'Nightly Show' Staffers Talk Covering Paris Attacks, Story Behind Larry Wilmore's Various Looks in Opening Credits

Larry Wilmore - H - 2015
Associated Press

The Comedy Central late-night host also reveals that he intentionally has a diverse staff, many members of which joined him at Saturday's New York Comedy Festival panel.

Just because The Nightly Show tries to find a humorous approach to current events, don't expect the Comedy Central late-night show to necessarily cover Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris or events that have occurred as a result of the tragedy.

Answering an audience question about reconciling the attacks and comedy at Saturday's New York Comedy Festival panel with the Nightly Show creative team, executive producer and Daily Show alum Rory Albanese said The Nightly Show has no obligation to cover everything in the news.

"Just because we're a topical show, we're really not a news network, so our ability to decide what it is we want to talk about on our show is not based on anything other than what we think is going to put out the best episode of The Nightly Show," Albanese said. "The expectation that we have a responsibility of some kind to talk about that event just because it just occurred, that's not necessarily the case. Our responsibility is, like we said, we're a comedy show. It's our responsibility to make sure that every night from 11:30 to 12 we can make some people laugh before they go to bed. And if we can mention the France thing in an elegant way, we will and if not …"

Wilmore also pointed out that there was still a bit of time before Monday.

"Monday's going to feel different than today, it's going to feel a little different than tomorrow, and we'll assess at that time what we need," he said. "To be honest with you, many times like this, I think people do need to laugh sometimes. And what I really appreciate about our show: We also have a discussion part of it where we can pull both of those levers, where we can have a conversation about it and get some laughs out of it."

Contributor Jordan Carlos echoed Wilmore's sentiment.

"I would only mention that I think that humor's great, and especially shows like ours, because comedy is subversive and comedy stands up to zealotry," said Carlos. "So it's important to have comedy in times like these, to laugh, to find a way eventually to laugh. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but we will find a way, and that's how we'll negotiate it."

Wilmore added that they would take the same approach as they did at The Daily Show.

"What we're always trying to do when we're doing these shows — Jon [Stewart] had the same idea at The Daily Show — is we're trying to find the humanity in the story. First of all: What is the humanity? We try to pull that out of it," he said. "And if we can pull the humor through the humanity, that's what we're trying to do."

In general, Wilmore noted that his show is taking the point of view of the underdog, a concept illustrated by its initial name, The Minority Report. And beyond that, he and his team are trying to cover a few core issues.

"Jon Stewart mentioned this. … He said, 'Larry, I'll be honest with you, every important issue in this country, at the root of it, I guarantee you there's going to be race, class or gender.' And it's those three things, to be honest with you, that we're looking at many times. It's not just race, but class and gender are important issues."

Still, Albanese said that on a day-to-day basis there are fewer conceptual discussions about format (whether to take on an issue via a skit, Wilmore's commentary or a panel discussion) and more scrambling to quickly figure out the most effective way to present something.

"I think the perception always is that we're sitting in a room and we're having this larger strategy conversation about how much is palatable for the audience, but what we're really trying to do is, 'Oh shit, we've got a show to do tonight.' It's a lot to produce," Albanese said. "What we've done with this show is we've taken The Daily Show and made it five times harder to do and 50 times more complex. … We're really not having as many intimate strategy conversations as we're going, 'OK what works? What doesn't work?' We're having the writers writing a lot of stuff; we're picking what works. So having Larry in everything is probably the most ideal scenario. But with a show like this, it's really about, how do we break down the story that we're talking about in the most efficient comedic way, and what's the best way to tell that story. … It's not about, 'How do we have a balance of Larry and other people?' so much as 'What's the best way to take the story we're talking about?' … 'What is the joke and what's the best way to express the joke to the audience?'"

One of the ways the show is expressing its perspective, which viewers may not have realized, is through the many incarnations of Wilmore's anchorman that flash during the show's opening credits, including his 1970s alter ego, Soul Daddy, who has made some appearances on the show.

"If you watch the opening credits, the conceit is that Larry has been doing this show since the '60s. So he's in like an Edward R. Murrow haircut in one of those images and then he's Soul Daddy," Albanese said, with head writer Robin Thede interjecting that viewers should look out for the shot of Wilmore with a Jheri curl in front of Chernobyl. "So we have this whole backstory to Larry. … He's reporting maybe 100 feet in front of Chernobyl, which by the way, is not a great assignment to get. The '80s were rough. … The idea was he had this kind of hip show in the '70s. In the '80s he kind of got into some bad stuff and he ended up as a local news reporter who had to go to Chernobyl. So we've actually talked about having a lot of those characters appear [on the show]."

Moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested that Wilmore should also create a character from the future, "either in the world where we wanted it to go or one where our worst fears have been realized. And then you get to speak of it as current events just to offer perspective."

That prompted Wilmore to recall how on Laugh-In, a "News of the Future" segment would often include lines like, "President Reagan said," followed by laughs, with the audience thinking, "Hahaha, no way there's going to be a President Reagan."

"Anybody that laughs at the thought that there may not be a President Trump…" Wilmore added as the audience at New York's Paley Center went silent. "People got scared," he observed before another panel participant added, "They should be."

In addition to Wilmore, Albanese, Thede and Carlos, the panel included contributors Ricky Velez, Holly Walker and newcomer Grace Parra, who just joined the show two weeks ago.

The group represents a variety of different backgrounds, which Wilmore said was his goal when he was assembling the show's creative team.

"What's really nice about the group that we've put together is it was part of our mission from the beginning to find people from different walks of life and different points of view," Wilmore said. "The mission from the beginning was to hire an eclectic group of people. [People say,] 'How is your team so diverse?' Because that's what I wanted."