On Monday, which was somewhat appropriately Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Comedy Central debuted The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. To describe the program would be redundant by now: Throughout the week, every culture site worth its salt — including this one, naturally — has made note of the new late-night show, hosted by former Daily Show correspondent and TV writer Larry Wilmore. With his first week in the can and only four episodes under his belt, Wilmore has not only demonstrated that he’s a skilled, funny host and an adept panel moderator but has also, indirectly, proved why late night needs more hosts like him — you know, ones who aren’t white dudes.
The Nightly Show has a slightly different format than what we’ve grown accustomed to with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Rather than inviting a single guest for a one-on-one interview, Wilmore dedicates two segments to a roundtable discussion featuring four diverse (in race, gender, and their careers: comedians, actors, journalists, politicians, musicians) panelists. There is a topic chosen beforehand; the past four days have tackled Selma‘s Oscar snub and the state of black protests in America, Bill Cosby’s rape accusations, Obama’s State of the Union address, and the United States’ relationship with Cuba. Sure, these are subjects that any late-night host can discuss (and has), but the difference is that Wilmore is able to speak more candidly about them.
The highlight of Wilmore’s first week was Tuesday’s episode on Bill Cosby. From the beginning, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be an episode that tiptoed around the subject. In the cold open, Wilmore explicitly stated, “There’s no statute of limitations on my opinion, and I’m telling you, that motherfucker did it!” I attended the live taping of this episode and the crowd lost it at this line — laughter, cheers, applause — and Wilmore was so happily thrown off by the reaction that he had to tape the intro a second time.
The taping was a long but lively affair, with a crowd that was similar to the crowds I’ve seen at the Stewart and Colbert tapings — mostly bespectacled, white college-aged kids — but also included a wide range of ethnicities, and everyone was visibly excited to attend one of Wilmore’s first shows. It was an invigorating, funny, and smart panel. Not everyone agreed that Cosby was guilty (though most did): Comedian Keith Robinson was the closest thing to an antagonist in the episode, sticking to the defense that there is no solid proof to convict Cosby (and later earning a handful of “weak tea” teabags for his opinions on women from Wilmore).
What’s great about The Nightly Show‘s panels is that, as heated as the discussions may get, they are never disrespectful and they never get out of hand. Much of this is due to Wilmore himself, who knows how to moderate these hot-button panels, and how to rein in his guests without shutting them down. He has a very specific, calming cadence. As David Sims at The Atlantic (who was my guest for Tuesday’s taping) puts it, Wilmore is “a mellifluous radical who would say all kinds of hilarious, outrageous things that you’d barely notice because he did it so sweetly. He’s sharper-edged on his own show, but only a little bit.” Wilmore straddles the fine line between sharpness and anger; he succinctly gets his point across, often with exasperation or irritation — sometimes even pure disbelief that we are still being forced to prove black lives matter, or still letting Cosby get away with sexual assault — but never with rage.
One of Wilmore’s nightly segments is “Keep it 100” (100 percent real, that is), in which he asks tough questions to his panelists and the audience must decide if they are keeping it real (honest) or phoning it in. No one is safe — he awarded Cory Booker weak tea because he believed the senator wasn’t being truthful about his political aspirations — and nothing is off limits. Last night, he asked Soledad O’Brien whether she’d pick black or Latina if she had to pick one group to identify with; he asked Mauricio Claver-Carone if he would kill Castro if given the chance; he asked John Leguizamo which Latino ethnicity he’s been mistaken for the most often; and he asked comedian Mike Yard, if he could save either Cuba Gooding Jr. or a Cuban refugee, who would he choose?
What’s more, at the end of every episode, Wilmore invites Twitter to ask him questions so he too has to “Keep it 100.” This forces the host to think on his feet in response to tough queries — about race, Cosby, Obama, etc. — and keeps the show fair, because Wilmore knows that he is not exempt from the tough shit, either.
But the most successful and important thing about The Nightly Show is that Wilmore has demonstrated exactly why late night desperately needs a point of view that isn’t Straight White Male. There are plenty of fine hosts on television, but literally none of them could open a show with a simplistic, “I voted for Obama because he’s black,” and then add, “People always ask me, ‘Do you agree with Obama’s policies?’ And here’s the truth: I agree with the policy that he’s black,” before humorously, and cleverly, spending an hour dissecting Obama’s State of the Union speech. And Wilmore didn’t just tackle policy — he also took on the race-related aspects of the speech, and of Obama’s entire presidency thus far.
While numerous late-night hosts have mentioned Selma, Ferguson, and #BlackLivesMatter, Wilmore has an authority — and an authenticity — on these topics that his peers simply don’t have. He has a more nuanced perspective, a first-person narrative, and a careful opinion informed by an entire life of, well, being black. And Wilmore is in a unique position now: He has taken his inherent lack of privilege and transformed it into a form of privilege, as the most qualified person on late-night television qualified to speak about certain topics. So far, he’s doing a fantastic job with this privilege, representing in all our complexity those of us who are still struggling to be heard.