On 'The Nightly Show,' Larry Wilmore does as much listening as talking
By By David Turner
Feb 23, 2015 | 3:45 PM
Behind Larry Wilmore, host of Comedy Central's new "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore," a world map hangs upside-down. It hints, before the show even begins, that this will not be typical late-night television fare, but rather, something that intends to turn the whole outdated talk-show endeavor on its head. When the camera pulls back, it reveals the bald black head of Wilmore, a former Daily Show correspondent now taking the slot occupied for years by the very funny, though very white, "The Colbert Report," and we see that this is a black face occupying the sardonic, news-riffing role almost exclusively occupied by white men.
Once the show begins, it becomes clear that unlike his closest peers, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” and Colbert, Wilmore is not interested in forming a cult of personality around himself. Wilmore’s goal: facilitating a conversation between a diverse group of people on issues primarily, but not exclusively, affecting minority communities of America, and getting a few laughs along the way.
Consider this: The show's debut episode, which premiered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, devoted itself to the state of black protest in America. The second episode dealt with the Bill Cosby accusations of sexual assault. Wilmore opened with, "Tonightly we're talking Cosby. We'll answer the question: Did he do it? The answer will be yes."
It’s funny-as-shit, biting humor for sure, but it also fosters a conversation, instead of talking at the audience. Wilmore’s opening monologue jokes are often at his own expense and this part of the show exists primarily to provide humorous context for the main portion of the show, the roundtable discussion with other comedians, journalists, and entertainers. The setup might recall “Real Time with Bill Maher,” but Wilmore lacks Maher’s callous smarm and, to the show’s credit, Wilmore is a gracious ringleader looking to foster provoking back-and-forths on pressing issues.
Most recently, Wilmore was the “Senior Black Correspondent” on “The Daily Show,” and before that, a writer throughout the ’90s on shows like “In Living Color” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and creator of the underrated Fox sitcom “The Bernie Mac Show.” Wilmore found success in the black network comedy that all but disappeared into the 2000s—arguably, the sole exception is ABC’s new hit “black-ish,” on which Wilmore is an executive producer. Wilmore’s career shows that he knows how to navigate the white world of TV. And after the cancellation of the second go-round of former late-night talk host Arsenio Hall, Wilmore sits black and alone in the world of after-prime-time programming.
As host, Wilmore never allows “The Nightly Show” to defer to whiteness or amplify a comprehensive “blackness.” Here, Wilmore and his minority guests aren’t speaking “for their people,” but rather for themselves, which is refreshing. Minorities make up the majority of guests during the round table and so, no single person, not even Wilmore, can speak for “their” people, because usually there is another person to their right or left with a similar background but a different perspective. A few weeks deep, during a show focused on parenting, Wilmore gaffed, implying the comedian Retta was from Liberia, but she quickly told him that her parents were from Liberia, not her. Wilmore fell on his joke and he and the guests laughed at his moment of casual ignorance. A minor scene, but it finely underlined cultural differences that exist in what is often too broadly thought of as “African-American culture.”
Better yet, Wilmore is willing to admit fault. The show rightly caught flak for a question during its episode on the topic of black fatherhood. The episode allowed the panelists—columnist Charles M. Blow, rapper/actor Common, Joseph Jones of the Center For Urban Families, and comedian Mike Yard—to speak to their own experience with their fathers and ponder the many forms that fatherhood can take outside of the nuclear family model. But when Wilmore asked, “On a scale of one to 10, how bossy are black women?” everyone at the table awkwardly tried to avoid the question.
The next evening, Wilmore acknowledged the negative reaction to the segment and said they’d soon do a show focusing on black motherhood. His admission of guilt shouldn’t deserve so much praise, but when comedians can so quickly, lazily invoke “free speech” and rhetoric about how someone “can’t take a joke” to excuse instances of ignorance, it was great to witness him cop to screwing up.
That particular episode didn’t live up to Wilmore’s self-determined inclusive tone, and in failing to do so, it did its best to recover and marked “The Nightly Show” as the rare comedy willing to genuinely hear what others have to say and not dominate the conversation.