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As Larry Wilmore Leaves Late Night, TV Loses a Singular Voice

Analysis: TV economics couldn't support "The Nightly Show," but when the host signs off, he takes with him a distinctive point of view

Larry Wilmore Nightly Show cancelled
Courtesy of Comedy Central

Larry Wilmore says he long harbored the thought his “Nightly Show” might come to an end in ten years, not later this evening. When he signs off for the last time from Comedy Central around midnight tonight, something else will also cease and desist.

For approximately 20 months, Wilmore and his staff have cultivated a unique voice among the TV industry’s ever-increasing number of wee-hours talk-fests. Where many of the late-night hosts seek to entertain, Wilmore always hoped to make viewers just a little uncomfortable. The clocks on his set ran backwards. The graphics that accompanied his riffs and rants appeared at the lower bottom left of the screen, invoking a sort of topsy-turvy feeling among fans.

“Nightly,” you see, was always supposed to examine what it might feel like to be down even when the rest of the world might be up. The idea was to shine a light on the plight of classes of people who didn’t feel like they were in charge, and share their perspectives. Sometimes that meant talking about race, gender or class – the type of stuff you’re not supposed to bring up to a tired audience that wants a few chuckles before drifting to slumber.

“I’m so proud we were able to do what we set out to do – get to American voices that don’t always get to be heard, and stick up for the underdog,” said Wilmore in an interview. “We were keeping it real, and not being afraid of the outcome. We had a lot of people who did not like that, but that’s the chance you take.”

Comedy Central announced earlier this week that Wilmore’s show would be taken off the air after tonight’s broadcast, charging its ratings and digital-media influence were not growing sufficiently to warrant keeping things going.  Add to that feeling the fact that contracts between show staffers and the Viacom-owned outlet were about to come due, and one can see why executives felt the time had come to separate, even if the maneuver takes Wilmore’s voice out of the arena just as the election for U.S. President comes to a head.

“Nightly’ was never dull. Early watchers may recall that it was Larry Wilmore who first got Senator Bernie Sanders to acknowledge that he might run for U.S. President. Contributors like Robin Thede and Mike Yard brought new voices to the time period, and Wilmore’s blunt way of tackling taboo topics –he once announced, almost giddily, that he thought Bill Cosby was guilty of sexual assault (“We’ll answer the question: Did he do it? The answer will be ‘yes’”) – provided a welcome antidote to conventional monologues offered elsewhere. Many late-night hosts would never say such a thing.

“Is there another voice to replace Wilmore’s?  Not immediately,” said William Nesbitt, chair of the humanities department at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla.

The question Wilmore’s departure brings is whether the economics of late-night can support alternative voices. You can’t blame Comedy Central for wanting to look elsewhere. The company that owns it, Viacom, is under intense scrutiny by investors and advertisers, who are concerned over everything from ratings declines at youth-skewing outlets like Comedy Central and MTV to a nasty battle between corporate management and the company’s controlling shareholders, the Redstone family. Comedy Central will save money by moving Chris Hardwick’s frenetic “@midnight” into the time slot, and doubling down on “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, who, by the way, is closer in age to the network’s target demographic of young men than Wilmore is.

There’s some hope to be found over at Time Warner’s TBS, where former “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee has revved up a phenom. Her “Full Frontal” is a blistering take on current affairs that has put more of the outrageous on that general-entertainment network since Ric Flair paraded around in his wrestling trunks on its air in the 1980s. All of that in under a year.

Bee’s take on the world, expressed once a week rather than four times, is not all that dissimilar from Wilmore’s. There are institutions and attitudes that ought to be questioned and underrepresented voices worth a listen. “I’ve had people who come up to say, ‘You’ve changed the way I look at the world,’’’ said Robin Thede, who started as “Nightly’s” head writer before taking a more active role on screen. “We wanted to open people’s eyes, and the people who hung with us and watched us every day, they were the people who really appreciated it. Our fans were small but mighty.”

It’s hard for a network that still makes a good chunk of its revenue off the sale of linear TV advertising, however, to forsake quantity for relative quality. Perhaps the writing has been on the wall for “Nightly” for more than a few moons: Jon Stewart’s departure from “The Daily Show” resulted in a tougher lead-in. But “Daily” is the Comedy Central’s big franchise. It proved bigger than Craig Kilborn and the network is trying to make sure it’s bigger than Stewart. Indeed, it’s where Wilmore rose to some renown as the program’s “Senior Black Correspondent.”

“Nightly” stayed behind in New York while Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show” went off to cover the Republican and Democratic National conventions. Noah has been featured in major magazine articles and in the last few months hosted a handful of quiet off-the-record dinners with reporters, all an effort to cultivate interest. Last Spring, Noah took part in Comedy Central’s first solo upfront presentation to advertisers in its history. Wilmore was said to be traveling when the event took place.

There was another yin-and-yang at work behind “Nightly.” Late night is all about attracting younger viewers who are more prone to stay up past midnight (and use the web in the morning to scan what they may have missed the night before), but the subject matter on “Nightly” required gravitas and a well-articulated voice. That often requires time and experience to develop, not youth. Wilmore has honed a view of what people of color experience in America through, well, life. And yet, when most TV folks get a few rings on the tree trunk, networks start working out ways to plant something new.

Wilmore says he remains unbowed. He’d push the envelope again if given the chance. Take his controversial appearance earlier this year at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. His jokes were pointed and some folks thought he crossed a line by making fun of Wolf Blitzer, among other things (we aren’t going to print the epithet he used with the President that sparked debate). If he were to do it over, he says, “I would have doubled down. I did what I was supposed to do. When you’re taking chances, you know it’s not going to please everybody.” He viewed the event as a roast, and, yeah, he roasted.

Thede says she had more “Nightly” antics at the ready, including an expansion of the humorous “Who Dis?” segment she recently began. In the bit, she uses the language one might employ in responding to a text from an unknown number at 2 a.m. to help viewers learn more about controversial lawmakers. “It was only on air once,” she says. “We had so many more planned, even for this week. It was a really cool way to introduce people to politicians they should not be re-electing.” In general , she added, “we might have been too in people’s faces sometimes, but we wanted to make people uncomfortable,” but “that was our aim, and I think that’s OK.”

Wilmore doesn’t want to lose his late-night voice. “I definitely want to explore what might be possible,” he says. Might he try to take his skills to a place like CNN or MSNBC, both of which have employed comedians like D.L. Hughley, W. Kamau Bell or Colin Jost and Michael Che from “Saturday Night Live’s” popular “Weekend Update” segment? “I’m not really a news guy. I’m a comedy guy,” says Wilmore. “Those places aren’t really structured to do what I do. They are structured for news. It’s tough to do that type of thing.”

He’s encouraged by the opportunity to get back into scripted programming, and is involved in an HBO project set to debut in coming weeks. “I do want to get back to telling stories,” he says. With the demise of “The Nightly Show,” however, one of those tales – the saga of people who don’t always feel at home in a fractured American culture – won’t be told as often. Goodnightly, Larry.