Entering Northwestern University on a full-ride scholarship for broadcast journalism, Robin Thede knew it wasn't going to be her first choice for a career.
"You can't really get a degree in comedy," recalled Thede, who simultaneously was taking classes at Second City in Chicago. "Broadcast journalism was a way for me to have a Plan B career, even though I always knew I was going to go into comedy."
The Davenport North graduate found a rare spot at the intersection of comedy and news: She's the head writer of "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore," which premiered earlier this year on the Comedy Central cable channel.
"I've always been interested in news and pop culture and politics. Obviously I come from a family that's very active in politics," said the middle of three daughters of state Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, and David Thede, lead teacher at Davenport's Mid-City High.
"It combines my two loves, for sure, bringing together topical news and comedy of all types," Thede added in a phone interview from her office in New York.
Robin Thede was born in Spencer, Iowa, near the family's home in Royal, Iowa, and moved to Davenport when she was a few months old.
While attending Buchanan Elementary and Williams Intermediate schools, "I was always doing comedy. I was shooting sketches in high school, back before YouTube even existed."
"She's always been funny and very quick-witted," her mother recalled. "We all have a pretty good sense of humor and she just ran with that. It just became a part of her."
Phyllis Thede recalls her daughter loving to imitate people she saw on TV.
"Robin went that extra mile and would act it out in the living room or wherever she was at," she said. "We saw a lot of energy when she was younger. It was really important that we helped get that going."
From her middle school years until she graduated from North, she was the host of "Quad-Cities Kids to Kids," a youth-based magazine show that aired early Saturday mornings on KLJB.
"This was something that she just needed to do," Phyllis Thede said. "She was bored easily and had a lot of energy and we wanted her to take that energy and put it in a place that would be productive for her."
Indeed, she told Quad-City Times columnist Ron Lorenzen at the time, when she applied for scholarships at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, she had a full video tape of her work to show.
On her website, RobinThede.com, she has separate resumes for herself as a writer and a performer.
As a writer, she has worked for the BET Awards and, before being hired at "Nightly," was head writer for Queen Latifah's daytime talk show.
She's also been a hit online, with her video "S--- Black Guys Say" getting more than 2.5 million views on YouTube, and a parody of Bobby Brown's music video "Every Little Step," performed by comedian Wayne Brady and boxer Mike Tyson, on the FunnyOrDie.com website.
Selling herself as a writer-performer to "Nightly" host Larry Wilmore was not a problem, she said.
"Larry's known me as a writer-performer my whole career, so this was not a surprise to him that I was able to perform," Thede said. "It definitely was a welcome opportunity for me to be able to that."
Thede has appeared on camera frequently during "Nightly" (10:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays), either during sketches during the first half of the show or as a panelist discussing issues during the latter half of the 30-minute program.
Ready to go
Comedy Central had barely announced that Wilmore would be hosting a replacement for "The Colbert Report," following "The Daily Show" on the network's schedule, before Thede flew from Los Angeles to New York to present herself as a candidate.
"I flew myself to New York last June, and Comedy Central executives were like, 'We don't even know who's running the show; we just know there is a show,'" Thede said.
Her parents said that Robin brought a thick folder of scripts and ideas for Wilmore and the show's executive producer. She also brought a picture of Wilmore's head Photoshopped onto Tom Cruise's body. The working title of the show was jokingly called "Minority Report," and Fox Television quashed the name because it has a fall TV series based on the Cruise sci-fi movie.
"Robin doesn't talk much about her career change until it happens," her father said. "She doesn't want to jinx it. We just knew she was working on something big that might happen in New York. She didn't tell us any of the details until she knew she had the position."
On the job
Thede supervises a staff of 10 writers, half of whom are female and half of whom are of color.
Her daily schedule includes a 9 a.m. writers meeting, choosing stories with Wilmore and producers at 11, meeting in the afternoon to discuss the next day's show ("We always have kind of a two-piston system going," she said), rehearsing and then taping the program, beginning anywhere from 6-7 p.m.
Much of her job, Thede said, is to edit the material and funnel it to Wilmore for his finessing and final approval.
"There's a fair amount of writing, but definitely my writing staff is doing the bulk of the heavy lifting," she said.
Thede hired the writers, after knowing they could create material to fit Wilmore's voice.
"These jobs are some of the most coveted in comedy, so they're all hard to do," she said. "With any late-night show you're working on, you've got to be able to capture the host's voice. But the cool thing is, Larry is somebody who is open to unique voices. Certainly our writers aren't carbon copies of one another. They have their own unique set of skills and tone they bring to their writing, which is amazing."
Wilmore — whose own resume includes creating "The Bernie Mac Show" and executive producer of the current sitcom "black-ish," as well as a writer on 50 episodes of "The Office" — was previously known as the "Senior Black Correspondent" on "The Daily Show."
"We're definitely not tricking anybody," she said of writing for Wilmore's voice. "These are things he wants to say."
"The Nightly Show" had just completed 100 episodes when Thede talked to the Quad-City Times.
Two episodes of the series especially stood out for her.
The first was when the show broke its format and Wilmore went to Baltimore to talk to a variety of black people about the protests after a 25-year-old black man died while in police custody.
"That was a watershed moment for us," Thede said. "That was really a moment where we realized some of the things we could do and we'll definitely be doing more of that. That was really cool."
Another was during the first week of the show in January, where Wilmore publicly called out Bill Cosby after claims of sexual assault against the comedian began to be made public.
"That was something Larry was never going to let up on," Thede said. "We knew in the beginning that this was something that did not sound right. Larry was exactly right, and now people see that."
Thede said the show offers opinions from those who haven't been able to express them on late-night TV.
"Our show, I think, has been able to tackle a lot of the issues that other shows can't in a more authentic way," she said. "Certainly while our show is not solely about race, which some people misinterpret, we certainly don't shy away from stories that we see as relevant."
Thede calls the ability to make fun of serious issues a "high-wire act."
"It's funny for us to do jokes about how people react to tragedy," she said. "We aren't making jokes about tragedy, we're making jokes about how people are reacting to them, the outrage over certain things. The Cosby denials are always egregious to us. For us, it's all about championing the underdog, where in the Cosby case it's a gender issue."
When Thede was hired, she became the first black female to head up a late-night comedy show writing staff.
"I think it's an accomplishment," she said. "I definitely think it's an accomplishment that means a lot more to people than I probably realize. I'm definitely proud to have the title, but I also hope that I quickly lose it when other people come through."
Thede said she's excited about where "The Nightly Show" might be able to go.
"We grow every month, and I think that we'll keep expanding our field pieces and trying new things," she said. "Some nights are super silly and some nights are covering news like the Baltimore protests or the Black Lives Matter movement or things that can be a little bit heavier.
"But by the end of the day, if we strive to cover everything with the same sort of comedic take that can allow people to deal with even the hardest news," Thede added. "Because if you can't laugh, how are you gonna deal with it?"