Stephen Colbert left some sizable shoes to fill, and “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” – having lost the right to use its much better name, “The Minority Report” – showed promise, while also displaying unwieldy elements that will likely require some fine-tuning. Mixing “The Daily Show’s” opening with the panel format of Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” Wilmore exhibited a quickness and light touch about sensitive topics, yet struggled to bring much coherence or flow to the overpopulated discussion that took up most of the premiere. The unknowns, at this point, outnumber the knowns, making an unqualified tip of the hat premature.
An accomplished writer and often hilarious as “The Daily Show’s” “black correspondent,” Wilmore slid right into the opening segment with a series of clever jokes, many directed at the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, which were, he said, “so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them.”
Behind the desk, Wilmore literally yawned at the Academy Awards slight to “Selma,” in “What else is new?” fashion, then segued to Al Sharpton once again inserting himself into a controversy, quipping in regard to the activist/MSNBC host’s shrinking physique, “You’re literally stretching yourself thin.”
So far, so very good. But then came the panel, which frankly was a source of concern going into the show, mostly because of the booking challenges in finding people who want to mix it up – and can – on a nightly basis. Heck, Maher periodically presents a “Who’s that?” lineup, and he only has to fill seats once a week.
Wilmore’s maiden quartet featured Sen. Cory Booker, hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, comic Bill Burr and Shenaz Treasury, billed as a regular contributor. But there was no continuity to the conversation, which amounted to Wilmore lobbing disjointed questions at his guests in the first segment, and switching to a kind of lightning round in the second.
Granted, the demands of a comedy show – keeping the exchange lively and funny – should be clear. But incorporating that many people seems like a mistake, and thinning the herd might be the easiest fix the program can engineer if the opening-night experience is repeated.
Even during the panel, Wilmore produced some funny and even sobering lines – he referred to African-Americans as being “in a relationship with the police” – and he closed on a classy note, thanking Colbert for building the post-“Daily Show” half-hour into a coveted patch of TV real estate.
On the plus side, Wilmore looked perfectly at ease in this expanded role, with a facility for playing to the camera. He also won’t be lacking for topics, teasing plans to discuss Bill Cosby on Tuesday.
The next step might be to rely more on the host, and less on third parties, recognizing that Colbert and Jon Stewart (who also produces this add-on) can make a half-hour entertaining regardless of who’s in the seat opposite them. And that includes amiably dealing with people with whom they disagree, as Stewart — who tossed to Wilmore at the close of his program — did with Mike Huckabee on Monday.
Booker began by congratulating Wilmore on the new gig, saying, “I hope we don’t mess it up for you.”
Individually, the guests weren’t the problem. But collectively, and over time, “The Nightly Show” might discover that when it comes to rolling out the welcome mat, less really is more.