Sonia Denis (pronounced Sahn-ya) never planned on going into late night comedy. For many comedians — certainly for people who write about comedy — late night is both gatekeeper and Mount Olympus. That's where hyperskilled comedians craft tight one-liners and conceive zany, viral sketches like Jimmy Fallon's Pup Quiz or James Corden's Carpool Karaoke. For Denis, who will be the host of Refinery29's new Facebook Watch show After After Party (premiering August 13 at 9 p.m. ET), this was never the plan.
"Oh, I did not want to [host a late night show] at all. Honestly," Denis tells Refinery29, laughing. Her comedy is ripe for hosting, though: She's frantically conversational when she performs, jokes spilling out of her as if they'll burn her tongue if they sit too long. Her energy is generous, and her writing is tight. (E.g., "We're like an amuse bouche of gentrification," she says in one joke about her and her boyfriend living in Brooklyn.)
Denis, who has been doing standup for the better part of a decade, moved to New York City two years ago. She'd started in Chicago, where the comedy scene is bustling but cozy.
"First, it was just, 'Can I do this? Can I go up on stage?'" she says. Her career has been a journey of asking permission: Can I move to New York? Can I make a dent in the New York stand-up scene, which is much bigger than Chicago's? She adds, "I always felt like I was good enough at a lot of things, but comedy was the first thing where I felt like, I might actually be better than average at this. "
Since moving to New York, Denis has made important career strides: She starred in a web series, a thoughtful show called Brown Girls, and made appearances in High Maintenance on HBO and Netflix's Set It Up. She's a regular presence in the New York stand-up scene, frequenting venues like Caroline's and Littlefield. Last year, she made an appearance on the popular WNYC podcast 2 Dope Queens. After After Party is her first time hosting a show like this, and also her first time leading a writers' room.
"This is the second room I've worked in, so I can't really say, 'I think it should be this,'" Denis explains. "Based on some of the other stories I've heard from people who've had more writing experience, it seems like sometimes in a writers' room, there can be a hierarchy. It's an ego thing — I just don't have any ego about any of this at all."
Denis is stepping into utterly unmapped territory. She's among the first class of Facebook Watch pioneers. (Other media companies like Mic and Comedy Central have plans to debut shows on Facebook Watch as well.) The platform, which launched in August of last year, is still emergent. Denis has the world — or at least a sizable corner of the internet — as her oyster in terms of style.
After After Party will follow the format of a shortened late night show. Episodes, which run roughly 12 minutes long, will air five nights a week on Facebook Watch. It will feature studio time with guests — celebrities from the entertainment realm as well as activists, authors, and journalists — alongside sketches from Denis and the writers. Denis says the sketches will unfurl almost organically from in-studio segments. (She compares the style to that of That Mitchell and Web Look, a British sketch show made by David Mitchell and Robert Webb.)
"With the sketches, everything is not centered on me, but we try to take a concept like something that's socially happening and be like, 'What could we do with that?'" Denis says. Much of it is centered around her, though, which will thwart the late night comedy status quo no matter what. Late night comedy has had a signature "brand" for so long because its leaders have all been the same. In short, late night is white and male. As of today, a daily late night show hosted by a woman does not exist. (Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS airs only once a week. The Rundown with Robin Thede, which BET recently canceled, was also only once a week. E! talk show Chelsea Lately is the only show in recent history to air daily.) Denis is bringing her own brand of comedy to After After Party, which will, by default, be different from what Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live! have to offer.
"One of my first jokes was about being Rwandan and how weird people were with that," Denis, who moved to the United States from Rwanda when she was 4, recalls. "A lot of [my comedy] kind of tied to things about my identity, or comments people have made that made me uncomfortable as a woman or a person of color or how I see the world as a Black woman." This is what makes applying for late night shows a bit bizarre. To do so, Denis would have to write jokes retrofitted for the personal experience of a white man.
"Me trying to make a joke that's for an older white guy and also that type of audience...it's a challenge," she explains. Her show is different: She's at the helm, which means comics are writing for her. She also got to arrange her writers' room so she'd have a diverse array of comedy perspectives.
Says Denis, "When I first started standup in Chicago, I experienced a lot of alienation in the room." She was either the only woman or the only person of color at most shows. "You just feel like, 'Oh, if I say something, they're going to think I'm not cool.' Or, they're going to think, 'I'm the angry Black woman,'" she says.
Things have changed, but not by much. "Even now, sometimes I'll be on shows, and they'll be like, 'She's a nerd.' And I'm like, 'I haven't said anything about science. You're just saying that I'm a different type of Black person. You were expecting [Dave] Chapelle energy,'" she says. In the foreseeable comedy future, there's a world where Black women don't have their comedic roles already written for them. Denis believes the landscape is changing, and quickly. "I feel really lucky to be doing comedy right now," she declares. There's a lot to talk about, and almost none of it is funny — which makes comedy an even more urgent task.
The show offers a lot: insight, comedy, and playful twists on pop culture. The one thing it won't have? Monologues.
"I've never liked monologues," Denis says, assured. "This show won't have that."
For those who aren't late night aficionados, know this: You don't ditch the monologue. At most, you make like Seth Meyers and move your monologue behind the desk, where things feel more intimate, maybe a bit less stiff. For Denis, however, monologues are too broad, and, too often, they mean the host has to discuss things like — per Denis' example — Lindsay Lohan. What if Denis doesn't want to address Lindsay Lohan? After After Party isn't dismembering the late night format; it's pivoting the form to embrace a perspective we haven't seen yet. And that's Denis, who isn't interested in rattling off headlines.
"I'm not saying I am revolutionizing the late night formula," Denis adds quickly. She's just doing what she has been since the start: testing the boundaries and trying things on for size. When she started doing comedy in Chicago, Facebook Watch didn't exist. For a time, she wanted to write her own sitcom. Now, she wants to make movies. Denis is open to doing anything and everything.
"I always feel like I'm very close to doing incredible things," she says, laughing. The same goes for After After Party. She intones, bracingly, "This show is either going to be really incredible or people are going to hate it." Either way, a boundary's been pushed.
After After Party will debut on Facebook Watch on Monday, August 13 at 9 p.m.
From Refinery29, After After Party invites comedians, celebrities, cultural critics, and you to dig into the trending topics you care most about. Host Sonia Denis & guests deliver hot takes on what’s happening in our culture every week night on Facebook Watch. FOLLOW THE SHOW, and never miss a laugh!