Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Nightly Show needs work

Larry Wilmore's Nightly Show is disappointing.

On The Daily Show Wilmore could use Jon Stewart as a foil, a handy surrogate for the average clueless white person. That worked well for his generally world-weary persona who had seen every permutation of racial animus and oppression and had a ready supply of snark.

On The Nightly Show, he's on his own for the opening segment, which is where he tries to hit the two or three stories of the day. It's painfully clear that he has spent most of his life as a writer, not a performer: he doesn't have the fine sense of timing that a former stand-up like Stewart has, nor does he have the luxury of losing himself in a character like Stephen Colbert's Colbert Report blowhard. (More on Colbert shortly.) Even the writing lacks a certain snap: it nips where it should bite. Since the show is co-produced by Stewart, who has a nose for writers who can draw blood, I can only assume that it's Wilmore who is softening the edges: either he has assembled writers who can't quite hit the mark, or, more likely, he won't let them go for the jugular.

In the show's second and third segments, Wilmore gets to have a conversation with his guests. This is both good and bad. It's good because Wilmore comes alive when he's talking to someone; he loosens up and riffs more freely. It's bad because with generally three or four guests, nobody has time to say much. Wilmore structures the discussion around a handful of questions intended to make room for comedy; this makes matters worse by limiting the scope of the conversation so nothing substantive can be said, while limiting the comic answers to often obvious one-liners. I come away from these segments acutely frustrated that I've neither learned anything nor laughed.

Of course, The Nightly Show occupies the former time slot of the celebrated Colbert Report, a show that was so good it rivaled (some would say eclipsed) The Daily Show. Colbert himself is the kind of talent who comes along but rarely: a fearless improviser with a razor-sharp comic sensibility, yes, but also quick-witted, smart (with a capacious memory, which is not the same thing) and genuinely sweet. The show started as a parody of cable-news punditry, but evolved into a gloriously versatile vehicle for whatever Colbert the performer wanted his persona to do and to say. Generally what he wanted to say was not just funny, but whip-smart, too. His evisceration of George W. Bush and the Washington press corps at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner was an example of the deceptively effortless way he could turn hypocrisy and lies against their purveyors — all while making his audience (which didn't include the rich and powerful) laugh riotously.

How much does Colbert's incandescent show hang over Wilmore?

The answer, unfortunately, is, "A lot".

Wilmore might have avoided comparisons with Colbert if The Nightly Show didn't traffic in commentary on current events. It does, though. That makes the comparisons unavoidable, and Wilmore doesn't measure up. He's not as funny, obviously, but he's also not as informative. That's a serious shortcoming when you consider that Stewart and Colbert set the standard and that John Oliver is raising the bar every week. (Oliver casts his own shadow over Wilmore as yet another Daily Show alumnus who redefined the satirical news show format to suit his strengths.)

What should Wilmore do to fix his show?

I'm not sure. It seems clear he doesn't want to follow the Stewart/Colbert pattern of having a single guest each night, so perhaps he ought to give the round-table format a fighting chance of producing something good by ditching his opening solo presentation. Whether or not he extends the amount of time devoted to his guests, though, he should probably make his questions more serious, or at least less gimmicky. His "keeping it 100" (as in "100% real") bit, his most-repeated trope, puts a straitjacket on his writers as well as his guests and trivializes the conversation. (I haven't seen it the last couple of nights; perhaps he came to the same conclusion I did and has dropped it.) Stewart isn't afraid to let the comedy lapse in favor of solid, informative discussion during the guest segment. Perhaps Wilmore should adopt the same philosophy. His guests might also appreciate that, particularly those like Neil de Grasse Tyson who probably hope to make substantive remarks but who are limited to answering silly questions as part of lame, partially scripted bits. I know audience members like me would appreciate better discussions.

Wilmore has only a little time to make any fixes. It's unlikely his current audience will defect to Jimmy Fallon, though the snarkier Jimmy Kimmel may be a draw. When Jon Stewart leaves, though, Wilmore's lead-in will be at risk. If Trevor Noah stumbles, some might switch to Conan O'Brien and stay with him the whole hour. Noah is likely to do well enough to keep most of the current Daily Show audience, though. The real threat to Wilmore will be when Colbert starts his CBS show in September. I, for one, will give him a try. If he can bring anything new to the 11:30 show format, and The Nightly Show isn't significantly better than it is now, I might abandon Wilmore altogether. I doubt I'll be alone.

I root for the underdog, Larry, but you're making it difficult. Fix up your show, pronto.

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