It has been three months since Comedy Central’s untimely cancellation of Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show, and it’s hard not to feel robbed. A half-hour panel show that launched in January 2015, The Nightly Show was, alongside the weekly programs fronted by fellow The Daily Show vets John Oliver and Samantha Bee, the rare late night show that qualified as appointment viewing. But Wilmore is keeping busy. He is an executive producer on HBO’s excellent comedy series Insecure—which The New Republic’s Lovia Gyarkye praised as one of the only shows on television featuring “authentic black female friendships”—and will be hosting the National Book Awards in mid-November.
The New Republic talked to Wilmore about Insecure, what he misses about late night, and, of course, the election. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You have to be pleased with the reception to Insecure.
You are always, always overwhelmed by positive response because you know it can go either way. And so we are very very happy about it. I had to formally kinda step away because I was doing The Nightly Show and I was only involved tangentially last year as a consultant. Issa [Rae] and I co-wrote the pilot episode and I was the consigliere, if you will, during the first season. So it is so exciting to see it come to life and to see people like it and get it. And I am the most happy for Issa. I remember sitting with her in a coffee shop a couple years ago and talking about this project. To see it become a real thing is very cool.
Do you think that this is a transitional moment in television? I think that the two best shows on the air this fall are Atlanta and Insecure, and now critics have turned on Westworld.
Westworld is bizarre. I don’t know what to think of Westworld. And it’s the type of thing I really, really want to like. Because I was a huge Michael Crichton fan. But then it becomes this weird orgiastic male fantasy scenario? What is this show about exactly?
Whereas Atlanta and Insecure....
I think the biggest thing is voice. Whose voice is it? Who gets to control the narrative? You know you have Donald Glover doing it, me and Issa doing it. And it doesn’t have to be filtered through someone else saying: “Well we think you should do it like this.”
Whenever you see something that is different and has an authentic voice—whether it’s Transparent or some of these other shows—it’s interesting because they have never had a chance to have that. So part of it is a fascination with the newness of it. I call it immigrant comedy. Oh, that immigrant group is so funny because we don’t know who they are. And if the immigrant show didn’t make it, it would be years before we allowed that kind of show to happen again. It’s nice to see that we’re developing a kind of citizen comedy, and it’s not immigrant comedy so much.
Some things are still immigrant comedy. Asian shows are still considered immigrant comedies.
The Fresh Off the Boat problem.
For whatever reason, it suddenly holds responsibility for all Asian shows or leads or protagonists.
How did you develop the voice of The Nightly Show? How do you think it evolved?
Well we started with a very simple thing. It was Jon Stewart’s idea. He wanted a platform for voices that don’t always get to be on television. And his original idea was that the show would be all talk, and I would be the ringleader of that discussion. But as we started developing it, I felt that I needed a segment where I could just say what was really on my mind. You know, that the audience would want to hear from me also. And so then it became a kind of a combo platter if you will. A half-Daily Show, half what Bill Maher does.
That had its own complications. We started with four different people on the panel, and different people every night, and that was a nightmare. A booking nightmare first of all. I had to prepare for two types of shows: a comedy editorial that you have to write, which is hard enough, and a full-blown panel show. My head was exploding every single day.
For me it was about the content. If it got real funny that was great. But sometimes, if you are talking about certain issues, you dig in and get to the gritty of it. So that’s the way it evolved. We got our stable of people, and so we could just book one person. And that became the comfort sweater that we had for the last six months.
The media has taken a lot of shit this election—specifically cable news and even more specifically CNN—for its use of panels. But one of the things that The Nightly Show did so well was create a space for intelligent dialogue, which is often obstructed on cable by the use of campaign-affiliated pundits.
Yes, completely. You have pundits who are already steeped in their point of view, and they are mainly saying their talking points. You don’t really get an opinion. You end up seeing people trying to defend someone like Donna Brazile, who obviously did the wrong thing, but they are forced to defend her because they are on that side and it’s like, c’mon you know that bitch stole those questions. [laughter] It’s like, stop defending that, you know? Not that I am calling Donna Brazile a bitch, that’s a colloquial expression. That’s what will come out of this interview: Wilmore calls Donna Brazile a bitch.
But you know what I mean? So it just gets annoying to me when I see that kind of stuff. One of the most interesting shows right now is Megyn Kelly’s show, and Emily Nussbaum just wrote an article about it that I agree with 1,000 percent. She is kind of going against the company edict there, you know. That bullshit “fair and balance” which doesn’t mean anything at all. But she is trying to keep it real, and so it’s fascinating to see when she keeps it real. When Sean Hannity was talking to Trump and she basically said, “Well let’s see if we can get a real journalist,” and I was like, “Oh my god! Oh snap!” Now that was keeping it one hundred you know.
Megyn is interesting. She’s come a long way since the New Black Panther Party and Santa Claus is white. I wonder how much of that has to do with the changes at Fox in the wake of Roger Ailes’s departure.
I think it’s mainly due to the Ailes thing. His exit may have lifted something at Fox. But she’s an interesting character to me. Very interesting. I find Fox the most interesting, CNN the most entertaining, and MSNBC the smartest.
I’ve been surprised at how much Fox I’ve watched this election.
It’s the most interesting. You never know what you are going to get, it could be a shit show. [laughter] It’s like an anthropological examination of a certain part of the culture. There’s just so much.
What do you miss about doing The Nightly Show?
I really miss being able to speak about a lot of these things. Like, as soon as the show was canceled, Trump immediately goes to a black church. Like immediately. Almost like to stick it in my face. I mean you have to be fucking kidding me, Trump. Hillary needs the black vote so much now she definitely would have done our show at this point. We would have had to tell them to stop calling us.
The news cycle is so much faster than it was even four years ago. This year it feels like something will happen and three and a half hours later it will be old news, or even like it never happened. That’s a challenge for comedy.
It is. It expires so quick, you know. The milk spoils so fast, as you are pouring it into the cereal.
There’s been a lot of talk this election cycle about comedy’s inability to really nail Trump. Not just in the Darrell Hammond impersonation sense, but editorially as well. Do you think that’s fair?
He’s such a caricature of himself, you can’t be funnier than he is. I think that’s the problem. Like with Obama, his persona was just so boring you couldn’t make it sunny; he was just so straitlaced. And white comics were afraid to make any jokes cause, “Ahhh I don’t want people to think I’m racist.” Just make fun of him, nobody cares.
Kate McKinnon’s Hillary is brilliant. Her depiction really taps into the psychosis of it, which is so funny. It’s endlessly watchable, her portrayal of Hillary. She really catches the narcissism of a politician so well.
Over the last week, there’s been a lot of talk about Hillary Clinton’s struggle to turn out black voters. She’s turning to Beyonce and Pharrell—maybe even LeBron James—down the stretch. What do you think the challenge is there?
The thing is, she’s following Barack Obama. It’s like if you are a standup and you try and go on stage after Robin Williams. It’s just not fun. He’s one of the more popular people to run for president. People were excited to vote for him, and not just blacks. He had a historic candidacy. So her appeal with blacks is being measured against Obama’s, it’s not being measured against John Kerry’s or Al Gore’s or even her husband’s. It’s being measured against the guy who got the most black votes, so I think she is kind of fighting that more than anything else.
How would you rate Obama’s legacy?
Well it’s interesting that Obama’s pitch for Hillary is about himself. “Vote for her to protect me!” It’s like, well, what about her? It’s so weird, you know. The way that people endorse Hillary is almost at arm’s length.
We will see about Obama’s legacy. I still think the historical nature of his candidacy will be the biggest part of his legacy.
Bill Cosby was one of your favorite targets on The Nightly Show and he’s emerged as a secondary player this election—a lot of Trump’s surrogates have been comparing him to Bill Clinton.
In terms of me covering it—it’s not fun to cover those types of things. I felt it was my duty not to ignore it. I’m like, fuck that motherfucker you know, he shouldn’t be doing what he is doing, and I am happy that women were being heard. But it’s certainly not a fun thing to cover.
You’re hosting the National Book Awards in a couple of weeks.
Yes, I’m looking forward to that; it’s going to be fun.
If the country hasn’t disintegrated.
We are going to need books so bad. Books are going to be our only evidence of a civilized society.
What can people expect?
It will be kind of a nonpolitical appearance for me, I guess. Support reading and all that kind of stuff. You know these awards. But I’ll stick in some stuff here and there. You know, it’s me. What am I supposed to do? Act like I’m not me? I didn’t do that when I was with the president, so why would I at the National Book Awards?