The Importance of Larry Wilmore, Late Night’s Only Black Man

At The Nightly Show’s core is a commitment to the idea of purposeful conversation, rather than the moral superiority that comes with being right.

01.27.15 10:50 AM ET

There’s a bit that Larry Wilmore has been doing for more than 20 years: “People always ask me what I’m mixed with,” he’ll begin, referencing strangers’ inability to understand how he, a black man, came to have light skin. “They go, ‘Are you...mixed with something? You have to be mixed with something.’ Now I just tell people, ‘Look, if I was a beer, I’d be a Negro Lite. And I am a third less angry than the regular negro.’”

Although the joke’s setup and delivery have seen variations over the years, its significance remains the same: blackness—or identity, more broadly—is too often mitigated by outsiders’ definitions; there is always explaining to do. His continued use of that two-decade-old joke says a lot about Wilmore and about his approach to his duties at the helm of Comedy Central’s brand-new Nightly Show. The show, now in its second week on the air, is billed as a blend of The Daily Show and Politically Incorrect, but with historically marginalized voices being represented more, i.e. doing the explaining.

Wilmore now finds himself at the apex of career. At 53, he has taken over Stephen Colbert’s highly successful Colbert Report timeslot, crossing over from decades spent mostly writing and producing television. Though he began as a stand-up comic in the ‘80s, he eventually abandoned that line of work to cut his teeth on the other side of the camera. It was a more-or-less premeditated move, a long game that he says he knew would bring him back to performance.

Throughout the ‘90s and aughts, Wilmore cut a path through Hollywood by explaining the different forms blackness and black culture can take—both his and America’s. He wrote for In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Sister Sister, during the distant-seeming era in which black television thrived. Eventually, he created The Bernie Mac Show, which remains one of the singularly most important and forward-looking shows in sitcom history. But, after two seasons, during which time he won an Emmy, Wilmore was fired from his own project by executives who didn’t understand his vision. That pesky identity issue reared its head again.

On an episode of The Champs podcast back in 2012, Wilmore offered a description of himself that’s probably as instructive about his life and career as anything else. He says of growing up in largely non-black Pomona, California: “I’ve always been an insider-outsider. I always felt like I was at a family reunion but not in the family, so I’ve always felt like I had to explain my blackness.” Looking back, many of his experiences have been preparing him for his new role as America’s cultural interlocutor.

In that same conversation with Neal Brennan and Moshe Kasher a couple of years ago, Wilmore discussed his black identity as someone who was born in the middle of the century and who witnessed the civil rights era. “The notion that you have to be in constant popular culture to be black, I don’t understand that. When I was a kid, black meant a whole lot of different things,” he said. “Martin Luther King’s father was a Republican. Very conservative, very religious people. Today, he would not be considered authentically black with those credentials.”

As host of The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore is the only non-white man on late night. And he has the potential to be the most important voice on television; not simply because of his personal background, but because of his emphasis on multiplicity. The show’s true value, should it get the opportunity to grow into itself, is its commitment to dialogue. The Nightly Show is structured around single-topic episodes—in its first week, it covered Selma and the state of the Black protest, Bill Cosby’s rape accusations, Obama’s second term, and the normalization of relations with Cuba—but it addresses the social and cultural climate of America by focusing on the many ways any issue can be approached.

One of Wilmore’s most important and praiseworthy attributes is his implicit acknowledgment that “minority issues” are really just American issues, and that they deserve to be treated as such. Through a nightly panel segment comprised of actors, comedians, and journalists, Wilmore avoids the common host trope of filtering the world solely though his own worldview; instead, he allows a diverse group of guests to explain their own identities and perspectives. At the show’s core is a commitment to the idea of purposeful conversation, rather than the moral superiority that comes with being right.

When comedian Keith Robinson spoke out in defense of Cosby, for instance, Wilmore carefully straddled the line between making his own position clear—"I understand that people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. However, this is the court of public opinion and this is my show, and that motherfucker did it!"—and granting Robinson the space to explain his perspective, no matter how boneheaded. Wilmore guided the four panelists into a conversation that addressed the matter of Cosby's guilt and the public's incredulity at his accusers' stories, and that also interrogated his former role as a moral examplar of the black community. The latter discussion is central to Cosby's narrative, but it's one most late night shows are not particularly qualified, or keen, to address. And the audience laughed! Though the format of the panel discussion can often end up being sloppy, it has the potential to be more engaging and enlightening than just monologue after monologue.

As is the nature of television, The Nightly Show will evolve, eventually trying on different shapes and adjusting as necessary until it finally settles into itself. Here’s hoping it will be given the freedom to define its own identity.