‘The Nightly Show’ tackles racial themes with laughs: review

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Nightly Show’ host Larry Wilmore: ‘I couldn’t have started the show at a better worse time’.

Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show” took to the air Monday, with late night’s newest star Larry Wilmore crackling with racially charged jokes and moderating a serious discussion about racial unrest in America. The Jon Stewart factory appears to have produced another terrific host with Larry Wilmore, one whose approach is quite different from that of his predecessor in the 11:30 slot, Stephen Colbert. The Emmy-winning Wilmore, who joined Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” as the program’s “senior black correspondent” in 2006, has made no bones about how he planned to use his show to tackle tricky topics with humor and passion on a program originally titled “The Minority Report.” Working from the studio that housed his predecessor, Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report” (and, more important, Colbert’s plum post-“Daily Show” timeslot), the likable Wilmore leveraged his Martin Luther King Jr. While Colbert was the emperor of “truthiness” and lies, a live-action cartoon of American arrogance, Wilmore is all about “Keeping It 100,” as in keeping it 100 percent real, particularly when it comes to race. Right now, he’s what he calls “cable famous”: Many people already know him as the “senior black correspondent” from The Daily Show, and hardcore fans know his work as a TV writer (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color), showrunner (Black-ish, The Bernie Mac Show), and actor (How I Met Your Mother, The Office).

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. Day debut into an opportunity to delve into the waves of unrest and protests that swept the nation in recent months. “Are we protesting too many things here?” he wondered. “Since it’s MLK Day, and since he’s the patron saint of non-violent protesters — suck it, Gandhi! — we’re going to talk about the state of the black protest… Even as I speak tonight, there’s a demonstration going on in Grand Central Station, because there’s no better way to win the hearts and minds of white people than making them miss their train to Connecticut,” Wilmore joked in a sharp opening monologue that poked fun at outrage over the Oscar-nomination snubbing of the civil rights film, “Selma,” and threw barbs at the Rev. It’s very… appropriate.”) But the whole thing makes him a little nervous. “I’m approaching that area where it’s like, ‘Yeah, I know that guy. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who got a fistful of tea bags thrown at him during an otherwise routine appearance on the premiere of “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” on Monday.

The opening monologue took aim at Reverend Al Sharpton, especially his possible “call to action” regarding the snub of “Selma” by the Academy Awards. His defining touch, of course, is his willingness to make intelligent and pointed jokes about race in America, a topic that is layered with denial, falsehoods, and superstition.

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 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. The issue here is that round table discussions are a dime a dozen on TV, from “The View” and “The Talk” to more edgy fare like Bill Maher’s old HBO show, “Politically Incorrect.” Less stale was a segment called “Keeping it a Hundred,” as Wilmore described it: “keeping it one hundred percent real” with questions designed to elicit provocative responses.

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. Burr, who is white with a black wife, was asked what race he would like his child to be (earning a “100%” sticker when he did not hesitate, cited statistics and said “white”). Booker was asked if he wanted to run for president and earned a pile of “lukewarm” tea bags when he answered, “no.” While the program as a whole has room to grow, Wilmore’s comedy is sharp, solid and filled with keen observations and strong enough to have earned him the distinction of being the only high-profile black voice in late night television. Senate, the stressed that it’s unfair to speak out against the riots that sprung up in the wake of the incidents without examining the incidents themselves. “(Martin Luther) King said it eloquently: You should condemn violence, but you cannot condemn violence and looting without also condemning the underlying conditions which people are ultimately protesting,” Booker said.

He added that the U.S. has “created a criminal culture” that favors putting more people into prison instead of improving education and other programs to help them succeed. He zeroed in on the news, but unlike Stewart, he didn’t cut back and forth into clips from the media reservoir of contradiction and stupidity; his graphic support was minimal, mostly made up of small still photos of those he joked about.

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. In the second segment, when Wilmore switched to a “Meet the Press”-like panel to discuss topics he put on the table, one of the panelists was hip-hop artist and activist and Talib Kweli, who came here several times after the killing of Michael Brown in August. 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. But, generally speaking, group conversations can be awkward on TV, as people talk over one another, as spontaneous jokes fail to emerge, and as the cameras struggle to capture exchanges.

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 hope the talk on “The Nightly Show” will loosen up as the guests better understand the tone of the show, and as “The Nightly Show” staff chooses guests who may be more polished at this kind of friendly debate.

I’m being facetious, because I know there are a lot of people of color who like those kinds of things, but my other joke about black people is that we don’t have time for irony. 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. 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.

You think about the past year, how it began with Donald Sterling, and then Ferguson, and Eric Garner, and… It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—and it clearly was the worst of times. I’m a fan of back porches!” I think there’s a big hole in late-night commentary that hasn’t been filled in a long time, and people want someone good to do it.

Politically, you call yourself a “passionate centrist.” Is comedy easier for centrists, because you have more options–you can skew right or left–instead of just approaching every joke from one party’s platform all the time? I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, so I’m imagining you on screen, like…” [Wilmore does a spot-on Cronkite impression] “‘Astronaut Larry Wilmore blasted off yesterday.’ But at most, I’d be lucky to get something like, ‘Larry Wilmore was arrested yesterday.’ In a strange world, it could be: ‘Former astronaut Larry Wilmore was arrested yesterday.’” That made him laugh. Wilmore, you’re going to have to cut your hair.” And I’d say, “Well, Father, technically, the rules say it can’t go down over your ears.” [Laughs] No, I didn’t think of it that way. And so he gave this speech and he walked out of the gym and I did this impression of him: [Wilmore takes on an Irish accent] “May I have your attention please? My teacher said, “Larry, you should audition for that.” It was a show we wrote through improvisation with messages about drugs and stuff, and we toured it around to schools.

So the kid comes over, looking for grape soda, and it’s like, “Oh, you would assume we had grape soda?” And the kid’s like, “Found it!” [Laughs] That’s very funny to me. She’s black!” Back in her day, people would pass as white, so from her point of view, it’s like, “She’s black!” But for me, it’s like, nobody’s hiding the fact that they’re black. There was one episode that Kenya wrote called “The Nod.” [Editor’s note: In the episode, “the nod” is half-jokingly described as “the internationally accepted yet unspoken sign of acknowledgement of black folks around the world.”] Some people just don’t know what that is, so you have to explain what that means. In 2001, I sat down with my manager, and I said, “I want to really start branding myself.” And then later on, I said, “Now that I’m branded, I need a platform.” I don’t know if I make goals so much as throw something out there and start walking toward it.

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