Back when The Nightly Show was still called Minority Report, Jon Stewart had an idealistic idea of what Larry Wilmore’s late-night show could become. The show would be “a comedic look at news, current events and pop culture from unique perspectives not typically on display in late night television,” as the original press release described it. A Meet the Press-style panel program for the “underrepresented.”
The Nightly Show, with Stewart serving as an executive producer, evolved from there over the past year and a half, but even if it did “resonate” with many more viewers than Comedy Central president Kent Alterman would have you believe, it was abruptly canceled this week and the staff was told they would have just four more shows before being taken off the air. Any dreams of seeing through “The Unblackening” of the White House that will come with this fall’s election were dashed.
“Jon Stewart had a very strong vision for this show, which is that it would represent the underdog and we would deal with issues of race, class, and gender as it related to the news of the day,” the show’s former head writer-turned-contributor Robin Thede told The Daily Beast in an interview ahead of Thursday’s finale. “We would try to make you look at something from a different perspective. Not necessarily to change your mind, but if that happened, then great.”
The show occasionally succeeded at that lofty goal, but not on as big of a scale as its predecessor, The Colbert Report. Like most things these days, they may have had Donald Trump to blame. “If there was criticism of the show it was that we talked about race too much, which is funny to me because I feel like we talked about Trump too much,” Thede added. “Because that’s all we talk about!”
It’s a disappointment that hit Stewart almost as hard as it hit Wilmore, who thought Comedy Central would keep him on at least through the election. “We commiserated and were both a bit frustrated,” Wilmore told us about how he and Stewart handled news of the show’s cancellation, “but there wasn’t much we could do.”
Perhaps there was more Stewart could have done before the show was canceled, like making the type of on-air appearances that helped rejuvenate Stephen Colbert’s show during last month’s political conventions. But that didn’t happen. So viewers will have to settle for Stewart’s last-minute cameo on The Nightly Show Thursday night.
When Wilmore began his final show, the “Larry! Larry!” chants went on a little longer than usual. For his last opening segment, the host chose an unexpected topic: the outrage over Ellen DeGeneres’s Usain Bolt tweet. But just when Wilmore was moving on to the latest CNN nonsense from Trump surrogates, Stewart wandered onto the stage and asked, “What did I miss?”
When Stewart found out it was Wilmore’s last show, he asked, “What did you do, piss off Peter Thiel?”
“I just decided to stop by to tell you I love you,” Stewart said, before offering him some much-needed words of wisdom about getting fired. “Do not confuse cancellation with failure,” he told Wilmore. “What you, my friend, have been tasked to you, you have done and done beautifully.
“You gave voice to underserved voices in the media arena. It was a show that was raw and poignant and funny and smart and all those things,” Stewart continued. “You took something and got better every fucking day.”
Quoting and subtly mocking Comedy Central’s Alterman, Stewart asked, “Did you ‘resonate’ with an audience? I would say, not only that, but in an important way, in a way that you don’t even realize yet and won’t reveal itself for years to come and it’s this: You started a conversation that was not on television when you began.
“And you worked with a group of people who you invited to that conversation to collaborate with you, to sharpen that conversation, and what you don’t realize is, you walk out of this room and that conversation doesn’t end,” Stewart added. “And all the people that you work with are going to take what they learned here, and what they learned from you, and the beautiful experience that they had, and you’re going to start to see them doing things in the business as well, and taking that and taking other experiences, and you’re going to watch that flourish. And that’s going to have you on it.”
Throughout the speech, Wilmore looked as though he was trying to hold back tears, much in the same way Colbert made Stewart tear up during his final Daily Show. But he wasn’t done. In closing, Stewart paraphrased Wilmore’s closing line to President Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “You did it, my mishpucha.”
Wilmore closed the show by explaining why the map behind him on the set appears “upside down.” As he explained, the chief mission of his show was to “see the world in a way that may not make everybody comfortable and to present it with a cast of people who don’t always get to have a voice on that.”
“So on that front, I feel that we’ve been very successful,” he continued. “And I couldn’t be prouder of what we accomplished.” Since it was his last episode, Wilmore said he had to “keep it 100,” as always. “So I will just say this: I’m not done yet.”