In EW’s Forecast issue, we profile Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore, who’s helming Comedy Central’s newest late-night series. The show premieres after The Daily Show on January 19—which happens to be Martin Luther King Day. (Wilmore told EW that he already has his first joke: “Yeah, I gotta work. I know!“)
It’s Jon Stewart, though, who actually came up with the concept for the show, with Wilmore in mind to host. “He pitched the idea of a show that would give a platform to underrepresented points of view and underrepresented voices, whether that’s African-Americans, women, first-generation Americans, any group that’s underrepresented,” remembers Comedy Central President Michele Ganeless. We spoke with Stewart about his vision for The Nightly Show, and why there aren’t more diverse voices in late-night television.
How did you pitch The Nightly Show to Comedy Central?
Jon Stewart: It had just been announced that Stephen [Colbert] was leaving, and I had been thinking for some time that there was something missing from the late night environment. So we all went out to dinner, and I just laid it all out for them. It was just the idea of Larry Wilmore conducting a show that exists in between news and punditry, or “fake news” and punditry. The Daily Show is a parody of the news. The Colbert Report is a parody of punditry. This would exist in the middle of that, for voices that were not necessarily as prominent in the dialogue. I always view The Daily Show as the mothership or the nuclear reactor that we all feed off. So this was a chance to give those voices a chance to pilot a mothership.
In 2014, the news cycle started with Donald Sterling and ended with the Eric Garner verdict. It’s been a pretty bad year for black people in America. Was there something going on in the news when you pitched The Nightly Show that made you feel like, this has got to happen right now?
No. I mean, yeah, there was something happening in the world: Stephen was leaving. But it wasn’t something newsy. And it’s not so much about black voices. Actually, what really stoked it was [The Daily Show‘s] correspondent search. We were seeing a lot of tapes of really interesting voices that were not mainstreamed and didn’t seem to have an outlet. More than anything else, I thought, Here’s this rich fuel of comedy and material and no one seems to be using it, so why don’t we? And who better to conduct that than Larry? He can handle the conversation. He can take it from just a comedy panel to something deeper, to get beyond the superficiality of it and bring out these voices. He’s a great conductor for those voices. He’s really incredibly insightful, but also open and curious, so I thought he would be the perfect voice to conduct that orchestra.
In your work on The Daily Show, do you ever feel that there are limits to what you can say about something like Ferguson as a white host?
I don’t know about that. That’s not the impetus for it. Whether or not there are limitations on what a white guy can say, that doesn’t mean that these other voices should not be heard in these conversations, or that they should be heard in conversations that are just about race. This is about normalizing those voices in the conversation, having nothing to do with issues that are particular to their race, creed, religion, whatever that is. Hopefully the idea is that it doesn’t become Asian people comment on Asian issues, black people comment on black people, women comment on women. It’s about all these really smart, interesting funny performers who it would be great to see together in a show and see where that conversation goes.
Why do you think the late-night world has been so slow to adopt underrepresented voices in writers rooms and as hosts?
I think it’s because of inertia. Generally, people hire people they know, even though you’d like to think it’s more of a meritocracy. That’s not to say that the people they’re hiring aren’t good. It’s just to say that systems tend to self-perpetuate, and it takes a certain amount of energy and effort to move off of that very well-carved rut. I don’t consider it necessarily malicious. I tend to think of it as an object in motion tends to stay in motion. And you have to push it if you want it to move in a different direction.
How did you meet Larry? Was it through The Daily Show?
Yes. I’d been aware of him, just being in the business and being a fan of Bernie Mac and what he had done. But I did not really get to know him until he came on the show.
Have you seen him do stand-up? What can you tell us about what he’s like on stage?
He’s hilarious. He’s great. With Larry, you know how some people just always seem sophisticated and adult? There’s certain times you watch an actor and you’re like, “Was Karl Malden ever young?” I think with Larry, there’s just this sense of, Was he ever an idiot? Was there ever a time when he was, like, a goofball? I don’t think so. He has a wonderful ability to be the grownup in the room.
What can you tell us about Larry that we might not know?
He’s a Lakers fan. I’ve tried to overlook that. He has promised to be open while he’s here [in New York] to the idea of the New York Knickerbockers. If he’ll live up to that promise, I don’t know, but we’ll do our best. I’d like to say, “Oh, people don’t realize how thoughtful he is,” but they do. The only thing I can think of is that people don’t realize how unbelievably good he is at close-up magic. And I know that sounds ridiculous, like it’s something that you’re making up for a Tinder profile. But he’s literally an incredible close-up magician. He plays clubs. It’s crazy.