No other late-night comedian but Larry Wilmore could have called President Obama “my nigga” and meant it. The affection, daring, solidarity, and pointed commentary implied in that gesture are part of why The Nightly Show will be missed — or deserves to be — when the show concludes its run this Thursday (August 18). Comedy Central’s cancellation of Wilmore’s news comedy this morning owing to “particularly grim” ratings means that one of the most original and irreplaceable voices in late night will soon disappear from the air. [Disclosure: Both MTV and Comedy Central are owned by Viacom.]
Like Black-ish, the sitcom Wilmore had been hired to showrun before getting the call to replace Stephen Colbert, The Nightly Show offered fresh racial analysis in a familiar comedy genre. Black-ish earned three major Emmy nominations this year, including one for best comedic series, and has thrived by observing and playing with African-American identities that vary by gender, class, generation, geography, and skin tone. The Nightly Show did more or less the same thing — and found itself unfairly forgotten.
Last week, for example, Wilmore delivered his usual mix of election updates and important but under-reported news that predominantly affects Black America. A hefty six-minute segment was devoted to civil rights violations by the Baltimore PD (including a joke about “CP time”), while the racial angle of Obama’s commutation of 200 prisoners’ sentences didn’t go unnoticed: “It’s part of [the president’s] effort to reduce America’s prison population, reform sentencing, and, I don’t know, maybe scare a few white people.” Correspondent Franchesca Ramsey (who also hosts for MTV News) gave some Twitter babies who complained about Olympian Gabby Douglas’s (black) hair a talking-to. On The Nightly Show, people of color’s concerns are America’s concerns.
That casually radical inclusion extended to the Nightly supporting cast; Wilmore took Jon Stewart’s project of diversifying his “correspondents” to the next level by also featuring several women of color. The panel guests, too, pulled from as many different sectors of society as possible in a silent rebuke to mainstream media’s often limited idea of diversity, i.e., adding a black guy to the mix. Terry Crews, Janet Mock, and Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles stand out as particularly fun and informative guests of the show.
At its best, The Nightly Show argued for its essentiality by focusing on what felt like Wilmore’s idiosyncrasies: his obsession with space and Neil deGrasse Tyson, his reminders of disasters that continue to matter despite their absence from the news cycle (e.g., Flint and Bill Cosby), and his understanding of black history and how the past refuses to stay in the past. (Last year, I wrote an appreciation of Wilmore’s short history lessons about anti-black violence in churches and swimming pools.) Wilmore could do light — the “black react” series was especially silly — but, sadly, the occasion for his most powerful segments were police shootings, as when he spoke about the “happiness” he felt when Walter Scott’s uniformed killer was charged with murder, or how “the punishment for black man shouldn’t be death.”
The Nightly Show improved by leaps and bounds over its 20 months of existence. Wilmore relaxed as a performer, the panels found their groove, and the show made a great case for intersectionality, i.e., why, say, African-Americans should care about immigration or why feminists should care about weed legalization (Marijuana > Midol). It was easy to forgive Wilmore for relying on what Seth Meyers calls “clapter” — the assenting applause for a comedian’s line that isn’t funny but deserves political kudos. But, earnest to the bone (in a 180-degree turn from the arch meta-irony of The Colbert Report), The Nightly Show never totally found its comedic footing or that balance between being an armchair liberal’s show and one for activists. When it did hit upon a good bit, like Jordan Carlos’s (20 years out of date) Dennis Rodman impression or Bob DiBuono’s spot-on pervy Trump impersonation, it repeated them over and over again, with no new angle to the initial gag. Daily news comedy is already pretty repetitive, and those nostalgic for the halcyon days of Stewart/Colbert forget how many times Stewart did an exaggerated triple-take hearing the news or Colbert raised his left eyebrow at liberals. But The Nightly Show couldn’t afford the mistake of resting on its progressive laurels.
No one should worry about Wilmore’s future; his two decades in TV will serve him well. I’m more anxious that the “unblackening” of the 11:30 time slot, as Wilmore put it in his statement about the cancellation, might mean a turn away from pointedness in political comedy, especially after the election: more Carpool Karaoke, less Mike Yard delivering the “Nigga Please News.” Television is the most diverse that it’s ever been, and on late night, we’ve still got Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee’s shows offering alternate perspectives. But in losing Wilmore, we’ll be deprived of the voice, wisdom, and wit of a comedian who appreciated the breadth of black life in America — and the generosity of spirit that made him want to showcase it in full.