Well, that was unexpected. Last week, Comedy Central canceled The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. The decision was announced Monday morning. Thursday night, the last episode aired.
Its parent show, The Daily Show, premiered on July 22, 1996 with host Craig Kilborn. The first episode featured everyone talking really fast. I had to turn it off after about 5 minutes. The next night I tried again (I REALLY wanted to like this show) and they started with an explanation that they’d been talking fast to try to hook people, but that would not be their normal format. Then they just got mean. I tried watching the show multiple times, watched them ask crew members to laugh at jokes, and later got an actual studio audience, but I could never shake the impression that Craig Kilborn HATED young people and was in absolute denial that he was one of us. The commercials, though, were funny, implying that you should watch the show because Craig Kilborn is tall, but to get signal you’ll have to hold up a wire coat hanger like an antenna. In August of 1997, South Park premiered, and started to create an actual identity for Comedy Central. On January 11, 1999, Jon Stewart took over on The Daily Show, a development that made me insanely happy. The show became more politically-oriented (and eventually more Fox News-oriented) and much more focused on punching up. Stephen Colbert got a spin-off show called The Colbert Report, which premiered October 17, 2005. While both shows were unapologetically liberal, Stephen Colbert played a character who was an outspoken conservative but took his beliefs to insane conclusions. The love of his life was his handgun, Sweetness. He had a list of things to be afraid of called the Threatdown, and number one on the list was always “bears.” When Jon Stewart announced a Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, DC, Stephen Colbert announced his own Rally to Restore Fear. (The event ended up being a joint venture called “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”) The two shows together really did help restore sanity. They created the feeling that when you’re an average person and it feels like the world is screaming at you all the time, it’s okay to just laugh in their faces. You don’t need to be angry and you don’t need to be scared. You can call them on their bullshit and laugh at them. And then, at the end of 2014/start of 2015, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both left.
Jon Stewart retired, sort of. HBO has announced he’ll have an animated show premiering this fall, but no more details are known. Stephen Colbert left to host The Late Show on CBS, but he was contractually obligated to leave his outsized character behind. The Daily Show was taken over by Trevor Noah, a comedian from South Africa. The Colbert Report’s slot was given to Larry Wilmore, who created The Nightly Show. Originally called Minority Report, the premise was that it would examine current events from the point of view of minorities. It was designed to be a panel show. After 18 months, it was canceled. So what went wrong?
For one thing, they could never really find their format. There were two things they clung to: That they were a panel show, and that Larry liked to “Keep it 100” (insist on telling the truth, usually in some sort of “truth-or-dare” style game). They went from a monologue and two panel segments with four panelists who were known in their field, like Bill Maher, to one of those panel segments being a “Keep it 100” game, to a monologue, a sketch featuring the writers of the show, and a panel that was just the “Keep it 100” game, to a monologue, a sketch, and a panel of three people, two of whom were staff writers and one of whom was a celebrity, and then a question to Larry from Twitter or the studio audience challenging him to “Keep it 100” (usually some variation on: how much do you really hate Trump/Bill Cosby?) to just dropping the “Keep it 100” thing altogether. Which probably made him sad, but there really wasn’t a way to use it effectively in the show. Since the panel guests were usually celebrities, they didn’t have any direct ties to the stories being discussed. They could make jokes on the topic, but not be insightful. (There were a few that took their appearances very seriously and clearly researched the topic beforehand and came prepared, but they were the exception, not the rule.) The sketches usually worked the same way, and the monologue could sometimes border on this. I’ve been thinking back to when the show has really worked, and keep landing on the episode during the Ferguson riots, when Larry went to Baltimore and had lunch with rival gang leaders who discussed their lives, their views on the police, etc. When it felt like everyone else was painting broad, scary caricatures, Larry went and talked to the people. Had Larry been able to keep that up, the show would have been amazing. But he couldn’t. And I don’t think that had anything to do with him.
It was a panel show. It was sold as a panel show. And when it became clear the panel wasn’t working the way they wanted it to, I don’t think he could do anything about that because when I say it was sold as a panel show, what I mean is that at some point the words “it won’t cost any money” were used. Their budget was probably next to nothing. Not enough to afford to put cameras and a couple operators in a van once a week, much less send someone on an actual plane. When people talk, or even joke, about one less black voice on TV, I think it’s fair to say they’re referencing the idea that Larry Wilmore only got this show on the condition that it not cost anything. Because this is the value we place on “minority” entertainment, and this is what it took for him to get his own show. But it couldn’t succeed.
A lot of reviewers seem to have come out of the woodwork since the cancellation was announced to say that they love this show, it was the only thing that made them feel connected to the news, and Larry Wilmore is a genius. I keep wondering where these people were when the show was not canceled. There’s no point in talking about what they could have done differently, except in how it might affect what they do differently next time. I’m certain everyone involved will go on to other projects that they will hopefully be just as proud of. And I really hope that one day soon we get the show that we, and Larry, were promised, with the budget to back it up. In the meantime, we have Sam Bee and John Oliver and even Trevor Noah, and that’s not nothing.