TRAGEDY PLUS TIME
How Larry Wilmore Uses ‘The Nightly Show’ to Take on Tragedies Like Paris
At a panel moderated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Larry Wilmore and his Nightly Show team talk Paris, race, and how they use comedy to fight back against terrible news.
For Larry Wilmore’s former boss Jon Stewart, there are some things that are just too serious to joke about. On the first Daily Show after 9/11, Stewart delivered a long, emotional monologue that was almost entirely devoid of comedy.
“The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center and now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce and it is gone,” Stewart memorably said, holding back tears. “But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”
More recently, the comedian went on the air following the deadly massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and made an admission.
“I didn’t do my job today,” Stewart said. “Maybe if I wasn’t nearing the end of the run or this wasn’t such a common occurrence, maybe I could have pulled out of the spiral, but I didn’t. I honestly have nothing other than just sadness.”
But then, on that same night, after The Daily Show had ended, The Nightly Show’s Larry Wilmore took a markedly different approach. While Stewart had found nothing to laugh about after Charleston, Wilmore and his writers managed to locate an angle that he was in a unique position to pull off.
“Even on a day like today, Fox News just makes my fucking head explode,” Wilmore declared near the top of his show, picking an easy—if deserving—target for his comedic rage after commentators on the cable network went to great lengths to play down the racial motive of the murderer and instead characterize the incident as an “attack on faith.”
“I know you guys don’t want to admit that racial stuff isn’t going on,” Wilmore told Fox, “but how can there be any doubt when it came out of the gunman’s mouth? He told his victims, ‘I want to shoot black people.’ I think when he says black people, he means black people—and not Christians.”
Now, the horrific terror attack that occurred in Paris on Friday has given Wilmore and his fellow late-night comedians another opportunity to confront tragedy on television—either with heartfelt words of solidarity, as we saw from Stephen Colbert and Saturday Night Live, or with deliberately profane outrage as delivered by HBO’s John Oliver Sunday night.
Monday night will be Wilmore’s first chance to respond and when The Daily Beast spoke to him over the weekend about what his show has planned, he seemed shaken up and not quite ready to commit one way or another.
Wilmore said situations like Paris are “always difficult” for him and his team and that their response will be dictated by how things unfold over the days that followed. Beyond simply mentioning the attack, as Colbert, Bill Maher and others have already done, Wilmore said he hopes to find a way to “get some laughs out it,” likely by challenging some of the more outrageous reactions from media and political figures.
When something like this happens, he said, “It usually takes me a little while just to get my emotions in order.” Along with his writers, Wilmore said he just tries to “find the humor in the humanity” of a tragic situation.
“We never want to make light of any tragedies,” Nightly Show head writer Robin Thede added in a separate interview. “For us, it’s about people’s reactions to tragedy.” She suspected that the Paris attack me be “a little too tragic” to touch with the show’s comedic lens, but wasn’t ruling anything out.
As a topical comedy show, Thede said their responsibility was to both cover current events and at the same time be funny, which can make the job exceedingly difficult when tragedy strikes. She described Wilmore, who served for many years as The Daily Show’s “Senior Black Correspondent” before launching his own program, as a “trusted source” who people want to hear from in times like these.
Questions about how The Nightly Show confronts particularly upsetting topics, from racially-motivated violence in the U.S. to acts of terror abroad, persisted throughout the panel discussion with the show’s creators, writers, and contributors at the Paley Center for Media on Saturday, moderated by astrophysicist and two-time guest on the show Neil deGrasse Tyson. The event was part of the annual New York Comedy Festival.
“Everybody says they want to have a conversation about difficult things,” Wilmore said in response to an inquiry about the show’s focus on race issues. He added that the “mission” of the show is to tackle the “scary” and “dangerous” things that others ignore.
Tyson asked the group, “When is it too soon or not too soon?” And when a comedian is accused of joking about something sensitive before enough time has passed, is it because they were “not clever enough” to get the tone right?
At this point, Wilmore delved more deeply into his decision to pull comedy out of the Charleston shooting when Stewart evidently believed it was too soon. “We found an angle there that we thought needed to be told,” he said, describing the approach as a search for the truth as opposed to merely an attempt to get laughs.
“To be honest with you, many times like this I think people do need to laugh,” Wilmore added, stressing the unique format of his show that features both comedy segments up top and a venue for more serious panel discussions at the end. “We can pull both of those levers,” he said.
While Wilmore has been covering the “Unblackening” of the White House for months as President Barack Obama’s tenure is entering its final year, one audience member at the event remarked that Comedy Central has undergone what could be described as the “Blackening,” with Trevor Noah replacing Stewart and Wilmore replacing Colbert.
“Trevor, to me, is like my brother from another Motherland,” Wilmore joked, marveling at how the young comic from South Africa has stepped into Stewart’s shoes. “I can’t imagine going to another country to replace that beloved comedian,” he added, comparing Noah to someone like director Billy Wilder, who grew up in Germany before coming to America to dominate comedy directing for decades beginning in the 1940s.
Later in the discussion, Rory Albanese, The Nightly Show’s executive producer who was working on The Daily Show during 9/11, reflected on the conversations that were happening behind the scenes before Stewart made his emotional return to the air. “Is comedy dead?” he remembers thinking in the immediate aftermath.
But since both shows are comedy programs first and news sources second, Albanese insisted that their only real “obligation” is be funny. “If we can mention the France thing in an elegant way, we will,” he said. If not, they won’t. He explained that it doesn’t bother him that so many young people get their news from late-night shows like this one. “What bothers me is that the news is so shitty that they have to,” he said.
Tyson agreed, saying that while he is often distracted in any given week by “family and the universe,” as he put it, he finds himself turning to The Nightly Show for the way that it helps to bring the day’s news into “focus” and forces him to think about important issues in new ways.
“I see what you guys are doing as a tremendous service, not only to late-night television, but to television in general and to our civilization,” Tyson concluded, placing perhaps more pressure on the show’s creators than they deserve ahead of a return to the airwaves Monday night that will likely receive more scrutiny than usual.
Not only did Larry Wilmore open his show with an impassioned message of solidarity with France — “If somebody fucks with you, they fuck with us” — and a vow that he still plans to take his daughter to Paris for her upcoming 18th birthday, but The Nightly Show also attempted some comedy about ISIS on Monday night.Wilmore jokingly challenged the Democratic presidential candidates for refusing to use the term “radical Islam” during Saturday’s debate. He spoke to a “Mid-East expert” who considered himself a “radical” Muslim, in the sense that he “rips waves and prays five times a day.” To describe those Muslims who prefer blowing shit up, his guest prefers to use the term “total fucking assholes.”