Fans of Comedy Central’s late-night hour of news and “news” can relax.
The Jon Stewart factory appears to have produced another terrific host with Larry Wilmore, one whose approach is quite different from that of his predecessor in the 11:30 slot, Stephen Colbert. While Colbert was the emperor of “truthiness” and lies, a live-action cartoon of American arrogance, Wilmore is all about “Keeping It 100,” as in keeping it 100 percent real, particularly when it comes to race.
In Monday’s debut of “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” Wilmore’s approach was more conventional than that of Colbert, but then a show like “The Colbert Report,” with its genre-twisting brilliance and ironic premise, comes along rarely. He started with a monologue, and then moved into a Bill Maher-like group conversation with four guests.
His defining touch, of course, is his willingness to make intelligent and pointed jokes about race in America, a topic that is layered with denial, falsehoods, and superstition. It’s a quality familiar to those who’ve watched him as the “Senior Black Correspondent” on “The Daily Show.” Indeed, the original name of Wilmore’s show was “The Minority Report,” until Fox decided to make a series based on that movie. He is late night’s only black host at this moment.
Wilmore’s opening monologue was a pleasure. His jokes were hit or miss, or course; that’s normal, particularly during the first episode of a nightly show. But he maintained a calm, masterful presence at the desk, never trying too hard, dipping into irony without seeming snarky. He zeroed in on the news, but unlike Stewart, he didn’t cut back and forth into clips from the media reservoir of contradiction and stupidity; his graphic support was minimal, mostly made up of small still photos of those he joked about.
He complained about how the Rev. Al Sharpton jumps into every controversy to make a speech — “You’re not black Batman,” Wilmore scolded. He joked about the Oscar snubbing of “Selma” star David Oyelowo, saying “He’s a British brother — I don’t really care about them.” And he said with irony that he wished his show had premiered a year ago because “all of the good bad race stuff happened already.”
A bit about global warming led to a punch line that drew a small gasp from the audience: “It won’t just be black people saying ‘I can’t breathe.’ ” That’s the kind of sensitive material Wilmore can deliver nimbly and effortlessly.
The bulk of the show was a panel conversation, which was uneven. His guests were New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, hip-hop artist and activist Talib Kweli, comic Bill Burr, and model, actress, and “Nightly Show” regular Shenaz Treasury. The rhythm of the conversation was off, with some awkward lags, but a few comments were provocative and interesting, such as when Burr said that the only way to create change is through acts of violence, leading Kweli to add, “We wouldn’t be talking about Ferguson if there wasn’t a riot.”
The conversation wrapped up with a segment called “Keep It 100,” during which Wilmore asked each panelist a question and demanded an honest answer. “Do you want to be president,” he asked Booker, who quickly said, “Uh, no.”
The bit didn’t move ahead easily. But, generally speaking, group conversations can be awkward on TV, as people talk over one another, as spontaneous jokes fail to emerge, and as the cameras struggle to capture exchanges. I hope the talk on “The Nightly Show” will loosen up as the guests better understand the tone of the show, and as “The Nightly Show” staff chooses guests who may be more polished at this kind of friendly debate.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to judge a nightly series from a single episode — look at how Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night” blossomed in time. But Comedy Central appears to have come up with a worthy partner to “The Daily Show,” with Stewart and Wilmore as the salt and pepper shakers of late-night TV.
A half-hour of humor, opinion, issues, and conversation, “The Nightly Show” has the potential to resonate as it evolves in the coming months.
• More from Matthew GilbertMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.