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When Safaree Samuels’ leaked nudes sent Black Twitter into hysterics in late February, comedian Robin Thede was quick to respond. She opened the following episode of her weekly late-night show by saying, “Welcome to The Rundown With Robin Thede—the biggest, blackest thing you’ll see this week that isn’t attached to Safaree.”
If you didn’t know who Safaree was, you might have felt left behind. But if you did—and you were among the hysterical—it felt like Robin was winking right at you. The beauty of the current landscape of late-night television is there’s more opportunity than ever to find a host who speaks your language.
For so long, late-night television was paint by number: A white man in a suit named Jimmy (or Johnny or Jay) gives a jokey-jokey monologue, interviews a celebrity behind a desk, then intros a musical guest. But a number of new voices are infiltrating the space, giving audiences something they didn’t have much of before: options.
In addition to The Rundown With Robin Thede on BET, there’s TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Hasan Minhaj’s upcoming show with Netflix that will make him the first Indian-American host in late night, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, which premieres tonight on HBO, and even VICELAND’s Desus and Mero, whose pioneering success has proved how much audiences wanted to be refreshed.
Earlier this week Complex made its own foray into late night with—yep—another cis white male host, but you have to concede that with his Hot 97/ESPN resume, Peter Rosenberg and his new show, Open Late With Peter Rosenberg, is sure to have a different POV than, say, The Late Late Show With James Corden.
While network TV hosts bear the burden of having to be all things to all people, cable and other emerging platforms have allowed their personalities the freedom to go as broad or niche as they wish.
“The Rundown is saying we’re a show that’s dedicated unapologetically to black people,” Thede explains to Complex from her corner office in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. “Anybody’s welcome to watch, but I’m making a show about issues that I think black people will care about and that I see Black Twitter talking about and what’s in our group chats and all that kinda stuff. Not to represent all black people, but to be a voice in the black community—just one voice.”
I’m making a show about issues that I think black people will care about... Not to represent all black people, but to be a voice in the black community—just one voice.'
Thede became the first black head writer in late night when she joined The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central, and her new show, which launched Oct. 17, is the first in history to be run by all women (aside from mentor Chris Rock), from her co-executive producers to her head writer. Her show eschews the correspondent format, at Rock’s advice, and adds high-quality, subversive sketches like Stranger Things spoof “Racist Things,” and mini-docs, like “A Race Odyssey,” in which Thede interviews experts to prove that, damn, even artificial intelligence is racist. The super-animated, slightly mischievous host also sneaks a body roll dance move in to each episode. One thing she won’t do—fill her 30-minute time slot lambasting Donald Trump.
“My audience didn’t vote for him; we already know he’s terrible,” she says at a recent taping. Specializing in Trump-related outrage has allowed CBS’ The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to garner headlines like “How Stephen Colbert Used Trump to Win the Late-Night War.” But offering a respite from Trump fatigue is another selling point for the new kids on the late-night scene.
Take the opening monologue in the pilot episode of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, for example: “I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to talk about Trump and how we’re all fucked—but we already know that. So I wanna talk about something that’s been bugging me: outer space.” At that moment, he swerves into a bit on what makes him uncomfortable about the new space race between billionaires Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk.
Watching it kinda felt like overhearing a buddy who was thinking out loud, just trying to make sense of an issue that’s been nagging at him. If that issue happens to be one you’ve mused about as well, then there’s a point of connection here. Cenac explains that this, ultimately, is what distinguishes any voice from the next, as viewers scan the terrain and decide where to land.
“I think the short answer of what makes it different is I guess that I’m doing it, and that it’s me,” Cenac tells Complex on the phone from his Brooklyn office. “I don’t mean that in any way other than for every other show, you know, only Samantha Bee could make Full Frontal, and only John Oliver could make Last Week Tonight and only Seth Meyers could make Late Night With Seth Meyers and only Conan could make Conan. So I think whatever those shows are, so much of them are built around the people who are the faces of those shows. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah is not the same Daily Show with Jon Stewart, not the same Daily Show with Craig Kilborn.”
A vocal minority felt Jon Stewart got cookies for being the patron saint of woke whiteness.
It’s inarguable that Stewart popularized political satire during his 16-year tenure, but a vocal minority felt Stewart got cookies for being the patron saint of woke whiteness. He wasn’t saying anything people of color hadn’t long voiced, but the words coming from his mouth gave them a credibility that escaped those who were actually living the experiences he amplified. But behind every Jon Stewart is a team of writers like Wyatt Cenac, who won three Emmys and a WGA award for his TDS contributions and now gets to see how audiences take to his unfiltered POV.
However, when asked if people now seem to be more receptive to inclusion, perhaps as a pushback to the divisiveness of this administration, Cenac is hesitant.
“It feels like there’s a lot of people that are pushing forward and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I wanna hear some new voices and I wanna see different perspectives and I wanna be curious about the world and explore.’ And then you also have some people who are saying, ‘No, I want it to be 20 years ago and I wanna crawl under my blanket and watch a Jersey Shore reunion and Roseanne and not have to think about whatever it is that might be scary to think about right now,” he says.
“It feels like there’s two things going on, you know,” he continues. “Thankfully there’s room for both.”