Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore has been an absolutely essential component of late-night television over its 19 short months of existence. For 30 minutes every Monday through Thursday, Wilmore’s program has accomplished something that no other show of its genre has: Taking issues that are important to black people and making them visible to white people.
The Nightly Show was abruptly cancelled this week, for exactly the reason you’d expect: Not enough white people were watching it.
Of course, that’s not exactly how Comedy Central phrased it. A network spokesperson spouted some blather about how the show “hasn’t resonated with our audience,” but let’s not kid ourselves about what sort of audience this executive had in mind. If African-Americans comprised more than 13 percent of the population and/or more white people were inclined to value news stories affecting racial and ethnic minorities, The Nightly Show would be at the top of the pops, and no one would even think about pulling the plug for many years to come.
It’s an unfortunate Catch-22 of this business that a program that gives voice to people who are otherwise ignored or mistreated by mass media can only survive by drawing from the very audience that has been complicit in that ignorance. A show that’s both for and about minorities cannot hope to succeed without also appealing to the majority, and once it has done that, it risks losing the very distinctiveness that it sought to cultivate in the first place.
If success is measured by ratings and nothing else, The Nightly Show will go down as a noble failure—an intriguing, well-intentioned experiment that never achieved the “crossover appeal” required for long-term viability in the competitive late-night TV marketplace.
However, if you’re like me and prefer to measure success by the entertainment value of the product itself, then The Nightly Show is a treasure. Wilmore and company should be very proud of what they’ve created, and it’s a low down dirty shame they won’t be allowed to continue.
Before we go any further, we should make one thing clear: If The Nightly Show failed to attract a large enough white audience to its largely non-white platform of ideas, it was entirely white America’s fault. Day in and day out, the stories Wilmore spotlighted—many ripped straight from the headlines—were unfailingly compelling and critical to the national conversation about how Americans view and interact with each other, and Wilmore’s own commentary—which often became quite personal—lent them a moral weight and an urgency that cannot be found anywhere else on the tube.
I know for certain that The Nightly Show’s appeal was not limited to the worlds of the black and brown people it was highlighting: Being white myself, I’ve watched every minute of every episode and never once felt it was somehow not for me.
Au contraire. At its best, Wilmore’s shtick was exactly for me, delivering a combustible admixture of information, analysis and comedy about subjects new and familiar. As strikingly diverse as those issues were—in a typical week, the show might cover Bill Cosby, the death penalty, Kanye West, and the latest horrible police shooting—the connecting tissue was the sense of rank injustice—of the existence of an underdog who needs defending. As Wilmore once explained to Charlie Rose, the show’s emphasis on racial distinctions was really a sideshow to the even greater American struggle of class distinctions. (Not that the two phenomena aren’t related.)
The secret sauce was Wilmore himself, a onetime Daily Show correspondent who has been in television—as an actor, writer and producer—for more than three decades. Unlike his lead-in, Trevor Noah—the fresh-faced, 32-year-old Daily Show host—the 54-year-old Wilmore brought a frustrated weariness to his onscreen persona, the result of a lifetime’s experience of being a black man in America. By virtue of his identity alone—to say nothing of his intelligence, character and wit—Wilmore was able to express his disgust and sorrow about such issues as police brutality, gun violence, mass incarceration and other forms of racism with a gravitas and straight-shooting integrity that was at once unsettling and gratifying. Hearing him speak seriously, you suspected every word emanated directly from his soul.
And yet The Nightly Show was also among the zaniest, most gut-splitting half-hours on cable, overflowing with the sorts of goofy, irreverent, satirical comedic bits that have been the hallmark of late-night television for eons.
It was in these segments that we were introduced—mostly for the first time—to a veritable army of promising comedic performers of color. Names like Robin Thede, Mike Yard, Franchesca Ramsey, Jordan Carlos and Holly Walker didn’t mean much to most people before The Nightly Show premiered. Today, we have every reason to think their careers will be long, fruitful and prolific. In any case, they’ve certainly proved how much they deserve it, both through their scripted bits and their commentary during the panel discussions that closed every episode.
Those roundtable chats—on paper, the series’ purest and most active exchange of ideas—proved to be simultaneously the show’s most engaging and problematic component. On a good day—and there were plenty of them—the panel would include a pair of the show’s most thoughtful correspondents, plus an equally thoughtful cultural figure, and they would hash out the meaning of the most interesting news of the day. (Wilmore himself acted as referee.)
The strength of these exchanges—as with the show itself—resided in their invigorating bluntness—particularly, the way the panelists seemed at once knowledgeable about the issues but also, officially, non-expert. Like your loudest, most civically-engaged friend, they would express their two cents about this and that while acknowledging they are, in the end, just one more random person on the street.
It recalls the old William F. Buckley question: Would you sooner entrust the people’s business to the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty or to the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book? (Buckley himself claimed the latter, although that might’ve been because he went to Yale.)
From 256 episodes of The Nightly Show, we find the answer to be as muddled as it’s always been. You do not need a pile of college degrees to understand human nature—nor, conversely, does a PhD guarantee that you do—but this doesn’t negate the very real correlation between education and actual knowledge (and, if you’re lucky, wisdom).
To that end, The Nightly Show’s worst moments entailed certain panelists blundering their way into conversations to which they had nothing useful to contribute, yet still, somehow, not learning to just shut the eff up while the smarter people sorted things out. While one could argue that the exceptional democratization of these segments was emblematic of the show’s fidelity to Americans who normally feel slighted or forgotten, I’m not sure it helped the cause to reveal how dumb and ignorant some of those same folks can be some of the time.
On the whole, however, the arrangement worked, and what really terrifies me is that Comedy Central (and other networks) will conclude that The Nightly Show’s central conceit of treating African-American concerns with the dignity they deserve (and telling jokes along the way) is unworkable in late-night TV, because there just won’t be enough viewers to sustain it.
See, it would be one thing if Wilmore’s program had simply been awful, leading TV executives to devise a radically different approach to an otherwise similar concept. That Wilmore himself proved so smart and endearing—and the content of his program so consistently interesting and provocative—and yet still couldn’t draw a large enough audience to survive—well, that’s not terribly encouraging news.
It’s not a matter of the thing being perfect. The Nightly Show was undeniably flawed, but then we could all name a dozen shows that were demonstrably more flawed yet somehow stuck around for decades.
As with presidential elections, the name of the game is demographics: How do you appeal to as many different subsets of America as possible without compromising your own identity?
The short answer is that you can’t. As a rule, being true to yourself requires alienating at least 50 percent of humanity, and if you manage to endear yourself to everyone, you probably have no real personality at all.
So The Nightly Show—with its deeply opinionated host and inherently explosive subject matter—was always going to be a gamble for Comedy Central, which trusted in the natural talents of Wilmore and his supporting cast. In the end, the wager did not pay off financially, but the network was not wrong to make it.