'The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore': First Impressions

Solid first night with some potential tweaks to consider.

Larry Wilmore kicked off his hosting duties for The Nightly Show on Comedy Central Monday with a predictably strong first effort (he's a proven funny guy, what did you expect?) but — reality alert — a definite first effort.

As I've said many times before, I have no problem writing about late-night talk shows making their debut, but it's obviously unfair to "review" them, so this will not be that.

New shows, especially live ones, are unlike a television pilot that has had six months to get it right. Like all new shows of this ilk, The Nightly Show will be a work in progress for many nights, weeks and even months. It takes a show — any show — a long time to find its identity, its rhythm and, most important, its weak spots. Trial and error are just part of the process, so giving Wilmore and The Nightly Show a fair and reasoned review will be something for the future.

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But as for first impressions: I liked it. Wilmore himself is a smart, funny performer who is no stranger to The Daily Show crowd. Most viewers probably knew what to expect for the most part. And besides, it's 2015, and nobody has seriously reimagined the format in ages (or at least since the launch of The Colbert Report — and Wilmore thanked his good friend at the end of Monday's show).

Wilmore kicked off the night with some light banter with Jon Stewart and then got down to business — and that business was a show that blended pretty seamlessly with its lead-in The Daily Show, which is a smart strategy.

Less of an overt showman like Colbert, Wilmore fits the Stewart mold more snugly, and if Comedy Central can keep this a tight, informative combination of shows that retain a loyal audience, I'm sure everybody involved will be happy.

Wilmore joked about working on the MLK holiday (but he did that at the Television Critics Association winter press tour recently, so we knew that was coming), joked about The Lego Movie getting snubbed as a feint to talking about Selma. In riffing about Selma star David Oyelowo not getting a nomination, Wilmore said, "He's a British brother — I don't really care about them" (one of the night's better jokes) and then took Al Sharpton down a few notches for being "the black Batman" who always rushes to speak to the media when race issues pop up.

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Prior to that, Wilmore joked about 2014 being a year chock-full of "good bad" race issues, and if he'd only had this show a year ago, it might have worked out better. He kept it light and brisk, fending off a super enthusiastic audience (whose eager applause can slow things down when you're worried about your first show) and didn't let it deter him from a number of funny asides (like, "Suck it, Gandhi").

Wilmore also was deftly able to reset the tone of the night to be a little more serious when he joked about Florida police officers using pictures of African-American men for target practice. It's the kind of studied tonal shift that Stewart is a master at and Wilmore encouragingly seems to have a knack for as well.

Less successful was a Real Time With Bill Maher-esque roundtable (or in this case, square table) of guests discussing the issues of the day. Wilmore welcomed New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, hip-hop artist and activist Talib Kweli, comedian Bill Burr and Indian model-actress (and now Nightly Show staffer, apparently) Shenaz Treasury. The panel took on a series of issues, but, probably because there were first-night jitters for all involved, it was a staccato, hit-and-miss affair. Unless you really enjoy people talking over one another, these kinds of things can go either way. It probably didn't help that the square table they were sitting at — two on each side with Wilmore at the head — led to some awkward camera angles (the backs of the participants, Wilmore seeming too far out of frame, etc.).

The technical stuff can get fixed in time, and guests will loosen up (and, again, it really does come down to who's on that night and if they get a chance to express a complete thought before being drowned out by the other guests). One solution might be fewer guests.

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One of Wilmore's signature bits is called "Keep It 100," defined by Wilmore as a segment where the guests have to "keep it 100 percent real" in their responses to his random questions (that are essentially tailor-made for short replies). This segment didn't work for me because the verdict — did they or did they not keep it 100? — is apparently left in the hands of the audience, who applauded nearly every response, no matter how mealy-mouthed. Booker's definitive "no" response when asked whether he wanted to be president was one of the few to elicit boos from the audience, with Wilmore jokingly throwing bags of "the weak tea" at the senator.

Yeah, that bit needs some polish or a tighter set of rules. But Tuesday's topic of Bill Cosby is certainly one to tune in for.

Something else to tinker with is the set, which is reminiscent of Stewart's (visually not a bad thing) overall, but the main backdrop — an elongated globe — is too drab with its black and gray coloring (although the subpar TV here at the TCA hotel might have had an influence on my opinion).

But yes, spicing things up behind Wilmore should be on the agenda — in his all-dark suit, the washed-out effect was emphasized.

These are all small issues that pretty much every single late-night host has faced. It's why this is a "first impression" rather than a review. And the slight nitpicking should not obscure the fact that overall Wilmore was funny; his show was smart and thoughtful, has a bright future and seems an excellent fit with Stewart and the Comedy Central brand.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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