TV Review: ‘The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore’

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore': Yep, it’s definitely about race.

Stephen Colbert left some sizable shoes to fill, and “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” – having lost the right to use its much better name, “The Minority Report” – showed promise, while also displaying unwieldy elements that will likely require some fine-tuning. 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.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. Mixing “The Daily Show’s” opening with the panel format of Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” Wilmore exhibited a quickness and light touch about sensitive topics, yet struggled to bring much coherence or flow to the overpopulated discussion that took up most of the premiere.

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. Wilmore says the show will be part current-events humor, part panel discussion, and hopefully “provocative.” Wilmore, of course, is already well-known to viewers of “The Daily Show,” where he’s done hilarious bits as the show’s “senior black correspondent” for many years: But if you’re not a Jon Stewart devotee, you might recognize Wilmore anyway. 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. 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. A veteran comedy writer and producer, he’s made the rounds in movies and TV with a deadpan delivery tailor-made for the sly, referential sitcoms with a cult following among millennials.

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. It’s Comedy Central’s worst nightmare: A brother finally gets a show on late-night TV!” Wilmore said, receiving thunderous applause from the audience.

The broad topic for the first night was racial unrest and discrimination, which Wilmore introduced from his anchor desk with a funny, double-edged attack on the Oscar nominations. (“They’re so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them.”) After what amounted to a seated monologue, he moved on to the show’s signature segment: a five-person round-table Wilmore has described as part Daily Show, part Politically Incorrect. But then came the panel, which frankly was a source of concern going into the show, mostly because of the booking challenges in finding people who want to mix it up – and can – on a nightly basis. Jon Stewart threw to Wilmore at the 11:30 slot that Stephen Colbert vacated on Dec. 18 ahead of his move to CBS, where Mashable first reported he’ll be taking David Letterman’s chair.

Which brings us to our first tweak: If you’re going to host a real Politically Incorrect-style conversation, rather than a Meet the Press spoof, you have to make the guests actually converse. Brown, sent by Dunder Mifflin’s corporate headquarters to run a diversity seminar at which Michael Scott (Steve Carell) naturally delivers an offensive Chris Rock impression: In a particularly weird episode of “HIMYM,” Lily (Alyson Hannigan) decides to earn some money by selling her paintings.

Wearing an all-black ensemble — black shirt, black tie, black suit — Wilmore joked to Stewart that Comedy Central execs were already talking to him about making his show an hour long, then “thanked” Stewart (who’s technically his boss as show creator and executive producer) saying, “Anyway, thanks for everything man! He threw Bill Burr an interesting question — “Are white people tired of black protests?” — and then seemed slightly dismayed when Burr completely ignored it, falling back instead on shtick.

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. 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”). Luckily, Wilmore ended strong with “Keep it 100,” which found him throwing yes-or-no type questions at his guests and demanding that they answer completely honestly. 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.

Like HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, the panel was diverse and spirited, but not a debate, per se; this was more of an open discussion of topics that, in the hands of a less delicate or assured host, could easily go awry. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the question was “Do you want to be president?” He answered with “No,” an answer the audience booed and Wilmore dismissed as “weak tea.” It helps immensely that, in his first night, Wilmore already seemed completely comfortable as the show’s host, as well he should be: He’s had a thriving career as an actor, producer and Daily Show correspondent. Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) is desperate to impress him but rarely can; and when he finally does earn Forristal’s respect, the whole department gets fired anyway. But incorporating that many people seems like a mistake, and thinning the herd might be the easiest fix the program can engineer if the opening-night experience is repeated.

The revelation, if there was one, was the skill and charm he brought to his more pointed comments and questions — a skill that allows him to slip the dagger in before you see it coming. Even during the panel, Wilmore produced some funny and even sobering lines – he referred to African-Americans as being “in a relationship with the police” – and he closed on a classy note, thanking Colbert for building the post-“Daily Show” half-hour into a coveted patch of TV real estate.

In fact, the guests for the show’s premier, Democratic Senator Corey Booker, rapper Talib Kweli and the very smart comedian Bill Burr, give you a sense of the what the show aspires to be: funny, intelligent, and compelling. And it was: What’s the last racist thought you had? “Oh my god,” he said, in what seemed like a truly candid response, which should make for a fun nightly surprise. “I think it was walking down the street yesterday and it was like, ‘Does that white woman think I’m going to steal her purse?’” But Wilmore saved his last thought on Monday night for his predecessor: “A last tip of the hat and wag of the finger to Stephen Colbert. The next step might be to rely more on the host, and less on third parties, recognizing that Colbert and Jon Stewart (who also produces this add-on) can make a half-hour entertaining regardless of who’s in the seats opposite them.

Wilmore took over the timeslot formerly held by Stephen Colbert in “The Colbert Report,” after Colbert departed to take over CBS’s “The Late Show” upon David Letterman’s retirement. 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. 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. 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? 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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