Inside ‘The Nightly Show’ with Head Writer Robin Thede

Since premiering on Comedy Central back in January, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore has consistently tackled topics few late night talk shows would dare touch. Some of the 56 episodes that have aired so far include “Allegations Against Bill Cosby,” “Islamophobia in America,” “Slut-Shaming,” and “Baltimore Unrest & The Origins of Racism,” and while not every episode has delivered the perfectly timed social commentary of his recent Baltimore coverage, Larry Wilmore – who previously served as The Daily Show’s Senior Black Correspondent – is quickly becoming the late night voice of underdogs everywhere. This is partly thanks to head writer Robin Thede, a Second City/iO alum who joined Wilmore and showrunner Rory Albanese in October after a year as head writer on The Queen Latifah Show. I recently spoke with Thede about how she got hired on The Nightly Show, what she looks for in a writing submission, and what can we expect from Larry Wilmore and crew in the coming months.

On top of being a writer, you’re also an actor and improviser. In terms of what got you initially into comedy, did one come first?

No. You know, I’ve always been a writer/performer. Even back in the eighth grade I was shooting sketches with my sister on our parents’ broken 16mm camera. It had a broken viewfinder, we couldn’t even see them until we’d put two VCRs together to edit the sketches we were shooting. But we we writing back then, and this was years before YouTube, so yeah, I was always kind of doing that. And then when I went to college I was in an improv and sketch group and was writing and performing, and then through Second City, and from there on. Nothing really came first – I was always kind of doing both.

How’d your new job at The Nightly Show come about, and what was it like when you first went in to interview for it?

Well, I saw the press release that came out that said the show was happening. They knew I was already leaving Queen Latifah after the first season – which was a happy parting, I just wanted to do other things – so I heard about the show being announced and I immediately called my agents and had them reach out to Comedy Central. I flew up to New York in June to let them know I was interested in the show; I was like “I really wanna be head writer on the show, I think it’s phenomenal, I love Larry,” and they were like “Slow down, we don’t even have a showrunner.” [laughs] So I waited most of the summer. I mean, I was doing other things, but I was thinking about the show all the time and I was ready to move to New York because I was living in LA, and in August I got a call that I was being considered to come in for an interview. Then I think at the beginning of September I got the call saying “Okay, Rory Albanese is the showrunner, and he and Larry want to meet with you at the end of September.”

So during those three and a half weeks or so that I had, I just watched everything – I’m already a fan of most of these shows anyway, but I was studying and looking at them differently, and I started creating formulas and things I thought were good, things I thought were bad, things I thought could be implemented with this show. I was obsessed with Ferguson and everything that was going on at that time of year anyway, so I just felt like this was the perfect time for this kind of show. So then, when I came in for my interview, I had a whole binder full of tons of stuff – ideas for the show, who I’d hire, how I’d run the room, how we could fill the show for the year and beyond. I was overprepared probably, but it worked.

Which shows were you watching the most when you were looking at formulas?

Well I was already a lifelong fan of The Daily Show, that was already happening. And I’d watched Colbert pretty regularly, so it’s not like I had just started watching them, you know what I mean? And I’d written for TV and on awards shows and late night sketch on Fox, so that’s a world I was familiar with anyway. But I just started looking at The Daily Show and Fallon and even news shows like Meet the Press and stuff like that – I started looking at them differently with a critical eye for what I thought worked or what could be removed or kind of tweaked for our format. And you have to remember, we ended up adding the whole panel element later on, but at that point we had no idea – we had a whole different name and different show. I don’t know if anything from what I pitched is still relevant. [laughs]

Well it’s still relevant, because it got you the job!

It sure did!

How’d the writing staff come together?

I created the submission packet requirements with Rory Albanese and Larry, and I personally read over 400 submissions – which is unheard of, most shows get maybe 200 on the high end – but we had over 400 and I read all of them. It took me reading every day and my eyes going blurry, but it was important to me not only that we read all the submissions, but that we read submissions from different sources. It wasn’t just everybody from UTA or CAA or William Morris; we read a ton of people who had no agent who were just comedians or performers or writers who had taken the shot, and for us, the funniest packets won. We had a couple dozen who we liked and then we narrowed it down to ten, and we still could’ve hired another 30 writers who were amazing out of that submission, but at the end of the day it comes down to personality. And by personality, I mean writing personality – people who can sling jokes and are just joke machines, people who are really good at longer pieces, people who are good at sketch, people who are good at things in the interactive world, that kind of stuff.

So we just put together the best combination that we thought worked for what we had, and the amazing thing was we knew that this show was going to appeal to the underdog, whether that be class, race, gender, disability, whatever. We really liked that sensibility and were able to hire a staff that’s really diverse as well, which is really nice. You know, other people, other shows, they make it seem like it’s hard to hire a diverse staff. They’re like, “I don’t know, they’re just not out there!” And it’s so not true – we had so many submissions from women, from minorities, from disabled writers. People are funny of all kinds, and lucky for us, we were able to pick out a really diverse room. We have absolutely the most diverse room in late night, and it’s great.

When you have to read through hundreds of submissions like that, what kinds of things catch your attention?

For us, it wasn’t like everybody had to know Larry Wilmore’s voice when they were coming in because he hadn’t hosted The Daily Show, so it’s not like they could watch a ton of episodes of him – and he was the Senior Black Correspondent, but Larry is not the Senior Black Correspondent on this show, you know? It’s a whole different thing. So for us, we were looking for individually funny voices. We like to stay away from snark – there’s a lot of that on other shows, and for us it’s more about honest, direct, funny commentary. So it’s helpful when you find people who can capture that. And beyond that, it’s just about who made us laugh. And for me – this isn’t for the show, this is just for me personally – I feel like if you can write something and not a put a single curse word in your script and we’re on the floor laughing, I think that you’re a really smart writer. To me that’s an elevated writer; anybody can put a curse word in and make something funny. Now we curse on our show, so for our show that’s not really our philosophy, but that’s just something that attracts me personally. But it’s all about finding that mix of voices like “Oh this person’s funny, but in a totally different way than this person.”

The Nightly Show doesn’t always have strictly the same format every night. Is your hope to continue playing with that depending on the topic?

I think we do the show that makes the most sense for every night. I mean, in the general sense, we have a first act of comedy, we have a second act of panel or comedy or something else, and then in the third act we have the panel. That’s the format of the show. I know everybody loves to say that we change it a lot, but basically it’s pretty much the same. But we definitely play with format more than other shows, and I think we like it that way. It gives us more flexibility – I mean, on a very special show, if we got the President, I’m sure we wouldn’t just be having him on a panel in Act 3, you know? So we can adapt to that, and it’s nice to have that fluidity, so I guess the viewers kind of expect the unexpected with us? Which is kind of exciting. For us it’s nice that we don’t have to say “Oh well we can’t do that on this show” or “We can’t fit that in” or “We don’t do that.” But here’s what you’re always gonna get: You’re gonna get ten minutes of comedy in the first act, Act 2 is the part where we’re always gonna play and maybe do a field piece, and if it warrants it we’ll do two acts of panel. I think we’ll keep playing with it, and who knows? A year from now we may be in a place where we’re like “Okay, here’s this exact formula that works every day.” But I hope not. I love it this way.

Maybe it’s not so much that the format changes, but the way The Nightly Show weaves themes throughout each episode. Most late night shows aim for these bite-sized, YouTube-friendly clips, but I think The Nightly Show is best viewed in its entirety rather than chopped into separate clips. And that challenges you to look at late night – or at least, next-day clips of late night shows – in a different way.

That’s awesome that you say that. Initially we were like “Okay, we need to have two-minute desk segments so they can go and get posted on the web,” but honestly, Larry just has more to say than that, and at the end of the day, things are always connected. It’s not like we can do two minutes on Baltimore and move on – we did a week of shows on that, and it wasn’t enough. The greatest thing that people say to us, which is so cool, is like “Ah, I wish it was an hour! You guys just get started with the conversation!” And that’s a beautiful thing – it would kill us to do an hour, but I’m glad that they want that. For me, I always want people wanting more. I always want people to say “Oh God, I love this show, I can’t just watch a clip!” And we definitely do shorter pieces too, especially with some of the field pieces that we do.

The Nightly Show aired its 50th episode recently. From the time you started until now, what have you learned from working on the show?

I think we’ve learned that we don’t have to box ourselves in. We started doing only single-topic shows and we’ve really branched out from that. People aren’t as rigid as, like you said, the convention of late night has made it seem where people are not seeing the same thing every day. The work is the most important thing, and for everybody here, we want to make sure that Larry Wilmore has exactly what he needs to go out and be great every night – which for him is not hard because he’s amazing – but he’s gotta have the resources he needs to go out there and make groundbreaking television every night. That week of Baltimore shows did turn a page for us. That was a watershed moment with the gang members, and it was really only the tip of the iceberg of what our host can do and what the show can do. For sure.

Watch The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central weeknights at 11:30pm.

Inside ‘The Nightly Show’ with Head Writer Robin Thede