Keep It 100: ‘The Nightly Show’ Earns Itself a Serious, Unique Late-Night Niche

When seriously funny is more serious than funny

Keeping it 100.

I just want to say that I wouldn’t wish the pressure Larry Wilmore was under in the debut of The Nightly Show on anyone. Following up a cultural phenom like Stephen Colbert opens about one billion doors for unfair scrutiny and comparisons, and even after acknowledging that it still might take some days for 11:30 on Comedy Central to feel right. But The Nightly Show is not the Colbert Report. It’s not even The Daily Show. What it is, well, it’s hard to define. But if you stuck with it past the opening segment, you’ll know you saw something different. There’s no question that Mr. Wilmore is carving out his niche. The question is, will it work?

But first, that opening segment. Luckily I can report that Mr. Wilmore and his writing team are in fact funny. As if that was any surprise. Anyone that has seen Mr. Wilmore as Senior Black Correspondent knows he’s comfortable in front of a camera, and anyone that hasn’t should know the dude has an incredible writing/producing resume that includes everything from the early 90’s In Living Color to last Fall’s Black-ish. The jokes, most of which riffed on race, were generally hit or miss but definitely started out strong (“The Oscars nominations are out, and they’re so white a Grand Jury has decided not to indite them”), and the show in general went after my own heart by bringing up The Lego Movie snub. And that’s not a surprise either, because Mr. Wilmore is more than funny, he’s likable. But the opening segment also felt safe, like an easing in period. Funny yes, likable less, but not really any different whatsoever from a Daily Show opening. It lacked a unique hook that say the “Stephen Colbert” character had (last comparison, I promise.)

But the second segment was a different beast altogether: A panel led by Mr. Wilmore comprised of Senator Cory Booker, comedian Bill Burr, rapper and activist Talib Kweli and a contributor to The Nightly Show itself, Shenaz Treasury. It took me a while to even realize why it felt so different. You see, ever since the advent of this whole “news as comedy” thing we’ve been conditioned to laugh. Jon Stewart has always said he’s a comedian first, newsman probably further than second. And yes, over the years this genre has molded into this weird thing where lines between comedy and news reporting are so blurred that people do look to comedy shows to get their news. But when an audience laughs AND applauds, it is 99% of the time because a joke is so funny because it’s so true. A couple of times last night the Nightly Show applauded because something was just…really true.

That’s where The Nightly Show is different. That’s where it will carve out its own unique place on late night TV, comedy or otherwise. Because it is a comedy news show, yes, but for the first time a show in that genre felt more like the news. Serious topics often were not met with a joke to lighten the mood, they were met with a counterpoint or simple listening. Wilmore, as a host, seems to genuinely want honest discussion, and to raise topics that might seem uncomfortable but not in a “comedy” sort of way. And he can do this, and it feels to me he can do it in ways that Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert could not.

So that question, will it work? I want it to, but I’m pretty nervous for The Nightly Show, only in the sense that there’s a chance for confusion. It’s not as funny as The Daily Show nor as obviously satirical as The Colbert Report, but it DOES air on Comedy Central. I’m almost afraid that people will be turned off by it because it isn’t what they want at that particular time. Best example — the panel was discussing nonviolent protest, and Mr. Burr had this to say: “I think throughout history the only way you truly effect great change is ridiculous acts of violence.” This was met with laughter, because that’s what we’re used to at 11:30 PM on Comedy Central, but it was unsure laughter. Even Mr. Burr looked uncomfortable saying it. But you could tell he meant it. And it’s that combination of laughter and serious, for-the-throat honesty that will either keep The Nightly Show around for a long time, or doom it from the start.

It’s pretty appropriate that the final segment of the show is called “Keep It 100,” as in 100% honest. Mr. WIlmore asks each guest a question — honesty is rewarded, obvious double-speak is penalized (the politician, Mr. Booker, is unsurprisingly the only one penalized). It’s funny throughout, but also champions blunt honesty. On the last segment, Mr. Wilmore subjects himself to questioning. Because if it’s one thing that’s clear from this debut, it’s that he can stay honest with himself. Let’s hope audiences can, too. Keep It 100: ‘The Nightly Show’ Earns Itself a Serious, Unique Late-Night Niche