The fantastical set and projection design stole the show in the Northwestern University Opera Theater adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress.
Get ready to clutch your pearls! Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications graduate Robin Thede’s late-night show, The Rundown with Robin Thede, with its mix of political commentary, black cultural observations and a body roll or two, is quite possibly the stuff Emmys are made of.
Need proof? The show was only seven episodes in from its fall 2017 debut when it ranked No. 8 on Time magazine’s “Top Ten Moments of Late Night 2017.” And last December the Hollywood Reporter named The Rundown one of the 10 best shows of 2017.
Need more proof? Read the funny for yourself. Thede tweeted this on Nov. 27, and it perfectly captures her personality and what she hopes to accomplish with her culturally nuanced political satire:
“If white people snatched trump for his bologna as hard as black people snatched Chrisette Michele for singing at the inauguration, we wouldn’t be in this mess. WHITE PEOPLE: GET YOUR BOY. IT IS THE ONLY WAY OUT.”
Thede’s weekly half-hour hot take on news and culture is a lot like that tweet. It includes heaping helpings of funny and, like all things comedic, a pinch of pain. Similar to Saturday Night Live, The Rundown and its accompanying podcast touch on topics that we are often warned not to talk about at the dinner table, but Thede and BET know their audience. In response, their audience is giving Thede a big group hug, including some love from other Northwestern late-night alums Seth Meyers ’96, ’16 H and Stephen Colbert ’86, ’11 H.
“I’ve worked my entire career for this,” says Thede, whose Midwest beginnings created the base upon which she’s built her celebrity. The Iowa-born grad, who grew up near Davenport, always wanted to be a performer. She went to Northwestern after promising her parents that she would get a “real” degree. She majored in broadcast journalism and minored in African American studies while also ruling campus in a variety of stage plays and performance events.
“Medill made me a better writer,” says Thede. “It trained me. Medill was so formative because I didn’t know I was a writer. I eventually did sitcoms and [other] shows. That Medill education was the foundation for that.”
She fondly remembers living in Foster-Walker Complex during her freshman year before moving off campus. She recalls: “I was so poor, my parents dropped me off with two bucks and said, ‘Make it work.’”
And she did. She worked a campus job midnight to 5 a.m. and then turned around and went to class. After graduation she headed to the Second City, Chicago’s world-renowned comedy club, to hone her comedy-writing chops, and went on to write for the Academy Awards, the BET Awards and the NAACP Image Awards. She made history as a head writer for Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and followed that up by writing for Mike Epps, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart.
Thede’s contribution to the elite world of late-night talk shows and her place as a woman (specifically, a black woman) in this historical space is worth noting. She’s not the first black person to have a late-night show, nor is she the first, the second or even the third black woman. But she is still pioneering with her debut on BET in a society that has been slow to sustain and renew women in late night. She doesn’t take the role lightly. As her executive producer Chris Rock told the Hollywood Reporter, she speaks directly to the roughly 55 percent of the late-night audience that is largely ignored by other hosts.
“Whoopi [Goldberg] came before me,” says Thede. “Wanda Sykes has been very helpful. And this is peak TV. There are more hosts than ever before. I’m the fourth black woman to host and the first to do political satire. I’m just really proud.”
As for Rock, he threw his support behind Thede early on. He was unable to talk with Northwestern magazine for this article, but he heaped praise on her in the Hollywood Reporter piece.
“I worked with Robin on the BET Awards the year before I did the Oscars and thought she was a little too good to be in the writers’ room,” Rock said. “I thought she could be in front of the camera too.”
Audiences — and the critics — agree. Thede has seen nothing but praise from other celebs and media analysts alike because her monologues are culturally astute and legitimately funny. But how does she cherry-pick the hottest of hot topics in a lightning-fast, unrelenting news cycle in which presidential Cabinet members seem to be replaced daily and celebrity men are dropping out of Hollywood hourly due to allegations of every sort?
“I pick stories based on what a black audience wants to hear,” says Thede, from her digs in New York City. “BET gives me a lot of latitude. And because we are a topical show, I’m preparing right up to the minute before. I say a little prayer with my glam squad. I live with the material most of the week. My goal is to make people laugh.”
And that she does. When Prince Harry announced his engagement to Northwestern alum Meghan Markle ’03, Thede immediately used their impending marriage to great effect. Reimagining the logo for White Castle restaurants, Thede said the upcoming royal union was a Black and White Castle — which it is, given that Markle (like Thede) is biracial. It’s the kind of joke that resonates with a younger generation that sees multiple levels of satire in the reference. That and a focus on musical guests who are breakout stars in the black community make The Rundown stand out in a late-night scene that is already chock-full of talent.
For Thede, it’s no competition. In fact, it’s all family. Meyers featured Thede on his show this past fall. And Thede is friendly with Colbert.
“They’ve embraced me,” says Thede. “I am honored to be a part of this group of late-night Northwestern alums.”
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs ’99, a Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications graduate, is an award-winning writer and editor who pens a regular column for Forbes.com.