When all was said and done Saturday night, Larry Wilmore emerged from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as the most controversial host since Stephen Colbert. In a new interview with The Daily Beast, he says he knew exactly what he was getting himself into.
While Colbert was initially criticized for his satirical hammering of George W. Bush, a decade later, it was Wilmore’s relentless jokes about the media, along with one well-placed “colloquialism” to describe the president, that has his detractors up in arms this week. Instant reviews ranged from CNN host Don Lemon’s middle finger to former CNN host Piers Morgan’s pearl-clutching.
At the top of The Nightly Show Monday evening, Wilmore immediately addressed the kerfuffle over his use of the term “my nigga” in reference to the president. “I completely understand why people would be upset about that. It’s a very charged word, I get it,” he said, before explaining to critics the difference between the the “n-word” with an “-a” and with an “-er.” As the host explained, it is very important to “properly conjugate that slur.”
After his triumphant return to the airwaves, Wilmore called The Daily Beast to rehash his experience and fire back at some of those commentators who thought using that particular word to describe President Obama crossed a line.
So, how do you think it went on Saturday night?
It was very surreal. Just purely as a comic, when you’re in that situation you go, “OK, this is not going to be easy.” [Laughs.] I could feel the resistance in the room almost immediately. I kind of realized early on that the tone of what I was doing did not match the room. But then I also realized there’s not much I can do about it now, because this is what I’ve prepared.
Was there anything that you adjusted or cut on the fly, either based on what Obama said or the room’s reaction?
Oh, completely. I was was cutting jokes all over the place. I cut about 10 jokes. I was going, “No, that’s not gonna play.” Thinking, “No, probably shouldn’t say that. If they didn’t laugh at that one, I’m definitely not going to say this one.” That’s why it was very surreal, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. And I think the first indication was the Wolf Blitzer joke, which to me was more tongue in cheek than anything else, you know? I think it came off harsher than how I had initially intended it. It seemed like a hard comment, but I really meant it more roasty. Because I saw all of this as a roast, really. Like, in other words, I have nothing against Wolf Blitzer. He’s a nice guy. I’m just giving my observation on that. And just trying to be snarky about it, but it came across pretty cold-blooded.
It seems like the president traditionally goes first so he doesn’t have to follow a professional comedian.
Yeah, I heard that George H.W. Bush changed that around, because he followed a comic and said, “I’m not doing that again.”
But because Obama has become so good at this, do you think it was fair that you had to follow him, especially after that mic drop?
Well, it’s never fair, but he’s the president, what are you going to do? I mean he’s unbelievable. You know what, it’s so funny, because first of all, he’s charming, right? He’s got all that natural charm. And people like him because of that. And then he’s funny too, he really figured out timing early on, probably within the first year of his presidency. And he has good writers, he has funny jokes. So it’s that combination of the three that really makes him irresistable.
You got a very positive shout-out from Stephen Colbert last night. What does that mean to you?
That was very cool. It means so much. Stephen is just one of those great guys. That was just very nice, because Stephen went through—I mean, people forget that at the time, it was not nice at all when he did that set—and his was almost like performance art. I still feel like it was arguably one of the bravest performances. Because he knew ahead of time [how it would be received] going in. I was kind of like, “Oh, they don’t like this” as I was doing it. I was almost caught off guard.
Like Colbert before you, your speech was received better outside of the room than inside the room. Can you talk about what that felt like in the moment versus some of feedback you’ve received since?
Yeah, because of the experience in the room, I was wasn’t sure how anybody received it. I thought maybe it felt like that outside too. I really didn’t know. And then Twitter started going crazy. And all these comments came in and people were saying, “Oh my god, that was the best ever” and I was like, “Really?” I was like, “Thank god somebody liked it out there.” Some of the things that people said in support of it were unbelievable. It was just so much good validation for what I was trying to accomplish. But there was a lot of negative as well, there was plenty of both.
Obviously the biggest uproar has been in reaction to your use of the “n-word” at the very end. Even Al Sharpton said it was in “bad taste.” What made you decide to close with that?
Some people are amazed, like, “Why would you do this?” It was a creative choice, definitely. I came up with it like a month ago. I’ve talked about what this presidency has meant to me on a personal level, how much it really affected me on a personal level and why I was a supporter of Obama from that historical point of view. Part of it, and I’ll be honest with you, I’m offended every time the president has been insulted in so many different ways. And to me it goes back to years and years of what we’ve faced in this country. I’ve been called horrible things growing up and all that stuff. And when I think about that particular word and how it’s been used against our people, for me to be able to turn it on its head and have almost a private moment with the president on stage, kind of like a public solitude, where he knew what I was talking about. Usually that’s something we only do behind closed doors. But to do it in public, I thought, would be a strong way to end. And I knew it would be controversial and I was ready to accept the fallout from it.
It reminds me of the outrage after Obama said the word in question during his podcast interview with Marc Maron. You pointed out on your show that at least two other presidents—Nixon and Johnson—are on record using the word in a very different context.
I hadn’t thought about that until after the fact. But yeah, I guess there is a parallel in some ways. To me, it’s kind of the antidote to “You lie” and that sort of critique. I’d never heard anyone say “You lie” to a president [before Rep. Joe Wilson shouted it at Obama during a 2009 joint session of Congress]. A lot of people I know were offended by that and saw it as more than just a difference [of opinion] with the president. It just didn’t hit our ears that way. So this was a creative expression of those feelings.
The controversy also came up at the White House press briefing on Monday. Josh Earnest said Obama “appreciated the spirit of the sentiments that Mr. Wilmore expressed.” What did Obama say to you personally about it?
He was very genuine when I first came off stage. He kind of [pounded] his chest too, the way I did. And you know, it’s funny because I’m the same age as the president. We graduated from high school the same year. That embrace at the end was so nice, it just felt so genuine. He was nothing but classy the whole time, and the First Lady. At the end, we were on the dais and he was like, “Hey, Larry, come over, we got to get in this picture.” And I’m just there thinking, “I don’t know, how do people feel about what I did? Did I just blow things up here?” I really didn’t know, so they made me feel nothing but comfortable and a part of everything.