I don’t remember Larry Wilmore from The Daily Show. I didn’t watch it often enough to catch him doing his shtick, the “Senior Black Correspondent.” So when he started hosting The Nightly Show w/Larry Wilmore, I didn’t know what to expect. I saw this brother with a huge head, and I thought of Mr. Potato Head. Then I thought of Strax the Sontaran from Doctor Who. Then I thought I was being too mean.
The format of the show, originally, featured Wilmore opening while standing up, then a skit, and then a roundtable discussion with members of his cast and a guest or two. Interesting format. In time, they shortened the panel segment and had just one guest join two cast members and Wilmore. This allowed for more skits and an occasional correspondent report, a la Daily Show.
I grew to like the cast of regulars a lot: Holly Walker, Mike Yard, Grace Parra, Robin Thede, Franchesca Ramsey, Rory Albanese, Jordan Carlos, and Ricky Velez. A more diverse cast on TV you can’t find anywhere, particularly on late night. I liked Grace Parra’s Hollywood reporter shtick. Jordan Carlos could do hoity-toity better than anyone. And Mike Yard just looks like an Angry Brother. One wrong move, and it’s over. Similarly, Holly Walker could also rock the Angry Sister look. Both of them, however, had warm, infectious smiles. They all brought diverse views to the discussions, which I appreciated, even when I didn’t agree with them all the time. I found I disagreed with Ricky Velez’s views more than most, but that made me want to hear them all the more, to check myself.
During this most bizarre of election years, #tonightly has been a place of sanity. The centerpiece of their coverage has been Wilmore’s “Blacklash 2016: The Unblackening” reports. Cue the scary horror music: WE’RE TAKING BACK THE NATION FROM THAT NEGRO! For a time, when Dr. Ben Carson led in the Republican polls, they had an alternative theme, the Re-Blackening. Cue the scary horror music: ON NO! ANOTHER ONE! (with scenes of terrified white people running for their lives).
The Republican primary debacle, of course, provided ample material for comedy and satire shows. This meant lots and lots of Trump. They even had a Trump stand-in, played by Bob DiBuono. At times he actually out Trumped Trump, including his tan, which got more and more extreme with each appearance. I think if things had gone on longer, DiBuono would have ended up almost in blackface.
Despite all of this talent, the show did not live up to Comedy Central’s expectations. So they abruptly cancelled it. #tonightly didn’t even get to finish out the election. That’s a dirty, lowdown shame. In addition to low ratings, Comedy Central apparently felt that the show did not generate enough buzz on social media. No viral bits or memes. As one commentator rightly points out, #tonightly specialized in discussions and nuanced conversations.
It also featured discussions that not many places were having. They got down about the contaminated water disaster in Flint, Michigan. They regularly discussed police violence and Black Lives Matter. When Ahmed Mohamed made news for his arrest after he brought a homemade clock to school — freaking everyone out because they saw him as a jihadist ready to blow them up — Wilmore’s show was one of the first to have him on. They even gave Ahmed an Apple Watch. The show did not shy away from race. It took race by its collar and shook the hell out of it. It similarly discussed sexism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, and other social ills with similar verve. All while staying hella funny.
After his show got cancelled, Larry Wilmore said that he didn’t expect the “unblackening” to happen to him. Unfortunately, this happens all too often to performers of color. Before a show gets going good, it gets canned. Tim Reid famously said of his show Frank’s Place that CBS moved it around the schedule so much, that his own mother didn’t know when it would be on. It never got a chance.
#tonightly didn’t get moved around, but I don’t know if it got the full support it should have. It provided a different type of late night experience and likely required a different mindset to market it properly, help it find its core audience. Abruptly terminating the show during the heart of the election seems to me a lost opportunity. The powers-that-be at Comedy Central should have let it continue at least through November, let it finish out its second year, then reassess. We need their diverse voices.
I have no doubt that the talent on the show will find other gigs. But they won’t be working together, tonightly, week after week, and that’s terrible.