At Comedy Central, Larry Wilmore’s ‘Nightly Show’ Finds Its Own (Offbeat) Rhythm

Most of TV’s latenight shows revel in consistency. Sure, the guests and jokes and sketches change, but viewers know by and large what they are going to get, and how the show will deliver it.  At Comedy Central’s “Nightly Show,” however, every night seems to bring a new surprise.

In the course of about three and a half months on the air, producers have turned “Nightly” into a sort of laboratory, where one of the few constant elements is the show’s willingness to rip up the playbook.  A debate moderated by host Larry Wilmore among four panelists now takes place among three, and Rory Albanese, the show’s executive producer, suggests further testing of an even smaller group is not out of the question. One night, a panel discussion took up the entire program, and on another evening, Wilmore went mano-a-mano in conversation with New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio. In recent weeks, “Nightly” has opted to provoke the brain rather than tickle the funny bone by giving Wilmore a spotlight in the middle of the program to offer his take on current events. On April 8, for example, the host held forth in an uninterrupted segment about the recent shooting of Walter Scott, the African-American man killed by a police officer: “Another black man shot in the back by a cop – I mean, that’s as American as an apple pie filled with baseballs cooked by a bald eagle with the head of Guy Fieri.”

Even bedrock pieces are up for scrutiny.  A striking glass-and-wood table that was at the center of “Nightly” proceedings was recently removed for a more traditional piece of furniture.

“There will always be a little bit of a wild card” in the show, said Albanese, a former executive producer for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

In one moment, a pair of backup singers – the “Night Lytes” (one played by head writer Robin Thede) – will come out to help emphasize or translate different stories. While the show started with three regular contributors — Mike Yard, Shenaz Treasury and Ricky Velez — it also taps others both known and unknown, ranging from Colin Quinn to TV writer David Smithyman. If “Nightly Show” has rules for how it ought to proceed, it is difficult to find them.

“Nightly’s” ability to try so many things is remarkable given its growing importance to Comedy Central’s lineup. “Nightly” fills a timeslot previously occupied by the successful “Colbert Report” and is part of a unique run of latenight wins at a network that is about to face a new test. Jon Stewart’s tenure on “The Daily Show,” which airs at 11 p.m., is slated to end August 6, which means the network could lean more heavily for a time on Wilmore and the show’s staff to draw in wee-hours viewers.

To be sure, all the latenight talk shows vary their routine. Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t always do “Mean Tweets.” Jimmy Fallon keeps coming up with new stunts in which his guests can take part. And David Letterman really hasn’t thrown anything off a five-story building with gusto in quite some time. At “Nightly,” however, a little bit of chaos appears woven into the routine.

“Rarely in the first week or even the first couple of months do you get the template,” explained Rick Ludwin, the former NBC latenight executive who helped oversee the network’s efforts with Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. “There’s a time when you are getting things out on the air to see what works, and what doesn’t.”

Besides, as Albanese pointed out, “Nightly” didn’t have a lot of time to test. Producers could not get into the show’s studio until its previous tenant, Colbert’s program, wrapped in late December.  Of four test runs, he said, two were largely devoted to technical issues.  “We didn’t have a lot of time to practice,” he said.

Albanese suggested producers have “begun to find our boundaries.” The show is developing a go-to group of panel guests, he said. Producers also think they have built a solid foundation – leading off with Wilmore’s take on certain issues of the day, followed by a panel discussion in one of the next two segments of the program.

“Nightly” has already boasted a number of interesting moments. Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, gave the first hint that he might run for U.S. president during a “Nightly” appearance. Wilmore has pulled no punches in his assessment of the sexual-abuse charges levied at comedian Bill Cosby. And a segment in which panelists are urged to “Keep it 100” – tell the unvarnished truth – has spawned a catchphrase of sorts. Indeed, so winning is the bit that “Nightly” has begun to use it more sparingly so  it does not wear out its welcome. “If you do it very night, there’s a total burn-out on it,” said Albanese.

The trappings of the show suggest an anti-authoritarian stance. Behind Wilmore every night stands an upside-down map of the world. Clocks placed in different areas run backwards. Even the show’s graphics run against the grain: Pictures that accompany Wilmore’s opening-segment look at the headlines appear in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, not to the right or left of the host’s head as pictures usually do on most broadcasts.

Comedy Central made plain well before “Nightly’s” launch that it would be a work in progress – and with good reason. “Nightly” isn’t a variety program. Guests aren’t there to tout a new movie or a book (though they may get a nod with onscreen graphics that accompany their appearance). Nor is the show really a lampoon of the headlines that forms the base of programs like “The Daily Show” or HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver. “Nightly” is a different kind of animal, a program that tries to examine issues of relevance to populations that normally don’t get their say in mainstream TV programming. Wilmore has examined everything from sexual relationships between teachers and young students; this week’s racial unrest in Baltimore; and the plight of black single mothers. He has also pressed hard on police shootings of minorities.

“What we are going to do here on a nightly basis is tap into that brain,” said Albanese of Wilmore’s perspective, and then surround it with oddball characters and the occasional kooky moment. “If there’s a way to explain some tough issues or a racist story with silly characters, it’s a little bit like a teaspoon of sugar for things,” he said.  Whatever the ingredients in the recipe, which results in something that has more simmer and less froth, it’s a new one for TV.

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