On a Tuesday evening, as the audience settles in for its second episode ever, the people at The Nightly Show take some pains to let us know that the crew has the cheapest microphones money can buy. At the beginning of the broadcast, host Larry Wilmore expresses confusion at having to do a second episode, but everyone on set is a little dazed that the show is happening at all. The entire staff are pros — they'd have to be to rise to the challenge of taking over The Colbert Report's post-Daily Show spot on Comedy Central — but that doesn't mean it isn't taking them a little time to get their bearings and stop worrying about whether or not we'll think they're funny.
Tonight, that anxiety mostly manifests itself in self-deprecating jokes about their production values. In his pre-show remarks, WiImore asks how we like the way the set — particularly the large panel table — looks, and tells us that some people have expressed confusion at the design. He's faux-hurt, but it still sounds like it stings — it's his show, after all. That attitude helps contribute to a scrappy upstart vibe at the taping — it may be airing on Comedy Central with a massive marketing campaign, but to us, it's still an underdog. And we respond accordingly. It's only the second episode, but when Wilmore walks over to the table, everyone chants "Larry! Larry! Larry!" That's just what you do at a show like this.
When Wilmore walks over to the table, everyone chants "Larry! Larry! Larry!"
But if the show's first few episodes are any indication, The Nightly Show is a lot closer to the finish line than one might have predicted. Having already watched the very solid premiere episode the night before, I had some idea of what to expect when I showed up for the Tuesday taping. Out in the line, my friend shared his opinion of the show so far: The panel segment was the best, and he hopes Wilmore keeps it up. In that case, "It'll be like Bill Maher, but funny and not racist!" He's not wrong, since Wilmore describes the show as a blend of The Daily Show and Maher's Politically Incorrect.Oddly enough, the Daily Show-inspired half has been the flattest. Which makes sense, because more than anything else, The Nightly Show ends up resembling the roundtable discussions from a Sunday morning cable news hour.
If there's any TV format more rigidly formulaic than the late-night talk show, it's the Sunday morning political hour. ABC's This Week (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I was an intern), CBS' Face The Nation, and of course NBC's Meet The Press are, essentially, a three-card monte of information — for the most part, they plow through "the same dozen lawmakers, journalists, and pundits in a rotating order." They thrive on the presence of those personalities and their prepared statements, which are "newsworthy" and make good television because of who they are. And they have more viewers than The Daily Show.
"It'll be like Bill Maher, but funny and not racist!"
On The Nightly Show, what's important is what the guests have to say. The first episode had big names, even if they are only stars among a small segment of the population — Talib Kweli, Bill Burr, rising political star Cory Booker. (And, of course, ratings will dictate that Wilmore's bookers take big names where they can find them.) But the second episode shifted focus to voices that likely wouldn't be seen on television, and their thoughts on a single issue — the preponderance of rape allegations against Bill Cosby.
The focus on one topic suggests another show helmed by a former Daily Show correspondent. But where Last Week Tonight takes more of a newsmagazine approach, digging in and researching on a particular topic that might not be in the headlines, The Nightly Show's reliance on panels creates a discussion about the implications of the news and how we should think about it. That's not to say that Wilmore doesn't inject himself as a host. "We'll answer the question, ‘Did he do it?'" he says at the top of the show, suggesting a Dateline-like investigative report of the sort that usually ends with a soft "maybe." Instead, he commits: "The answer will be yes." Or, put another way, "That motherfucker did it!"
But the real center of attention is the dynamic between the panel members and the strength of their arguments — "The proof is common sense," as Wilmore puts it. Though there are jokes, there's also a sincere conversation about the implications of patriarchy and the way Cosby's celebrity contributed to a collective unwillingness to believe his accusers, motivated largely by Ebony digital editor Jamilah Lemieux, who gets to make points about the way women who accuse men of rape are marginalized (when was the last time a rape victim got anything out of lying?). So the veneer of a comedy show allows the expression of uncomfortable truths and opinions in honesty. During the segment explicitly devoted to honesty — "Keep It 100" — there was a real, off-the-cuff fight between Keith Robinson and Baratunde Thurston over the relative importance of Thurston's integrity and racial identity that was entertaining, revealing, and passionate. It was excellent television.
It's rare for there to be a new thing in late night, but The Nightly Show seems to have gotten its best material from cobbling together the parts of several other genres and using them to support each other in the pursuit of presenting a consistent, thoughtful take on the world. Where The Daily Show and The Colbert Report classified themselves as "fake news," an umbrella under which they hid from criticism, The Nightly Show seems much more like "news with jokes and moral perspective." And, from my brief experience in the studio, the audience appears to be a crucial part of both parts. Rather than simply padding out the show with laughs, the bits the studio audience most applauded were statements about the travesty of the way rape victims are treated, or Wilmore rejecting anyone who cared whether the total number of accusers was 34 or 35. When Robinson claimed that some of Cosby's accusers were lying, there were audible boos.
So much of television production — especially late night TV — is an alchemy of balancing hundreds of factors, from the chemistry of a cast (something late night shows essentially have to reset every night by putting their host next to a different guest), to the coordination between the crew to effectively capture the show, to the writers, who are often trying to figure out a series' strengths months into the process. The first few months of any late night show are, essentially, watching a work in progress — a series of drafts for a consistent show. The taping of the second episode of The Nightly Show was close to the roughest version of that draft, and right now it's using everything in its toolkit, even its audience, to advance the blend of satire, news, and political talk show it's shooting for. Will it succeed? "Relax," Wilmore repeatedly says during the pre-show Q&A. They're still figuring it out.