‘The Nightly Show’ review: Cheering Larry Wilmore, and his new series’ potential

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Nightly Show’ review: Cheering Larry Wilmore, and his new series’ potential.

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. Seated at the head of the oblong table where he will preside over his new Comedy Central series, “The Nightly Show,” Larry Wilmore was moderating a vigorous, sometimes sincere, sometimes acerbic panel discussion about the attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. 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. Wilmore, known to late-night audiences as the former “senior black correspondent” on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” provided the show most fans probably expected, with lots of frank and funny talk about race relations. “I feel like there’s so much to talk about,” Wilmore said. “Especially if I had the show a year ago.

The show is taking Comedy Central’s former time slot for “The Colbert Report.” The “Nightly Show” opened up with a standard monologue, then moved to a panel discussion with guests that focused on race relations, protests and police brutality. The show’s current structure is a monologue followed by a panel—a format that evokes British news shows and Bill Maher more than it evokes Wilmore’s former coworkers Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Sally Kohn, who contributes to CNN and The Daily Beast, said that society reacted differently to mass shootings depending on who had committed them. “When white people commit crime in the United States,” she said, “nobody says, ‘Gosh, what’s wrong with white people?’ ” This debate, held last Tuesday night on a newly constructed set at a Midtown Manhattan studio, was a dry run not meant for broadcast.

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 if the writers are still working on ironing out the kinks of the show’s structure, one thing is perfectly clear: Wilmore is not pulling punches. It was seen by an audience of Comedy Central executives and “Nightly Show” writers and producers, including Jon Stewart, anchor of “The Daily Show,” who sat in the front row.

The panelists were then subjected to the night’s game of “Keep it 100,” in which they had to give completely honest answers to Wilmore’s prying questions, known as keeping it 100. “I guess the white version is truth or dare except here we don’t have the dare,” Wilmore said. The opening monologue took aim at Reverend Al Sharpton, especially his possible “call to action” regarding the snub of “Selma” by the Academy Awards. We’re done.” After mock-complaining that the “Lego Movie” didn’t get nominated for an Oscar, he refused to be upset that the star of “Selma” didn’t get a nod. “He’s a British brother. Booker to face Wilmore’s questions, he had only two options: give a good, honest answer and get a “I keep it 100” sticker like the rest of the panelists or give an answer the audience didn’t like, honest or otherwise, and get a handful of teabags thrown his way.

Booker tried to rebut: “We all, especially in politics, we are far too concerned with position than purpose.” Wilmore wasn’t buying it though, and more tea was slung in the senator’s direction. 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. Wilmore brings race to the center of the conversation again and again—reviewing news items from the day in his opening monologue, which last night included “Selma” being shut out at the Oscars and Florida cops using pictures of black men for target practice. It’s not inherently funny material—and because issues of race are understandably so sensitive, it’s hard to discuss these topics at all, let alone joke about them.

Wilmore said in an interview earlier that day. “What’s driving this is, we’re finding things out, we’re making discoveries.” Having known since May that Mr. He ribs both the white people who are inconvenienced by protests and the protestors themselves, saying of the action at Grand Central Station, “No better way to win the hearts and minds of white people then making them miss their train to Connecticut.” The first act, before the first commercial break, was in my view the strongest segment of the show—a head-on monologue, with Wilmore seated behind a desk, that echoed the successes of Stewart and Colbert in the same format.

Wilmore’s deadpan worked a little less well in the second act—a panel discussion headed up by him, featuring Senator Cory Booker, hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, comedian Bill Burr, and Indian actress/writer Shenaz Treasury. Burr was the obvious standout—as the token white guy at the table, he was able to create some comedy from the point-of-view of a guy who doesn’t have the same problems as the others. Wilmore said he wanted his show to look at “events in the world from the perspective of the underdog,” while being “provocative and absurd, all those things rolled into one.” This blueprint has yielded a show that at its outset will have one segment of Mr. 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. But “does it ever feel like the situation gets worse because we’re out there protesting?” Wilmore asked Burr. “Bill, are white people tired of black protests?” As was typical during the panel segment, though, the question was better than the answer.

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. 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. And though it didn’t totally gel in last night’s panel, it was sort of riveting, because it felt like something could happen—a real conversation between very different people with very different agendas. It was both the most anticlimactic and most brilliant part of the evening—a moment where you could see how the idea was really good, even if the execution was a little flawed.

Wilmore and his staff brainstormed possible routines for the new show’s contributors: one for Shenaz Treasury, a reporter and Bollywood actress, about the sexual harassment she experienced online; another for Mike Yard, a stand-up comedian, who would explain that he had gone so far off the electronic grid that he was performing only for Amish audiences. 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 said it was exciting enough that a channel was giving this opportunity to someone who might otherwise be invisible — if not for his race, then for his age.

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