Editor’s Note: Larry Wilmore’s late-night show has been canceled, Comedy Central announced today. Kent Alterman, Comedy Central’s president, said The Nightly Show was canceled for a simple reason: It “hasn’t resonated.” With this news in mind, we look back on our interview with Wilmore in early 2015 when the show was just beginning, and hope was in the air…
A prolific actor, writer, producer and TV personality who started out in stand-up comedy and went on to create In Living Color, The Bernie Mac Show and The PJs, Larry Wilmore has parlayed his role as “Senior Black Correspondent” on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show into his own Nightly Show (Mon-Thurs, 11:30/10:30c), produced by Stewart’s Busboy Productions.
Wilmore left his show runner job with the ABC sitcom Black-ish to take the new Comedy Central gig, which kicked off this week.
We asked him about TV, humor, Stewart, Colbert and Pope Francis.
“I disagree with myself half the time, so I’m happy to have people upset the narrative. I don’t mind being uncomfortable because we may need to get to something that we didn’t know we were going to get to, and that makes an exciting show.”
Did you always want to host your own show?
Absolutely. I was a huge fan, of course, of Johnny Carson growing up. I had done a couple specials on Showtime and I had talked about doing a talk show with Comedy Central a couple years ago. There just wasn’t real estate at the time. I thought that window had been closed, so this is a dream come true.
What’s your approach going into it?
I never want to take this show or myself too seriously. I always want to have fun. Even when we’re talking about provocative things, it’s important to approach it with some levity, because we’re doing a comedy show at the end of the day. Whenever you’re doing a show like this, there’s a natural evolution that happens in front of the audience, but you have to start with something that’s very clear and pretty well cooked from the beginning, and then there’s fine tuning. I’m excited for that process to happen. I like figuring things out. You make some of your mistakes on the air, but that’s okay. If you have a good relationship with the audience, I think they forgive you as long as you’re having fun with it.
Can you describe the format?
The first part of the show is the scripted part where I’m giving my take on the events that we’re going to be talking about. The second part is more of a panel discussion where we’ll deconstruct events a little bit more. It may be comic. It may be provocative. It will have a nice balance. We’ll have contributors on the show, and they’ll do a variety of things—comic pieces, report from places. And we’ll throw them on a panel now and then too. We want to have people who are going to be fun to talk about certain issues. I can’t compete in the glamour-booking world. We’ll definitely have celebrities on, but they won’t be on hawking books or movies.
How do you compare it to The Daily Show?
The Daily Show reports on the news. We’re more reporting on stories or discussing stories. Our show is more a conversation than it is a report, so we’ll use material in a slightly different way, but we’ll definitely react to the way people talk about things.
Is any subject taboo?
I don’t necessarily have what I would consider taboo subjects. You always have to approach things carefully and you have to figure out the way to make something entertaining. But I’m not afraid of not having to be glib all the time. You’ve got to keep it real. If we’re talking about Ferguson, I might make a joke about it, but in the next segment I might say, “Hey man, there’s some shit going on here that I don’t like,’ and I’m going to be dead serious.” That’s the kind of relationship I want to build with the audience.
Do you court controversy, seek dissenting opinions?
I welcome it. Look, I disagree with myself half the time, so I’m happy to have people upset the narrative. I don’t mind being uncomfortable for a little bit because we may need to get to something that we didn’t know we were going to get to, and that’s what makes an exciting show.
Rabble rouser: Wilmore on set, presumably stirring things up.
Is there added pressure because there have been so few minorities hosting in late night?
I don’t really look at it that much. I appreciate when people say that, but there’s already enough pressure doing the show. I’d never be able to get it done if I started thinking about all of those things. I think what’s cool is that I’m just about to appear on the radar screen for a lot of people, including a lot of people in the [black] community.
Did Jon Stewart give you any advice?
Absolutely. He said, ‘Get out while you can!’ No, he did make jokes like that though. He said, ‘Okay, mister, we’ll see how you are in a month.’ He told me, ‘Just take some time, in the middle of the afternoon, to prepare yourself for the performing part of it, because you’ve been doing the producing part all day, and now you need that transition.’ That was really good advice.
How about Stephen Colbert—did you get any tips from him?
Kind of the same advice—doing this type of job is really about schedule and managing your day, more than anything else. He was so gracious. He said, ‘Hey man, congrats. You’re going to kill it.’ I saw him a couple of months ago, and we talked recently too. Ironically, Steve and I are both doing the same type of thing, we both played a character [on The Daily Show] and now we’re both being ourselves. The audience did get to see that side of me in a couple of specials for Showtime, where I got to test it out and I really enjoyed it.
There’s been a lot of change in late night, with Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers launching and David Letterman retiring soon and Colbert coming in…
Yes, it’s emotional to a lot of us guys in the comedy business to see Letterman leave. We certainly won’t see anybody quite like that. Ironically, I’m be doing his show for the first time next month.
When did you first realize you were funny?
My brother and I used to always try to make our parents laugh when we were little, doing skits and stuff. We used to do impressions of our family, teachers.
Are you planning to do any Pope Francis segments?
Always. I’m Catholic. I’ve got to call out my Pope. I think the Pope is going to give us plenty of material.
Photos by Stephen Lovekin