18 months ago, I was in a television studio in Hell’s Kitchen for a set visit for Comedy Central’s new offering, the “Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”, and was hopeful that it would usher in a new age of “Black” television programming.
Smart, cutting and funny, Wilmore, a brilliant writer and comedian who has worked in the business for decades, had been a very funny commentator on race and culture on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show run. So, it seemed only appropriate that Wilmore finally get his own venue.
Here’s a brother who has written for such shows as In Living Color, PJs, The Bernie Mac Show, and a slew of other shows steeped in American negritude.
The manner in which he has made a living out of questioning and lambasting bigoted thought processes, as well as simply being a brilliant individual, is something of an inspiration for many writers looking to follow in his footsteps.
Unfortunately, America has traditionally shied away from prolonged racial discourse, be it for the sake of comedy or enlightenment. The “Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” was supposed to be a generational offering upon which a black man of reason and intelligence could express his view of the world with an “applause” prompter and a live studio audience.
Traditionally, America’s idea of “Black” comedy consisted largely of ribald stand up acts, sketch comedy shows and sitcoms.
Yet, discourse regarding issues pertaining to race and the American consciousness were reserved for others, like Jon Stewart or another left-leaning talking head. When Jon Stewart retired from the “Daily Show” and was replaced by Trevor Noah, a comedian of South African descent, it was seen as something of a programming coup by many who championed diversity on television. It had two shows led by individuals who made a living out of clowning the American experiment for its outright refusal to discuss, grow and learn from its past rather than burying its collective heads in the sand.
However, the Black audience alone is not enough to drive viewership on a major network. When we look at such programming success stories as Empire, Blackish and Power, we find that these shows often have a significant and very loyal non-black audience to bolster its ratings.
This programming fact goes back to In Living Color, the Cosby Show and even way back to the Diahann Carroll offering, Julia, in 1968. With the “Nightly Show” having a format that was similar to that of the Daily Show,” which was also its predecessor and lead in, as well as the fact that both shows had Black hosts discussing many of the same issues with a similar political slant, it was only inevitable that either of the program’s ratings would be negatively effected.
“I mean, our numbers were great when Jon Stewart was there,” Wilmore told online media outlet Vulture. “I could argue that Jon not being our lead in hurt our numbers. There are a lot of ways you can make the argument. There were a lot of people who really appreciated the fact that we tackled those subjects.”
After Stewart left the Daily Show, and following the departure of Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report”, the “Nigthly Show’s” ratings fell 40 percent in the key demographic and 29 percent in total viewers. The numbers were a veritable death sentence.
Additionally, the Daily Show’s numbers appear to be in a nosedive following Stewart’s departure. The numbers are what the numbers are. However, the mission of bringing nuanced, intelligent and funny commentary to the fore against some of America’s most damning issues of racism and bigotry continues.
(Photo Credit: TV Line)
So, what now? It would be nice to have the “Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” moved to another network. Perhaps the issue was not content or viewership, but the lead in. Whatever the case, this situation brings to light the ongoing battle of black perspectives to find a home. Perhaps BET will pick it up? Like Comedy Central, it too is a Viacom-owned outlet.
Simply being a “Black” station doesn’t mean that BET will grasp the importance of such a show. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still a white-owned media outlet. There are others that could pick up the show; TV One, OWN, Aspire and a list of other blossoming outlets geared toward Black audiences could do the trick. But that doesn’t seem likely.
Either way, the importance of Black gatekeepers to champion the cause of Black intellectualism on television continues to be of importance only to black folks. Wilmore characterized his show’s departure as part of the “un-blackening” of Comedy Central.
It’s more like the “re-whitening” of it. Black television programming has ebbed and flowed since the 70s and there is very little patience for low-performing television shows, no matter how culturally significant.