"The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" launched on Comedy Central Monday night, replacing "The Colbert Report," whose host moves to CBS in September. Here's my review.
Before we get to what I thought of "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" — fine, let's not wait, I liked it — let's talk globes.
What is it with the globe that serves as a backdrop behind Wilmore's desk: a giant inverted mistake with Australia upside down and in the center (as opposed to our usual perspective, with America in the middle, right side up) and the rest of the world all topsy turvy as well?
The possible answer is that someone — maybe the director or person in charge of sets — doesn't know his or her geography. Or maybe the "Keeping It 100" answer (a segment in which the host asks guests to "keep it real" in response to a question or risk studio audience disapproval) is that it's the key to Wilmore's comic worldview.
An extension of that worldview is to ask viewers to assume what it is like to be black. Specifically: If you are white, turn yourself inside out, upside down and literally take the viewpoint of a black person — then inhabit that new reality for a 22-minute span of time. (Or, if you are black, just laugh or maybe cringe.)
Stephen Colbert had his own comic inversion — a liberal masquerading as a bumptious conservative. Wilmore is perhaps taking this to a different extreme by telling viewers to actually do the reversing themselves and to see the world through different eyes.
If so, it's an interesting approach and certainly a novel one. Whether it works over 200-odd days a year could be anyone's guess, and maybe even Wilmore’s.
But for those 22 minutes Monday night, this mostly worked. Wilmore’s approach was pointed (as pointed as a sharp stick) and often funny. Most of all, he brought a perspective to late-night TV — as the basis for entire nightly comedy show — that's been missing from late-night TV for just about as long as late-night TV has been around.
And, he brought it on Martin Luther King Day. If first editions of new talk shows are statements (and surely they are), then Wilmore made quite a statement Monday night.
Yes, the show and the comedy were relentlessly about race, the divide between black and white, and the rankling recent horrors that have widened that divide. The opening monologue, fully half of the show, went through a checklist of current events: "All the good bad race stuff happened already," he mock-lamented. On Al Sharpton's reported intercession in the "Selma" Oscar snubs: "Al, slow down, you don't have to respond to every black emergency. You're not black Batman." It all wandered into an extended setup to a punchline about chokeholds: "Too soon?," he wondered.
Wilmore then ended with a picture of six young black men with gaping holes torn in the pictures — bullets, he said, fired by cops in Florida who were using the pictures for target practice. "How can we see that and be surprised when it happens in real life? I'm not surprised when Kobe hits a jumper. That dude practices."
He laughed. The audience laughed. There was nothing funny about it at all, nor — of course — was it really meant to be funny. But that’s the Wilmore signature — fury masquerading as congeniality.
The panel — with New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, Talib Kweli, Bill Burr and "Nightly" correspondent Shenaz Treasury — went on to expand the themes of the opening segment, or rather reinforce them. To Booker: "Do you feel like you're a hoodie away from being facedown in the pavement now?" To Burr: Do protests work? ("The only way you effect change is ridiculous acts of violence.")
Booker lapsed into policy-wonk-speak and campaign themes. Blame, he said, must fall on the vast prison population, while underlying festering social maladies need to be addressed.
" agree, I agree," Wilmore said eagerly, certainly not affecting any attempt to be a mock newsman with mock objectivity.
In style, approach and content, none of this was any different from what Wilmore did on "The Daily Show" over the last nine years or so. What's different is that it's a full spread now, all here collected in one place — a biggest Wilmore hits album, so to speak, that uses comedy to force viewers to look at the world in a different way, or upside down and inside out. It's a bracing newcomer, and a different newcomer, and a risky newcomer and, surprisingly, even a funny newcomer.
But mostly it’s a welcome one and long overdue.