Larry Wilmore will be working on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Either that’s apt or ironic. Or maybe, if you choose to believe Wilmore, it’s just another Monday.
He says there is “no symbolic importance” to launching Comedy Central’s news-commentary-comedy show The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, successor to The Colbert Report, on MLK Day.
The host concedes, however, that he is more or less obligated to address the rightness and/or wrongness of this particular show opening on this of all days. “I had a dream that a brother needed to work on that day,” Wilmore joked during the annual Television Critics Association winter press tour.
But it feels like symbolic timing because of Wilmore’s TV identity. Observations about race and diversity are his comedy stock-in-trade.
What’s more, he’ll be late-night TV’s only African-American host once the show begins at 10:30 p.m.
Before landing this gig, Wilmore was the dryly hilarious “Senior Black Correspondent” for eight years on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning fake newscast.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he has been a key figure in making such TV comedies as Black-ish (executive producer), The Bernie Mac Show (creator/exec producer), The P.J.s (co-creator/exec producer), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (co-producer-writer) and In Living Color (writer).
So when it comes to topical news stories and issues that somehow involve race (there have been so many in the past year — from unrest in Ferguson, Mo., to scandalous allegations against Bill Cosby), you can bet they will turn up on The Nightly Show’s radar.
During the months leading up to Stephen Colbert’s farewell episode in December, Wilmore, Stewart and executive producer Rory Albanese were building a staff and developing a point of view.
Wilmore broke down the format at TCA: “It’s kind of a hybrid, if you will, of, let’s say, The Daily Show and maybe Politically Incorrect (Bill Maher’s oft-controversial panel discussion show).
“The first part of the show is the scripted part, where I’m weighing in, giving my take on the events or event of the day. The second part of the show is more of a panel discussion, where we’ll deconstruct that event or events a little bit more and get more into it.
“That [freeform half] will have a lot of surprising elements. It may be comic. It may be provocative. Who knows? It’ll go wherever it goes.”
Wilmore & Co. have been making test shows for only a week, so it’s possible the format could be tweaked in the coming months. One thing the show won’t become, though, is a Colbert Report clone.
Wilmore says he won’t be playing a character in the way that Colbert play-acted as a Bill O’Reilly-inspired blowhard for 10 years.
Wilmore’s Senior Black Correspondent on The Daily Show was a persona, as well. He offered wry commentary that was sometimes quietly militant and sometimes knowingly amused by Stewart’s white-guy naiveté. There also were times when he was just downright contrarian.
In his 2009 book, I’d Rather We Got Casinos: And Other Black Thoughts, Wilmore demonstrated how whimsically impertinent he can get on oft-volatile matters pertaining to race.
In one section of the book, he made an impassioned case for mothballing the labels “African-American” and “black” in favor of “chocolate.” “Everybody loves chocolate,” he explained.
His satirical-absurdist shtick was never as broadly performed nor as easily detected as Colbert’s was, but it was an act nonetheless. “Now we’re both being ourselves,” Wilmore has said.
The newly assembled Nightly Show team includes head writer Robin Thede, whose most recent writing credits include The Queen Latifah Show, Real Husbands of Hollywood and host Chris Rock’s material on the 2014 BET Awards.
On-air contributors will include Ricky Velez and Mike Yard (a couple of New York-based stand-up comedians) and Shenaz Treasury (a Bollywood actress, TV host and cultural reporter who immigrated to the U.S. four years ago).
They’re not household names now, but if The Nightly Show has even a fraction of the cultural impact that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report has had, these people won’t be no-names for long.
In May 2014, when Comedy Central announced plans for Wilmore to take over the timeslot being vacated by Colbert (he left to do the Late Show once David Letterman signs off), the replacement show’s working title was The Minority Report.
We can blame — or credit — the lawyers at Fox for the decision to jettison that title. Fox, which plans to make a sci-fi drama based on the 2002 Tom Cruise movie, has the legal dibs to Minority Report.
It was determined that Comedy Central could also have the name, but only if it used it in full, The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore, in every usage, even when sending out a Twitter or Tumblr post.
The Comedy Central team decided it wasn’t worth the headaches and cooked up something else.
Wilmore likes what he has wound up with. It’s not as provocative, not as loaded with agenda, and it offers a tip of the cap to its comedy forefather.
“If you’re watching The Daily Show and it feels like it’s getting a little darker,” Wilmore said, “it’s probably The Nightly Show.”
The Nightly Show
▪ 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday
▪ Comedy Central