Let’s get one thing straight: The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore is changing late night comedy and no one seems to have noticed it yet. That is a big statement to make, especially since the show has only had three episodes so far. Some people might think that this is a premature verdict or that it is a big expectation to level at a show that is virtually still in its infancy. The case can be made, however, that the new Comedy Central show is starting the work of breaking down barriers and opening up topics that have constricted late night comedy to a very narrow view for many years.
A big deal has been made about the fact that Wilmore is the only black late night host in television right now. This is a fact that cannot be overstated. When people talk about late night television hosts, they are not just pointing at Colbert and Jon Stewart. Wilmore is the only black man in a long list of hosts, ranging from the late Johnny Carson, to today’s line up of Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, and beyond them to the future crop of hosts, including Colbert (again) and James Corden. In the comedy world, hosting late night television is one of those dream jobs (which is why Colbert’s ascension to the Late Show is such a big break) and it has been an all-white male bastion for decades. Wilmore hosting The Nightly Show is a big step towards a more diverse line-up.
And Wilmore is killing it The Nightly Show. So far, he has had to deal with the awkward beginnings of a show that is still establishing itself and he is doing an excellent job. Forget pigeonholing him as a “black comedian.” He has shown himself a master of comedy, black, white or whatever. As the Boston Globe has already noted, his presence is strong, he has not tried too hard to be funny and he is not copying his Comedy Central predecessors. That is difficult for any comedian to do and only a consummate professional could pull it off, which is exactly what Wilmore is proving himself to be.
That is a personal challenge for the host of the show himself, but The Nightly Show as a program has just as many obstacles to overcome. The biggest is the issue of race and how it approaches the issues surrounding it. From the beginning, The Nightly Show has billed itself as a minority driven show. The commercials publicizing it did so with an emphasis on giving a voice to those who do not have one. The first episode ensured that this is what happened by talking about race from beginning to end without flinching. That subject matter in and of itself is enough to make the first episode groundbreaking in mainstream comedy television, but how the show does so is just as important.
It is no accident that in our culture today “black comedy” is an acknowledged sub-genre. Usually this genre is seen as comedy by black comedians for black people. The idea that it is somehow an “other” type of comedy is difficult for many people to overcome. Mainstream comedy is overwhelmingly white and that has been the dominant culture in late night for years. The Nightly Show, however, is dealing with those issues that are usually considered the purview of black comedy in a mainstream comedy setting. That is a groundbreaking fact. Suddenly viewers are faced with the presence of a typically unseen other. Fans of black comedy who may not see much of it in the mainstream media suddenly have something in the dominant culture to watch. It is arguable that a barrier has been broken through for the first time by The Nightly Show.
That makes the performance of the show very important to watch. How will Wilmore handle this? How will the show approach issues of race in a setting that is often uncomfortable with it? Luckily, Wilmore has some experience and exposure as the Senior Black Correspondent on The Daily Show and he is bringing that to his own show. He is not pulling any punches. He started out the premier by poking fun at Al Sharpton, the whiteness of the Oscar nominations and one of the Democrats’ favorite sons Cory Booker. All three targets received some honest, witty barbs from Wilmore. He told the truth without sugar coating it, but he was funny while he did it, which just might be the saving grace of The Nightly Show‘s otherwise controversial subject matter.
A quote attributed to Oscar Wild goes, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Comedy very often takes on topics that are so emotionally charged that riots have erupted around them and individuals’ lives have been drastically changed. Take, for instance, the allegations of rape leveled against Bill Cosby. People are so divided about this issue that it is dangerous to bring it up in mixed company for fear of starting an impassioned shouting match. It was also the topic of The Nightly Show’s entire second episode.
Wilmore started the show off by saying, “That motherf—er did it.” It was a blunt beginning to what is a touchy subject. Part of what kept this from deteriorating into a Cosby bashing field day was the format of the show, which is another important element to The Nightly Show’s groundbreaking. Instead of keeping tight control over the show and the audience’s attention, Wilmore opens up the second half of the show to a panel of guests who discuss the topic in an unscripted way. Their varying opinions manage to be representative of many people’s views so that many sides of the argument are given airtime. Thus, it is not just Wilmore’s opinion that is given credence, but everyone’s.
Yes, it is a big, big deal to say that the fledgling The Nightly Show is changing late night comedy, but saying it is part of what gets people to sit up an notice how it is doing things that no one else is doing yet. The topics the show chooses, the fact that Wilmore heads the show and the format of a Meet the Press style program are all steps away from the mainstream. This is not just a retread of ground the Colbert has already trod. It is also not just a version of The Daily Show for black people. This is something new and it is refreshing to see.
Opinion by Lydia Bradbury