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Days after learning that his Comedy Central late-night series The Nightly Show would be coming to an abrupt end, Larry Wilmore signed off Thursday night with an episode that centered on celebrating the show’s family of contributors, including exec producer Jon Stewart.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Wilmore shortly before his final Nightly Show taping about saying goodbye, his late-night legacy and what’s next.
How are you feeling?
It’s hard to describe. It all feels surreal. It’s a mixed feeling of proud of the things we’ve done and sad that we’re not going to be able to do it anymore. I guess it’s a swirl of that — we have an ice cream truck here today and they’re swirling a lot of flavors, so that’s what I feel like today.
Take me back to your conversation with Comedy Central. What was your immediate reaction and what questions did you have for them?
I had already been informed by my agent, so by the time I spoke to Comedy Central I already knew what was going on. I thanked them for the opportunity because at that point there was nothing to be done. It was a generally pleasant conversation. I’ve known these guys for a long time; we started at The Daily Show. As disappointed as I was, it’s weird but I was more filled with gratitude at this point to have had the opportunity. If it was a conversation before the [cancelation] decision had been made, it probably would have been a much more engaged conversation.
What kind of questions would you have had for them if this was before the decision?
We would have tried to work it out, tried to find a way to really get the show seen more and get more eyeballs on it — to try to work together to do that.
Given how much the late-night landscape has changed — and as you look at the rising importance of these viral clips on social media — what do you think you could have done differently?
You never know; sometimes you’re a victim of circumstance. We were a bit invisible where we were and we did have some clips that did go viral but there is a lot of competition out there and eyeballs go to a lot of different places. It’s hard to predict viral-ness, because by its nature it’s unpredictable. There’s no formula for it, so it’s a tough thing to answer.
As it sits now, you have no outlet to cover the election. Had you had the opportunity to talk with Comedy Central before it made its final decision, would you have considered doing a short deal extension just to cover it?
We didn’t end our season; it’s been cut short. That’s why I was surprised — because the new season starts in January. We started our first season in January this year, so it pretty much looked like that of a season. I thought we were going to go through the election, so I was just very disappointed that we weren’t.
Have you thought about where you would like to provide commentary on the election?
I haven’t had a chance to yet. I’m going to sit down next week with some of my peeps and try to think about all of that. I’ve had a few people call me with ideas and things like that and a lot of them I’m like, “Slow your roll everybody! Give me a chance to breathe, we’re still here.” I have some time to think it through. I really appreciate the outpouring of support and thoughtfulness; it really is amazing. Because it’s such an unusual election, I wouldn’t mind having some input somewhere. But I’ll figure it out. It may be as simple as me tweeting, or it may be something a little more structured.
Who have been some of the people who have reached out with ideas?
I’d rather not say; it’s just some people around the industry.
You have a long relationship with TBS/TNT’s Kevin Reilly, dating back to The Office. TBS has found success with Samantha Bee and may need a companion. Have you thought about doing that? Have you spoken with Kevin?
No, I haven’t spoken with Kevin yet. I’m open to many possibilities. I also want to get back into half-hours and creating content. It’s something I really enjoyed. So, getting into another late-night show is not actively what I want to do. There are some larger things that I want to do as well. I may produce something a bit larger scale and maybe have this show incorporated as part of that. I’m always excited about the next phase. I always try to live life like I get an abundance of something, rather than the deficit of it. Because now I look at it like, “OK, I can go somewhere and do something else and present something in a different way.”
Have you thought about a hybrid show that’s part scripted and part commentary?
In terms of what another show would look like, I haven’t thought about it at all. We’ll see. I’ll take all I’ve learned from this process and from doing this show and put it into the next one, that’s for sure. There are a lot of things that I really liked about this and you wonder about things that are a little more frustrating, too, and whether there are ways to produce it or preform. It does take a while to get comfortable. I give people that make it look easy a lot of credit. It’s impossible to know what it’s like until you’re doing it.
With Nightly Show in the books, how open are you to doing late night again?
Very open. I don’t know if I’d want to do it every night though. If I’m going to switch it up I’d really think about doing a once-a-week thing. I think it might be more suited to what I do. I’m in my 50s at this point! Seriously, why do I need to be working every day?! I should be setting an example for pacing yourself, not for wearing yourself out! Let the young guys do the everyday thing, that’s what I say! I need to be a role model for my own people! And when I say “my own people,” I’m talking age right now. By the way, that’s been one of the most rewarding things of doing this show: all the love I’ve gotten from people — let’s say the 35-60 group. That’s the group the advertisers really don’t care about, right?! We’ve been so proud that all age groups have really embraced our show. People say they watch with their family and I love that. To me that is a plus, not a minus. When you’re working where the younger group is the most coveted and you have to target them, that’s very frustrating to me as someone who doesn’t really care about that. But what are you going to do?!
You’ve addressed the outpouring of support on the air, with booze from Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert. Who else has reached out?
John Oliver sent me a note the other day. He and I are good friends. He texts that he’s sending booze, but I haven’t seen any booze! Trevor Noah [host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show] reached out. I really don’t know Trevor well but we’ve spoken a couple of times and they sent over some pastries. Stephen sent me a note, too. Everyone’s been really nice.
You started with The Daily Show as the “Senior Black Correspondent.” Have you considered popping back in with Trevor?
You never know! The Senior Black Correspondent technically never lost his job. Maybe he was away on assignment!
Would you work with Comedy Central again?
You never say never in this business. Those things are unlikely right after this; this is a place that probably felt like they had their shot with me. It’s not likely that they are going to want to do something right away. I would say that that would probably be an unlikely scenario. But, never say never.
Let’s talk about the last show. What do you hope to accomplish with this final episode?
We have Jon Stewart guest and he just wanted to say a few words and he interrupted my top of show thing, which is fun. I want to show a retrospective of some of the work from the contributors and let them get their applause in front of the audience and have my last roundtable with all of them out there just shooting a breeze and talking about fun little bits of behind-the-scenes stuff and questions from the audience for them. It’s like you get to see the whole family together. Finally, I’ll have a simple thing that I’ll say to the audience — a simple thank you and sign off very simply.
What advice did Jon have for you about moving forward from this?
I don’t know if we’ve talked about that. I know I want to grow a beard like he has! I’ll ask him some advice on that and raising pigs because I know he’s doing that. He gave me one of those pep talks and we commiserated a bit.
How upset was he?
He was very upset. It was very nice just to be able to talk to him. He’s been through this before himself, too. People forget Jon went through quite a time before he did The Daily Show and had a lot of ups and downs so he’s been there before.
Have you talked about collaborating again with him?
I’m sure that’s always a possibility. He’s awesome.
Normally when shows like this end, they see the end coming and hosts are able to drop the filter. But you really never seemed like you were particularly filtered.
That’s true. Our motto is “Keep it 100.” That’s the whole point — drop the filter and that’s what the audience comes to expect and that expectation creates a lot of fun on our show and fun for the audience. It wasn’t just a game; it was our freedom. I enjoyed that all the time. It was very challenging and raised the bar. We had to be honest with ourselves about a lot of different things.
Is there anything you feel that you had to hold back on over the last 20 months?
I don’t think so. Whenever we hit stories, we gave it our all. There was nothing where I was like, “I should have talked about that.”
Looking back, what kind of legacy do you hope Nightly Show will leave behind? When people talk about it what’s the thing that you want them to say?
I’m very proud of the fact that we put voices on TV that rarely get voices and say and control the narrative. We were a diverse group of people — both the front-of and behind the camera. We talked about issues that aren’t easy issues to talk about in America. We had that conversation and we had a lot of fun with it. Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes we didn’t succeed so much. We gave it our all and I hope people kind of appreciated that we did that. We were the little show that kept on it.
You made sure to get one last Bill Cosby mini-rant in this week. Is not seeing that story through to the end a bigger regret than not seeing the election through to its end?
It’s funny that that issue really was the bigger issue for me on our show as opposed to race or politics. I was probably the most passionate about abuse and harassment. I feel that it’s powerful when men can speak up on these things and give voice to it. It’s something that I’m very happy to do. I’m not going away though. I can still speak up on that.
You have HBO’s Issa Rae comedy Insecure coming up on and you’re an EP on ABC’s Blackish. How much of a focus will you have on scripted going forward? Will you be more involved in one or both of those?
I left Blackish to do this but Insecure, I was a consultant on the first season after co-creating it. We’ll see. That will be some of the things I’ll be thinking about and, when I talk about scripted, that’s what I mean, half-hour and getting back into that world. I really love storytelling. It’s really something that I miss. As much as I love doing this, I really love storytelling as well. I’ll probably be doing something like that more immediately.
Do you have an overall deal anywhere? Is that something that’s of interest to you?
Definitely. I’d love to set up shop somewhere and develop projects — film, TV, digital —would be a fun thing to do. And I love mentoring people, too, and working with Kenya Barris [on Blackish] and then being able to go somewhere else again.
If you had the option of going anywhere — broadcast, basic/premium cable or streaming — what kind of space would you like to be in?
That’s a tough question to answer because even as you’re saying that it just goes to show how many outlets there are. And they’re all attractive. You talk to the people and you see where you have relationships where you can accomplish what you want to do. I’ve been around so long that I know a lot of the people — and most of the places, too — which is nice because there’s mutual respect and we can really talk about the types of collaborations that we’re looking for.
Where do you feel most comfortable: late-night host, stand-up comedian, writer, actor or producer?
Probably producing. I like putting it together and seeing it through from beginning to end. Writing is the most frustrating, but it’s something that I’ve always done. All writers have a love-hate relationship with writing. Preforming is fun, too, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite. But the most fulfilling is producing.
[Laughing] He would say that there was a gun held to the heads of the people at the network! I cannot believe that situation! That is amazing!
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