'The Nightly Show' host Larry Wilmore: 'Has race been in the news lately?'
Larry Wilmore’s career has toggled back and forth between work in front of and behind the camera. He arrived in the business as an actor, then shifted over to writing for comedies like “In Living Color” and “Sister, Sister” before becoming creator and showrunner of “The PJ’s” and “The Bernie Mac Show.” But he also has popped up in many sitcom guest roles in recent years (I loved his deadpan recurring role on “The Office” as Mr. Brown), and for the last eight years has been a periodic “Daily Show” contributor as the Senior Black Correspondent.
Now he’s finally merging the two sides of his career as both host and producer of “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” which inherits the post-“Daily Show” timeslot from “The Colbert Report” beginning tonight at 11:30.
I spoke a week ago with Wilmore about being an African-American comedian at a time of so much racial unrest in America, about leaving his role as producer on “Black-ish” behind after Jon Stewart offered him Colbert’s old slot, and what “The Nightly Show” might actually look like.
When the title was changed from “The Minority Report,” it was in part because they’re doing a TV adaptation of the movie. But you also said you didn’t want people to think that this is just going to be black-themed humor. What kind of expectation do you get as the guy with your resume and as the one who was The Daily Show’s minority affairs correspondent?
Larry Wilmore: Senior Black Correspondent.
Senior Black Correspondent. My apologies.
Larry Wilmore: Let’s be clear about that.
Is there pressure on you in a way that there isn’t on Jon or on Stephen: “I have to be about blackness and I have to be about all these things that are happening right now”?
Larry Wilmore: Not at all. In fact, the opposite is probably the case. Jon would point out that I probably have more freedom to talk about that stuff when it happens, or more permission when it happens. But what’s interesting now is I also get to talk about the boring budget stuff and State of the Union or Keystone Pipeline or whatever. The interesting part of this is that I don’t have to just talk about those things. I get to talk about that, too. So it kind of works both ways. I get to have my race card played, too.
We’re at a time right now where there’s just so much bad news about race relations in America.
Larry Wilmore: Has race been in the news lately?
Amazingly, yes. Does Ferguson and Garner and everything else – is that good for a satirical show, or is there a point at which maybe the news is just too bad?
Larry Wilmore: Well I would never characterize it as being good. But I’m of the opinion that I’ve seen these things happening for a long time. They’re not aberrations in my view. As a child I saw those types of things happening. So to me they’ve been happening for a long time. And there are many different types of things that are happening. They’re never going to stop, I think, in our lifetime. So all you can do is react to them and try to make it entertainment when you can.
In the run up to this, I imagine you’ve been doing some test shows. Have you done any material about the police stuff?
Larry Wilmore: We’ve done a few. I don’t know if we’ve done much about that just because of the timing. We haven’t done a full test show yet. We’re going to do those this week. And what you want to do is, you need permission to talk about something on your TV show. The permission is usually that it was in the news yesterday or the day before when you’re doing a topical show. If you bring up something from a couple of months ago, it feels like, “Why are they talking about that?” So even in test shows, that’s the model. So whenever we get permission by somebody screwing up, or that type of thing, then it becomes your show and then it invites all the other issues about it. As things go along, we’ll see what happens and we’ll see what we need to talk about.
On “The Daily Show,” Jon is just being himself. Stephen Colbert was “Stephen Colbert” — he was a character. As the Senior Black Correspondent, you were playing a character as well.
Larry Wilmore: That’s right.
Is that character going to be the host of “Nightly Show”?
Larry Wilmore: No, that’s a great question. No, that character, like Stephen’s character, is now retired. And what people will see now is a fuller, real version of me, which has a lot of aspects to it. I’m not just that narrow, “upset at Jon over the race thing,” you know. Now, sometimes I’m silly about things. Sometimes, I may be more pointed about something. Something may affect me in a certain way emotionally. It’s the whole gamut of things now because now I’m in that host chair and I’m being more myself. And that’s very exciting. And Stephen’s doing the same thing. We’re both kind of doing the same thing.
What do you know about the formatting of the show?
Larry Wilmore: Well, the format is going to be a combination of two things. The first part of the show will be me weighing in on the day’s events much like Jon does in the beginning of “The Daily Show,” (John) Oliver does, even Stephen did at the beginning of his show. The second half of the show will be a panel discussion. We’ll invite people in as we open up our subject a little wider. We’ll really try to cover particular things for a whole episode, so there’ll be kind of a journey. So whatever is going on, we’ll take the audience through that and open it up more, deconstruct it. Maybe do a comedy piece. And it will set the table for our discussion.
Interesting. Oliver does long things on single topics, but he’s got a whole week to set it up. You’re going to be doing this four times a week.
Larry Wilmore: Correct. Thank you. That’s exactly right.
How confident are you that you’ll be able to do this?
Larry Wilmore: Oliver’s got all the time in the world to think about this shit, right? How confident? I’m panicked every day thinking about it. But as you very astutely pointed out, there’s a lot of shit going on just happening all the time. So I don’t think we’re going to have a dearth of material. The challenge is it has to be entertaining. How do you make it into a comedy show? Are things worthy of being deconstructed, opening up? Some topics are. Some topics aren’t. Sometimes, a topic may be too serious or too sad right now. Sometimes, there’s a different angle you have to take in order to really open it up. What’s fun about my show is that it’s not just me talking. What John Oliver really does – his is all commentary. I get to have both commentary and discussion, which is interesting. And in discussion, you can take different points of view about it and look at things differently.
But the attempt is going to be to have a sincere serious discussion on the panel part of it or…
Larry Wilmore: It’s going to be whatever it is. It may be very comical. It may be pointed. It may be a little serious. It’s all driven by the content.
What kinds of people do you want to have on the panels?
Larry Wilmore: I want interesting people on the panel who I really want to have a conversation with. I view it as people I want in my barbershop, so to speak, that we can talk about anything. So the way that we’ll be booking the show, it’ll be content driven. “What are we talking about and now who do we want?” as opposed to, “Hey, we’ve got this star on our show. Now let’s hope they can talk about this.” It will actually be the other way around, which is a little more of a daunting way to do a show, but a very exciting way to do a show. So if I’m talking about a certain subject and — I’m just using George Clooney as an example — that’s George Clooney’s issue, let’s get him on the show. As opposed to, “We’ve got George Clooney on the show. Oh, but we’re talking about blah, blah blah. He doesn’t really like to talk about that.” So it’s the other way around.
Let’s go back to when Jon said “I want you to do this.” How did that conversation go? What was your initial reaction?
Larry Wilmore: Well I was blindfolded in a room and… We had joked about working together over the years just in passing. Thought it might be a fun thing to do. But when he ran the idea by me, I was in the middle of filming “Black-ish,” to be honest with you. We were doing the pilot. And I was so focused on that and I had come to New York to do “The Daily Show.” That’s when the Donald Sterling thing was going on. And I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to talk about that thing.” And John took me in his office and ran the idea by me and said, “What do you think?” And I go, “Yeah.” And he said, “Do you want to do that?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” I was kind of taken aback and I was pretty stunned, to be honest with you.
You’ve had this long and very successful career and you’ve done things on camera besides this, but you’re primarily a producer. Was there any trepidation? You had to basically step aside from “Black-ish” and become a very famous cheerleader for that show to do this.
Larry Wilmore: Very difficult, because if you’ve seen “Black-ish,” you know how appealing that show is from the outside. It’s just as appealing from the inside, too. Working with a cast like that. I love writing family stories. And there was content in there too. We can attack some of these same issues on the show, but in a broader way than you do on a sitcom, (and) seriously. And that was very appealing to me. So but this was something I’d been wanting to do for a very long time. There was no way I could turn down that opportunity.
Did you come into the business as a performer?
Larry Wilmore: Yes. I started as a standup comic and an actor. I was on shows like “The Facts of Life.” I played a cop. That was one of the first TV shows I was on. And ironically the same season as George Clooney. I keep bringing up Clooney.
It’s destiny. He will be on “The Nightly Show.”
Larry Wilmore: Exactly. And during my career as a standup and actor, I realized it was very frustrating for me to get hired because Hollywood was hiring a different kind of brother, you know, and I was doing political humor. I was at the Def Comedy Jam, and I thought, “In order for me to really have a long career, I’m going to have to learn how to write and produce for myself.” And so the first show I got on was “In Living Color,” as a writer. And I started my career from there. And as I did it I ended up really liking it a lot too. I had no idea I was really going to like it and I’m very fortunate to be successful. But the idea was to always eventually create something for myself. That was the idea from the beginning when I went into writing and producing.
So there were times when you were, say, working on “The Bernie Mac Show” where you were watching it and wishing you could be doing what Bernie was doing?
Larry Wilmore: To be honest with you, at that point I wasn’t even thinking about performing because I had been (producing) for so long. I really started to enjoy it and I was like, “You know what? I’m good doing this.” Let alone the chance of working with somebody like Bernie. And it wasn’t until I got fired from that show by Fox, and all that stuff happened, that I thought, “Okay, Larry, why are you here in the first place?” And that’s what made me think that what I wanted to do was perform and that’s what I started doing it. So it was after that happened I started working in “The Office.” I performed in there a little bit, and I started doing “The Daily Show,” different the small parts and things and started building that back up again, as I was still writing.
Getting back to what you said before about maybe needing permission from events and deciding what is and what’s not okay, let’s say the show is on the air the night the Ferguson verdict comes in.
Larry Wilmore: We’d be talking about it.
You would have done a show on it that night?
Larry Wilmore: Absolutely. We would have found a way to do a show on that. Absolutely. Or maybe the next night.
But do you think there was laughter to be mined that close to it?
Larry Wilmore: Well, there’s satire, you know. Sometimes it’ll produce laughs and sometimes it won’t. But there’s things that need to be said about it, which is more important, and that’s the point of view that we’re taking. So it’s like, “That’s happening, we’ve got to talk about it.” you know. That’s how I look at it as opposed to, “God, I mean we’ll find a way to make certain things funny.” Not everything can be, to your point. So part of the difficulty of the job is finding out a way to make it both entertainment and an interesting conversation.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org