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‘Maybe I Got What I Deserved’: Larry Wilmore Reflects on the Cancellation of 'The Nightly Show'

We caught up with the host to talk about the abrupt end of 'The Nightly Show,' pushing boundaries, and being seen as "too old to be fucking around."

by T. Kid
Aug 17 2016, 6:03pm

Larry Wilmore on 'The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore' on January 5, 2016. Photo by Bryan Bedder/courtesy of Comedy Central

On the VICELAND TV channel, there are hosts and then there are famous hosts. When Ellen Page, Eddie Huang, or Michael K. Williams do a show, their celebrity fuels tons of press coverage. But it's not like that for those of us who are just measly reporters. Although me and my co-hosts, Wilbert L. Cooper and Martina de Alba, take viewers on a wild ride across the US exploring the insanity of the 2016 election in our show VICE Does America, we're chopped liver to the media who can write about shows hosted by the pregnant girl from Juno or the stick-up dude from the Wire. With nary any interest from major outlets, my co-hosts and I have had to cajole our professional acquaintances and our four-digit Twitter followings into tuning in and watching our show on Wednesdays at 10 PM.

While getting press for VICE Does America has been like pulling teeth, that struggle made my appearance on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore all the more special. Except for The Nightly Show, there is not a single late-night show on TV that would have had someone at my lowly level on its program, unless it had just went viral on Snapchat for doing something inane or stupid.

The scrappy sister to The Daily Show slid into the 11:30 PM slot a year and a half ago, delighting an underrepresented young black audience and confusing the hell out of everyone who expects to see a toothy white dude behind a desk after the kids go to bed. The show was the result of Comedy Central's overhaul of its late-night slate, where it replaced beloved white boys Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with two brothers. While Trevor Noah's outsider perspective as a South African in America anchors The Daily Show, Wilmore's exploration of the inherent racism that thrives in American society is what made his show special. These investigations weren't funny because discrimination is funny—they were funny because, if minorities can't laugh about the bullshit we deal with, this country would be headed for another Civil War.

Wilmore's small and dedicated audience understood that. But ratings aren't measured in authenticity. Unable to meet the numbers of his predecessor Colbert, whose shtick miraculously resonated with viewers on both ends of the political spectrum, Comedy Central canceled Wilmore's show last week, making me one of his final guests. When I made my first-ever late-night appearance last week, I had no idea that only days later I'd be interviewing my interviewer to figure out what the hell happened with my favorite show. But that's exactly what went down last night.

Here's what Wilmore had to say about losing the show and the future of black comedy. For a guy who just lost a TV show, he's is a pretty cool cucumber.

VICE: What would you say was your all-time favorite moment on the show?
Larry Wilmore: I think the very first Cosby joke where we said, "We're going to ask the question 'Did he do it?' and the answer will be 'Yes.'" That was such a satisfying moment. Just to say that joke was so liberating, like: We don't have to guard our thoughts on this show; we can absolutely keep it 100 percent real.

As you were saying in the last episode, your one regret is that you won't get to cover the rest of this insane election. If you could share one final thought on the election, what would it be?
Well, I kinda did that on Monday night. I let that be my final election thought, covering Trump. But my whole thing was that at this point I wanted Hillary to win every single electoral vote. My reasoning is not so much that "I'm with her"—it's that I'm with her, being the Statue of Liberty.

When you formulated the nightly show, what was the ultimate goal you had in mind in terms of audience and style of humor?
Well, John Stewart pitched the show to me. He thought it'd be great to have a show that showcased voices you don't normally get a chance to hear from, in a panel-packing format. The show was originally pitched as an all-panel show. I felt it was important for me to establish my opinion in the show first and have what's become that opening monologue, kind of Daily Show–like segment, first. So it felt like some kind of like a hybrid.

Now that the show's over, do you feel that there's gonna be a void in intelligent comedic content from the black perspective specifically in the mainstream?
Well, it's kind of unfair for me to say. [Laughs]

But you were the only show for a lot of people.
It's flattering when other people say that. But, you know, I'm gonna strive to do something like this again, in some way. Hopefully I'll be able to do it again. I really enjoyed connecting with all the people who enjoyed what we did and getting guests on our panel—people like yourself, who maybe a lot of the mainstream don't know, but they should know, and that's how they become known. We weren't interested in booking big stars and having people plug their movies. We were interested in having people like yourself, who could be funny and informative and just interesting, like: Who's this interesting person? And I was really proud of that.


You took the late-night slot, which traditionally, has kind of been the same thing. It's been, like, a white dude saying stuff, for years, making politically benign jokes. Now that The Nightly Show's been canceled, does that mean that audiences are not ready for the other perspective? Do you feel that the show was ahead of its time?
TV can work or not work for a number of reasons. You just don't know. Cheers was last in the ratings its whole first season, you know? And could easily have been canceled—they could have justified that completely—and then it became a classic. I worked on The Office for the first three seasons, and that first season we did six episodes, and we could easily have been canceled. Nobody was watching it; our ratings were horrible. But Kevin O'Reilly really liked the show, and he left it on, and we started really connecting in our second season.

You did take the show into some pretty controversial directions. If you had to do it over, would you be less controversial for the sake of wider appeal?
No, absolutely not. I don't mind being a niche show. That was kind of our mission, was to go after those things. I wish we could have had more audience out there, but I wouldn't have sacrificed that for the other.

So maybe I got what I deserved. [Both laugh]

"We weren't interested in booking big stars and having people plug their movies—we were interested in having people like yourself, who could be funny and informative and just interesting." —Larry Wilmore

It does seem like your audience for this show—they might have been fewer in number, but boy, they were a very loud, very participatory, very active on social media. What was it about your show that resonated with these people?
For me, I was [a correspondent] on The Daily Show for maybe eight years before I did this. And so I already had a bit of a relationship with some of John's audience. People, I think, had an expectation from me in a certain way. And hopefully they felt that I delivered on that. And I think cause maybe I'm a little older, they know: Larry's too old to be fucking around—he probably means what he says at this point. He doesn't have time for bullshit, or whatever. I think people kind of respected that.

Comedy Central traditionally has a lot of white programming, but yet the big hits were black shows, like Chappelle's Show and Key and Peele.
It's kind of ironic, yeah.


Watch Abdullah on 'VICE Does America' on VICELAND:


You jokingly mentioned that The Nightly Show getting canceled is an extension of "the unblackening," in some way, right?
[Laughs] Yeah.

And I mean, do you feel Comedy Central understood the show that it had?
Sure. I think they understand what they had here. It probably doesn't ultimately fit with their places for this time slot, which is more of an issue. They absolutely know what they have. And they feel very respectful of what we're doing. They never got in the way or that type of thing. The notes that they had at the beginning were very helpful. You know, when you're developing a show, you try the best that you can. But sometimes you just don't work out on a network, and there's no hostility in it or anything. Sometimes, you're just not a good fit for what they want. It's just, they may not want this type of show in that slot where you're tackling these types of issues. And that's fair—it's their network.

"I don't think a TV show is the thing that's gonna put us over the top. I mean, when Obama was elected people were like: OK, racism over. Look what we did, give us credit."Larry Wilmore

In terms of your correspondents and other black voices in media, specifically in comedy, who do you think is going to take the reins now?
Well, I hope to be back doing it again. So I hope nobody does it too soon.

Right, or too well.
[Both laugh]

Totally. And you also mentioned, jokingly, that racism's solved, that that must be why—
Right, open. Not anymore.

Yeah, [laughs] I'll report from the Muslim perspective, we're good.
Yup. Everything good.

It's a joke, but it has this dire truth to it. At this point, having completed this show, how far do you see America from some semblance of solving racism? How many Nightly Show s does it take to actually fix it?
Hundreds of years of Nightly Shows. [Both laugh] We are not close at all. I don't think a TV show is the thing that's gonna put us over the top. I mean, when Obama was elected people were like: OK, racism over. Look what we did, give us credit.

Looking ahead, you've obviously got a ton of projects coming up. Insecure looks really dope. What's next?
Insecure definitely is my next thing, so that I'm really looking forward to. I co-created it with Issa Rae, but it's really based on her life and her web series. It's about a late-20-something black girl who's trying to figure out where she's going and who she is, with her group of friends, all trying to figure things out.

Abdullah Saeed is a co-host of VICE Does America. Follow him on Twitter.

The final episode of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore airs this Thursday, August 18 on Comedy Central.