A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“There is breakfast from The Daily Show in the second-floor pantry,” pipes a woman’s voice through the loudspeakers.
It’s 8:30 a.m. on the morning after The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore premiered on Comedy Central, and staffers are filing into the midtown Manhattan town house that formerly housed The Colbert Report. “Did you watch the show?” asks one. “It was great,” responds another. The formal reviews are beginning to pour in, and it’s clear critics agree.
Seated in his cavernous office two floors above them on this cold January morning is Wilmore, who hasn’t yet rewatched the episode and mercilessly critiqued himself as he intends to do. He went out to dinner with his producers and reps following the taping and failed to set his DVR. “I forgot to record my own show,” he laughs, his laid-back style on display. Fortunately for the first-time host and former Daily Show “senior black correspondent,” nearly 1 million others did tune in, significantly more than @midnight had been garnering in that slot in recent weeks. And Wilmore is likely to lure more as his first week unfolds and he takes on topics from Bill Cosby to Eric Garner with a mix of honesty and humor rarely seen in late-night television.
At 53, Wilmore, a father of two who’s spent decades working behind the camera on such shows as In Living Color, The Bernie Mac Show and, most recently, Black-ish, has landed his dream job. And his enthusiasm was impossible to ignore as he came bounding onto the Nightly Show set some 14 hours earlier to greet his first studio audience, a 133-person melting pot of age and ethnicity. He fielded a few questions: Was he bummed he had to drop the series’ original title, The Minority Report, after Fox, which is rebooting Steven Spielberg‘s movie of the same name, threatened legal action? (Answer: “The show could be called You’re Up Next and I’d be excited.”) Why were all of the second hands on the set clocks running backward? (Answer: same reason the maps were inverted. “We want to look at things a little differently.”
By all accounts, night one of the show Wilmore has described as a Daily Show and Politically Incorrect hybrid had gone remarkably well, with the biggest flub made not by Wilmore but by his mentor, Nightly Show creator and executive producer Jon Stewart. In pretaping the post-Daily Show toss, Stewart introduced Wilmore as host of The Nightly Report, an understandable slipup after 10 seasons as Stephen Colbert‘s lead-in. But 45 minutes later, Stewart turned up in his uniform baseball cap and khakis at Wilmore’s 54th Street studio to show support for his latest protege, just as he did for Nightly‘s string of test shows a week earlier.
Wilmore invited THR to the first show and sat for an interview about Hollywood’s fraught relationship with diversity, his distaste for Bill Cosby and the opportunity he has that so many late-night hosts do not.
With this platform, how much of an obligation do you feel to make race as central a piece as it was on night one?
There was a part of me that didn’t want to start talking about any kind of racial issue on the first show because I wanted to distinguish what I was doing. But after a while, I said, “Who cares? It’s MLK Day, that’s your permission to talk about this stuff. Don’t ignore the obvious. That’s what you do, so just do it.”
Do you worry about being pigeonholed?
Not at this point. And if you’re going to pigeonhole me at a couple million viewers, that’s fine. As long as you say I’m the guy who’s real about it, I have no problem being the person who people look to to talk about race.
Night two, you go after Cosby. A lot of black comics have not wanted to attack a guy who opened so many doors …
Unfortunately, some of those doors were to hotel rooms. (Laughs.)
Did you have any hesitation?
He was never a hero of mine. I liked Cosby, but I have a different relationship with him than a lot of people because I didn’t grow up on The Cosby Show. I grew up on I Spy and Chet Kincaid. I remember in the late ’70s, early ’80s, my mom met Bill Cosby down in San Diego at this tennis tournament. She came back and said, “We asked him for his autograph, and he was so mean, so nasty. He said, ‘I don’t do that.’ ” I was like, “Man, what an asshole.” My opinion of Cosby at that point was like, “What a jerk.” I never even watched The Cosby Show. I always thought, “That’s great that that show is on,” but about him I was like, “Whatever, Cosby.” Richard Pryor was my hero. Richard Pryor was keeping it 100 [percent real].
? Man, that’s the cost of like 40 seconds of the Iraq war.””]
One of your first bits was about Selma‘s Oscar snub. You joked that you were outraged by The Lego Movie‘s omission, but of Selma you said, “Yeah, I’m mad, I guess.” Why?
I actually was genuinely upset that The Lego Movie was not nominated. I love that movie. [As for Selma,] it’s hard to get me outraged over stuff that happens all the time. I think it’s part of my comic point of view.
So it doesn’t get to you?
The problem is, it’s Hollywood. If we were talking about the government or certain institutions, sure, but it’s Hollywood! I do not look to Hollywood to give me character clues. What I try to do is make a difference by hiring people and giving people jobs behind the scenes. That stuff is important, and many studios and networks have made great strides there. Thursday night is Shonda [Rhimes] night. A black female producer owning a night of television? That’s huge. But awards? They’re esoteric and nebulous, and it’s not the same as making sure that Ava DuVernay, a black female director, gets a shot at making a movie. That, to me, is more important; the other stuff is gravy. You can grumble about it — and it’s fun to grumble — but I don’t think that’s a race we’re ever going to catch up in if people are expecting that. So, I’d say it’s frustrating but I’m not real angry about it. I’m more like, “Once again Hollywood, thank you for not letting me down.”
In TV, diversity has become the “hot trend” this season.
Funny, right? Black is finally the new black again. Thank you, black, get out of here, orange.
There were some who had fears heading into this TV season that if a few of these diverse shows, be it Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat or Cristela, didn’t work, risk-averse executives would have written off diversity with the Hollywood philosophy of, “We tried it and it didn’t work.”
Margaret Cho had a show on ABC [in 1994] and it didn’t work, so it’s, “Well, we tried Korean girls and it didn’t work. Sorry, Korean girls.”
Twenty years go by before they do another one. Did you have any concerns about that?
I think you’re always thinking that in the back of your mind and you’re hoping that it works out.
Back in the ’90s, you worked on black network shows that thrived, including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and In Living Color. Why did they all but disappear for so many years?
I’ve talked about this over the years, and have tried to diagnose it. In my book [I’d Rather We Got Casinos and Other Black Thoughts] I wrote an essay called “Bring Back the Shetland Negro.” That was my prescription for fixing the ills of television. It’s one of those cycles you hate to be on the downside of. Part of it was TV growing so big and networks becoming more narrow; it’s not broadcast anymore but narrowcast. It became harder and harder to put comedies on the air, and harder to put comedies with black or diverse people in them. I’ve reacted to it by always trying to keep putting something on the air. I’ve pitched many things that have not gone, but every year I’m in that pilot game, like a lot of other writers in Hollywood.
How surprised were you when Jon Stewart offered you a show last spring?
I didn’t see it coming. When Stephen announced he was going to do Letterman’s show, a friend of mine had said, “Larry, man, you should take over his slot.” I was like, “No, no.” I was doing Black-ish at the time. Then he tweeted it and put it on Facebook and it kind of went viral. I remember having a conversation with Jon, where I said, “If I ever did do this, I’d love to do it with you.” He said, “Well, I haven’t really weighed in on this, but you know I’ve always loved working with you.” We had a casual conversation about it. No big deal. I just thought, “Well, I’ll put it out in the universe and at least talk to Jon,” but then I really didn’t think about it. And then when I was in New York to do The Daily Show, Jon called me in and said he’d been thinking about this idea and he pitched it to me. I was dumbfounded.
You did a handful of test shows prelaunch. What did you learn?
The test show on Wednesday [Jan. 14] was our first show in front of an audience that wasn’t our staff and it was flat. I wasn’t connected. We tried a piece in the third act where we brought everybody over and we did some, not improv thing, but — I can barely remember it now. It just didn’t work. So I was up until 4:30 Thursday morning panicked. It’s got to be more than just funny, you have to feel like it’s a show and that there’s a point for it to be on, otherwise “click.” I stayed up all night and I said to myself, “Strip away everything, what is the show at its essence?” I realized, at the core of the show, it’s really about keeping it real, keeping it 100. That feeling has to be in every part of the show. That’s what I’m delivering to the audience, and that they’re expecting — that that’s why Larry’s here, he’s gonna tell us the truth. When I realized that, I got up and I wrote about five pages of what that means, and one of the things I came up with during that hazy period was the third act, which would be me asking the panelists to keep it 100.
What was the most meaningful piece of advice Jon Stewart has provided in this process?
Jon came by one night and he really enjoyed it, but then we talked privately afterward. He’s always very straight forward and honest, you’re like a kid in the principal’s office. He said, ‘Hey, man, you gotta stop being the host. You gotta be you.’ And he was right. I had all these things going through my head and I was so concerned with being a good host and all that.
You’ve taken shots at Oprah Winfrey and Al Sharpton. It seems you don’t want your show to take a pass on the black liberal elite. Was that by design?
Nobody gets a pass. That’s great that was your takeaway, because I know some people watched that show and think the opposite. It’s funny, the tweets you get. A month before launch, somebody writes, “I hope you and your shit show fails.” And I’m like, “Well, give me a chance to make a shit show first!” There were some horrible things people wrote. “It’s just another lib-tard!”
Who would be on your dream panel?
At some point later this year, I want to do a presidential panel with four people, maybe two from each side, who are actually running for president. I can’t wait to ask them questions in the “Keep It 100” segment. I’m going to have to get a bucket of weak tea to throw at them [Wilmore rewards panelists with a badge of honor or a “weak tea” bag, depending on how truthful his audience finds the answers]. And I’d love to have an all-kid panel for a special show, because there’s nothing like the stuff that comes out of kids.
You’ve launched a late-night comedy show in an era defined by incidents from Eric Garner to Ferguson, neither of which are remotely funny. How do you strike that balance?
I always make distinctions with everything I do. There’s a distinction between some content being funny and my presentation of provocative content being entertaining. That’s where we are, as opposed to the content itself has to have humor in it. That’s a losing game. So I can’t rely on the president making a funny flub, that’s just not what the show is. I have to get into what the president really means when he’s saying something — what’s the irony and why I think it’s bullshit or whatever.
You moved behind the camera early in your career because, you’ve said, you weren’t the style that TV was hiring. What did that mean? What changed?
They were hiring someone who felt like they were from the ghetto, or had this point of view that was what they called “street” or “urban.” Here I am doing smart political humor, and they’re all, “You can go f– yourself. We don’t want to hear any of that.” But I figured, I can write that, and I can get my skill behind the camera, and in time, maybe someone will be ready to hear my point of view. … Here we are all these years later, and my brand hasn’t changed at all. One of my early stand-up bits was called “Black Away.” A friend of mine was on the phone trying to rent an apartment. If you hear him talking, you know he’s a brother, and all he got was, “No, no, no.” Then I called the same place, using my nonbrother voice, and suddenly there were vacancies. So I wrote a bit called “Black Away,” where if you buy this product that takes the black out of your voice, you can do all these things. I wrote that in 1984. That’s how long ago I was crafting this point of view.
You were raised in the Los Angeles suburbs, one of two black kids in your Catholic school. How did that background inform your comedy?
And we went from middle class to lower class when my parents got divorced. It gave me perspective on a lot of things. There was a point where our roof literally caved in. My brother and I were looking through this hole in the roof, and I said, “Man, I’m just not going to live like this.” It gave me some purpose. And I’ll be honest with you, it keeps you humble in a certain way. I can look back and know I had Tuna Helper for Christmas one time. I can relate to having to not know what’s going to happen. Growing up mainly in a white environment, I knew I was always different, too. I’ve always said it was like I was at a family reunion — but I’m not in the family.
The last question, in your “Keep It 100” format: Would you have gotten your own show sooner if you were white?