In the early 1990s, Rikki Hughes was headed to medical school. Her game plan was set. Life: all figured out.
Then she got an opportunity to spend a summer on the road with all of your favorite ’90s rappers. So she spoke to her mom and dad about going off on this adventure, with the promise to return to UCLA and go to medical school.
“Look,” she said to her parents back then, “I have the opportunity to go to take these artists on the road, and they’ve never been outside of Long Beach — it’s Snoop and Warren G and those guys. This is a tour we’re going on. I can come back, I can defer my enrollment, and I can still go back to UCLA for medical school.”
To her surprise, her mom agreed. “You know, this might be the only opportunity you have in your life to have someone else pay you to travel the world. Just know you can always come home.” That conversation was one of the most empowering things that has ever happened to her. It was life-changing.
“When I got back … my peers … and even my mentor at medical school, they’d graduated and had like $300,000 worth of loans, making like $80,000 a year. I, on the other hand, was at about $150,000 a year, no loans, no kids, so I was like, ‘Kind of made a good decision there!’ ” She ended up running the international department for Priority Records and left in 2001 to go produce TV. Another good decision.
And after a career in music, Hughes is now the “woman behind the laugh.” She is one of the few black female television producers, and certainly one of the very few in comedy — and she’s one of the most successful. Hughes is the showrunner for Comedy Central’s new Hood Adjacent with James Davis. Most recently, she was the executive producer for Dave Chappelle’s acclaimed Netflix specials. And this fall she has the All Def Comedy series premiering on HBO.
What’s your primary social media tribe?
I’m really an Instagrammer. I get lost in Snapchat at times, and so, like, sometimes I send the wrong thing to the wrong person. Twitter is so much information — I get overloaded.
What is your favorite throwback TV show?
Hart to Hart. I just love the glamour of this romance, and they’re out there doing stuff. There’s a murder every episode, and somehow they solve it within 44 minutes, which is brilliant. They stay glamorous the whole time, and he’s [Robert Wagner’s character] just totally in love with her [Stefanie Powers’ character]. It’s truly just fun-filled, fantasy stuff.
What’s the last show you binge-watched?
Totally a binge-watcher. I go from, like, from House of Cards to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I love the cleverness of the writing. House of Cards, it reminds me of the old West Wing days of really clever characters that are complex and layered and all those good things. You can root for the bad guy and not feel guilty. Unbreakable is just a guilty pleasure. I love it because I don’t have to think.
What do you think about the binge-watching TV culture that we have right now?
It’s a good thing because it creates a scenario where we have to continuously create content … we have to keep feeding the beast. So as a content creator, I’m excited for it — and nervous. I get excited because … I’m constantly in demand to create content. And then the nervous energy is that I’ve got to continue to create at a certain level.
What will you always be a champion of?
I’m always a champion of creativity and of protecting the creative voice. Voices are so important, and they’re distinctive. I’ve battled throughout my career for the voice to be there. And it’s not like, ‘Oh, I want to give a voice to the voiceless.’ It’s not that. It’s more of … I don’t have to agree with your politics or whatever, but I feel like voice is necessary. I would hate for us to be monolithic, a one-tone culture where everyone just kind of buys in to the same thing.
Who was your childhood hero?
My dad. He passed in 2007. My dad was one that always instilled in me that you have a choice: ‘You can always choose, Rikki.’ And no one can ever put you in a box, because all you have to do is stop, and you can stop at any point in time. It helped me navigate, in a fearless way. … I can look at a situation, but I don’t have to be in that situation. I credit my dad for never allowing fear to be a part of our life, or conversation.
Is that where your courage comes from?
It really does go back to my dad. There’s never been a ‘no’ for me. ‘No’ is just not a thing we say. It’s just another opportunity for a ‘yes’ somewhere else.
What was the first comedy concert you attended?
I went to a Richard Pryor concert when I was really young. Because my uncle has worked at The Comedy Store. I wasn’t supposed to be in there. I remember sitting on the side, and I had to sit in the hallway. I remember hearing — it was just electric, the way he could move people.
Is that what did it for you?
That definitely made me fall in love with the tale of telling stories on stage … engaging an audience in that way.
Is your life like a constant game of “make me laugh” once people know who you are?
Comics … more than anything, they always say, ‘If you can get Rikki to actually laugh, you’ve really won on stage!’
Favorite athlete of all time?
Magic Johnson. He was so excited just to be in the game. It wasn’t about fame and money. I’m sure those things were great for him, but I always felt the genuine excitement, that he was just happy to be in the game, happy for people to be there, loved the fans. I felt like I always smiled when I watched him play. I’m an L.A. girl, born and raised in L.A., so I just grew up around him. Fast breaks and Magic Johnson!
Do you have a favorite athlete who’s playing right now?
I kind of like LeBron … I really appreciate the way he moves. I love integrity. It’s one of my biggest things. It’s the most attractive thing to me. So I feel like he has integrity and is able to speak boldly and clearly, and just own it, and I love that about him.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.