Larry Wilmore’s First Nightly Show: The Underdog As Top Dog

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Larry Wilmore’s First Nightly Show: The Underdog As Top Dog.

When Larry Wilmore’s new Comedy Central show had to change its title from The Minority Report to The Nightly Show, the comedian told me it was a good thing.Since Stephen Colbert exited The Colbert Report last December in preparation to take over The Late Show from David Letterman in September, America has been deprived of half its funny news hour.Stephen Colbert had “truthiness.” Larry Wilmore’s got “keeping it 100.” The former “Daily Show” correspondent taking over the 11:30 p.m. spot vacated last month by Colbert’s “Report” debuted Monday night, rolling in with a show that’s fast, funny and unapologetically black.These aren’t the words you might expect to hear from the host of new late-night comedy show to describe his television program just days before the premier.

He wanted his news-comedy show to focus on the underdog, and he didn’t want people making assumptions just because he’d been The Daily Show‘s “senior black correspondent”: “At least they won’t have that expectation,” he said. “Why’s he not talking about black today? For the last nine years, a generation has grown accustomed to the transition from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to Colbert’s brilliantly sustained nightly performance. Wilmore paused briefly before his “Keep It 100″ segment to explain what the heck he was talking about: “For all you people who don’t know what the expression ‘keeping it 100′ means, it means ‘keep it 100 percent real,’” Wilmore said. “I guess the white version is ‘Truth or Dare,’ except here we don’t have the dare.” “Uh, no,” Booker answered. Just as Colbert’s character graduated from a successful run on The Daily Show, his successor, Larry Wilmore, spent many years as Jon Stewart’s Senior Black Correspondent. And if the billing of his show is any indication, “The Nightly Show” will truly be unlike any other nightly late night comedy show on television today.

Even though Wilmore joked that he’d started a year late–“All the good bad-race-stuff happened already!”–he came on the air with plenty of material, from the Oscars’ snubbing of Selma to the Eric Garner non-indictment, that showed how, yeah, it’s actually useful to have a late night host of color around to comment on it. Kamau Bell was trying to achieve with “Totally Biased,” but with sharper, more focused writing and a slickly-designed set that comes as a result of having the full backing and faith of Comedy Central kingmaker Jon Stewart. In fact, when I asked the show’s executive producer, Rory Albanese, whom I’ve known for years, if he would be comfortable if I wrote an article titled “the show that doesn’t care about laughs,” I thought he was going to hit me. There was enough in the zeitgeist already that the timing of the debut wasn’t more than an aside: “A brother finally gets a show on late night TV!

As diverse as The Daily Show’s roster of correspondents is, the face and voice of the host dominate; Jon Stewart is well aware he should not be the only comedian-with-a-conscience delivering monologues on America’s currently disastrous race issues. Bell had no national profile before his show began in 2012. “Totally Biased” was preceded by “The Orlando Jones Show,” which made it all of eight episodes before its cancellation in 2003. The similarities are that Wilmore’s show will open with a scripted comedy segment akin to what we see on “The Daily Show,” where Wilmore has served as the “senior black correspondent” since 2006.

Not surprisingly, from a performer who’s honed his acerbic commentary over years alongside Jon Stewart, this was the most solid, assured part of the first episode. Wilmore and his writers sketched the routine as one piece, starting from the Selma uproar, detouring to the state of black protest and Al Sharpton (“You don’t have to respond to every black emergency! You’re not black Batman!”), and working up to a chilling news item–police using mug shots of black men for target practice–that led to a searing final joke about police shootings that landed like an uppercut: “I’m not surprised when Kobe hits a jumper. Lopez’s late-night show on TBS, “Lopez Tonight,” was canceled after a two-year run. “Jimmy [Fallon] was able to be able to get his legs and try things before he got ‘The Tonight Show,’” Lopez said. “There has to be kind of a honeymoon period where you’re able to do that. … I just don’t think that we’re able to fail like white people fail.

Cory Booker, comedian Bill Burr, rapper Talib Kweli and corrrespondent Shenaz Treasury following up on the opening monologue’s themes led by Wilmore. Our failures are heavier. … Somebody’s got to believe in you, whatever color you are.” Wilmore opened with a tight monologue in his trademark deadpan that deftly weaved in Ferguson, climate change and even fair trade “Harry Potter” chocolate, all tied together by weighing the effectiveness of protests surrounding each. With the necessary caveat that it’s fruitless to “review” a late-night show after one night–they’re houses that we move into while the wiring is still exposed–this is the segment that will need the most work. His writing team is led by Robin Thede, former head writer for “The Queen Latifah Show” and a writer on “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” Thede also bore some responsibility for Chris Rock’s irreverent takes at the 2014 BET awards, where he took aim at Rick Ross, Solange Knowles, Donald Sterling and Justin Bieber. It’s one thing to get your monologue tight, another to get a group of guests to be both funny and seriously engaged, all while maintaining the show’s energy and comic rhythm.

Excellently-named Nightly Show staffer Shenaz Treasury was engaging but neither smart nor funny, and stand-up comic Bill Burr sent the show screeching to a halt with his declaration,“The only way to effect change is through ridiculous acts of violence.” The most successful segment was the closing “Keep it 100”, in which Wilmore peppered his guests with Yes/No questions, shouting them down when they obfuscated and, in the case of Booker, pelting him with tea bags when he denied he wanted to be President. Wilmore was ready with good questions–“Do you feel you’re just a hoodie away from being face-down in the pavement?” he asked Booker–but felt more tentative in the back-and-forth. The show is divided into two segments: Wilmore’s opening monologue and a four-person panel discussion that will likely include correspondents Ricky Velez, Mike Yard and Shenaz Treasury rotating through the fourth spot. Interestingly, Wilmore told us before we started the discussion: “No jokes from your act, keep it a real conversation and the humor will flow organically from that.” Well, Wilmore was right. Which, eh, Earl Grey maybe?) Maybe the most important first impression from a talk show’s first night is simply point-of-view: does the show know what it is, and why it is?

Wilmore flipped the table on one of the obvious weaknesses of “Real Time With Bill Maher” that tends to surface when it’s time to talk about race — and everyone looks at his one black panelist to represent the views of 40 million black Americans. We did have a provocative conversation about issues from police brutality to anti-Muslim bigotry to Bill Cosby that was both very real and often very funny. It opens like we’ve come to expect a fake-news show to, with the host at a desk in front of a map, but then you notice something different: the world map is oriented with the south on top. The impulse is to say the map is “upside down,” but of course it’s not–there is no up and down in space, only the orientation you assign as the standard if your culture happens to originate in the northern half of the planet. Larry responded, “Yeah, great idea.” Stewart then added; “And I want you to host it.” Wilmore said he was stunned for a moment, but then responded, “Yeah, great idea.” Will the show find an audience?

It’s a philosophy that fits Wilmore, whose comic identity is as a free thinker, dryly funny, not ideologically predictable, a guy with the questions rather than the answers. On Monday, after answering “What’s the last racist thought you had?” (“I think it was walking down the street yesterday and I’m like, ‘Does that white woman think I’m going to steal her purse?’”), Wilmore paid tribute to his predecessor, offering a “tip of the hat and a wag of the finger.” Politicians used to have to squirm their way through Colbert interviews while trying not to appear ridiculous — perhaps the only one that ever bested Colbert was Rep.

He seems suspicious of overconfident blowhards, which may be why he seemed reluctant to take too heavy a hand running the panel, and it’ll take time to work out that balance. And in 2008, the Comedy Central audience did not take to David Allen Grier’s “The Chocolate News” – a look at the news in a comedic way from the black point of view. Albanese described Wilmore as “comedy Jedi.” Now, if I had not spent time on a test panel with Wilmore hosting, I could dismiss that claim as a producer puffery.

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