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Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show is about to hit a milestone: Wednesday will mark the 100th edition of Larry Wilmore‘s late-night series, to which the host has a one-word response: “Wow.”
The Nightly Show‘s brand of smart, focused comedy mixed with more serious-minded commentary has really found its stride in recent months, with Wilmore’s desk bits getting sharper and panel discussions becoming more consistently engaging. Ratings have been solid if unspectacular, but Comedy Central has faith in the show’s long-term viability, Wilmore says.
Which is a good thing, because at the moment Wilmore is the channel’s late-night standard-bearer as The Daily Show transitions from the end of the Jon Stewart era to the debut of Trevor Noah on Sept. 28.
Wilmore took a break from prepping Monday’s show — which focused on the political sideshow at the Iowa State Fair and the New York Times exposé of Amazon’s work environment — for a wide-ranging interview about the show’s progress over its seven months on air, Stewart’s departure, Noah’s arrival and the comedy gold mine that is a certain presidential candidate.
Seven months and almost 100 shows in …
Do you feel like the process of putting the show together is pretty well figured out?
It’s getting there. It’s definitely getting there. When you’re first doing it, fear is guiding everything. (Laughs.) It’s amazing how that works. But after a while — in the last few months — I think we’ve really gotten into a nice rhythm, and we know what to expect.
It’s a process that keeps refining itself the more and more that you do it. Our exec producer Rory Albanese, he came up through the ranks at The Daily Show, and he’s seen every iteration of how to do that show. I think he was there for 15 years. It’s good to have somebody with that kind of experience here. He has a lot of patience for knowing how long things take to get into a certain rhythm. The Daily Show, it took a while for them to figure out how to do that all the time and make that machine work.
You’ve been in a lot of writers rooms and have run several of them over your career. Is there a major difference between one that turns a show out every night versus a show a week?
Definitely. The biggest difference is there’s no time to think about how to fine-tune something over a certain period of time. In a sitcom, you’re working on a story for a couple of weeks, you get to rewrite it. Even when you shoot it, you can fine-tune the edit. There are so many chances to make it right.
Here, you’re talking about it and it’s on that night, so you can’t let perfect get in the way of good. You just have to really do the best you can on any given day, and remember the next day you have to do it all over again. At first, the thought of that is very daunting, but after that it’s kind of freeing too.
Have there been some recent shows where, top to bottom, you feel like, “That’s the show we want to do every night”?
Yeah, and the more that happens, the nicer it feels to get the validation from the network. Sometimes we’ll get a call where [they say], “Oh man, that’s great. That’s exactly what you should be doing.” We seem to be hitting that more and more, so that’s fun.
Any specific ones of late?
Oh God, my brain is such a mush. We really knew we were starting to hit our stride when we were covering all the stuff happening in Baltimore. I went down and talked to a gang there and everything, and we just felt this is the type of thing we should be doing on our show. It really kind of hit home.
But at the same time, we have fun covering the election. We’re calling it “The Unblackening” of the White House, and it’s fun to cover from our point of view. Trump and all that stuff. Putting that through the prism is a lot of fun.
Yet you did a bit last week with regard to Donald Trump where you were like, “OK, it’s time to get serious.”
Right. “Stop it.” (Laughs.) But we’re not stopping it.
As a comedian and a comedy writer, it must be awfully hard to actually stop it.
It’s the gift that generously keeps giving, and it would be really bad manners of me not to accept it.
Are you very self-critical?
Tremendously so. Like, I can’t watch myself, or it’s very hard to. Sometimes I’ll watch bits and pieces, but then I have to turn it off. [It’s like] “I’m terrible. I’m the worst.”
Are there any elements of the show you think aren’t quite there yet?
It’s not that so much as I know our job is to continue to find things. I don’t know what those things are until we discover them. We’re continuing even to audition people and find new people for the show who can be part of it and a voice of the show. The types of bits we do — we keep trying to invent more of those types of things. And the things we’re already doing, we try to make them better and keep fine-tuning that.
In terms of the content, it’s like, “OK, what do we really want to say about this particular thing? … How are we saying something that’s different from how anybody else is saying it? What’s our unique way of covering this story?” [We] keep hammering that home.
It seems as well that where The Daily Show has the structure of a news show and The Colbert Report was structured like a talking-head show, you’re not exactly either one.
Ours is a little more fluid. A lot of it we’re just making up, you know? (Laughs.) There really is no antecedent for it. Some of it — the talk part is kind of like those Meet the Press type of shows, but now that’s kind of the easy part, to be honest with you. It was a little tougher at first.
The more challenging parts are the real comic parts of the show, and how we grow that being as unique [as we can] and not stepping on what The Daily Show does. That’s why you won’t see us saying, “And now our correspondent in Blah-blah.” We’ll cut to an actual mom who’s on the scene — like during the thing in Baltimore, we cut to the civil-unrest mom who was beating her son. That’s who we went to rather than someone who was covering the civil-unrest mom, which is how The Daily Show would do it.
You seem to have found a good line between comedy and commentary in your desk pieces. Is that just a matter of feel?
Definitely. And I think it’s kind of my personality, too. I don’t mind covering topics that are difficult. I think that’s another area where we can set ourselves apart. Everything isn’t just about a silly, haha laugh. Some things are a little more pointed, and then we can have a laugh about it, or have a laugh in a different way. Once again, it’s a way to separate ourselves from the way other people are covering it. … A lot of that is kind of my point of view as well.
We’ll say in the writers room, this is a little serious but we just can’t ignore it. We have to cover it. We’ll have that conversation. It’s something that’s just too big. That’s what happened with the Sandra Bland thing. I kind of avoided it for a few days because there just wasn’t enough information about it. Then when they released that dash-cam video, it was just so disturbing that I at least wanted to cover that part of it. There wasn’t enough information to really talk about the part in jail, but that part was so public, I felt we could at least have a discussion about it.
Seven months ago would you have had any inkling you’d still be talking about Ferguson?
I know. It’s so insane. I made a joke about that the first night, that all the race stuff is done. (Laughs.) It’s just amazing — I don’t even know what to say about it, I’ll be honest with you. I just can’t believe it that there’s always something.
Part of that has to be the age we live in that things get seen …
Where before it wouldn’t. You’d have to have a larger incident where someone was really doing a good job recording or reporting on it. But now you have your citizen reporters. It’s a lot different.
This is a loaded question, but do you see there being a tipping point where something causes meaningful change in relations between law enforcement and African-Americans?
I hope so. If we’re a part of it, that would be great too. Hopefully something can happen where at least there’s more awareness of why these things keep happening. If we’re a part of that conversation, then that’s great. But also, we enjoy doing a comedy show, too. The consciousness part of it — even on The Daily Show, I always felt that was the bonus part. Our job foremost is to do a comedy show that’s entertaining and get our commentary in there.
What guests would you still like to have on the show?
Gotta have the pope. (Laughs.) At this point, I’d love to have somebody like Donald Trump. That would be more of an interview, not a panel. We like ordinary people, too. We like finding people we haven’t seen that much more than getting big stars or that kind of thing — people who really have a passion about something. We’re going to continue to look for those kinds of people, as well as discovering new comics who we haven’t really seen.
Is it harder to steer a conversation when you have a mix of people vs. all comics?
I like having a mix of people. I think it’s more interesting to get humor out of some solid content, and it’s nice to have a person on there who can give you that content. I don’t want to do panels where it’s just me setting up comics to do jokes from their act. I would have been through after a month [if that had happened]. I would have been so disappointed.
I like people who have interesting things to say. And even if you’re a comic, it’s your point of view first and you’re just being funny about it more than just some kind of surface-y joke. We’re always trying to find that if we can. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t comics but who are very entertaining in how they get their points across. The ground we’re trying to hoe is not the dry, Sunday-morning kind of show but a really entertaining, interesting conversation.
How was your first week of shows without Jon Stewart as your lead-in?
It was very surreal. I don’t even know what to think about that yet, and we’ve got another week of it coming up. It’s so bizarre. I want to call Jon and see if he’s still in a hammock. (Laughs.) — “What are you doin‘, man? Come on by.” Then we have a two-week break coming up after this week, and when we come back The Daily Show still won’t be on. It will be another month.
Did Comedy Central talk to you about any ratings expectations for the transition period?
We haven’t been specific. They’ve been very supportive and know that this is a long-term project and we have their full faith and all that kind of stuff. We had some really good numbers with Jon leaving and the lead-up to that, and we’ll see how it does when he’s gone. Hopefully the audience that came to see us during that time will stick around and we can continue to grow it. That would be great.
What was your initial reaction to hearing about Jon’s departure?
I was very shocked. Jon told us before he announced it publicly. I did not see that coming, but I understood why. But yeah — it’s like, “Come on. You’ve gotta be kidding me — a brother gets a show and you gotta leave. Come on, Jon, that is so racist.” (Laughs.)
And what were your thoughts on the hiring of Trevor Noah to take over The Daily Show?
Once again, I was surprised. I didn’t really know Trevor’s comedy that well. When he was first hired on The Daily Show, I remember they were very excited about him. I watched a couple things and thought, “Wow, this guy’s great.” But I was surprised they went with him at first, just because he’s not American. So that part was a surprise. But in terms of his talent and funny, I thought it was a real interesting choice.
You’ve talked about how you’d have a chance to discuss race in ways that Jon or any other late-night host couldn’t. Presumably now he’ll be able to do that too.
What’s interesting about Trevor is he has an international perspective. He may have more in common with John Oliver than with me, to be honest with you. His take is almost more continental. It’s definitely different than the American version of it. I’ll be interested to see how he covers things, if he’ll take more of a global perspective on things and what his approach will be.
It has to be kind of cool to think you’ll have two black hosts throwing to one another each night.
Exactly. I call Trevor my brother from another motherland. Yeah, it’ll be cool.
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