A bright black voice in the too-white field of fringe-hour topical comedy, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore has been a long time coming—and the show knows it. The former “senior black correspondent” for The Daily Show and celebrated television scribe (he created The Bernie Mac Show and wrote for The Office, among others) opened his new series Monday with a juxtaposition of light jokes and strong visuals that potently expressed his program’s significance, relevancy, and provocative potential.
“We talk Selma, Ferguson, and Eric Garner. It’s Comedy Central’s worst nightmare—brother finally gets a show in late night TV,” Wilmore quipped while standing in front of a video monitor showing a black-and-white image of a Black Lives Matter sign. “But of course he’s gotta work on Martin Luther King Day.” Fearless yet affably self-deprecating, smart but not too smart-alecky, Larry Wilmore seems capable of facilitating something that is urgently needed: a pointed, structured cultural conversation about race in America. But in order to be effective at stimulating laughs and reflection, we also need The Nightly Show to be a bit better at what it does.
The structure and language of the program will be familiar to anyone who watches the franchise that precedes it, The Daily Show. On Monday, Wilmore opened with an anchormanologue steeped in pop references that elaborated on his show’s point of view. First, he made a joke about the show’s bad timing—“all the good bad race stuff happened already,” he said, referring to topics like the death of Eric Garner. Then he made a case for better-late-than-never commentary—and better representatives for black concerns and perspectives—by taking some shots at Al Sharpton (“You are not Black Batman!” “You are literally stretching yourself thin!”) and interrogating the practice and purpose of protest marches. Wilmore ended this segment by addressing the recent story about how cops in Florida use mugshots of black men for target practice—proof that, unfortunately, our country is still quite capable of giving Wilmore good-bad race stuff to talk about. His use of a graphic comprised of bullet-punctured pictures made for a sobering punchline. While I want more innovation from this format, Wilmore knows how to work it well to impact an audience.
The show’s next major segment, a round-the-table* conversation with guests from various corners of culture, is a promising departure from the Daily Show format—and also the thing about Nightly that needs the most improvement.
Wilmore produced chatter that was scattered and superficial by trying to hit too many important ideas with too diverse a panel—an ironic metaphor for the current state of cultural conversation about race. Moving forward, my hope is that Wilmore will ignore the voice in his head (or in his ear) telling him that he’s obligated to give everyone at his table ample, equal opportunities to speak, instead focusing on those who are most interesting and rewarding. He should have doubled down on Sen. Cory Booker, who talked about the underlying social and economic factors that contribute to crime in black communities and a costly, overburdened prison system, at the expense of every other panelist. Wilmore also needs better panelists. Shenaz Treasury and Bill Burr didn’t offer much on Monday—although Treasury’s stunned reaction to Burr’s facetious contention that only violence produces change was rather priceless.
(*About that table: I’m not sure about it. I was distracted by the red stripe down the middle, fanning away from Wilmore. A pirate’s bloody gangplank? An unfurled tongue? A presidential power tie? What exactly were they going for with this bold splash of color? …Oh. I get it. Still: Distracting. Also: I didn’t catch the upside-down map. But Time’s James Poniewozik did. Read his take here.)
Wilmore’s best bit was a speed-round interaction with his guests called “Keep It 100,” in which Wilmore asks tough questions and guests must respond with honest answers. Those who keep it 100 percent real get rewarded with stickers; those who respond with wishy-washiness get pelted with a (weak) tea bag. When Booker told Wilmore he didn’t want to be president, Wilmore practically threw a whole box of teabags at him. This bit will only be as interesting as the guests Wilmore can bring to the show, but it does express in entertaining fashion the show’s values—the ones that I find most appealing and necessary.
Wilmore had a few bugs in his performance on opening night: He was a little too giggly, and a few times he spokesofast it turned his lines into what-did-he-say? mush. That said, his clear excitement for this opportunity was endearing. When closing the show by asking viewers to tweet him “Keep It 100” questions, Wilmore seemed to express a genuine desire to be known and connect with his audience.
I’m not going to compare/contrast Wilmore to the comedian he replaced, Stephen Colbert. In fact, I didn’t think of Colbert at all on Monday—until Wilmore gave him that warm, grateful shout-out during sign-off. The Nightly Show is a much more conventional companion piece to The Daily Show than Colbert ever was—but like The Colbert Report, Wilmore’s show, in its own way, is an inspired response to the times. If he can fine-tune and Keep It 100, I’ll keep watching.