The Peabody Awards

The Peabody Awards

Interview with “Nightly Show” Host Larry Wilmore

Matt Shedd - 1/27/2015

Larry Wilmore is breaking up TV’s all-white late-night lineup.

After establishing himself on the national stage as The Daily Show’s Senior Black Correspondent, Wilmore’s next task will be to fill the slot that Stephen Colbert left on Comedy Central when he agreed to move to CBS to succeed David Letterman.

But Wilmore’s show is not going to just be about race, he said, and he was working in television long before sitting alongside Jon Stewart giving his commentary on America’s race relations.

One of his first jobs in the industry was writing sketches for the Fox comedy series In Living Color from 1991 to 1993. Throughout much of the decade, he also wrote for sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Sister, Sister and The Jaime Foxx Show. He went on to co-create The PJs, a claymation series on Fox depicting life in the inner city housing project. In 2001, he created the Peabody Award-winning Bernie Mac Show and would go on to work as a consulting producer for another Peabody winner, The Office.

On The Daily Show

Over the past years I talked to a lot of colleges and a lot of the young people said they get their news from Jon Stewart, you know, or [Stephen] Colbert. It’s just a phenomenon that started happening and a lot of people, I think they trust Jon’s take on things. I think it was a combination of when what you might call regular news got more opinionated, young people felt “well as long as I’m getting an opinion, I may as well get Jon Stewart’s.” That’s what it felt like to me. I’m flattered, I mean, to be considered in that same category.

On Jon Stewart

Jon has that rare ... he’s so smart, you know, he’s funny as heck of course too. But he’s really smart too, and you’re always continually amazed at how thoughtful and smart he is. He makes you want to be, want to raise the bar on what you do.

I say Jon is like a combination of Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite. He has that generosity of Carson as a host–Carson wanted you to be funny, he knew it didn’t threaten him at all because, I mean, there was no one more charming than Johnny Carson. And Walter Cronkite, you just trusted the things that he said, and there’s “if Walter said it,” I mean, Lyndon Johnson, our president said, “Well, if Cronkite is against me, I guess I’m done.” That’s pretty powerful. I mean I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty much what [Johnson] said.

On writing for In Living Color

We did one sketch that Les Firestein and I wrote together and it was “Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton” but kind of as Abbot and Costello. They were Al and Lou instead of Bud and Lou. And instead of “Who’s on first?” it was “Jews on first?” It was right after the Crown Heights thing where the Jews and Blacks were having this tension and it was really, really funny. Les actually pitched the thing, but I ended up writing it with him and I thought, “Man, if we could do this kind of stuff, this is fantastic.”

On The Bernie Mac Show‘s unconventional style

Well one of the big things was the rhythm. I thought the rhythm of the sitcom was very much in people’s ears and I wanted to disrupt that rhythm just so it would create, on its own, a surprise. Because just innately you wouldn’t know what’s coming next just because the rhythm was messed up. So where the rhythm of sitcoms is duh, duh, duh, duh, joke, duh, duh, duh, joke, duh, duh, duh, joke–even if you don’t know what the joke is, you know can sniff that joke coming at any second, but if I went duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, [long pause] joke. Or just disguise a little bit of how the humor was delivered, or just the rhythm of the show, just how the even the dialogue was delivered. How I can catch you off guard. And that’s why I was going for more of a realism.

And then the other component was the actual structure of sitcom. At that time, [it] was really dominated by farce and having studied playwriting in college, you know what the rules of farce are. It’s a lot of slamming doors, it’s misunderstandings and “Oh he’s gay, oh no.” And so a lot of sitcoms were built on misunderstandings and on the farce rules. And the farce rules are very high stakes, what I call, big act breaks–something very important is happening at the act break that makes you want to come back after the commercial. “Oh no, is this going to happen?” dun, dun, dun. And that’s how the sitcoms were doing. And I wanted to disrupt that.

On Bernie Mac, the actor

[He was] very enigmatic, very charismatic, very interesting as both the character and a performer, and the perfect instrument for doing this type of thing because he looked like something we hadn’t quite seen doing that. And, you know, he’s pulling from the tradition of Jack Benny, who spoke directly to the audience, or George Burns, who would “Say goodnight Gracie” you know, talk to the audience. Or Gary Shandling kind of revived, didn’t make fun of it in his show, It’s Gary Shandling Show... So Bernie was in that tradition of relating directly to the audience but in a slightly different way. For The Bernie Mac Show, I wanted it to represent his emotional life and he was pleading to America to relate to his plight.

On accepting his Peabody Award

I was very honored to get a Peabody. And, by the way, Walter Cronkite gave me the award, I mean it’s so ironic that he did. I was a huge Cronkite fan growing up and the fact that he gave me that award makes it one of the most special awards I’ve ever gotten.

And he really laughed at that last line [in my acceptance speech] and I was like “Oh! Very good. You made Walter Cronkite laugh.” So that made my day.

On black-ish

What attracted me to Kenya [Barris]’ script, was I felt there was some content in there. And, to me, it seems like sitcoms today don’t have any content in them, you know, they’re all very silly. Some of them are very funny doing that, but nothing’s really being discussed of any consequence it seems like to me. So I was like “Wow. This is very good for you Kenya, you got some interesting stuff” and it’s funny how timely it ended up being, especially this year. But that’s what drew me to it was that part of it. And this was a different type of family that I hadn’t quite seen, you know, in this way. [And] as excited as I was to be doing my own show, I was very, kind of, sad to be leaving black-ish.

On writing different types of shows

I think they satisfy different parts of my brain. [The Nightly Show] is probably the most daunting because I’m performing in it as well, and the others, my job was just to write and produce, which is a tough enough job in and of itself. But to be the one who is the messenger, so to speak, the one who’s being written for, this is it’s own challenge.

Stories that Matter Podcast: Larry Wilmore (download .mp3 | subscribe with iTunes | full text transcript)