Lenard McKelvey, the talk show host better known to the world at large as Charlamagne Tha God, last Friday returned to his new TV job after taking a quick Thanksgiving vacation. He wasted no time in showing he was back at work.
Over the course of an opening segment in his half-hour show, “Tha God’s Honest Truth With Lenard ‘Charlamagne’ McKelvey,” Charlamagne lashed out at both actor Jussie Smollett and the court system that seeks to put him in jail for allegedly faking a mugging in Chicago. Even “Jeopardy,” the celebrated game show that recently used his new program as one of its more difficult pieces of trivia, wasn’t spared. “I always want to be the most difficult question for white people to answer,” Charlamagne said during the show. “I love being that Black.”
Before anyone could express shock or surprise, the host started to talk about “vanilla vigilantes,” white people who carry guns, and urged people of color to do the same, asking why white citizens should have their right to bear arms supported while citizens from other backgrounds are challenged. “Buy all the legal firearms you can!” he said, calling gun ownership by minority U.S. citizens “a form of self-care.”
“I’m not saying go berserk and buy a bazooka but treat yourself with a gun and train at the gun range,” he told viewers.
Charlamagne holds forth each Friday night at 10 p.m., the same hour as Bill Maher, the HBO host who has enjoyed a long tenure while surprising viewers with unexpected takes on the week’s biggest hot-button issues. Charlamagne is a fan of that program, as well as what he calls “O.G. Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and Chris Rock’s old HBO talk series. “I’ve always appreciated shows that could put the medicine in the candy,” Charlamagne says during a recent interview in his office at his program’s studio in Manhattan.
He’s doing just that. During one recent program, the host cautioned Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to President Biden, that Black constituents have reason to doubt Democrats’ agenda. “What’s the point of voting if you don’t see people addressing your issues?” he asked, referring to voting rights and the quality of policing in the U.S. When Richmond acknowledged things may get tough if Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Charlamagne responded: “Define tough, on a scale of 1 to slavery.”
Some viewers may be shocked by such blunt chatter, but the host is not. “People have a perception of Blackness. People have a perception of hip hop. And they don’t understand that these are the conversations we are having all the time,” he says. “These are the conversations we are having on social media. These are the conversations that are happening in the barber shops and the beauty salons. These are the conversations that are happening in the music.”
“Tha God’s Honest Truth” could give Comedy Central a new path into late-night content in a challenging era. The ViacomCBS-owned network has for months tried to find new weeknight companions for its flagship “Daily Show,” testing concepts with Larry Wilmore, Jordan Klepper and David Spade. For years, Comedy Central enjoyed a halo built around Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and, later, “@midnight” a comedian-fueled game show led by Chris Hardwick. “Daily Show” continues, but the network, amid changing regimes, hasn’t found success with other ideas. Meanwhile, other late-night shows with hosts as experienced as Conan O’Brien and unpracticed as Lilly Singh have ended their runs on air.
Charlamagne’s show uses a new model that has entranced media companies eager to court fans of late-night comedy. As the investment in the traditional four- or five-nights-a-week construct seems less certain while younger viewers migrate to streaming video, more networks are trying their hand at weekly showcases. Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” on TBS and Showtime’s “Desus & Mero” are among the programs working this vein — often in a bid to home in on specific viewer niches.
“He’s speaking to an audience that is not always represented in late night,” says Nina Diaz, president of content for MTV Entertainment Group, which oversees programming on Comedy Central. “Younger audiences are more diverse as a population. If we want to be important and culturally relevant, that’s who is defining and making the culture.”
One reason for the confidence in Charlamagne is that he’s really been talking to this crowd for years. Much of his profile comes from his time in radio. He has been a co-host on the nationally syndicated “The Breakfast Club” for more than a decade, and his willingness to speak freely on air earned him the sobriquet “the hip-hop Howard Stern.” He’s branched out over the years with several programs on ViacomCBS’ MTV2, including “Guy Code,” “Charlamagne & Friends” and “Uncommon Sense,” working his way from conventional talk to political discussions. He also maintains a broad array of other projects, including a book imprint and a podcast network, both aimed at backing voices from people who may not have an easy time getting recognized by mainstream media.
His newest effort has heavyweight backing. Stephen Colbert, whose own late-night tenure started on Comedy Central, is an executive producer, along with Aaron McGruder, the creator of the “Boondocks” comic strip and series. Charlamagne believes there are few people better than Colbert to offer first-hand expertise on blending comedy and the news of the day. But he’s hard-pressed to recall when their collaboration started in earnest. “I’ve done his shows, like several times. I’ve done all of the ‘election specials.’ I don’t really remember us having a conversation, ‘hey, wouldn’t you want to do that?’” He chalks up their connection to “a person that sees something in you that you don’t see in yourself.” Meanwhile, he has been talking to McGruder for years. “I don’t know what it is about cartoonists. They are literally able to predict the future,” says Charlamagne. “There are so many things he has told me over the past five years, politically, that have just come to fruition.”
Charlamagne seems to have room to experiment. In the first weeks of the program, currently scheduled for 12 episodes, the host spent the bulk of the show on the week’s deep-dive topic. Now, says Rachel Edwards, the executive producer, he takes a little more time to get there, with a rapid-fire look at recent events that is known as “I Call Bull—t.” “We are always evolving,” she says, noting that she’d be curious to see if “Tha God’s Honest Truth” could do a live show.
Indeed, notes Charlamagne, everything is up for grabs. “We still have to play that game of constructing the right show for the right people and the right time,” he says. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like six months from now. We might not be on Fridays. We might be on in a different time slot. We might be longer. Who knows? I’m just having fun.”
The host says he couldn’t have done this type of program at an earlier point in his career. Five years ago, he found himself depressed and angry, even as he was getting better known. “I was making more money than I had ever made in my life, and my anger was through the roof. I’ve always dealt with panic attacks, but I was just really depressed and really angry on the inside. I projected that a lot,” he recounts, noting that he’s relied on therapy. “You can’t be a person who speaks to millions of people every day and be projecting your bull—t. I remember having a moment of peace on vacation,” and asking: “How can I feel like this all the time?”
Part of the answer may come in recognizing his origins. “Tha God’s Honest Truth” is billed to Charlamagne but also to Lenard McKelvey, part of an effort by the host to tell people about who he really is. His sobriquet has its roots in a name he chose for himself when he was much younger, when he was selling drugs in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. “I used to sell crack, and when I was selling crack, I didn’t want people to know my real name, because it was a small town,” McKelvey says. “I would say it was Charles or Charlie. When I was in night school reading a history book, I saw Charlemagne was French for Charles.”
“I think I’m at that point,” he adds. “I’ve been Charlamagne since I was 17, and there’s nothing stupider when you’re trying to explain your name to your daughter.”
Hearing his real name is “what grounds me,” he says. “When I hear the name Lenard, I think about my grandma. I think about my momma. I think about my wife. I think about my mother-in-law.” The name “snaps me back into reality and it just keeps me from being a caricature of myself.”
He’s worked on himself. Now he’s ready to work for a regular TV audience. A few years ago, “I was in a different headspace. I wouldn’t even have wanted” to do this sort of show, says McKelvey. “Not only is this what I should be doing now, I feel like this is my future.” As the media sector considers new ideas for late night TV, Charlamagne and Lenard may both have a voice at the table.