In 2015, Robin Thede made history when she joined The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, becoming the first Black woman to be named head writer of a late night show. From there, she went on to host her own talk show on BET, and then created A Black Lady Sketch show for HBO whose third season is nominated for five Emmys this year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Negin Farsad: I actually want to ask you about the origins of your name.
Robin Thede: Oh, got it. For some reason, I thought you were going to ask me about my last name. My first name is a better story. My dad was a huge fan of comedy and Robin Williams, and so he begged my mom to name me Robin whether I was a boy or a girl, and he got his wish.
Did that put any pressure on you, though, to be funny as a child?
Yes. The first few years of my life, I only learned how to speak in Mork and Mindy references. And I forged my own path.
Indeed you did. All the way to five Emmy nominations, so I think you're doing okay. So if you were to have a kid right now, which comedian would you name your kid after?
Oh, gosh, Moms Mabley. Mainly because it'd be really funny to call my kid Mom.
That would be a lifelong commitment to that bit. The other thing that I didn't know about you, your mom currently serves in the Iowa state legislature. Have you ever gotten roped into campaigning with her?
I have, actually. And it's so funny because her constituents in Iowa are just really, you know, salt of the earth sort of people. They really don't care about my sketch show on HBO. I was with her on the campaign trail and one of them said, "So I hear you're on TV, have you been on anything I watch?" And I said, "Well, what do you watch?" And he said, "Only Wheel of Fortune." I said "Then I guess you haven't seen me, sir. Please vote for my mom."
I want to ask you some just nerdy comedy questions. So A Black Lady Sketch Show is just a wonderful show. I love it so much. What's the writing process like? How do you guys come up with these super ridiculous characters?
So I come in and I pitch a bunch of sketches, and my writers look at me like I'm crazy. And then I say, "Okay, what do you guys have?" And then they pitch much better ideas.
If you had to name a quintessential A Black Lady Sketch Show sketch that people always talk to you about, what is that sketch?
I think it depends on who you talk to because there are characters that people really gravitate towards, like Gabrielle Dennis's character Elisa, who leads a gang called the Coral Reefs. There's also my Hertep character, called Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, pre-PhD. But I think the one sketch that people always quote to us is the Black lady courtroom sketch, where all these lawyers and a judge and defendants show up and realize the court is full of all Black women. And they say "Black lady courtroom," clap, clap. That's been yelled at to me at the gas station. They'll be like, "Hey! Black Lady Courtroom! Clap Clap!" And so people at the gas station who don't know me just think that I'm a fugitive or something.
One weird thing that's happening right now is that you and SNL are going head-to-head at the Emmys. Do you have some sort of guerrilla warfare version of campaigning ready to go? Is this a dual fight to the death situation? Like how does it feel to be in the category with just SNL?
The way we look at it, it truly is such an honor to be in that company. And it's not about beating anyone. It's about us winning, you know.
You've also written for so many award shows, right? You've had to write for celebrities who may or may not be funny. What makes for a good award show bit?
You know what? You have to be willing to react to the crowd in real time, because if a bit is going bad, you can't show it because the crowd will turn on you so fast. Celebrities are already on edge thinking you're going to make fun of them. So when I wrote for Kevin Hart or Anthony Anderson or all these amazing comedians, I would always say, let's talk about ourselves and the show, but not really try to rag on celebrities so much. And I found that they appreciated that more.
This is an excerpt from Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, NPR's weekly news quiz. Have a laugh and test your knowledge with today's funniest comedians. Follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or listen on NPR One, and you can find us on Instagram. Want to come out to our live shows at our new home at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago, IL or on the road? Just check out nprpresents.org.