white man descended from German immigrants in Iowa.

Named after Robin Williams by a father who loved comedy, Thede likes to say her family was "in the trailer park, but not of the trailer park."

"It's such a weird microcosm to explain," Thede says. "We lived next to a methhead and a stripper and, like, an 800-pound shut-in. And those were my people."

She eventually studied broadcast journalism at Northwestern University and comedy at Second City. That blend of reporting skill and humor is the perfect background for lead writing at a topical comedy program like The Nightly Show, which sent Wilmore to Baltimore for the riots — a move Thede cites as a high point for the show.

"It's only so far back into this corner that you can push me, before I have to push back," one gang member told Wilmore during a sit-down in a restaurant, describing the pent-up frustration of area residents over police mistreatment.

On one level, it's odd to think of a comedy show "covering" an ongoing news event like street protests and rioting. But it also seems inevitable in a media world where comedy and journalism are growing closer than ever.

Meanwhile, in The Nightly Show studio, the Zimmerman joke from Thede's morning meeting drew big laughs during an episode taping. The show set off a confetti cannon, while the audience cheered wildly. Several writers from the meeting even pitched in to play members of the marching band.

Thede says concerns that jokes about race might turn off The Nightly Show's mostly white viewership haven't come true.

"People want to understand," she says. "They want to know, 'Well, why don't I get this?' Or 'Why can't I say the n-word?' That's a constant question," she says with a laugh. "But we're going to continue to expose those nerves because it's like we're the only people that can talk about it."

Maybe it helps a little that the writing is led by a woman who has bridged the gap between different cultures her entire life.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Robin Thede is making quiet history as the head writer of Comedy Central's "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore." Thede is the first black woman to serve as head writer for a major late-night TV program. But as she told NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, her race and gender aren't the only groundbreaking qualities she brings to the program.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: How do you write jokes for a TV comedy about race and culture when there's riots over how police treat black suspects and a gunman shooting people in a black church? For "Nightly Show" head writer Robin Thede, it's all about where you focus the joke.

ROBIN THEDE: You don't make fun of the actual tragedy. You make fun of the ridiculous ways that people react to it.

DEGGANS: One example, the way some news outlets focused on a certain gang's involvement with rioting in Baltimore back in April.

THEDE: You've got people on the news, you know, saying Black Guerilla Family 4,000 times because they get a kick out of saying guerilla when connected to black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW WITH LARRY WILMORE")

LARRY WILMORE: Which one of these gang names do you think Fox likes to say the most?

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Black Guerilla Family.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Black Guerilla Family.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The Black Guerilla Family.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The Black Guerilla Family.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: A group known as the Black Guerilla Family.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This guerilla gang, whatever you want to call it...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Black Guerilla Family.

WILMORE: [Expletive] Seriously.

(APPLAUSE)

WILMORE: That's rolling off your tongues a little too gleefully.

THEDE: And we see that and go finally, this is the stuff we can talk about. This is the stuff that pisses us off when we're watching at home, and now we have a voice.

DEGGANS: That voice first emerged in January when Wilmore's nightly show debuted in the timeslot originally held by Stephen Colbert's "Colbert Report." During a visit to the show's offices in Manhattan, I saw Thede turn a unique blend of outrage and can-you-believe-it humor into actual jokes.

THEDE: What are we feeling about this Tom Brady suspension, four games...

DEGGANS: Writers and producers are plopped on couches in her office for a morning meeting about upcoming skits. The big topic - George Zimmerman, the man acquitted of shooting unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin. More recently, Zimmerman had been shot at during an argument and struck with flying debris. Thede described a joke where a marching band tries to celebrate and Wilmore breaks the bad news that Zimmerman wasn't actually show.

THEDE: You know what I mean? Like, he's like yesterday we heard that George Zimmerman go shot in the face - da da da da da da da da. And then he's like, no, no, no, no, no.

DEGGANS: Thede's energy is contagious. She laughs loudest at every Joke and articulates Wilmore's perspective. It's her job to make sure the writers follow his style.

THEDE: Too many writers get stuck in the trap of writing what they think is funny and not considering who they're writing it for 'cause you're right. Writing for Larry - totally different than Kevin Hart, totally different from Chris Rock, totally different from Queen Latifah, totally different from Anthony Anderson, totally different from Mike Epps.

DEGGANS: All of whom she's written for in a wide-ranging career. Thede first began adapting a different viewpoint in childhood. She grew up in a trailer park in Davenport, Iowa, the daughter of a black woman from Chicago's west side and white man descended from German immigrants in Iowa.

THEDE: It's such a weird microcosm to explain. So I lived next to a cornfield in a trailer park and - 'cause we lived next to like a meth head and, like, a stripper and, like, an 800-pound shut-in, and, like, those were my people.

DEGGANS: She eventually studied broadcast journalism at Northwestern University and comedy at Second City. That blend of newsiness and humor is a perfect fit for a topical comedy program like "The Nightly Show," where the Zimmerman joke from Thede's morning meeting drew big laughs. Several writers appeared as members of the marching band.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW WITH LARRY WILMORE")

WILMORE: And then, apparently.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILMORE: What's going on? Guys, no, no, no, no, guys. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it guys. Stop it. Stop it. What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We heard George Zimmerman got shot in the face.

WILMORE: No.

DEGGANS: Thede says concerns that jokes about race might turn off Comedy Central's white viewers haven't come true.

THEDE: People want to understand, and they want to know, well, why don't I get this or why can't I say the N-word? (Laughter) That's a constant question. Well, we're going to continue to expose those nerves because it's like we're the only people that can talk about it.

DEGGANS: Maybe it helps a little that the writing is led by a woman whose bridged the gap between different cultures her entire life. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.