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January 30, 2015

Keepin' it 100 on The Nightly Show

It’s something of a cliché to bring up Larry Wilmore’s recently departed predecessor in Comedy Central’s 11:30 time slot and how hard it will be for Wilmore to fill his shoes.  It is, by any measure, grossly unfair to compare Wilmore to Stephen Colbert.  The Colbert Report was so innovative and culturally significant that it seems almost obligatory to lead any article about Wilmore’s new show with a discussion about just how hard it will be to fill those shoes.  Though this article may be hypocritical in that it does just that, the first two weeks of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore are evidence of a show that will do just fine on its own, thank you very much.

Wilmore is the third Daily Show alum, after Colbert and John Oliver, to head up his own comedic news-based talk show.  Like those comics before him, Wilmore faced the challenge of differentiating his program from Jon Stewart’s foundational show.  Early on in the pre-show development process, it looked like this show’s calling card would be its “black” perspective on current events.  Wilmore had often worked as The Daily Show’s “senior black correspondent,” and he was the executive producer of ABC’s Blackish — a sitcom which dealt very explicitly with issues of race.  The Nightly Show was even originally titled The Minority Report, a name suggested by Stewart, but that was nixed after Fox threatened a lawsuit over its upcoming TV revival of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report.

So far, it would be difficult to describe the show’s point of view as explicitly “black” (whatever that means) but the tone is very much of the “give no f*@#s” attitude that Wilmore probably had in mind at the outset.  The second episode opens with coverage of the Bill Cosby rape allegations and Wilmore’s pronouncement that “that motherf*@#er did it!”  It’s all in the course of his goal to “keep it 100” (i.e. 100 percent of one’s unfiltered opinion), which manifests itself most acutely in The Nightly Show’s most distinguishing feature, the guest panel.

Though the panel idea is essentially borrowed from HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Wilmore wisely chooses to focus discussions on specific topics, such as Bill Cosby or the controversy surrounding American Sniper.  Where Maher thrives on chaotic discussion and talking down to his guests, Wilmore is surprisingly adept at managing a coherent and productive discussion among parties who come from wildly different backgrounds.  He encourages all his guests to “keep it 100” like him, even if that means openly theorizing about the government using vaccines to kill black people, or alleging deceit on the part of one specific Cosby accuser.  Everything is fair game, and while these panels have remained mostly civil thus far, the viewer gets the distinct impression that at some point a discussion is going to go to a decidedly unfunny place.

Wilmore himself is fairly cautious in this respect.  Like Stewart, he is not averse to making big and bold-sounding statements, but he has yet to bring up anything that is actually going to upset the majority of his Northeast/West Coast liberal audience.  But perhaps that will come with time.  This show has to actually build an audience before it can challenge and offend it.  This is uncharted territory for Comedy Central; they haven’t changed the 11–12 time slot in almost a decade.

No one knows just how sustainable the satirical news model is, and the market is starting to become fairly saturated.  But Larry Wilmore shouldn’t worry about any of that just yet.  He’s put together a fine show and, to keep it 100 for a second, being culturally relevant matters a lot more than hard ratings in this day and age.

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