This week marked the sudden end of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, which was canceled without much fanfare by Comedy Central, which claimed that the show “wasn’t resonating,” a statement that is highly debatable. Admittedly, The Nightly Show was not showered with praise to the same degree as Full Frontal With Samantha Bee or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, but that didn’t mean it was unable to make an impact. While those shows are often interested in “eviscerating” the conservative boogeyman of the day, Wilmore and company were more interested in having thoughtful discussions about how the world got where it is in the first place. Since it happened to run during one of the most turmoil-filled times in recent American history, it was quite a welcome perspective.
When it was announced that Wilmore would be given the 11:30 p.m. spot once occupied by Stephen Colbert, what people took notice of was that late-night TV had finally gotten a little less white. (FXX had canceled Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell the previous November; the revived Arsenio Hall Show was renewed that winter, then canceled that spring.) While the topics of racial tension and police brutality against black people had been approached by the likes of Jon Stewart before (often with thoughtful, provocative results), the fact remained that the best late-night comedy could do for discussions about systemic racism was the “woke white guy” perspective. The ascension of Wilmore meant that we would be having a conversation about racial injustice led by someone who had actually experienced it.
Sure enough, Wilmore did not shy away from covering police brutality or the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the first week of the show’s run, when each episode of The Nightly Show focused on a given topic or theme (this would eventually be dropped in favor of simply covering the news of the day), Wilmore dedicated an episode to the state of black protest. This was in January 2015, shortly after the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo. When Wilmore planned this show, he might have viewed it as an opportunity to get viewers caught up and offer his perspective on an ongoing story. What he might not have guessed was just how often he would be returning to the topic.
Throughout The Nightly Show’s 19 months on the air, there would be a seemingly never-ending wave of stories about excessive police brutality that Wilmore would have no choice but to talk about, from the wrongful arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland to the more recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Wilmore would diligently address all of these stories individually, but what was most telling was when he would address just how sick and tired he was of talking about it. It gave the impression that while Wilmore certainly didn’t mind talking about institutionalized racism, he never anticipated that he would have to talk about it so much. The truth was, the stories of police overreach that were making the news had been going on for years, but now they were getting more coverage, and with the emergence of Black Lives Matter, the situation was finally and rightfully becoming a major political issue. Larry Wilmore might have wanted race to be just one of many topics he broached on his show, but the circumstances around him naturally pushed it to the forefront.
Of course, police brutality wasn’t the only grim topic—or the only form of racism—that emerged during The Nightly Show’s run. There was also the rise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Trump and his supporters seemingly represented the direct counter to Black Lives Matter. While black Americans were taking to the streets and demanding to be treated with humanity, Trump spoke to the id of the angry white man who longed for the time when he had all of the power instead of just most of it. While Wilmore favored measured discussion rather than outright condemnation, he and his correspondents had no problem demonstrating a profound dislike of Trump. Consider when the candidate issued his now-infamous call for a moratorium on Muslims entering the country. That night, the show was midway through a typical “Isn’t Trump ridiculous?” type of bit, when Mike Yard broke character to exclaim, “Fuck Trump!” It was a powerful moment, mainly because the show knew when to be thoughtful and when to be angry. Essentially, Wilmore, Yard, and their collaborators were willing to have complex, nuanced discussions about many aspects of American politics, but a racist demagogue wanting to ban followers of an entire faith from entering the country wasn’t one of them.
Chances are that most of Wilmore’s viewers didn’t anticipate the show would be canceled so quickly. Late-night shows—particularly ones as unabashedly political as The Nightly Show—are usually given time to hone their voices and find an audience. Consider The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, which began transforming from a fun little late-night show into a comedy institution in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Stewart gave a heartfelt speech and subsequently took the show in a more explicitly political direction. When Stewart gave his monologue, he had already been hosting the show for 32 months, over a year longer than Wilmore had been hosting The Nightly Show when Comedy Central pulled the plug. Stewart was given ample time to figure out exactly what his show wanted to be, while Wilmore had his bully pulpit pulled from him because it didn’t immediately capture a mainstream audience.
The Nightly Show did a masterful job of covering politics during an extremely tumultuous period in American history, though unfortunately we won’t see what Wilmore would have done if he could have taken the show into the next presidential administration. Alas, all we can do for now is mourn The Nightly Show and celebrate all the times when Larry Wilmore kept it 100.