Last week, Larry Wilmore—host of Comedy Central’s new late-night gig The Nightly Show—began his monologue with this: “Man, all of the good bad-race stuff happened already. Seriously. There’s none left. We’re done.”
But anyone who’s been paying attention to the fast-changing news cycle these days knows that Wilmore’s razor-sharp comedic timing couldn’t have come at a better time.
For those who only know him as The Daily Show’s “senior black correspondent,” Wilmore has been deep in the entertainment game for a while, having served as a writer for In Living Color and having helped create The Bernie Mac Show along with the Eddie Murphy-produced animated series The PJs. Wilmore was all set to serve as showrunner for ABC’s hit series Black-ish when he was named as Stephen Colbert’s replacement after Colbert decided to quit The Colbert Report to accept the job as David Letterman’s replacement over at CBS.
Initially, the show—which is structured around Wilmore’s opening monologue and then segues into a four-person panel—was going to be called The Minority Report, but that idea had to be scrapped when Fox decided to develop a show based on the 2002 Tom Cruise movie of the same name. But even with the name change, Wilmore has made it clear where he’s coming from.
Here’s three reasons his show is so relevant right now.
1. He’s keeping it real.
Unlike his former boss Jon Stewart or his predecessor Stephen Colbert, both of whom trafficked in “fake news”-type shows, Wilmore comes at current events in the same manner that brothers at the barber shop or sisters at the hair salon do: straight up and no-holds-barred. In his show on the state of the black protest, Wilmore asked comedian Bill Burr, the only white person on the panel that night, “Are white people tired of black protests?” And he opened his show on Bill Cosby with this little gem: “We’ll answer the question, ‘Did he do it?’ The answer will be, ‘Yes.’”
And even if Wilmore’s takes on topics like Cosby aren’t particularly new, as Slate’s Willa Paskin rightly points out, “There has previously been no black perspective on late night to take these subjects on with such matter-of-fact vigor.”
His signature segment, “Keep It 100,” can lead to some squirm-in-their-chairs moments for panelists who have to answer a question honestly or face the prospect of getting some “weak tea”—literally—as they’re handed tea bags.
Rapper-activist Talib Kweli had such a moment when he was asked, “When it comes to black images, is hip-hop part of the problem or part of the solution?”
Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates, tried to do a little head fake before “keeping it 100” when he was asked, “If you could assassinate Fidel Castro yourself—you get him out of the way, boom! Democracy—would you do it?”
2. He’s bringing in fresh voices.
Variety’s Brian Lowry wondered if The Nightly Show’s format and edgier take on the day’s news would make the show a “no-go zone” for newsmakers and celebrities who wanted to pitch their movies or books. But who cares? The last thing late night needs is another show for celebs to pimp their products. They’ll still have Fallon, Kimmel and Colbert’s new show for that. All Wilmore needs are smart, funny and engaging people willing to go beyond the usual sound bites you might hear on a Sunday-morning talk show.
In his first week he featured Kweli, writer Baratunde Thurston and Ebony senior editor Jamilah Lemieux (the last two, I might add, are past honorees of The Root 100). He threw in a couple of familiar faces, like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), New Yorker editor David Remnick and news anchor Soledad O’Brien.
3. He’s cross-generational.
At 53, Wilmore is in that generational sweet spot where he’s old enough to speak to an older crowd but can still hang with the youngsters. For his show on the State of the Union, he quipped in the opener, “There are so many middle-aged black women in Congress, I thought I was watching an Earth, Wind & Fire concert.”
Soon after, on that same episode, Wilmore flaunted his up-on-it bona fides when he cracked on Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) for her response to Obama’s “I won both of them” remark by saying, “Calm down, Maxine Waters, you’re not watching a World Star video.”
There’s room, of course, for the show to improve and evolve. Wilmore recently told the Washington Post that he hopes to mix up the format by sending correspondents out in the field.
All I know is, I can’t wait to see what he does next.