Comedy Central’s problems in late night are, from a certain perspective, a matter of regression. After years of hogging Emmys, viewers’ hearts and the political-comedy spotlight with Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report, it’s no surprise that the follow-ups would seem not just less successful but unsuccessful. It’s tough to follow a legend, and Daily Show replacement host Trevor Noah as well as Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore (entering Colbert’s 11:30 p.m. timeslot) suffered, from their shows’ first moments, by comparison.
So while the timing—both early into the show’s run and at the height of a pitched presidential election—is unfortunate, it comes as no surprise that Comedy Central is trying something new at 11:30. Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show has been cancelled, putting an end to an interesting and unusual experiment: A late-night chat show focused in large part on the subject of race. (It’s worth noting the unfortunate fact that Wilmore’s departure from late-night makes the genre significantly less diverse.) While less catastrophic a comedown than Noah’s inept handling of The Daily Show franchise, Wilmore’s show still felt strangely disconnected, hamstrung by its attempt to launch a star and a manner of viewing the news at a time when the news was moving too quickly to allow for introductions.
Those comedy stars who’ve been able to succeed against the backdrop of a presidential election without precedent have used established personae to deliver finely honed messages. Colbert is among them: After a rocky start at CBS’s Late Show last fall—and a first episode distinguished by an anodyne interview with Jeb Bush that diminishes in memory—the host has harnessed the wildness of our current election, particularly the deeply unconventional Republican convention, to produce his absolute best material. Like NBC’s Seth Meyers, another star who’s made the most of the election, Colbert is a host that gets more and more lost in the background the more politics unfold as usual. On TBS, meanwhile, Samantha Bee has introduced new, remarkable shadings of rage and indignation to a tone and style familiar from her years as a Daily Show correspondent.
Unlike Bee, Meyers or Colbert, Wilmore had a relatively limited baseline. When they get furious or fed up or just go on a tangent, it means something. All things being equal, Wilmore’s introduction to much of his audience concurrent with the sort of news that moves a comic to shift into a new gear was a huge disadvantage. The manner in which Wilmore expressed his annoyance—an unfamiliar abrasiveness in contrast to Colbert’s intellectualized buffoon—likely turned some viewers off, as well. Consider Wilmore’s controversial gig at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in which he called the President the “n”-word and railed against the media harder even than the savagest previous hosts. It’s not that it wasn’t funny, and it’s not that he didn’t make fair points. But Wilmore was so relatively unknown that, while doing less would have made less of a splash, doing quite so much with so little finesse felt like one more loud voice in the year of Trump.
I’d argue that Noah and Wilmore have precisely the opposite problems: Noah is too laconic by half, checked-out of a presidential election his whole shtick is to pretend (or acknowledge) that he doesn’t understand by virtue of his South African citizenship. Wilmore never got the chance to nail the “comedy” part of “political comedy,” so quickly has the current election outpaced a novice host’s ambitions as well as reached into rich veins of potential inquiry unrelated to Wilmore’s core mission. There was plenty on the series that was well-put-together—the episode airing in the immediate aftermath of Pulse shooting in Orlando caught my eye. But in the main, being forced to respond to a presidential election that defied satire did Wilmore no favors. Perhaps, had this been the ho-hum Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush matchup many people expected, people would be casting about for new, intriguing voices; Wilmore’s focus on race would have allowed him to do interesting stuff while the two nominees sought to be the most inoffensive. But that’s not how it shook out. Only the most tested and shrewdest stars have been able to make hay out of a race whose coverage, itself, is the entertainment.
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