Larry Wilmore had just finished taping what would now be his third to last episode of The Nightly Show on Comedy Central when he gave The Daily Beast a call to discuss his thoughts about the untimely end of his reign as the country’s only African-American late-night host.
Just one day earlier, Comedy Central announced that it was canceling Wilmore’s show less than three months before what he has long been describing as the “The Unblackening” of the White House. Now, as Wilmore put it in his first comments about the decision, late-night was undergoing its own “unblackening” and he was the unfortunate victim.
But while Wilmore may have sounded a bit exhausted after two whirlwind days, he was not discouraged. Despite the disappointment of not getting to carry on with his show at least through this November’s election, he remains just as classy and gracious as ever, vowing to continue tackling “difficult” issues through comedy in the next chapter of his career. And he also admitted that he will “probably need” a nice, long rest after this week is over.
How are you feeling?
Hey man, it’s great over here! No, you know, we’re hanging in there. It’s kind of surreal, these things. You feel really sorry for all of the people you’re working with. But we have such a great group over here, it really is unbelievable. People have been so resilient. Sam Bee’s team sent us over some wine today so we’ve all been drinking wine. So we’re just having some fun and trying to make the best out of these last few days.
How did you find out that the show had been canceled? And did you have any inkling that was something that might be coming?
The network called me and told me. You know, there was always a possibility we wouldn’t be picked up. But I never thought we would just have four shows left. I’d thought we’d have the chance to at least be on through the election. That part was a surprise to all of us.
Comedy Central president Kent Alterman said the show “hasn’t resonated” with audiences, which may be true in terms of ratings. But that’s gotta sting a little bit for you guys and the show’s fans.
I think our fans would disagree with that statement. I think that a lot of people feel like this show has had a lot of resonance in the culture. We didn’t get quite the numbers we wanted, but resonated it certainly has. But you know what? When they want to cancel you, what can you do? You can’t really make arguments against it. They have their reasons. So there’s not much I can really say except I’m happy that they gave us this opportunity in the first place and we really gave it our best shot and had fun.
You joked about the “Unblackening” of late-night on Monday. Yours was a show that was embraced by the black community on social media and elsewhere. What does it mean that that wasn’t enough to keep it on the air?
It’s hard to say. You never know with TV—there are so many different factors that could mean something so you don’t know what the actual factor is sometimes. It could be a matter of timing, what you’re paired with, where you’re at. All kinds of things. You just never know.
You said in an interview earlier this year that The Nightly Show is “not designed” to have the type of viral hits that Jimmy Fallon and James Corden put out consistently. Do you think there’s room in late-night for shows that aren’t focused on that?
I don’t know, because things change all the time. We may have no television anymore, we may just have watching on our phones and watching clips. Maybe that’s the future. I have no idea. The business part of it can be very vexing. You always have to keep certain metrics and everything. Because all I can do is make a good show. So those things are very hard to stay on top of and keep track of.
Samantha Bee, John Oliver and others have found a lot of success with a weekly format instead of trying to pump out four or five shows a week. What do you think would have been different if your show had only been once a week?
I would be less tired… Oh, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. We operate within what we’re doing. What can I say? Would it have been different? I guess. But I thought we did the best with what we had. I think it takes a while many times to find your show in this format. It took Jon [Stewart] a while to find what he was doing and make it work. I know Seth [Meyers] is doing some great things now on his show and it took him a while to find that. There can be a breaking period. [Jimmy] Kimmel took a few years to really get comfortable and figure out what things work for him. And Trevor [Noah] is going through that now himself, still trying to find what will really work on that show.
Have you spoken to Jon Stewart, and if so, did he have any words of wisdom to share?
Yeah, Jon’s a producer on the show, so I definitely spoke to him. Jon’s not very wise. He’s not a very wise guy. [laughs] Yeah, we commiserated and were both a bit frustrated, but there wasn’t much we could do.
You have such a talented and diverse group of people working on the show who are now out of jobs. What are your hopes for them?
Well, thankfully, we work with a very talented group of people who are so good. I know they’re going to wind up in really good places. And I’m sure people will be very excited to work with them.
In terms of this week, what do you want to achieve with these last couple of shows?
I don’t think I’m looking at it in terms of achievement at this point. Because I feel like we’ve done that. We’re just finding ways to sign off at this point; more than anything else, that’s what we’ll be focusing on. We have a few ideas, but I think it’ll be pretty simple on Thursday. It should be good.
Where do you plan to focus your energy after the final episode airs Thursday?
I’m planning to get back to scripted and do some more things like I did before, sitcoms, maybe film and that kind of stuff. But I’ll take some time to think about my next thing. I co-created a show with Issa Rae that’s at HBO [Insecure] and premieres in October, so I’m very excited about that.
And if another network came to you and said they wanted you to host a late-night show, is that something that you would consider at this point?
Definitely. I would definitely look for another opportunity to do this type of thing. That would be great.
Finally, looking back on the show, you said you feel you already achieved what you set out to achieve over this past year and a half. What do you think the show accomplished?
We were hoping to present to America voices that they don’t always get a chance to hear from, doing a smart show, and issues that are very difficult issues to tackle—whether it’s race or class or gender—find a humanity in those stories and have fun with them at the same time. And I thought we did that with a brave face, and sometimes you do it successfully and sometimes not as successfully. But we wanted to tackle the very difficult. Not an easy assignment. Make this cop shooting funny. And… go!