Late-night TV is experiencing, in Larry Wilmore’s own words, an Unblackening.
Comedy Central announced Monday that, with just 12 weeks to go before the presidential election, the network is canceling The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, with the final episode of the show airing Thursday. The show had launched last January, serving as a replacement for The Colbert Report.
“I’m really grateful to Comedy Central, Jon Stewart, and our fans to have had this opportunity,” Wilmore said in a statement. “But I’m also saddened and surprised we won’t be covering this crazy election or ‘The Unblackening’ as we’ve coined it. And keeping it 100, I guess I hadn’t counted on ‘The Unblackening’ happening to my time slot as well.”
When Larry Wilmore was tapped by Stewart to be Stephen Colbert’s successor in the post-Daily Show time slot, it was a long overdue, sadly still-radical move. Wilmore, who had served as “senior black correspondent” on The Daily Show, became the only person of color among the oft-derided White Guys in Suits who ruled late-night.
More, his show never shied away from his blackness, capitalizing on his wry racial observations as the show’s greatest comedy selling point and doubling down on what’s become a crucial pop-culture realization—that, regardless of race, the perspective will have universal appeal and resonance.
His signature segment, “Keeping it 100,” had Wilmore and his guests speaking the unfiltered truth about controversial topics, regardless of the consequences.
At a time in late-night when every celebrity interview and viral clip is carefully orchestrated, it was exhilarating. As exhilarating as Wilmore’s go-for-broke opinions on Bill Cosby, Black Lives Matter, and the election, which, as mentioned before, he coined “The Unblackening”—what he thought was a reactionary search for Obama’s (white) successor.
That exhilaration, however, was apparently only felt by critics.
Asked by The New York Times’ John Kolbin for the reason behind the cancellation, Comedy Central president Kent Alterman said, “Even though we’ve given it a year and a half, we’ve been hoping against hope that it would start to click with our audience, but it hasn’t happened and we’ve seen no evidence of it happening.”
Simply, Wilmore’s perspective—the one I found remarkable in the paragraphs above—“hasn’t resonated,” according to Alterman.
He’s certainly right. While The Colbert Report averaged 1.7 million viewers in its last year, The Nightly Show averaged less than half that, only about 776,000 a night in the past few months.
But while this supports Alterman’s assessment that the show hasn’t clicked with audiences, it’s his prediction that “we’ve seen no evidence of it happening” in the future that’s more worrisome.
Just as Comedy Central made a huge leap for diversity in late-night by giving Wilmore his own show in the first place, the network is shoving the progress two steps back by canceling it.
When a move toward progress is made in the entertainment industry, the parties involved often sweat to death under the harsh spotlight that’s put on them. When a gamble is made and it doesn’t work out, executives don’t just start betting more conservatively. They shut down the whole casino.
You see, for example, the reports that studios are reconsidering other all-female reboots after the recent Ghostbusters failed to light up the box office. (Although the recently staffed up Ocean’s Eleven all-female reboot counters that theory.)
In the late-night space, there’s no greater example than Joan Rivers. She became the first woman to host a late-night talk show, and the only one to do a night show on a broadcast network—Wanda Sykes had a short-lived weekly program on Fox in 2009.
In recent years there’s been an active push to bring more women to late-night, with Chelsea Handler vacating her slot on E! and moving to Netflix, and Comedy Central offering The Daily Show to Amy Schumer before Trevor Noah took the job. Cable networks have given opportunities to the likes of Kathy Griffin and Whitney Cummings, and Samantha Bee is killing it on all fronts on TBS.
But when the past few years has seen the biggest late-night TV shakeup there’s ever been, it says something about how Rivers might have scared broadcast networks into being more risk-averse than ever that none of the new hires was a woman. Instead, the big gamble was a guy with a British accent.
Can you be a trailblazer if no one follows your trail?
It’s worth noting that in the midst of that same late-night TV shakeup, Comedy Central hired not one, but two black talk hosts, with Wilmore and Noah replacing Colbert and Stewart.
The network has reiterated its support of Noah, whose ratings have also been disappointing and whose critical notices don’t compare to that of Stewart’s—or even Wilmore’s, for that matter. For the first time in 16 years, The Daily Show wasn’t nominated for an Emmy for Best Variety Series.
Comedy Central is to be commended for taking a risk, but Wilmore’s swift cancellation reflects late-night TV’s long history of quickly aborted endeavors with hosts that deviate from the norm. There’s the exception of Arsenio Hall, whose first late-night show ran from 1989-1993. But even Hall’s attempt to return to the genre ended after just one season in 2013.
As Sonia Saraiya pointed out on Salon when Wilmore was first given The Nightly Show: Hall, Chris Rock, Sykes, and W. Kamau Bell all were given opportunities to end the White Guy in Suit domination of late-night. And all of their shows failed to last more than a season.
At least The Nightly Show was given a season and a half.
No series should be kept on air for tokenistic purposes, but Wilmore was a necessary voice in late-night, and a determined one at that.
He bucked at the tradition of late-night monologues packed with nyuk-nyuk jokes. He said something with his comedy, and was often even more aware of his platform than he was concerned with the comedy of it. At times, he would let his show go on for stretches without a traditional joke or laugh, for the benefit of a larger point.
It’s interesting that Wilmore’s biggest splash this past year was not made on his show, but rather as the host of the White House Correspondents Dinner, where he gave a polarizing performance and used the “n-word.” Some found it to be a brave, essential performance that didn’t shy away from race or our nation’s history, forcing us to confront it through comedy. Others thought it was tasteless.
Are there any other late-night hosts that even dare to not appease everyone?
There’s a bit of a “last hired, first fired” whiff to this, referring to the the claim that blacks are the last hired during periods of economic growth and the first fired in recessions.
Sure, Noah was hired after Wilmore, but looking at the history of black hosts in late-night you’ll see that they are rarely given the opportunity to “click” with an audience that white counterparts are often given—heck, or even to just exist on air for seasons without any audience to speak of, just because a network supported them and their voice.
If network executives are looking at Comedy Central’s post-Stewart, post-Colbert transition and gauging how Noah and Wilmore have and are faring, the fact that Wilmore has already been ruled a failure makes for a worrisome test case should networks consider replacing one of their White Guys in Suits with a person of color in the future.
Wilmore’s last Nightly Show will air Thursday, after which the slot will, for the meantime, be replaced with the show @midnight, which currently airs after Wilmore. @midnight is hosted by Chris Hardwick. I probably don’t have to tell you what he looks like.