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‘The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore’: A Ways to Go, But Its Aim Is True

'The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore': A Ways to Go, But Its Aim Is True

More than any other kind of TV program, a daily issues-driven show needs time to find its footing, but Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show” made a solid debut on Comedy Central last night. Opening with a brief smattering of jokes followed by a solo turn at the desk and a two-segment panel discussion, “The Nightly Show” quickly marked out its own territory with sharp-edged commentary on Ferguson, “Selma’s” Oscar omissions and the Miami Beach police using African-Americans for literal target practice. 

Nothing illustrated the need for a show dedicated to the perspectives “The Nightly Show,” which was originally to be called “The Minority Report,” intends to showcase than the “Daily Show” interview with Mike Huckabee that ran immediately before it. Wilmore’s show, while less reliant (so far) on scripted material than Jon Stewart’s or Steven Colbert’s, isn’t so improvisational that he could follow up with an immediate rebuttal to Huckabee’s contention that Beyoncé is encouraging teenage girls to ask their parents for stripper poles. But his presence, along with a four-person discussion in which white comedian Bill Burr was the token minority, served as an implicit rebuke. You have to wonder if Huckabee’s scheduling just in front of “The Nightly Show’s” first episode was accidental or if Stewart was feeding his longtime colleague a layup.

Wilmore’s first show lacked a defining moment like Colbert’s “truthiness” monologue, and he didn’t charge out of the gate like John Oliver; he’s a wry, reactive performer — think of him raising his eyebrows at Stewart during one of his appearances as “The Daily Show’s” “Senior Black Correspondent,” or fencing with a clueless Michael Scott on “The Office” episode “Diversity Day” — which is why despite the panel discussion’s inherent drawbacks and its rocky initial implementation, “The Nightly Show” may be wise to stick with it. Wilmore’s wit bristled in the opening segment, in which he mock-yawned at the paucity of black Oscar nominees and deadpanned of David Oyelowo’s Best Actor snub, “He’s a British brother, I don’t really care about them,” but he truly came alive during the following free-for-all.

The panel, which also featured Cory Booker, Talib Kweli and “Nightly Show” regular Shenaz Treasury (it remains to be seen what “regular” means) was rougher, both as a discussion and as a piece of television staging. The table itself, a weird arrangement of mismatched trapezoids is distracting — the Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman predicted it would be gone in a year — and adding floating crane shots to a panel discussion in attempt to spice things up visually is just distracting. But the bigger problem will be establishing a space where guests are free to speak their minds, a practice Wilmore encouraged in the closing “Keep It 100” segment. That obvious bid to establish a “Nightly Show” brand didn’t come off particularly strong, but it was worth it just to see Wilmore pelting Booker with “weak tea” bags. 

As you’d expect, “The Nightly Show” has a ways to go. But it’s great to see that, at least as far as subject matter is concerned, Wilmore isn’t wasting any time: He announced at the end of the show, where he invited viewers to submit questions under the #KeepIt100 hashtag, that the second night’s discussion would focus on Bill Cosby. Wilmore mock-lamented at the outset that “All the good bad race stuff happened already,” but it’s clear that, for better and for worse, he’ll never run out of material.

Reviews of “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore”

James Poniewozik, Time

Maybe the most important first impression from a talk show’s first night is simply point-of-view: does the show know what it is, and why it is? Here “The Nightly Show” really has something going for it. It opens like we’ve come to expect a fake-news show to, with the host at a desk in front of a map, but then you notice something different: the world map is oriented with the south on top. The impulse is to say the map is “upside down,” but of course it’s not — there is no up and down in space, only the orientation you assign as the standard if your culture happens to originate in the northern half of the planet.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

As Wilmore told the New York Times, ““It was never intended to be a show only about minorities. It’s a show about underdogs, and that happens in a lot of different forms, whether it’s race, gender or whatever.” Wilmore’s debut as host made good on that promise, especially during the show’s second and third segments, which swapped the by-now-standard, “Daily Show”–style roundup of headlines and issues plus wiseass commentary for a panel featuring Wilmore, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, comedian Bill Burr, musician Talib Kweli, and writer/actress/model Shenaz Treasury. The dynamic was engaged but laid-back, pointed but not too spiky, at times evoking a mellow version of Bill Maher’s old ABC series “Politically Incorrect.” Right out of the box, the talk segments dealt with racial and ethnic tension more frankly than anything “The Daily Show” has done in ages, and more organically.

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter

Wilmore kept it light and brisk, fending off a super enthusiastic audience (whose eager applause can slow things down when you’re worried about your first show) and didn’t let it deter him from a number of funny asides (like, “Suck it, Gandhi”). Wilmore also was deftly able to reset the tone of the night to be a little more serious when he joked about Florida police officers using pictures of African-American men for target practice. It’s the kind of studied tonal shift that Stewart is a master at and Wilmore encouragingly seems to have that knack as well. Less successful was what will be a continuing segment of the show, which is a “Real Time with Bill Maher”-esque roundtable (or in this case, square table) of guests talking about issues. Unless you really enjoy people talking over each other, these kinds of things can go either way. It probably didn’t help that the square table they were sitting at — two on each side with Wilmore at the top — led to some awkward camera angles (the backs of the participants, Wilmore seeming too far out of frame, etc.).

Brian Lowry, Variety

An accomplished writer and often hilarious as “The Daily Show’s” “black correspondent,” Wilmore slid right into the opening segment with a series of clever jokes, many directed at the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, which were, he said, “so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them.” So far, so very good. But then came the panel, which frankly was a source of concern going into the show, mostly because of the booking challenges in finding people who want to mix it up — and can — on a nightly basis. The next step might be to rely more on the host, and less on third parties, recognizing that Colbert and Jon Stewart (who also produces this add-on) can make a half-hour entertaining regardless of who’s in the seat opposite them. Individually, the guests weren’t the problem. But collectively, and over time, “The Nightly Show” might discover that when it comes to rolling out the welcome mat, less really is more.

David Kallison, A.V. Club

“The Nightly Show” is also undoubtedly a black show. Whether that persists remains to be seen, but Wilmore spends the entire first episode talking about black issues (the show was originally called “The Minority Report”). It is instantly refreshing to hear a different type of voice on late-night television. Wilmore seems to play it somewhat safe, launching only a few real barbs (“It won’t just be black people saying, ‘I can’t breathe,'” he quips regarding climate change.) If the writers and producers let Wilmore off the leash, we could be in for a new cultural voice in America.

Jonathan Bernstein, Telegraph

In the very first segment of the very first episode of “The Colbert Report,” its frontman coined the term “truthiness”. By the following morning, that word had entered the national lexicon. “The Nightly Show” did not hit that sort of home run. But Wilmore, a writer-director who has done time on every black comedy of note from “The Fresh Prince” to “In Living Color” all the way to the current “Black-ish,” grew in confidence during his opening monologue, jabbing at Al Sharpton (“the black Batman”), Oprah, the Oscars and the ineffectiveness of black protest.

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