On the plus side, Larry Wilmore quickly established himself in the first week as the right guy to sit behind Stephen Colbert’s desk. On the down side, it’s hard to see why most newsmakers or celebrities — given their priorities — would be eager to take part in the panels that make up more than half the show.
Obviously, “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” is a work in progress, and Comedy Central will have time to tinker with this Jon Stewart-produced companion to “The Daily Show.” But the producers miscalculated on the nature of the modern talkshow, to the extent the new series offers both a modicum of risk to better-known names and scant benefit, since there’s virtually no time to promote movies or plug books.
Even Stewart, it should be noted, relies heavily on authors to keep the seat opposite him warm, people who lack recognition but are often engaging and present important topics, while sparing him from having to drum up interest in actors every single night. (This week’s interview with Jennifer Lopez was a case in point, where they seemed to discuss just about anything but her movie, “The Boy Next Door.”)
The Wilmore template asks newsmakers and celebrities to join a four-person panel of guests. While Bill Maher’s “Real Time” does much the same thing, albeit on a once-a-week basis, at least there the participants are encouraged to debate amongst each other and mix it up, in a format where there’s time to offer their opinions.
“The Nightly Show,” by contrast, has essentially set up its two segments by having Wilmore lob joke-oriented questions at guests one by one, including its “Keep It 100” feature, where the goal is to ask something the person might try to dodge. While all this is fine for the comics and regular contributors, so far the names – from Sen. Cory Booker on opening night to Soledad O’Brien Thursday – have seemed largely lost, a first impression that only grew as the week progressed.
Barring a change, one has to wonder if publicists will begin to wise up, turning the show into the media version of a no-go zone for a lot of their clients. It’s not that the environment is inhospitable, in the way Maher’s show can be at times (which explains why he tends to book the same conservatives over and over), but that there’s simply little to be gained from the limited nature of the exposure “The Nightly Show” yields.
The problems with the second half of the show, in week one, somewhat obscured a lot of good stuff in the introductory segments, such as Wilmore’s riff on supporting Obama simply because he’s black, or quipping about the State of the Union address, “Obama finally gave the secret wink for all the black Americans to rise up.”
The good news is Wilmore has thus far shown himself to be fast and funny in the toughest part of the gig: generating humor by reacting to what’s said during the panels, which argues for doing one-on-one interviews or shrinking the panels. Because as it stands, it’s hard to see why someone with a significant profile would relish venturing into a setting where he or she barely has time to finish a thought.
It’s easy to understand why those behind “The Nightly Show” would want to try something a little different. But if the show continues along this trajectory one suspects the bookings will gradually wither until it’s all just comics, contributors and reality-TV contestants.
Not everyone can handle hosting a show, and by that measure, Wilmore looks like he has a firm handle on the wheel. The challenge now will be giving this latenight vehicle a tune-up while it’s running at full speed.