The Fearless Comedy of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore

Just two episodes in, late night's newest host is deftly finding humor in darker topics.

Peter Yang/Comedy Central

Just two nights into his tenure as a late-night talk show host, Larry Wilmore is doing something people in his position don't often excel at: listening. The occupation traditionally demands a lot of punchlines: a set-up, joke, set-up, joke monologue, a scripted or pre-taped bit, an interview where the anecdotes have been discussed beforehand. Wilmore, who’s stepped into the timeslot vacated by Stephen Colbert, is instead doing something that feels radical by letting other people talk without any punchline. Even more surprisingly, he's doing it without sacrificing the challenging, loose, and funny atmosphere of his new show.

The Nightly Show begins with Wilmore setting up and riffing on the night's topic (on Monday it was police violence, while Tuesday was Bill Cosby) before segueing to a roundtable discussion. The late night show it most resembles is Bill Maher's Real Time on HBO. That format isn’t particularly conducive to easy comedy at the best of times, but as cable news often shows, it's also not particularly conducive to salient point-making, considering all the yelling everyone has to do to get heard. When I watched the first episode of The Nightly Show, I thought Wilmore had set himself too big a challenge. It is, after all, a comedy show, and how many laughs can you really get that way, especially when constrained by Comedy Central's act breaks and 22-minute episode limit?

I was in the live audience for the second night, where Wilmore led off the panel discussion by asking Ebony digital editor Jamilah Lemieux, regarding the preponderance of Cosby rape allegations, "Why do you think we can't believe women?" Prepared anecdotes are clearly not going to be the name of the game on The Nightly Show. At one point, Lemieux talked at length about how she considered Cosby an idol when she was younger and went to Howard University partly because of the legacy of A Different World, while also expounding on the hypocrisy of Cosby's habit of lecturing young African Americans on their behavior. I re-watched the episode on Comedy Central expecting Lemieux's remarks would be edited down for time if nothing more, and while there's undoubtedly some necessary compression, her comments were basically intact.

Wilmore isn’t pulling his punches—he led off the episode by saying, "We're talking Cosby! We'll answer the question 'Did he do it?' The answer will be 'Yes!'" Then he added, "There's no statute of limitations on my opinion, and I'm telling you, that motherfucker did it!" The reaction in the room to the line was so huge that Wilmore was thrown off, laughing in the middle of his punchline with amused surprise, before doing another take. Cosby might be low-hanging fruit at this point on the Internet, but for a mainstream TV audience the stance still felt bold—and Willmore leading off his roundtable by asking why the world can't believe women's allegations even bolder. But the host never feels like he's leaning in for the kill, even when he makes his feelings on the matter clear.

It's partly his cadence, which longtime viewers of The Daily Show should know well: Wilmore was a longtime pretend-foil to Jon Stewart on issues of race as the "Senior Black Correspondent," a mellifluous radical who would say all kinds of hilarious, outrageous things that you'd barely notice because he did it so sweetly. He's sharper-edged on his own show, but only a little bit. On his first night, he asked Cory Booker if he wanted to be president and jokingly tossed teabags at his waffling ("weak tea") response, deflating his target without seeming hostile. On the second, he carefully managed some charged moments as comedian Keith Robinson stuck up for Cosby's "unproven" guilt, cheerfully acknowledging Robinson's agitation without letting it take over the debate. That's something most TV personalities can't pull off—letting a big conversation get sidetracked in debate over details.

Wilmore's show seems to be in service of such conversations rather than easy, quick jokes. Not that it isn't consistently funny—but it's finding the humor in dark topics, and finding a way into talking about issues many Americans at home might not be able to broach. In that way, the influence of Jon Stewart, who handpicked Wilmore as Colbert's successor, is pretty clear. The Daily Show's interviews aim to be more thoughtful than a traditional late night show and cast a wider net for guests; still, their subjects are on TV to pitch something, so the discussion usually locks in on that. Colbert in character was a brilliant interviewer who could sucker his subject into agreeing to the most outrageous statements, or argue them into impossible corners, but as with so much of his show, the appeal was partly what a high-wire performance he was pulling off every night.

Wilmore isn’t doing anything so radical—and yet, it feels like it could be more seismic. He's been managing this for years in scripted television: The incredible first season of The Bernie Mac Show, which he scripted with the late comedian, asked questions about the terror of parenting, and the complex nature of retaining one's black identity as an upper-middle-class family, and never failed to be anything less than uproarious. Most recently, Wilmore worked on Black-ish, in its first season on ABC, which is taking on similar issues in a similar format 14 years later, partly because they remain so under-discussed. Fair or not, there aren't a lot of television programs that look like The Nightly Show. Wilmore's is taking that fact and running right at it.