If you’ll allow us to go all Zagat’s on you for a minute, it was only a few months ago that Larry Wilmore “killed” at the Whitehouse Correspondents’ Dinner with his “burns” that “really went there.” Really, no one was spared.
He roasted the President on his drone usage by comparing him to Steph Curry—both rain bombs from long distance. He owned former NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams by comparing himself to Lester Holt—both were black men who replaced white dudes pretending to be newsmen. And went after then-Republican presidential nominee Ted Cruz—“Even OJ Simpson said, ‘That guy is just hard to like.’ ” Wilmore wasn’t just a guy happy to be there. His mission was clear: He wanted to be the funniest man in the room and call out many of those running in Washington circles, be it media, politicians, or activists. He succeeded.
How strange, though, that so many seemed surprised by Wilmore’s vitriolic satire? As if he wasn’t delivering those same goods on a, yes, nightly basis on his Comedy Central show? His White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech served more as a showcase of his goods than a coming-out party.
By now you’ve likely heard the unfortunate news: Comedy Central has canceled Wilmore’s The Nightly Show. According to CC President Kent Alterman, the show “hasn’t resonated with our audience.”
“We’ve been monitoring it closely as for a year and a half now and we haven’t seen the signs we need in ratings or in consumption on digital platforms. We’ve been been hoping it would grow,” Alterman told Variety.
“I’m really grateful to Comedy Central, Jon Stewart, and our fans to have had this opportunity,” Wilmore added in a statement. “But I’m also saddened and surprised we won’t be covering this crazy election or ‘The Unblackening’ as we’ve coined it. And keeping it 100, I guess I hadn’t counted on ‘The Unblackening’ happening to my time slot as well.”
We, too, are quite saddened and surprised.
Within the past months, Wilmore’s show had taken a step; the wandering hands and awkward pauses the show debuted with had long faded away. In their place was a confident host who on any night could score 40 points on his own or set up team members with excellent shots to shine; he often did both. Take for example his team labeling the show’s coverage of the 2016 president election as “Blacklash 2016: The Unblackening,” casting Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as Godzilla creatures destroying all of us in their pursuit of power. Not only is that hilariously incendiary, it also feels accurate.
Few shows running could feature a segment that had military veterans giving the finger to Donald Trump, sideswipe USA Today, expose Trump acolytes manipulating media narratives, then kick it to a correspondent spoofing that very same thing? Sure, it was out of the Jon Stewart playbook, but from a wholly different and underserved perspective. Then, lest you think he was beating up easy targets, he could poke fun at the “overcelebration” to Michelle Obama’s highly regarded speech at the Democratic National Convention and the women subsequently obsessed with getting themselves “a house that slaves built” as a result.
Wilmore was never afraid to call in reinforcements. Or, rather, allow friends of the show to use the Comedy Central platform to get something off their chests. Like when rapper Mac Miller walked from backstage like a spirit possessed his soul to rant about Donald Trump. Or when he brought on acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to drop the mic on not-at-all acclaimed flat-earth theorist B.o.B.?
A cynical person might view these cameos as plays at virality—and they are viral hits—but what late-night show host isn’t chasing that in 2016? Better question: How many late-nigh hosts could do so without kitschy sketches and carnival games featuring celebrities? How many hosts are aiming to entertain and inform? Not many.
Really that’s who Wilmore was — and will always be: A serious, for-adults comedian unafraid to tell it like it is. The show’s best segment involved three to four guests accomplishing the radical achievement of just having a conversation. Most times, like adults. And like adults that involved the conversation reaching uncomfortable tensions and bruised feelings, but it never devolved into a shouting match of right vs. wrong.
Champions of the Internet often say they love the technology because it allows individuals of various backgrounds to hold discourse. Whether you personally believe that happens or not is up to you. But that ideal was very much happening on Wilmore’s show. Bill Nye the Science Guy discussing with a younger generation how the universe would flip upside down if we learned life came from Mars—while they responded, cool, but Trump still might be President so….
And maybe we’re blowing this out of proportion, but where else could former late night host Arsenio Hall casually relay the story of what he told Trump and what people really thought of his hair: “They don’t think your hair ain’t real, they just think it’s fucked up.”
So, yeah, Larry Wilmore’s departure stings within the late-night circuit. It comes too soon. He never placated, he never deferred, and he never pandered. It was a show for adults that in a previous era would be gifted more time necessary to grow its audience. But that’s not the era we’re in unfortunately. Regardless, Wilmore will be missed every night.