Why Larry Wilmore Is Underappreciated

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art by Lynne Wang

“The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” was cancelled last month, leading many of its viewers to draw connections between the show’s cancellation and its outspoken politics on race.

The final episode aired on August 18, marking the end of Larry Wilmore’s year-and-a-half run as a host on late night television. His show, which aired at 11:30 p.m. on Comedy Central and replaced “The Colbert Report,” filled one of the most sought-after spots for evening talk shows.

The show was cancelled because of dwindling ratings. From the start, The Nightly Show couldn’t hold on to the large and avid viewership of Stephen Colbert, whose famously poignant show brought in breakthrough ratings and nine Emmys.

Comedy Central hoped that ratings would pick up after Wilmore spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. His performance attracted controversy, mostly because he used the N-word in reference to President Obama, but the controversy didn’t boost his ratings. In the end, executives at Comedy Central stated that the show was cancelled because it didn’t “resonate” with audiences.

Throughout the show’s run, “The Nightly Show” received mixed reviews. Critics didn’t like that Wilmore would go on for long stretches of time without telling a single joke.

They also questioned the show’s structure. Wilmore would start the show by discussing the news through segments like “The Unblackening,” in which he would talk about the 2016 presidential race. He would then moderate a debate between two or three members of his cast and a celebrity guest. He would end the show with a segment called “Keepin’ it 100” where he would ask the members of his panel a hard question (such as “If your best friend committed a murder, would you snitch on them for one million dollars?”). This style, though different from other late night shows, bred a serious, political atmosphere unlike the light and cheerful styles of Wilmore’s competitors.  

Still, Wilmore was always funny. His “Keepin’ it 100” segment was absurd yet hilarious, and he always used irony to point out the hypocrisies of American government (“The Oscar nominations are out, and they’re so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them”).

The original concept for the program was to give a voice to groups typically underrepresented on late night television. Wilmore was a feminist and a supporter of the LGBT community. He originally wanted to name the show “The Minority Report,” but legal issues prevented it. “I’m very happy,” Wilmore told Slate Magazine, “that we set out to represent voices that didn’t get a chance to be heard all the time in late night.”

The show, however, mostly gained a reputation for its outspoken politics on race.

Race was always a key aspect of “The Nightly Show.” Wilmore made sure to have a racially diverse writers’ room in order to better address issues related to all races and minorities. He was also determined not to let the media forget about Bill Cosby, he was a proud #BlackLivesMatter supporter, and he always spoke about feminism with an intersectional lens.

Despite Comedy Central’s insistence that the show was only canceled due to low ratings, many have questioned whether Wilmore’s constant discussion of race was a factor in the show’s dwindling viewership.

Many television executives today consider Youtube hits or Facebook likes an important source of ratings. Wilmore’s show wasn’t designed to pander to audiences or go viral. But even its controversies (like the N-word scandal) didn’t attract an internet following. Online hits are often dubbed as being “relatable,” and “The Nightly Show” didn’t fit into that category.

But if the show wasn’t relatable, perhaps it was because our country wasn’t ready to face its political message.

Even if our country wasn’t ready for Wilmore to “keep it 100,” does that mean we shouldn’t be forced to address this difficult reality? Despite the show ending, the racial and social issues in the United States remain. Wilmore stood out from the crowd by throwing these issues in his audience’s faces. This method proved unwelcome to the American late night audience, but not unnecessary or unhelpful. If voices like Wilmore keep shamelessly reminding us of the work that must be done, then eventually we won’t be able to hide from reality.

Is there a place for race and politics on late night television? To Wilmore, absolutely, because, with such a broad sphere of influence, our country can’t avoid the issues he cares about so deeply. I think, in the not-so-distant future, we will see Wilmore as a visionary. Someone whose show came along before we were able to appreciate it.

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