Stephen Colbert had “truthiness.” Larry Wilmore’s got “keeping it 100.” The former “Daily Show” correspondent taking over the 11:30 p.m. spot vacated last month by Colbert’s “Report” debuted Monday night, rolling in with a show that’s fast, funny and unapologetically black.
Wilmore paused briefly before his “Keep It 100” segment to explain what the heck he was talking about: “For all you people who don’t know what the expression ‘keeping it 100’ means, it means ‘keep it 100 percent real,'” Wilmore said. “I guess the white version is ‘Truth or Dare,’ except here we don’t have the dare.”
When Wilmore turned to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to keep it 100, he asked Booker, “Do you want to be president?”
“Uh, no,” Booker answered. The audience was not impressed — and instead of a “Keep It 100” sticker, Wilmore chucked a teabag at Booker for his weak tea. (Weak tea is basically boring gossip, and nobody wants that.)
“Especially in politics, we’re far too concerned with position and not purpose,” Booker elaborated, ever the straight-laced golden boy.
“You get all the weak tea,” Wilmore said, dumping the entire bucket on Booker.
The show felt similar to what W. Kamau Bell was trying to achieve with “Totally Biased,” but with sharper, more focused writing and a slickly-designed set that comes as a result of having the full backing and faith of Comedy Central kingmaker Jon Stewart. Both are left-leaning talk shows helmed by black comedians, but Bell’s was an experiment — even backed by executive producer Chris Rock on FX. Bell had no national profile before his show began in 2012. “Totally Biased” was preceded by “The Orlando Jones Show,” which made it 78 episodes before its cancellation in 2003. Bell’s show made it to 72 episodes, and was moved from FX to FXX before it was canceled last year.
Wilmore, like Colbert, is a crowned successor with a reputation and personality crafted on “The Daily Show,” one of the most successful comedy incubators in the business. See: Colbert, Ed Helms, Olivia Munn, John Oliver and Steve Carell. That’s important when it comes to weighing the likely success of “The Nightly Show.”
Comedian George Lopez spoke recently to “Huffington Post Live” about the dearth of black and Latino hosts in late night. Lopez’s late-night show on TBS, “Lopez Tonight,” was canceled after a two-year run.
“Jimmy [Fallon] was able to be able to get his legs and try things before he got ‘The Tonight Show,'” Lopez said. “There has to be kind of a honeymoon period where you’re able to do that. … I just don’t think that we’re able to fail like white people fail. Our failures are heavier. … Somebody’s got to believe in you, whatever color you are.”
Wilmore opened with a tight monologue in his trademark deadpan that deftly weaved in Ferguson, climate change and even fair trade “Harry Potter” chocolate, all tied together by weighing the effectiveness of protests surrounding each. His writing team is led by Robin Thede, former head writer for “The Queen Latifah Show” and a writer on “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” Thede also bore some responsibility for Chris Rock’s irreverent takes at the 2014 BET awards, where he took aim at Rick Ross, Solange Knowles, Donald Sterling and Justin Bieber. As with “The Daily Show,” there are no sacred cows. In his debut, Wilmore had words for both Oprah and Al Sharpton, and called out the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences by labeling its “Selma” snub business-as-usual.
The show is divided into two segments: Wilmore’s opening monologue and a four-person panel discussion that will likely include correspondents Ricky Velez, Mike Yard and Shenaz Treasury rotating through the fourth spot. Rapper Talib Kweli, comedian and actor Bill Burr, Booker and Treasury, a Bollywood actress and culture reporter, were on hand for the premiere.
Wilmore flipped the table on one of the obvious weaknesses of “Real Time With Bill Maher” that tends to surface when it’s time to talk about race — and everyone looks at his one black panelist to represent the views of 40 million black Americans. On Monday night, it was Burr’s turn to serve as senior white correspondent surrounded by a table full of brown people.
Wilmore and Kweli were discussing the effectiveness of ongoing protests in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner when Wilmore turned to Burr. “Are white people tired of black protests?” Wilmore asked. “Speak up for all the white people, Bill.”
Burr gamely responded with a pivot.
“Speaking for all white people? Aaaahhh, I don’t know,” Burr said. “I gotta be honest with you. ‘Is protesting legal?’ would be my question. Cause it seems like they say it is but then the cops show up.”
Later, after Booker rattled off some statistics about the rate of imprisonment for nonviolent offenses, Wilmore turned to Burr again. “So Bill, is the answer for less black people in prison maybe more white people in prison?”
“Absolutely,” Burr said.
“Sorry you had to be the white foil,” Wilmore said.
“Exactly,” Burr responded. “How did I end up on this show?”
Wilmore closed with a solo “Keep It 100” segment, which he’ll do every night, answering a question from the #KeepIt100 hashtag. On Monday, after answering “What’s the last racist thought you had?” (“I think it was walking down the street yesterday and I’m like, ‘Does that white woman think I’m going to steal her purse?'”), Wilmore paid tribute to his predecessor, offering a “tip of the hat and a wag of the finger.”
Politicians used to have to squirm their way through Colbert interviews while trying not to appear ridiculous — perhaps the only one that ever bested Colbert was Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Now they know if they come on the “Nightly Report,” they’ll be expected to keep it 100 — or get pelted with weak tea.
[This post has been corrected to reflect that “The Orlando Jones Show" ran for 78 episodes, not eight.]