Before she came to BET to host her own show, Robin Thede worked on The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, serving as the Comedy Central show’s head writer for much of its run. The Nightly Show‘s cancellation still feels like some kind of original sin for this current late night era. You can feel that Comedy Central lost something profound without Wilmore on television in this century of a year. But the show was still developing when it was canceled. Wilmore opted for a panel-discussion format, which could meander.
There’s no meandering in The Rundown With Robin Thede. Thursday’s premiere began with a sketch that blitzkrieged through some topical gags. Thede sat in a restaurant, reading a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (I believe it was Between the World and Me.) “Damn, my white friends are right,” said Thede. “Ta-Nehisi gets it.” That line by itself hit on all fronts, serious and twistedly funny. Then she caught a man’s eye. The man happened to be attractive, African-American, and wearing a TRUMP-PENCE shirt. “He’s sell-out-my-core-principles fine!” Thede decided, donning a Make America Great Again cap, holding up LOCK HER UP memorabilia, carrying a tiki torch (has anything so goofy become so serious so quickly?), and even tattooing a Confederate flag on her arm.
The punchline was predictable – a ring on his finger! – but this scene stated the premiere’s purpose effectively. Thede has a kinetic delivery; she strolled onstage to roll through a titular “Rundown” that was one joke piled on top another.
Not everything landed, though perhaps some people will never tire of “YOU GET A CAR!” Oprah references. What struck you was the mix of topics and approaches. Thede did a cable-news montage of responses to Eminem’s anti-Trump rant, letting the goofiness of punditry (“Look at little Martin Mathers”) speak for itself. Then she played footage of former Miami Dolphins o-line coach Chris Foerster snorting lines, reacting with mock horror. Then she played that footage of that dude getting tased by a cop, talking over the mad chase until you felt like you were watching a particularly apocalyptic version of America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Her point – as she laughed about the man being tased, chasing the policeman, trying to steal a squad car – is that not every interaction with a policeman goes down that way, and sometimes there are gunshots when there shouldn’t be. This can be a tricky tightrope to walk – exultantly silly passionate advocacy – but the show’s playfulness works in its favor. At one point, a graphic explained Jemele Hill’s ESPN suspension on a football game board involving the floating head of Donald Trump, which tragically is exactly as simple as American politics is now.
And the show’s larger possibilities were revealed in the main segment, when Thede connected the Kaepernick-emanating NFL controversy to the vastly more real controversy about CTE in football. The segment was, essentially, a compilation. Other shows in the weekly-politics late night genre have made their name with sheer density of information and even some original reporting. Here, Thede was mostly riffing on pre-existing interviews.
But what riffs! To an old interview of Malcolm Gladwell asking if there was any occupation besides football guaranteed to maim a significant percentage of its practitioners, Thede deadpanned, “You’ve obviously never been to a black hair salon.” Another clip challenged, “What other choice does a black man have that’s better than the National Football League?” Thede brought up Rashard Mendenhall, who left a short football career for a career as a TV writer. “Yes, it was on Ballers, but don’t hold that against him,” she said, almost a throwaway line that was the night’s most unexpected laugh.
You hope BET is giving Thede room to experiment. The show’s currently weekly but seems like it could expand. The premiere featured a pop-up musical performance, with Thede and the rapper Duckwrth surprising bystanders in a bodega. You wonder how surprising it actually was – the choreography of the scene felt forced – but the public performance was fun, especially if you are me and you have to keep googling the name “Duckwrth” because you hadn’t heard of the man before three hours ago.
The Rundown already occupies an important place in the world of late night, which for so long seemed reserved for various dudes named something Jimmy-adjacent. Thede is currently the only African-American female late night host, though she’s entering an ever-more-crowded field. As far as I can tell, though, The Rundown is the only late night show that remixed Michelle Obama’s Trump-shading half-sentence “The bar is…just…” into a beat you could dance to.