With the instant feedback of Twitter and recaps passing firm judgment from the very first moments of a new television show, pressure is immense on the new crop of late-night talkers — Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show, James Corden’s Late Late Show, and Stephen Colbert’s Late Show — to hit the ground running; you can hardly imagine these hosts getting the weeks (or even months) that it took for Conan O’Brien or David Letterman to find their footing, their voice, and their shows. So it’s worth nothing that the very first joke on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore was this quote-worthy barb, on the troublingly homogenous Oscar nominations: “They’re so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them.” In its inaugural outing, Wilmore’s show still displayed some roughness (or, more accurately, a bit too much smoothness). But at its best, The Nightly Show brings a welcome edge and missing voice to the late-night landscape. Or, as Wilmore put it, “It’s Comedy Central’s worst nightmare: a brother finally gets a show on late-night TV! But of course, he’s gotta work on Martin Luther King Day. Let’s do this!”
Wilmore’s path to late night is a fascinating one, considering that his recurring (but by no means regular) gig on The Daily Show was a sidebar to his real work as a television writer and occasional actor; his background is in sitcoms, writing for Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Office, creating The PJs and The Bernie Mac Show. He spent some time as a stand-up early in his career, but performing was not his key focus — and that may have been what made those Daily Show desk appearances so refreshing. There was never a sense that he was sweating it out for our approval, so he could take provocative positions, or zig when we expected him to zag.
And thus, considering how he’s already crafted a persona rooted in contrarianism, the first joke in his solo desk piece — the show’s substitution for a monologue — made sense, a blast of anger about an Oscar snub: The LEGO Movie (“No, everything is not awesome”). As far as the widely discussed Selma snub? “Oh, black people didn’t get nominated for an Oscar? [Yawn] Yeah I’m mad, I guess.” In that sharp-as-a-tack segment, Wilmore discussed the controversy with the intelligence and edge we’ve come to expect, delving into the topic but issuing very funny side swipes to Selma star David Oyelowo (“He’s a British brother, I don’t really care about them”), Al Sharpton (“You don’t have to respond to every racial emergency, you’re not Black Batman!”), the Grand Central protest (“There’s no better way to win the hearts and minds of white people than to make them miss their train to Connecticut”), and even Gandhi (“Suck it, Gandhi!”).
As he winded down the segment with the question, “Are we protesting too many things here?,” the show’s format — at least for now — became clear: it seems they’ll do a big topic every episode (in the style of fellow Daily Show alum John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight) rather than the nightly news-style multi-topic format of The Daily Show and the slot’s previous occupant, The Colbert Report. It’s a smart move — and presumably one that will make things run even more smoothly between Wilmore and his lead-in, as covering the same slate of stories (as Stewart and Colbert did) can get tricky.
The Nightly Show’s third and fourth segments will feature a panel discussion — a mainstay of Comedy Central late night, dating back to one of their first shows (Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect) and a later almost-hit (Colin Quinn’s Tough Crowd). Last night’s panel featured Senator Cory Booker, musician and activist Talib Kweli, comedian Bill Bur, and Nightly Show contributor Shenaz Treasury; it’s a good group, but these were the less successful segments this time out, because Wilmore hasn’t quite figured out how to conduct the conversation just yet. It’s a specific, particular skill — knowing when to bring people in, how to bounce them off each other, when to top the guests and when to lean back, and he doesn’t quite have that skill yet (a point driven home by the rather obvious seams of the post-production editing). But it’s also a skill that comes with practice, and it seems safe to bet that he’ll get there.
In fact, the second panel segment came off sharper than the first, because Wilmore — ever the writer — had a predetermined gimmick to play with: a regular segment called “Keep It 100,” wherein each panel member gets a question and is instructed to “keep it 100 percent real” or face the wrath of the panel and audience. And everyone passed that test, save for Senator Booker, whose “no” response to the eternal “Do you want to be president?” question (and his subsequent “We are far too concerned with position and purpose”) got him a handful of tea bags from the host (“You get all the weak tea!”).
In the wrap-up, Wilmore indicated that he’ll end each show with his own “Keep It 100” from viewers, and this seems a good guiding principle for the program. Some of Comedy Central’s spikier talents have seen their attempts at vehicles over-formatted and over-sanded (Lewis Black’s unfortunate Root of All Evil leaps to mind), but The Nightly Show seems unlikely to fall into that trap — and Wilmore too defined a talent to let that happen. Throughout the opening show, he seemed at ease, if a little thrown by the rowdy audience’s enthusiasm, and he rolls with the punches well (when an “I can’t breathe” punchline prompted some blowback, he didn’t skip a beat: “Too soon? Yeah, I choked him. Thank you very much”). He’s got a different temperament than his fellow late-night hosts — as with those earlier appearances, and unlike the puppy-doggish Jimmy Fallon, he doesn’t seem particularly eager to please. His persona, a kind of cynical professorial type, is established; he’ll wait for the audience to come to him. Based on last night’s show, it shouldn’t take long.