“So,” Larry Wilmore asked his studio audience, “how was your day?”
Thus, after an explosion of wistful cheering of “Larry! Larry!” and repeated “thank yous” and “I love yous” for the host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show seated at his anchor table, Wilmore had to grapple with the gloomy reality that his Monday morning began with executives of the Viacom-owned cable channel canceling his gig after 19 months on the air.
“When we started this show, we wanted to have a conversation on some very tough subjects, and we’ve had a lot of fun doing just that,” said the 54-year-old Wilmore, the former “senior black correspondent” of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show who was given the 11:30 p.m. time slot that opened up when fellow Daily Show alum Stephen Colbert departed to host CBS’s Late Show.
“Our show was at its best when the news was at its worst,” Wilmore continued, “and I am so proud that we were able to take on real issues and hopefully say something powerful while making people laugh on some very, very dark days.
“My only regret is that we won’t be around to cover this truly insane election season. Although,” he added, “on the plus side, our show going off the air means one thing—racism is solved! We did it! We did it!”
Wilmore, of course, was engaging in a bit of what might be called—in every sense of the term—black humor. He is—until Thursday, when his program takes its final bow—the only African-American political satirist with a nightly forum on basic cable that regularly addresses the knotty issue of race in America.
The Nightly Show host was oddly subdued, and probably unnecessarily gracious, as he mused about the ax falling on his bespectacled, aerodynamically shaved head. “I just want to thank Comedy Central for this rare opportunity—and it really is a rare opportunity,” he declared.
He’d been more pointed in his formal press statement earlier in the day, when he noted that he’s “saddened and surprised we won’t be covering this crazy election or ‘The Unblackening’ as we’ve coined it. And keeping it 100,” he added, using his phrase for speaking hard truths regardless of the potential damage, “I guess I hadn’t counted on ‘The Unblackening’ happening to my time slot as well.”
During Monday’s installment, it was left to Nightly Show contributor Mike Yard to hit the nail even more squarely on the head. It was Yard’s (who is black) final appearance for a “Pardon the Integration” sketch opposite white guy Rory Albanese, debating the appropriate or inappropriate use of the N-word (jumping off Wilmore’s notorious comment to President Obama to conclude his standup routine three months ago at the White House Correspondents Dinner: “Yo, Barry, you did it, my nigga!”).
Mining a sarcastic vein (truly sarcastic, not “Trump” sarcastic) concerning the epidemic of police shootings of African Americans, Yard opined: “I wish there was a late-night comedy show on air that dealt with things like that!”
I guess Wilmore can find solace with the knowledge that he lasted a full year longer on his own program than the freckle-faced, brightly pompadoured Conan O’Brien did on NBC’s Tonight Show back in the day—perhaps prompting the phrase “Black Is the New Orange.”
Kent Alterman, the spanking-new president of Comedy Central who replaced Michele Ganeless a mere two months ago after core talent such as Stewart and Colbert fled the channel for greener pastures, explained to reporters on Monday that he pulled the rug out from under Wilmore’s project, in the midst of the most comedy-rich presidential campaign in memory, because of anemic ratings and contractual considerations.
“We just didn’t feel like we had enough traction to sign up for another year. It wasn’t about the election—it’s about another year of the show,” Alterman told The Hollywood Reporter. “Sadly, we’ve been hoping against hope that it would start to resonate in any of those quarters and we just weren’t seeing evidence of it. As much as we like Larry and the uniqueness of the show and the voices that are on the show—not just in terms of ratings—it hasn’t resonated in terms of our fans engaging with the show with consuming or sharing content or having a dialogue about it on social platforms.”
In terms of satirical targeting, Monday’s episode aimed at many of the same barn doors that Trevor Noah had smacked in the previous half-hour on The Daily Show—Donald Trump’s various fact-challenged assertions concerning Obama and ISIS, Trump “spokesgoblin” Katrina Pierson’s brazen idiocy in claiming that Obama started the war in Afghanistan—but Wilmore brought the sort of incendiary passion to his task that the South African-born Noah only occasionally musters.
“I gotta keep it 100 about this election,” Wilmore said, switching into evangelical mode as audience members regularly shouted out their agreement. “Donald Trump has stopped being funny. He’s stopped being outrageous. He’s stopped being politically incorrect. He’s just downright dangerous.”
Wilmore continued: “And the worst of it is, he’s just a liar. Okay? And I don’t want to hear”—and now he affected a sniveling tone—“‘Hillary Clinton is a liar too!’ That is a false equivalency. Hillary Clinton is a very smart and capable politician who many people don’t trust because she spends too much time lawyering her words so she doesn’t lose votes instead of telling us what she actually [bleep] thinks. All right?”
Clinton’s army of spin doctors couldn’t have put it better.
“Donald Trump is a psychopathic narcissist who not only has the hands of an infant, he has the mind of one.”
That was not Wilmore’s first pitch for his preferred candidate on his fourth-to-last show, and the panel discussion in the final segment—featuring Yard, Julie Klausner, and Robin Thiede—continued to beat this drum: Trump bad, Hillary good.
Perhaps if the show had been permitted to evolve, Wilmore might have dropped this segment, which was usually more predictable and less enlightening than Colbert or, for that matter, Stewart, ever was.
Still, Wilmore’s smart, informed—and yes, funny—voice will be missed as Election Day approaches. It’s too bad that the promo for Nightly Show tickets, which aired mid-show for visitors to New York, was only subversive irony.