Photo: Peter Yang

The Nightly Show’s Big Problem Is Not What You Think It Is

Now with a decent amount of episodes under its belt, we can see that what Larry Wilmore is failing to emphasize is the show's greatest strength: himself.

Filling in the same timeslot as Stephen Colbert is no easy task, although Larry Wilmore, an accomplished TV veteran who gained notoriety in recent years as The Daily Show‘s “Senior Black Correspondent”, doesn’t seem like he’s nervous one bit. Although it was obvious from the onset that Wilmore was more interested in using the Daily Show‘s format for his building blocks instead of the more personality-driven Colbert Report, it seems that there would be no way for him to shake off the undue scrutiny of creating a new show of this kind.

This has proven to be the case, since Wilmore cannot avoid the shadow cast by John Oliver’s monstrous success with HBO’s Last Week Tonight, which expanded Stewart’s trademark “desk monologue” format out into probing, long-form discussions that never once talked down to their audience, using humor and research to educate and inform while never going as far as to cross the partisan divide. From this, it’s easy to see that Stewart’s acolytes have adapted his formula to fit their own needs. Up to this point, all of them were succeeding.

So when Wilmore opens every Nightly Show with a “desk monologue”, we are treated to a tired-and-true format of jokes and information that are carefully and sometimes crudely intertwined. The result is pleasingly successful while not too far removed from what Stewart and Oliver have turned into their bread-and-butter. Sometimes, the monologue is all Wilmore, while in other cases he brings in a contributor for a scripted bit. Nevertheless, even with no surprises in the show’s A block, The Nightly Show more or less succeeds in creating a fun bit of subjective infotainment.

The rest of the show (save for a closing audience question) is devoted to a four-person panel discussing whatever the “main issue” of the day is. Wilmore pulls people from across the spectrum, allowing opposing opinions to happily co-exist in a loose roundtable format, as comedians and his own contributors engage in conversations with people who often have real-life investments in that episode’s actual theme.

It’s here, however, that The Nightly Show has its weakest moments. Although Wilmore is a great moderator and makes sure everyone gets as much equal time as possible to express their viewpoints, there’s no set structure or ruleset to the discussion. This may yield in some revelatory moments or occasionally heated discussions, but by mixing people who are grateful to have their byline on a TV show with talking head veterans who power through bullet points while commandeering the conversation to their worldview, Wilmore by and large loses the plot.

On the 27 January 2015 episode about measles and anti-vaccination advocates, member of “The Thinking Mom’s Revolution” Zoey O’Toole went surprisingly unchallenged on some of her more controversial views because, well, no one really was really empowered to properly engage her. Wilmore ultimately takes on the role of “challenger” to what may sometimes be the “outlier voice” on the panel, but due to the undefined structure of this segment, at times the B-block can fail to be compelling, even though there are cases where it definitely succeeds.

Although the third act has Wilmore making up some ground challenging his guests to “Keep It 100” (i.e., 100 percent real) when asking them difficult questions with sometimes unpopular or uncomfortable answers, the show succeeds and fails largely by how much Wilmore involves himself in the discussion. That being said, these third segments are a great test for viewers, who know full well when someone is speaking “talking point bullshit” versus giving an honest, actual answer. (Case in point: Cory Booker on his presidential ambitions in the pilot episode.)

Throughout the entirety of The Nightly Show, Wilmore presents himself as a smart, opinionated man who knows how to work a joke while also giving room for a worthwhile debate. He’s the one who often asks the hardest questions during the panel discussion. He often expresses his own sometimes-controversial segments during the desk segment.

Best of all, however, is the warmth and wit he radiates during all of this. His lineup of contributors have so far had a horrendous batting average when given their own time at the camera, coming off as astoundingly ill-prepared and downright unfunny with their own scripted segments, aligning themselves with a vein of absurdity that just doesn’t work in Wilmore’s “Keep It 100” atmosphere. Even when the panel is at its most ferocious — which is not often, mind you — it’s Wilmore’s questions and interjections that often yield the biggest laughs and for very good reason. Although his own “Senior Black Correspondent” segments on The Daily Show were often pretty good but nothing revelatory, the persona he presents on The Nightly Show is one that we always want to hear more from.

Although The Nighty Show is still finding its voice, its overall win-rate can be boiled down to this: the show works a lot better when it’s just Wilmore on camera. He can bring on as many contributors and guests as he wants, but episode after episode has proven that he’s the funniest, most provocative voice on the program. Kudos to him for reaching out and providing discourse for a variety of people, but let’s Keep It 100, Larry: the more times it’s just you in front of the camera, the better The Nightly Show is.

Splash image: promotional shot of Larry Wilmore by Peter Yang.