Rather than stock its 11:30 p.m. slot with a knockoff of its previous occupant, “The Colbert Report,” in which the host played a bloviating opinion-monger, Comedy Central leased the space out to an entirely new inhabitant. Wilmore’s “Nightly Show” goes where most other talk-show hosts – except perhaps Bill Maher – fear to tread. Wilmore, now the only African-American hosting a major late-night talk show, threw darts at Al Sharpton, Oprah Winfrey, and U.S. race relations, proclaiming an effort to make sure a Harry Potter line of candy bars used free-trade chocolate “the only chocolate that got justice in 2014.”
That’s not a joke you’d expect Jimmy Fallon to be able to make.
It’s not clear that the show’s producers want to make people laugh, make them uncomfortable or do both in equal measure. Speaking to the press last Friday, Wilmore said the program would serve as a place “where you can have some fun and have a dialogue at the same time.” So in his opening segment, Wilmore took the Oscars to task for a paucity of minority nominees, but also reprimanded Sharpton for making himself the African-American representative to weigh in on the issue, cautioning the activist and MSNBC personality that he is not “the Black Batman.”
And the final topic in the show’s first block wasn’t as funny as it was scathing: A quick look at a South Florida police department that uses pictures of young black men for target practice. “Today’s we’re just trying not to get shot on our way to work,”said Wilmore.
“The Nightly Show” is an incredibly important piece of Comedy Central’s lineup, which has boasted a string of late-night successes that zetz as much as they zip. The Viacom-owned network has been fortunate to build two different franchises hosted by Jon Stewart (“The Daily Show”) and Stephen Colbert (“Colbert Report”) and seen no turnover in either over the last nine years. The debut of a third program, “@midnight,” last year at 12 a.m. has only added to the network’s latenight power and allure for young adults.
With Colbert leaving late last year to take the desk at CBS’ “Late Show” and with Stewart’s latest contract slated to end in the fall of 2015, Wilmore’s effort has to hit its target, and quickly. Unlike “Daily Show” and “@midnight,” both of which have a set template, “Nightly” is likely to change as producers find the right mix of funny and serious over the course of the show’s 30 minutes. Behind the scenes, Comedy Central executives have indicated they think “Nightly” could evolve into something that looks only a little like the program’s debut.
The show is cutting out a path. Wilmore holds forth on the topics of the day in an opening segment, and is joined by a panel for the next two. His sparring partners for the first show included Senator Cory Booker, hip-hop recording artist Talib Kweli, comedian Bill Burr and regular contributor Shenaz Treasury. Coming guests include Soledad O’Brien, Baratunde Thurston and John Leguizamo.
The central idea, said Rory Albanese, the veteran “Daily Show” producer who is overseeing “Nightly Show,” is to get people to talk, even if they recognize they may never agree. “It feels like this country is a little bit scared to have a conversation. It’s almost like we are so divided at this point that nobody on either side wants to talk to each other any more. You have your TV network and we have our TV network,” Albanese explained Friday. “We are not going to solve anything, but it’s a good way to show people you can have some fun with somebody else who might not agree with you.”
Producers liken “Nightly” to a hybrid of “The Daily Show” and “Politically Incorrect,” the round-table talk show Maher hosted on Comedy Central from 1993 to 1997, then took to ABC until 2002. As Maher once did, Wilmore seems ready to seize upon topics that, just as “Saturday Night Live” was “not ready for prime time,” may “not be ready for late night.” When Maher made a remark on “Politically Incorrect” about the 9/11 terrorists not being cowardly, it sparked a controversy that indirectly led to the show being taken off the Walt Disney network.
Twelve years later, Wilmore is not as likely to shock or offend a different kind of audience, but that doesn’t mean he can’t mine the uncomfortable and off-putting and try to find entertainment in it. The panel took up the topic of protest in America, and in a third segment, Wilmore asked each of his guests some genuinely thorny questions. Bill Burr, who is married to an African-American woman, was asked what race he would prefer for his child. Senator Booker was asked if he was considering a run for president. Those who did not answer directly were scoffed for offering up “weak tea.”
Wilmore last week suggested the show was like a “barber shop” where no subject is off-limits so longer as the discussion is friendly. “This isn’t the type of show where we are going to pit right against left. It’s real against real,” he said. “It’s about the issues more than it’s about the personalities being pitted against each other.”
Producers are eager not to “glamour book,” but rather find guest who can speak about whatever topics is cresting on the day of production. Indeed, said Albanese, producers may cast for guests the very day of the show, depending on what’s going to be discussed.
Whatever direction the show ultimately chooses, it looks likely to raise eyebrows for days to come. Tomorrow’s topic: Bill Cosby.