In The Writer's Room, One Woman Quietly Makes Late Night History : Code Switch Robin Thede's wide-ranging career has included stints in both journalism and comedy. Now, at The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, she's the first black woman to work as a head writer in late night TV.
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In The Writer's Room, One Woman Quietly Makes Late Night History

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

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

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/421883378/422275416" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.

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