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Aisha Tyler Is Unapologetic About Speaking Up

Aisha Tyler. Photo: Getty Images

Aisha Tyler is used to standing out — as the first female host and host of color for Talk Soup, one of the few black love interests on Friends, and just as a six-foot-tall black woman in Hollywood. But she is also (until Robin Thede’s The Rundown returns) the only black woman helming a late-night show. Her show Unapologetic is half after-show for freshman AMC drama Dietland and half-feminist current events panel show. Dietland directly deals with sizeism in media, the role of protest and violence in public discourse, and how women are treated by the men who allegedly care for them. It could not be more timely. Guests – from superstars like Charlize Theron to activists like DeRay Mckesson and comedians like Nikki Glaser – discuss Dietland but also how the show connects to problems in the larger culture. It is one of many hosting gigs Tyler has had over the years. She came to national attention through Talk Soup and co-hosting the live daytime talk show The Talk for six years. She is still hosting the latest incarnation of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Unapologetic artfully balances the Dietland-ia with real-life issues like the separation of children from their families at the U.S. border and AMC’s ongoing investigation into the alleged abusive behavior of Chris Hardwick. On the show, Tyler addressed the investigation, saying, “I want people to know that you can know and like someone and still reserve judgment on behavior of theirs of which you have no firsthand knowledge.” Soon Tyler will be joined by Yvette Nicole Brown as the interim host of Talking Dead, which makes AMC the only network with a higher host ratio of black women to white men named James.

Your show is live, and it touches on subjects that tend to get people heated and occasionally profane. How do you cope with that?
So far, the conversations have been heated, and they’ve been intense. But we haven’t had any really combative conversations. A lot of the people who come on the show that frequent the news shows on CNN, Fox, or MSNBC have remarked on how much more enjoyable doing my show is because it’s not combative in that traditional way where you’re kind of screaming across someone. We give everybody a lot of time. We want it to be a conversation that advances dialogue, not a conversation that somebody wins. And so it really hasn’t been problematic. I did six years of live television at The Talk, so I’m really accustomed to what the mechanics are of doing a live show. You build in lots of room for dynamism and for unexpected things to happen. And then you let them unfold and then you manage what you can.

In a lot of your acting and stand-up you are frequently the only woman, the only person of color, or both in the room. And I wonder if that affects your ability to listen and navigate spaces differently.
Growing up, I was often in an environment where I was the only person of color. I went to schools where, until I was maybe a teenager, I was one of two black kids or the only black kid. It made me a really good observer. And I think it can kind of skew you toward … if you’re always feeling isolated, you stop feeling isolated, you know? It just becomes kind of a natural state for you, so it’s not as disruptive. Being the only black kid made me more of an iconoclast. I would say to all the parents who worry that their kids are socially awkward or unusual, your kids make awesome adults. I was an unusual kid, but it allowed me to feel more comfortable making unusual choices or departing from social norms as an artist, as a stand-up, as a writer. Especially as a comedian.

My comedy is very personal and it doesn’t really follow any of the common stylistic schools of comedy. I came up when Def Comedy Jam was really popular, and Queens of Comedy. That wasn’t my style of comedy, and I had a lot of people press me to move into that space because that’s what was working and that’s what people liked. Those performers do that beautifully, and I can’t do that. I’ll never be able to do that if I tried all my life. So I do think that all of that isolation and self-reliance as a kid made me much more individualistic as an adult. It freed me not to feel anxious or nervous or put-upon when I walked into a room as a stand-up and I would be the only woman or only black person. Because I had always been that — that had always been my state as a kid. And so it translated into bravery.

As a host, how do you extend that bravery for other people and make them feel comfortable in your space?
There are a lot of psychological cues that a sociologist would point out – you know, like smiling and making eye contact, telling people “I’m happy you’re here.” On The Talk, it was always our job to make sure that the guest won. There are a lot of talk shows that aren’t like that. A guest comes on and they’ve gotta fight to get to the table and fight to make themselves heard, to prove themselves. We always wanted people to come in and feel like we were going to create the best possible environment for them to do their best interview, to make them look good. That was our job. They came out of that place feeling good about the visit. We weren’t a news show, we weren’t there to press people. We were an entertainment talk show. We were there to make everybody look good, and that meant we looked good.

I always used to say that on my podcast, too: “This is the safest possible space it can be. I want you to speak freely. If you say something that later you regret, I promise it will come out of the show, no questions asked.” And as a result, people were much more divulgent, much more personal, and much more revelatory than they would have been in any other context. Out of 220 shows, only two people asked me to cut something out of the show, because they felt comfortable.

Now on Unapologetic, I really tell people to speak freely. We’re a cable show, we can bleep you. We want this to be a conversation. And people aren’t there to promote a project or prove themselves, they’re there to have a conversation. What they all say afterwards is “I have never had a conversation like that on TV before.” So I think a part of making people feel comfortable is telling them they’re safe. But then you also have to make them safe. We’re not there to capture anybody. It’s not a “gotcha” show. It’s not a lecture or a grilling. I’m part of the conversation to make it less like an interview. And if I’m vulnerable, and if I’m personal, if I go out on a limb, if I lead by example, then people are willing to do the same.

Do you ever feel like you lose something by not having that “gotcha” mentality?
No, I really don’t. Because when people smell that energy, they shut down. If I was a journalist and it was my job to press a politician, I’d probably approach the job differently. But in my podcast specifically, because it was long-form interviews, I always still got them. I still got ’em! But they were a willing participant in the getting. Out of all of those episodes, every single person after the interview said “I said stuff on the show I’ve never told anyone.” It was always stuff they’d never said in an interview, and almost universally it was stuff they’d never told anybody before. So I always still had my “gotcha” moment, but it came from a place of support and safety.

We recently had Charlize Theron on Unapologetic. She’s typically very polished, because the job requires it. So she’s very good at deciding what she’s going to share with people. On my show she was wildly open, talking about her childhood and growing up in South Africa. She cried during the interview — she was like “Dammit Aisha, I can’t believe I let you make me fucking cry!” But for me, that was the moment. I got to be with this person that people are so intrigued by who’s had such an accomplished career, and I’m getting a real moment of vulnerability. And that’s because I’m letting them know that it’s safe to be vulnerable here. So I get my bees with honey and not with vinegar.

That show was very interesting, too, because Marti Noxon pretty obliquely alluded to the Matt Weiner scandal.
Yes, she did.

The show is so often deeply political and deeply personal. How does that feel as somebody who is emotionally involved in both sides of that equation?
Well, I think the political is the personal, don’t you? I don’t think you can separate the two, and I think that your political beliefs are deeply tied to your personal ones. Especially now for women and people of color in this country; both are in peril. We have an administration and a political climate that is saying that women’s bodies don’t belong to them, that is saying that children don’t belong with their families. The political and the personal can’t be divided. I get a lot of heat online, as a lot of “celebrities” do, for being political in my speech. I’m driven by conscience. I feel that it would be immoral to not speak up, and I have an obligation to speak up.

Different people carry around different loads of guilt. I grew up in a working-class family. My father didn’t make it past the eighth grade. He was a construction worker, a meat cutter, and a deep-sea fisherman. My mom cleaned houses when I was young. And everything that I have, I worked for. There are very few other countries in the world where I could accomplish what I have, and especially as a woman of color. It’s not that we don’t have a long way to go for women or for people of color, but everything that I have, everything that I’ve worked to get, is a product of the climate and context that I did it in. And if I just get mine and get paid and don’t pay that forward and don’t act on my own moral inclinations to make it easier and safer for other women and other people of color to do the same, then I am mired in moral bankruptcy. My guilt is from a place of “I have so much and should be doing more to help others come up.”

You spoke on the show about the Chris Hardwick situation. Was that difficult, in the moment?
Very difficult, very difficult. Chris and I have been friends for a very long time. He’s never been anything but kind and generous to me. And I know him to be a principled and lovely person, and that is the only kind of interaction I’ve had with him. He’s a friend, and I said it on the show. I consider him a friend, and I’ve considered him a friend for a long time. I also respect and understand the network’s obligation to investigate the allegations against him and to create a safe environment and to project a culture that values and respects women.

I host a feminist talk show, so we have an obligation to talk about this stuff when it comes up and talk about it with clear eyes. I said that because I wanted people to know that we knew about it, that AMC was looking into it, and that we have an obligation to talk about it, because I also have a personal relationship to him. So people couldn’t say that I have mixed loyalties or a hidden agenda. I reserve judgement, as I said on the show, because you can know somebody and care about them and still not know what goes on behind closed doors. And so I think that story and that situation is still evolving. But I have always considered Chris a friend.

That is always so hard, when what you know of a person goes against what you know, statistically, situations like this are like.
Right. I want, very hard and, full stop, to separate what I’m about to say with what I’ve said about Chris: In a situation like the one with Bill Cosby, that was heartbreaking. We all felt like we knew that guy. And he was someone very, very different. And I think it’s hard to reconcile. But the evidence was overwhelmingly there. It’s indisputable that Bill Cosby was a predator. I don’t want to litigate the Chris Hardwick situation on the phone, because we don’t know enough about it. It’s not fair to any of the parties. Other ex-girlfriends have come forward with support for him. And that doesn’t negate another person’s experience with him. At all.

It just paints a larger picture?
It does. It contextualizes it.

Unapologetic is only one of, let me check my notes, 97 million shows you’re currently on. How … when do you sleep?
I don’t. I really like working hard. I am lucky that I am able to do all the stuff I get to do. And I really am fueled by, not chaos, but by intensity. I try to run on intensity and dynamism. But it is overwhelming at times. I just have to work hard to manage my time and to create space to play and to daydream — which I do; I’m very aggressive about my play as well. But I remember what it was like to have no job, so this is definitely the better of the two alternatives. And I also feel [the need to work], because I have people who came before me, made a space for me, and created an opportunity for me to do what I’m doing. I was the first woman and person of color to host Talk Soup, I’m the first woman and person of color to host Whose Line Is It Anyway? I’m the only woman of color doing a late-night talk show. There’s Robin Thede with The Rundown, but that’s a news-based show. I’m the only one doing a comedic talk show. It’s because other people came before me and broke those barriers down, and I want to make that space for other people. So it requires a bit of stamina.

Was that important for you in signing on for this show — to be a woman of color in late night, one of the only ones with a talk show?
Yeah, absolutely. I think diversity is not about quotas. Diversity is about depth and breadth of perspectives. It can’t just be six white guys in suits talking about the same stuff. It’s a paucity of imagination right now. And they’re all doing lovely jobs. It’s not that they’re not good at it, it’s just the same narrow cast of attitude and opinion and approach. I always say diversity is not about quotas, it’s about bringing different stories, different perspectives, and different voices. It just improves the quality of content. So yeah, it was important to me. And I do say, confidently, that there is no show like Unapologetic on TV. There really isn’t.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Talking Unapologetic With Aisha Tyler