Larry Wilmore’s provocative monologue at the White House correspondents’ dinner Saturday is still reverberating through Washington. Beginning with his opening line welcoming guests to “Negro night,” the comedian brought his deadpan style of political-racial humor to the Washington Hilton’s grand ballroom.
Many are still buzzing about Wilmore’s closing line, in which he praised President Obama for achieving what Wilmore once thought inconceivable for an African American. “So, Mr. President,” he said, “if I’m going to keep it one hundred: Yo, Barry, you did it, my nigga.”
Judging by the silence and mostly stone-faced crowd, Wilmore’s set bombed. Or did it? The takes on the act from outside of the elite room have been more varied. Wilmore, who hosts Comedy Central’s satirical “Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” has no regrets. He has experienced the reaction to his performance, and now he has a few more things he wants Washington to know. I talked to Wilmore on Wednesday about the reactions to his act, the jokes he cut and how he decided to use that word.
Did you keep it 100 at the White House correspondents’ dinner? Did you deliver the set you intended to?
I kept it 1,000 at the dinner. Content-wise, absolutely. I felt like those were the things I wanted to say. I approached it as a roast, and I was thinking: We’re not taking ourselves seriously tonight. Let’s have fun. I never approached it as, “I’m going to scorch down this mofo.” In terms of the jokes I actually did, I said the things that I wanted to say.
Your last line has launched countless think pieces. What were you thinking when you said, “Yo, Barry, you did it, my nigga”? You addressed on your show the difference in meaning for some African Americans between n-i-g-g-er and n-i-g-g-a. But take us into what went into shaping that line.
Thank you for actually saying it. What I wanted to do in the end was to say how meaningful the president’s term was to me as an African American and to African Americans like me. That’s why I started it off by talking about how it was an anathema when I was growing up to even have a black quarterback, and how I appreciated what the president had achieved — the pride I felt.
As African Americans, if you’re not in our shoes, you don’t get to have that experience. I wanted to express what it feels like. When you’re inside of it — this is what you get to experience.
And when I think of the words that have been used against us and how we have turned them around, I thought of Obama and how he as an icon has turned upside-down [ideas of] black leadership and the conceptions of that. For me to turn this word upside down on this occasion was almost like a private moment we would share in this very public way.
Kind of following on that, as a comic who takes on politics and race, where do you come down on telling racialized jokes in spaces that are not diverse? Reading between the lines of some of the criticism is the idea that you took language shared in black spaces and spoke it in a predominantly white space.
Yes, that is taboo, but part of that is it is kind of a collusion of silence. But now you have someone like our president, [and] he gets to control the narrative. And I felt like as the comic who was invited to be there, I also get to control the narrative. I have a free voice. I have a free mind. I have freedom of expression.
I was not consciously rebelling against code-switching. It’s hard for me as a comic to deconstruct what I do [but] what I try to do in my comedy is be fearless. My white counterparts are always pushing the line, and they are fearless, so why can’t I do that, too?
What’s your take on the reaction to your act? There was inside the room — groans? And outside the room — it was mixed.
From a pure comedic point of view, I know that I lost the room early — that was apparent, and I knew I was not going to be able to bring them back, so I just tried to have fun and enjoy it. I was kind of editing along the way and saying, “Well, that joke is not going to work.” When I took a look at the reaction afterward, there were people who were brazenly supportive and others who were brazenly unsupportive. There were several who said they disliked the whole performance. Others who said they liked it, and another group that liked it but disliked the last line.
There was a point that I was editing as I went along and taking jokes out. It just felt the tone of some of them was even harsher than what I was already doing and I said to myself, “I don’t want to get to the point where they are going to say ‘Okay, that’s enough. Let’s go, Larry. . . . I’m sorry, Mr. President.’ ”
Some of my colleagues who were covering the dinner came back and said they got emails from readers who said they were outraged that there wasn’t more outrage from the media over your use of racial slurs. Were you intending to provoke outrage?
Not outrage. I don’t think I ever intend to provoke outrage, but I don’t mind being provocative in content. I knew I was teetering on the taste line, and I knew I was probably teetering on the wrong side of the taste line, but I was okay with that.
Your act has been compared to Stephen Colbert’s in 2006. The sentiment in Washington afterward was that he bombed, was too mean, was wrong for the night. He’s reached some level of vindication. People saying, “Hey, well, he was right about many of these things.” Were you performing for posterity vs. performing for the crowd?
I was performing for the crowd, but I just misjudged it. As a comic, I failed in the room, but I did the material that I wanted to do. I was actually surprised at the reaction in the room. I thought it was my job to make barbs about the president, politicians and the media, and to make pointed jokes. . . . I knew people were not laughing, but I felt like I was doing my job up there. This is what you hired me to do. . . . You never want to defend a joke. People get to choose whether or not to laugh and whether or not they think something is funny.
Who did you ask for advice on this gig? Other than your writers, did you run the jokes by anyone in advance?
[Laughing.] “Larry, how is it possible that you came up with these jokes? Did you work this out in a closet?” No, of course, I had different people working with me and did run-throughs with friends, and I was writing jokes up until the day of.
In the moment, when you were up there and you could tell it wasn’t going over well in the room, and knowing what you were going to close with, did you think of changing it up and abandoning that track?
I think in the middle of it, when I realized I probably couldn’t get the room back on my side, I figured I may as well keep going and say what I want to say and give the performance I want to give.
You went to the Vanity Fair after-party, right? What was the conversation there? What did people say to you?
I got a lot of support at the party. Many people came up to me and said they enjoyed it or “I can’t believe you said that.” Maybe some were just being polite, but there was a lot of genuine feeling. I saw Don Lemon, who flipped me the bird during my act, and we took photos together and he was able to laugh. Nothing was meant as a real dig — even the Wolf Blitzer thing. It was all in fun.
Did you expect the media figures you were calling out to laugh at themselves?
Yes, I was, and I was thrown by the fact that that was not going to happen.
Consensus is that you pushed the line during your set. Some would say went over it. Were there any jokes that you killed because they went too far?
I just thought the tone was wrong and I knew the tone of some of the jokes I had was harsher than the ones I was already telling. Like, I had a Will Smith joke in there where I thanked him and Jada for not boycotting. I cut that. I was like, “I’m not going to throw shade at Will Smith right now. In this room, he’s my friend. Why even attempt to throw shade at this point? That’s my boy.” I had another Brian Williams joke, which I cut. I was like, “Well, they hated the first one. Why should I do another one?”
How did you feel about President Obama saying through his press secretary that he appreciated the spirit of your expressions?
It was incredibly gracious. The president was very magnanimous. I can’t tell you how much I am in humble appreciation of what the president said.
No, once you do it, it is done. It’s hard to say anything except it was quite an experience. Should I be waiting to be asked back again? [Laughs.]
Final keep-it-100 question: Who was better, you or Obama?
Oh that’s easy — Obama. He killed in the room, and he killed outside of the room. His humor was on point. His slides were funny. He was great.