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Larry Wilmore Recalls Winning an Emmy for ‘The Bernie Mac Show,’ Meeting Oprah Winfrey

Larry Wilmore is now in front of the camera nearly every night for Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” but he first attracted Emmy attention for his writing on “In Living Color.” Wilmore went on to win an individual Emmy for penning the groundbreaking pilot of Fox’s “The Bernie Mac Show.” And then he got fired from the show the following season. Wilmore recalls the ups (meeting Oprah Winfrey!) and downs (falling out with Mac), of the Emmy win.

What do you remember about winning?
Halle Berry had done her Oscar speech the same year. (“Bernie Mac”) had won a TV Critics’ Award earlier that summer and I did a joke like I was Halle Berry, I was fake crying or whatever. It got a big laugh and I thought, “If I ever actually won an Emmy I would do that joke.” And it just so happened that I won. I don’t know if I did it exactly the same way, but that’s what I remember, is me doing a callback to something that happened six months earlier at another award show. But it got a laugh. As a comic, that’s what you think about: getting laughs. You don’t even think about the award.

Did you thank everyone you wanted to?
For me there were a few people I thanked, who I wish I hadn’t. There were a few people who fired me at Fox and I shouldn’t have thanked all of them.

It’s pretty unusual to win an Emmy and then get fired.
They just never saw eye to eye with me on that show. It was a pretty well known thing at the time, the battles. They thought I was ruining the show and every time I’d get an award, they’d be like “Well, I guess we can’t fire him now.” I heard that’s what someone said in the bathroom. I didn’t hear it myself but there was a mole. It could be completely fabricated, but let’s just say I trust that mole. So instead they waited nine months.

How did the crew react to your win?
We served lobster on the set the next day, something like that. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, because those opportunities are rare. To get something in your peer group like that is so special. A couple of years later I ended up joining the board of directors of the Writers Guild. It made me want to do more service in the industry. I thought, “It’s my turn to turn it around and maybe I can help some people.” That’s a positive thing that came out of it for me personally at least.

Bernie was nominated that year too. Was he happy for you?
It’s a little tough to talk about because Bernie’s not here anymore. He got a little bit … let’s just say he wasn’t the happiest of non-winners. I think it put a bit of a strain on our relationship, unfortunately.

Do you remember anyone congratulating you on the win at the after-parties?
I remember at the Governors Ball, Oprah coming up and saying, “Oh my God, Larry that was great.” I thought, “First of all, you’re Oprah. What do you mean ‘Larry’? Are we friends now?” It was the most surreal of moments. It really was like a goddess who decided to come down from the clouds for a few minutes and bestow her grace upon you. That’s what it felt like at the time. I was completely not worthy at all, I think I even averted my gaze so the goddess wouldn’t frown upon me unfavorably.

Other than getting fired off the show, how did winning the Emmy change your career?
When that happens you’re looked at differently, as somebody who made a mark in a certain way. For me it validated all the things I was hoping to accomplish with that show. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine before I wrote it a couple of years earlier. We were talking about the state of black shows and how they were being viewed unfavorably by a lot of people in the industry. They would say, “Oh, you’re working on a black show?” like it was a bad thing. We were like, “How do we change that? We’ve got to do it ourselves.”

It was one of my goals to try to help change the image of the shows we were doing by having them viewed as quality shows. It was that way at some point and then it changed. “The Cosby Show” was always viewed as a quality show. “Fresh Prince.” “Jeffersons.” You could go back. You always had shows that were considered broad, but it felt like after “Fresh Prince” went off there was this feeling that if you were on a black show it was somehow less of a show. I hated that connotation. So it fulfilled a lot of different personal goals.

After “Bernie Mac” diversity on TV went backward, but you launched “Black-ish,” which helped turn the tide again. Do you think diversity is here to stay this time?
I will never say it’s here to stay, I’ve learned my lesson. But it is a good thing. I think Shonda Rhimes really busted the gate down on a lot of that, which has been fantastic in television both in drama and comedy for a lot of different people. More than just black shows or creators, there’s so much diversity out there it’s really fantastic. I think there is more to come too, especially with the way people consume media, there’s not just the three gatekeepers anymore. With people being able to determine what they watch you’ve really gotta deliver more diverse things.

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