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Second City alum Robin Thede aims to bring something new to late-night TV

Everything in Robin Thede’s career has been building to this moment. On Thursday, her weekly show “The Rundown with Robin Thede” will enter the fray of late-night TV comedy when it premieres on BET.

A couple of things about the show stand out. Notably, Thede will be the only African-American woman hosting a late-night show in a genre that is dominated by white men, excepting “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah and “Full Frontal’s” Samantha Bee.

But Thede is also thinking broader than her competition.

“The other big difference with our show is that we are going to cover politics and pop culture,” she said from New York, where the show tapes. That makes sense. The intersection of politics and pop culture feels indistinguishable these days.

“That’s why I’m doing the show this way,” Thede said. “If you think about Colin Kaepernick, it’s sports but it’s also politics. With a reality show president, there is no distinction between the two. The president has more to say about pop culture than he does about politics! So yeah, I think it’s a natural progression in the late-night world to be able to cover both of those. And I think up until now, shows have had to choose.”

Thede might be a familiar face to audiences who saw her on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” where she was both head writer and an on-air contributor.

“Last year in August, when ‘The Nightly Show’ got abruptly canceled, a couple weeks later I had the opportunity to meet with some folks at Jax Media,” she said. “They produce ‘Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,’ ‘Broad City’ and ‘Inside Amy Schumer.’ I was going there to meet about a different show they already had in production that I might have been a showrunner on. And they said, ‘Well actually, if you were to do your own late-night show, what would it be? Do you have an idea?’ And I said, ‘Yes! I do!’

“I pitched them the concept of ‘The Rundown,’ and within two weeks we got Chris Rock on board as an executive producer. By the spring, we had fielded a number of offers, and BET seemed like a great home for us because we could speak directly to the black audience.”

Unique among late-night shows, being on BET means Thede doesn’t have to tailor “The Rundown” to the interests of white network executives or audiences.

Here is why that’s important: “There are stories that would never be covered by other late-night comedians because they are only about black people — well, seemingly only about black people. But as we know, everything that happens to black people is at the national forefront right now: police brutality, the NFL, the protests. All of this stuff has to do with how black people are treated in this country and our experience right now in the present day. And I think that’s missing in the late-night space. I think a comedic voice that’s evaluating those political and pop culture stories is missing … and I think I can offer more on BET because I don’t have to explain things.

“Even if it’s just a silly joke or a phrase that black people use, I don’t have to explain it. I can just say it!”

A piece she did for “The Nightly Show” comes to mind called “Black Lady Sign Language,” in which she decoded for Wilmore the meaning behind various hand gestures. On “The Rundown,” that kind of bit might be done differently — or not at all.

“ ‘Black Lady Sign Language’ was an explainer that was aimed at white people so that when the black lady in their office uses her hands in a certain way, they know whether or not she’s being aggressive or friendly,” Thede said.

“But I will say, the thing about my comedy and the thing that resonates with people is that black people love that sketch just as much as white people. I think that’s my appeal. I’m never going to water something down so much that only one race can watch it. While my show is aimed at a black audience, white people are more than welcome — and will enjoy the show. I can just take it a step further on BET and really talk about how we talk about things on Twitter and in our community.”

Thede grew up in Davenport, Iowa, but her mother is from Chicago and she spent her summers here. “I feel like I grew up in a far-flung suburb,” is how she put it. An alum of Northwestern University and Chicago’s sketch and improv scene (including iO Theater and Second City), her writing credits include “The Queen Latifah Show,” the BET Awards and the White House Correspondents dinner.

So it makes sense that “The Rundown” will include sketches.

“The show opens with a topical sketch relating to something that happened during the week,” Thede said, “and then we come right to the studio for the rundown, which is me literally running down — ‘Pardon the Interruption’-style — the week’s news, politics and pop culture.”

The final segment of each show will be one of three things: A short documentary film — “which on another show would be called a field piece; we’re doing short documentaries on social justice issues that pertain to black people.” Or a big-budget sketch — “Well, haha, nothing’s big budget on TV — but a bigger production sketch.” Or a pop-up concert.

The stakes are high, and Thede knows it.

“When I talk about the show it sounds very serious, but it is serious in the fact that I have an opportunity and I don’t want to squander it. But people have to watch, so I highly encourage people to tune in and judge for themselves.

“I think people who are black know why they should watch, but people who aren’t black might not — and I think they should watch to get an opinion that’s unfettered and to get an opinion that’s direct and true. It’s going to be funny! Hands down, you’re going to laugh the entire time. But I think a lot of people are going to learn by osmosis rather than by explanation.

“Also I’m just super fun! It’s going to be a party. Chris Rock is not our executive producer for nothing.”

“The Rundown with Robin Thede” premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday on BET.

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @Nina_Metz

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