On the night of March 8, 2018, five men in suits made the same joke.
It was a significant data point on the timeline of our long national Trumpian nightmare and, as such, in the evolution of late-night comedy. After claiming she had an affair with Donald Trump, Stormy Daniels filed a lawsuit against the president, revealing that he neglected to sign the nondisclosure agreement blocking her from discussing their relationship.
“This is amazing mostly because this is the first time Trump has ever not put his name on something,” Corden cracked. Alluding to Trump’s steaks, vodka, water, university, and numerous other entities bearing his name, the other four hosts made versions of the same joke.
The same night on BET, Robin Thede discussed the Daniels news on her own late-night show, The Rundown With Robin Thede. At the time, Thede was one of two women in late night, two people of color, and the only woman of color. Would you believe her joke was different?
“As any innocent person does, Trump got a restraining order against Stormy to keep her quiet,” Thede said, referring to the second part of the story in which Trump threatened to sue Daniels for damages over revealing their relationship. “What damages could be worse than sleeping with Trump?”
It’s Thede who brings this up when we meet in a Beverly Hills hotel room to talk about her new project, the HBO sketch comedy series A Black Lady Sketch Show. Launching Friday, it is the first-ever sketch show to feature an all-black female cast. It also happens to be the one-year anniversary of the day BET canceled The Rundown after just one year on air.
She’s not slamming them. In fact, she couches the case study, which was first surfaced on Twitter by The New York Times’ Sopan Deb before being picked up by numerous entertainment outlets, with the kind of understanding about deadlines and processes in comedy writers rooms, something she’s very familiar with, having worked in more than 20 of them over the course of her career.
But, in addition to her historic hosting of The Rundown, she also was the first black woman to be head writer of a late-night talk show, on The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. So she’s also familiar with the importance of perspective and viewpoints, especially, as she says, “in a comedic genre that’s dominated by white men, most of them named Jimmy.”
“I don’t think I’m better than them” for making a different joke, Thede says. “It’s just that this is what happens when you really do have a diverse room.”
Given that March 8 joke-pocalypse, it’s almost redundant to ask: why is it important to diversify? Thede’s answer reads as embarrassingly obvious: “It just makes your comedy more relevant.”
Yet, Thede’s career isn’t just a résumé of “firsts” in terms of positions of power in comedy for black women, behind and in front of the camera. In many cases, it is still “only.” That’s increasingly ridiculous, but only slowly changing at a time when the change needs to be rapid.
“When you've got a president up here talking about go back to your country to four women of color, that's insane,” Thede says. “And you need to have writers who know how to write the joke that makes sense for that.”
“When you have people of color, women, LGBTQ people on staff, you know whether you’re crossing a line or pushing it just to the limits of comedy,” she continues. “And I think that’s important because a bad joke crosses a line. A good joke pushes you to your limits but makes you laugh anyway. And you can only do that if you have the cultural capital in your staff to represent that.”
A Black Lady Sketch Show is very funny. It is also, as its title suggests, unlike any other sketch series you’ve seen.
Thede is the creator, writer, and star. Issa Rae, of Insecure fame, is executive producer. Not only is it the first sketch show with an all-black female cast, it is also the first sketch show with an all-black female writer’s room and features the first black female director of a sketch show, Dime Davis. The core cast of six play over 100 roles in the season’s six episodes, with a murderer’s row of guest stars joining them, including Angela Bassett, Laverne Cox, Kelly Rowland, and Patti LaBelle.
When the trailer premiered earlier this month, it instantly went viral, according to Thede, getting more than 3 million views on Twitter in its first 48 hours. “People are planning watch parties and they haven’t even seen the show,” she says. “They saw that minute and 39 seconds of a trailer and are like, ‘Bitch, we gotta have a watch party.’”
After two decades in the business and a steady balance honed from having the rug prematurely pulled out from under her too many times—both The Nightly Show and The Rundown only lasted a year—Thede knows better than anyone to humble expectations, even when a tidal wave of press champions a “first” for diversity. But she can’t help but be thrilled by the response.
“We’re just showing the world that we can do everything that other sketch shows really haven't given us the opportunity to do,” she says.
There’s a lie that she refers to and that the industry, particularly the genre in which she excels, perpetuates: That she and women of color like her don’t exist.
Sometimes that lie is addressed publicly, like when Saturday Night Live received deserved flack in 2013 for not having a black woman on its cast—least of which to play first lady of the United States Michelle Obama—and held a mass audition of black female comedians to address it.
(Thede auditioned for SNL herself, but before 2013. “My Michelle Obama is not good, so I do not lament not getting SNL,” she laughs. “Lorne Michaels was very kind to me and gave me very good feedback, and I for the record have nothing bad to say about SNL.”)
But more often that lie is perpetuated quietly. Thede has seen it. When trying to staff writer rooms, she’s sent the same list of the “same dudes” from agencies to consider. And she knows that people staffing every other writers room around town is sent the same. So she stopped looking at those lists, instead turning to people she knows or who are recommended by her peers.
And by the way, she stresses, they didn’t appear out of thin air.
“It wasn’t like I discovered these women who had never written before,” she says. “They all have Emmys or are on award-winning shows, every single one of them. They're not untrained people. They’ve been here. So that is a big lie, in front of and behind the camera, that needs to be debunked. And I think that's what this show can do.”
The cancellation of The Rundown is part of an alarming, unignorable trend in the industry: Talk shows with female hosts aren’t just being canceled more frequently than those with male hosts. They are being canceled without being given the same chance to grow and find an audience that shows featuring male hosts are often given. There’s Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America, which lasted one year. Busy Tonight, hosted by Busy Philipps, was canceled after six months. The Break With Michelle Wolf was given just 10 episodes and two months.
“I think Michelle Wolf got a real bad break,” Thede says. “I mean 10 episodes. Who the fuck could be a runaway success with 10 episodes?”
She is quick to clarify that BET was a big supporter of her show and its reviews were spectacular. At some point the cancelation is just a business decision, she says. But the more women like the hosts listed above get unfair shakes, the more pressure there is for them to do well immediately out of the gate and the less leeway they are given to do so.
“I don’t know if you’re aware, women don’t get paid as much as men,” she says as an aside. “So honestly women in late night should be cheaper to keep! We get paid less!” She erupts with laughter. “You can quote me!”
There was a decision she made partway through production of A Black Lady Sketch Show that might seem inconsequential, but which could have a monumental impact. At first, the series was titled The Black Lady Sketch Show. Changing the article to “A” made the point that just because it is a first, it shouldn’t be the only. For the love of God, make more sketch shows from women of color, she says. Make them all!
That’s emblematic of her thinking in general at this phase of her career. The work she does at the top of a call sheet, host of a show, or leader of a writer’s room is no longer just about taking pride in what she’s doing at that moment and doing the best work. It’s about making something that will be so good and so inclusive that it will open the door for others.
“What is the point in creating A Black Lady Sketch Show if I can’t open that door, you know?” she says.
Last month when releasing the show’s trailer, she tweeted that she’s more excited for this show than she’s been for any project in her career. Not just because the show is as funny as it is, but because of its potential impact.
“The older I get and the longer I'm in this business, it becomes less about me and more about the legacy I leave,” she says. “I think it was lonely when it was only about me. It's more rewarding for me now that it's about us.”