The Nightly Show is My New Favorite Morning TV
I watch exclusively time-shifted TV. Combined with the fact that I work from home 70% of the time, it means I watch a goodly amount of late night TV in the bright light of day. The Daily Show is the old reliable (and still excellent) option, but I now find myself headed first to The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.
The banality of morning television raises my ire every time I accidentally find it on my screen; with the death of the soap opera, I find it the last bastion of sexist triviality on the small screen (but that’s another post). But while I’m working, it’s difficult to focus on narrative, and my eyes can either be on what I’m typing or the TV – not both. Here’s where topical TV like The Daily or Nightly Shows comes in – conversational, but with a semblance of substance.
As the former “Senior Black Correspondent” for The Daily Show since 2006, Wilmore is no newcomer to the satirical newsroom. In addition to his stint there, the 53-year-old Wilmore has made a career out of writing for and producing comedies ranging from In Living Color, The Bernie Mac Show, The Office, and most recently, black-ish (a gig he had to give up when Comedy Central greenlit The Nightly Show). His humor is wry and conversational, but with a persistent hint of confrontation sometimes designed to keep you from being completely in on the joke with him, sometimes meant to make you feel like a member of a club with a secret handshake.
Like Steven Colbert and John Oliver before him, Wilmore couldn’t just mimic Jon Stewart’s brainchild; he had to find a distinctive tone and format for his half-hour show. He’s done this by focusing each show – both the monologue and the discussion with guests – around a single, topical issue. In the first six episodes, some examples include Bill Cosby, trade with Cuba, and vaccinations. Following his take on the issue, Wilmore sits down with a panel of four guests, who are selected for either their expertise or comic ability, and the majority of whom are (thus far) non-white. The format resembles a half-hour version of Real Time with Bill Maher except with far less aggressive grandstanding douchebaggery.
The diversity on the show is refreshing in a late-night landscape that has long been mostly lily-white, save past entries by Arsenio Hall and George Lopez. While the variety of backgrounds is enticing to me – see my TV New Year’s resolution to seek out different American cultural voices – it isn’t the most striking thing about the show. The most surprising thing is the show’s embrace of authority in the dialogue between guests.
While the guests are funny, they’re also on the show because they care about and are invested in the issue at hand, and they’re selected appropriately. Wilmore and his producers are well aware of the fact that “expertise” isn’t necessarily always measured by political office or fame (something that too often guides the selection of talking heads), and that its definition differs depending on the circumstance. When discussing Bill Cosby on January 20th, the panelists were cultural critic & columnist Jamilah Lemieux, comedian Kathleen Madigan, comedian Baratunde Thurston, and comedian Keith Robinson – a much different panel than on January 26th, when the conversation about the film American Sniper‘s depiction of the military featured sniper Sgt. Nicholas Irving, Canadian comedian Sabrina Jalees, writer & veteran Paul Rieckhoff, and journalist Matt Taibbi. None of these names top the tabloids. All were insightful and entertaining.
Wilmore has a deft hand in guiding the conversation, managing the pace, and making sure humor balances with serious discussion. So far, the panels feel like the conversations between you and your smartest friends, if they were experts in these subjects (and about 86% funnier). He’s also uncompromising in his perspective, that of a liberal, black, educated man, without being alienating. It’s a tough needle to thread, but Wilmore manages.
It’s early days, and the show isn’t perfect. During the “Keep it 100” segment (thorny questions where Wilmore demands the answers be kept 100% real) at the end of the panel, the questions lobbed are sometimes softballs. The length is also an impediment to excellence: I understand that the length of the monologue compared to that of the panel discussions is dictated partially by commercial breaks, but in heated conversations, the panel needs more room to breathe. However, six days into The Nightly Show’s (hopefully long) run, wanting more is a good problem to have.
The Nightly Show airs Monday to Thursday at 11:30pm on Comedy Central, or the next morning on Hulu with your morning coffee.