Comedy writer Robin Thede has spent the past few years putting jokes in the mouths of high-profile entertainers, including Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Samuel Jackson, and Queen Latifah. Now she’s the first black woman to head up a late-night comedy writer’s room, for what’s likely the most diverse staff in late night: The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. To get the gig, she didn’t wait by the phone, but flew herself to New York to get in front of Comedy Central execs. Vulture spoke with Thede on a non-show Friday to hear about her prodigious rise from poverty in an Iowa trailer park to top joke writer.
Congratulations on your new gig. How does it feel to be a trailblazer?
Oh, God, I can’t think of myself that way. I would never get my job done; I’d just be staring at myself in the mirror all day! You know what’s funny? I don’t know how many people know I’m here. And I try not to think about it. After this article, obviously, more people will know. And that’s a good thing in terms of inspiring women, I hope, and black women especially. But I never want to overshadow the work I’m doing.
You’ve had some great experience — head writer of The Queen Latifah Show, writing for Kevin Hart’s Real Husbands of Hollywood. How did you get this gig?
I let Comedy Central know I wanted to be a part of it. I’ve had a good relationship with [them] for years. I flew myself out to New York in June and told them, "I want to be a part of the show". And they were like, "Slow down, we don’t even have a showrunner." And then I found out later in the summer they were coming to L.A. to do interviews, and that my name had already been mentioned by Larry. And so, you know, I had a meeting in September and moved to New York four days later!
So you already knew Larry?
I knew him professionally. I was in an all-female sketch group for a number of years called Elite Delta Force 3, and one of the writer-performers in that group worked with Larry on Bernie Mac. So he had been coming to our show for years and had always been really supportive.
So no “chemistry” meeting and bonding over both being self-described “blerds” (black nerds)?
[Laughs.] No, I definitely had to have a meeting. I’m making it sound like I got the job very easily. I knew about the interview three weeks ahead of time, and I prepared for it every day for those three weeks. I came in with a binder with custom graphics. It was called The Minority Report back then, so I had Photoshopped Larry’s head onto Tom Cruise’s [body] from the [movie] poster. I prepared tons of comedy, topical news items, and how we would cover them if the show was on that day. I brought in a list of all the writers who I thought would be great for the show, performers I thought would be great, ways I would run the room. I wasn’t gonna leave any stone unturned. It was very important that I show them that I could not only do the job, but also help make their jobs easier by being a part of it.
How was the show structure, and segments like "Keeping It 100," established? Is it still a work in progress?
That all comes from Larry and our showrunner Rory Albanese. My job is to organize our writers and figure out how we’re going to shape the comedy. It’s very collaborative here, but it definitely comes from the top. And I think that we’re gonna try a number of things. We are a young show, and we’re definitely not stuck in a rigid system.
You’re as much a performer as a writer, having worked at Second City, doing Funny or Die videos, even working as an E! News correspondent. Are you more comfortable with one or the other?
I’m probably happier writing [laughs]. Performance is always something that will be a part of my career. This show is very — even behind the scenes, there’s a lot of performance. Everybody’s a bit of a — I don’t want to say ham, but everybody’s super energetic, from Rory and Larry to all of our writers.
You’d be perfect for SNL. Did you ever audition for them, especially when they were trying to fix their diversity problem? I did. I did not audition at the big black-lady audition. I auditioned before that, in the regular white-people way [laughs]. I was the only minority in the group I auditioned with.
Speaking of which, what’s your experience as a black woman comedy writer? Are you usually the only woman, and woman of color, in the room? Yes, I am usually the only woman. Queen Latifah was the first time I had ever professionally written with another woman of any color. So I’d been writing professionally for almost ten years and had never written with another woman — on all sorts of pilots, a sketch show on Fox, and Real Husbands. Has it been hard for me? I guess I feel like no. I never really thought any different of it. But being a head writer and being in a position to give people jobs or recommend people for jobs, I think about it a lot. 'Cause I know that we’re out there. People are like, "Oh you’re one of the few black female writers in the business." And I’m like, "Well I’m one of the few who works consistently." But I know there are a ton out there and they just don’t get the jobs … 'Cause you know, it’s the same white guys from Harvard hiring their friends.
So how many women on your staff?
Four out of ten are women; four out of ten are black. We have older writers; we have writers who didn’t go to Harvard [laughs]. Oh, wait, I think we have a writer who went to Harvard! We have a disabled writer who’s visually impaired; we have writers over 50, which is not heard of in late-night. We have young writers — one’s 25. It’s a really great mix, so we get every opinion on a subject. [Laughs.] For this show, it was important that we put together a team that was diverse from every aspect. And the cool thing was, it wasn’t like we had to search them out. We had 400-plus writer submissions. I read every single one.
You recently said: “Comedy is born out of pain. The gift is honed when you’ve suffered from some sort of trauma.” So growing up in Iowa was less than idyllic?
[Laughs.] Yes, of course it was! I also grew up dirt-poor in a trailer park next to a cornfield, and we had nothing. I mean, we were on welfare. I shared clothing with my sisters. We were on food stamps. I definitely was a bit of [a] social outcast. I didn’t really fit in with the white kids or the black kids for a while until I could figure out what was going on. I wasn’t beaten up at school every day, it wasn’t that. I always say that I was not beaten enough to have become a successful stand-up. So that’s why I always did sketch and improv. I had a little too much love in my family.
Your father’s a teacher and your mom’s a politician.
When I was growing up, they weren’t as accomplished — not to throw shade on them. My dad worked three jobs and was a teacher. My mother was a teacher’s aid, making like $3 an hour. My father went on to get his master’s and became active in all these minority engineering programs. And my mother started running for public office. All that happened after the kids were adults. But I’m insanely proud of them. Just because we were poor doesn’t mean they weren’t driven. Yeah, I did have pain because of the way I grew up. Within the four walls of the trailer we were in, there was nothing but love. And my parents always had these amazing ideas about education and goals and achievement.
What are your biggest challenges? Do you feel pressure being a groundbreaker, especially since you’re only 35?
People have asked me, do I feel pressure? And I’m like, "Not really — should I?" [Laughs.] I started writing and performing and doing sketches when I was 8. And at 13, I had my parents’ 16-millimeter camera and was out shooting sketches with my sister. This was way before YouTube, way before the internet. I got a degree in broadcast journalism at Northwestern, but was running a sketch-comedy group and then went to Second City. When the writers’ strike happened in 2007–2008, I went to work at E! because I had that background. So it’s like everything has prepared me to work at Nightly. I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. So do I feel pressure? Well, let me say this: I rarely think about [how] I’m a woman and I’m black and I have to do this better than anyone else. I guess I always know that, but it doesn’t necessarily affect what I do because I work hard, and that would be my personality regardless.