How do you write jokes for a TV comedy about race and culture when there are riots over how police treat black suspects, and a gunman just shot down nine people in a black church?
If you’re Robin Thede, head writer for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, you think carefully about where you focus the joke.
“The thing about tragedy, is that it causes people to react in a myriad of ways … [and] some of them are very hilarious,” Thede says, laughing. “You don’t make fun of the actual tragedy. You make fun of the ridiculous ways people react to it.”
Her example: The way some news outlets focused on the involvement of the gang Black Guerilla Family when rioting broke out in Baltimore last April.
“You’ve got people on the news saying ‘Black Guerilla Family’ 4,000 times because they get a kick out of saying ‘gorilla’ when connected to black people,” she says.
That frustration turned into a bit on The Nightly Show — a montage of Fox News anchors saying “Black Guerilla Family,” then Wilmore responding with a choice run of curse words.
“We see that and go, ‘Finally, this is the stuff we can talk about,'” Thede says. “This is the stuff that pisses us off when we’re watching at home, and now we have a voice.”
That voice first emerged in January, when Wilmore’s Nightly Show debuted in the timeslot originally held by Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report.
Wilmore made a bit of history then as the only black man hosting a major late night talk show.
And Thede also made history: She’s the first black woman to serve as head writer for such a show. But she’s quick to counter the notion that The Nightly Show is just a parody of Meet the Press centered on jokes about race.
“For us it’s race, it’s class, it’s gender, it’s disability, it’s anybody that’s an underdog,” she says. “Which to us, is anybody in the right situation. If you’re a white person in the wrong neighborhood, you’re an underdog.”
In the show’s offices in Manhattan, Thede turns her blend of outrage and can-you-believe-it humor into actual jokes. Writers and producers are plopped on couches in her office for a morning meeting about upcoming skits. The wall behind Thede’s desk is dominated by a huge dry-erase board with bits for upcoming shows written out.
There’s excitement in the room, because Morgan Freeman will be stopping by later to record an appearance on the show — one where Wilmore will play an Afro-wigged, platform shoe-wearing host of a ’70s TV show called Soul Daddy.