Larry Wilmore has spent the last couple decades on the periphery of fame, as a writer on the groundbreaking sketch show “In Living Color,” the creator of “The Bernie Mac Show,” and most recently the Senior Black Correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” It’s there that he honed in on his desire to make comedy that stings and enlightens as it entertains. This week he stepped into the spotlight with the debut of “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” — airing on Comedy Central, immediately after “The Daily Show” — on which he moderates a panel discussion on issues in the news, such as the State of the Union and the normalization of relations with Cuba. And he already has a signature bit: #KeepIt100. We caught up with Wilmore by phone to talk about the first week and what to expect going forward.
How do you think the first week has gone?
Oh, man. It’s beyond my expectations. We were scrambling up until the last minute to launch the show. We never expected the reaction that we’ve gotten. Just never expected it. It’s such a great feeling.
What’s been easier and what’s been more difficult than expected?
The challenge of doing this every night is something that you can’t anticipate, and you have to raise the bar every day. You can’t ever rest. You always have to attack your material and be alert. It’s very challenging, but on the flip side of that, it frees you up. Especially when I’m doing the discussion. Because I’m basing it on conviction and I’m asking different types of questions, I feel freer in it. I don’t have to worry about stepping on toes or doing anything that’s preconceived.
Will the format of the show – opening monologue, panel segment, #KeepIt100 – stay the same or do you anticipate switching it up?
That’s what we’re starting with and the show will evolve as we do it. As we come up with ideas, we’ll start to integrate them into the show. We’ll be using our contributors more. We had Mike Yard on our panel on Thursday night and Ricky Velez did a desk piece. We’re probably going to do reports out on the field. We’re still trying to figure out how to do that type of stuff on our show. I think one of the big changes you’ll see is once we start doing field reports. It’ll be fun to get out there and talk to real people.
You’ve mentioned that the shows won’t be planned out far in advance to accommodate new stories as they break.
To be honest, it will probably be a combination of things. Sometimes you have events that you know are coming like the State of the Union, and we knew we wanted to cover that. It’s nice to follow the headlines to a certain extent because it has that sense of urgency in it. We always have a discussion in the writers room the day before a show of what’s going on, is there anything we want to talk about, is there something we’re missing, and what’s our point of view on it? That’s our preparation for the next day.
What’s the process for coming up with the questions for #KeepIt100?
Well, we’re still learning that. It’s trying to create the most interesting dilemma that a person has to answer. Some of it is knowing who you’re going to ask the question to and trying to learn as much about that person as possible. Marry that to a topic if you can and then create a dilemma for that person. It’s really fun coming up with those questions.
It seems like a few of the guests have been legitimately uncomfortable with the questions –
I know (laughs). It’s pretty interesting, and it’s funny because my purpose is not to do any gotcha things or put somebody on the spot but really to maybe reveal themselves in a way that they don’t normally reveal themselves on another show.
Where they need to think beyond a talking point?
That’s exactly right.
The question you asked Talib Kweli about whether hip-hop was part of the problem or the solution in regards to the black image was really interesting, and you could see him wrestling with it in his mind.
That’s actually a question that could be an entire panel discussion, and I kind of felt that as I was asking it. That was our first night, and that’s what I’m still learning how to do. I probably would have asked a more specific question to him if I had to do it again, but I like the question itself.
It did seem to make him uncomfortable as he thought about it.
I think so. I wanted him to think about his role in it. Anyone who’s listened to hip-hop or listened to the news on hip-hop over the years has had that discussion at some point whether they think it’s right or wrong. A lot of people I know have both feelings about it. A lot of them like the music and think some of the images are wrong but don’t agree that it necessarily causes ills. It’s a very complex answer. That answer might get booed, but it’s not a wrong answer. It’s the conviction that you carry with your answer more than anything else.
And how long you pause before you say it?
Which kind of reveals your conviction.
What have you learned from Jon Stewart and your time on “The Daily Show” that’s been useful in running a comedy news show?
Jon Stewart always raises the bar on how to write satire. He never rests on his laurels, on a shallow investigation of something. You won’t last long around him if you say, ‘okay, I got this. Now I can coast.’ He’s always challenging me to go further, and we’ve had great conversations over the years where I’ve said, ‘I don’t think this is the way to do this.’ It’s different than writing other kinds of comedy. When writing comedy that has commentary in it, you should really take time to think about what you’re saying. I’m shifting tone in my show from someone who’s doing something funny in the first act to someone who’s just really having a conversation and is allowed to be funny in a more natural way. Changing tone is one thing I haven’t had to deal with before, and one thing I love about that second part of the show is that I don’t have to worry about being funny every second. Some things just aren’t and you have to listen to what someone has to say. I’m not telling Comedy Central, ‘we’re not going to get laughs.’ I would never say that, but it need not be me trying to be a clown all the time in order for it to be an interesting show.
You’ve referred to the show as the lovechild of “The Daily Show” and “Politically Incorrect.” How much of an influence is Bill Maher on what you do?
I’m not sure that Bill Maher gets enough credit for creating this space. “Politically Incorrect” was really a trailblazer of a show. “The Daily Show” hadn’t started yet, and no one was really doing that type of honest comedic talk in late night. It really started all of this, and then “The Daily Show” took it in a new direction.
What can we expect on your show for this coming week?
I have no idea (laughs). I haven’t even talked with my writers about this, so you’re hearing it first. I would love to talk about this whole football thing. There’s something about lying in sports that’s starting to work on me right now. We hold our sports figures up as heroes, but over the years lying has become a big issue — them not keeping it 100. And this whole deflate thing is kind of landing in that category. Because the Super Bowl’s coming up, it might be fun to talk about it.
Do you think that is about our unrealistic expectations of athletes or their moral failure?
You know, we’ll have to ask all the questions, so we’ll see.