Larry Wilmore has gone out of his way to hire a diverse slew of writers for The Nightly Show, with different backgrounds, interests, races, genders, and interests. At New York Comedy Festival’s panel “Keepin’ it 100: An Evening with Larry Wilmore and the Creative Team of The Nightly Show” on Saturday, Wilmore explained to moderator Neil DeGrasse Tyson that this was all by design.
“People ask me, ‘How is your team so diverse?’” Wilmore said. “Because that’s what I wanted. My mission from the beginning was to find people from different backgrounds and hire an eclectic team.”
Alongside Wilmore and Tyson were the bulk of The Nightly Show’s creative team: executive producer Rory Albanese, head writer Robin Thede, and contributors Grace Parra, Ricky Velez, Jordan Carlos, and Holly Walker. They each had different amounts of relevant experience. Albanese, for instance, had a long standup career and worked on The Daily Show for 14 years, whereas Velez comes from a straight stand-up comedy background and Walker from the Chicago improv scene. Their writer’s room repartee was in full force during the panel. When Tyson noted that Walker’s improv background means she doesn’t need as much writing, Albanese responded that stand-ups do their own writing and fist-bumped Velez.
As Tyson pointed out, this diverse team is important because all members feature heavily in the show. Wilmore may host The Nightly Show but unlike, say, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the show doesn’t revolve around him monologuing about recent news. A big part of the show is the panel discussions, on which show writers will feature alongside big-name guests like Tyson or Sen. Cory Booker, and contributors will also pop up in skits, such as a recent one in which Walker starred as a black woman kicked off a plane.
“Having Larry in everything would be ideal, but what’s the most effective way to tell a joke?” Albanese said. “We’ve taken The Daily Show and made it five times harder to do and 50 times more complex, so there aren’t as many intimate strategy discussions. What works, what doesn’t, write a bunch of stuff. With the woman on plane skit, we decided that was the best way to show it, and reflect Larry’s views, instead of just having Larry talk about it.”
Wilmore stressed that just because the show’s team is diverse doesn’t mean they’re only going after a “black” perspective. The show has tackled issues in the black community both serious (like the Bill Cosby revelations) and humorous (such as “black react,” Thede’s term for black people’s enthusiastic responses to magic tricks) with aplomb, but Wilmore said they’re aiming for something more universal.
“We look at our show as illuminating issues that should be important to everybody,” Wilmore said. “We come from the viewpoint of the underdog.”
The panel eventually opened up to audience questions, the first of which asked why an astrophysicist like Tyson was moderating a comedy panel – in other words, what’s the connection between comedy and science?
“I think the universe is fundamentally hilarious,” said Tyson, who has been a guest multiple times on Wilmore’s panel discussions. “It’s just not typically taught that way. That’s why I’m attracted to comedians, because they are the repositories for the social and political mores of our civilization. They’re smart enough to figure out how to give it back to you with a perspective on something you had previously taken for granted, or made you uncomfortable, and you’ll sit there and smile.”
Another question centered on the deadly terror attacks in Paris the night before. When is it “too soon” to joke about tragedy?
“I think humor is great because comedy is subversive and stands up to zealotry,” Carlos said. “It’s important to find a way to eventually laugh about these things. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the day after, but eventually.”
Wilmore and Albanese also noted that their responsibilities as a comedy show are slightly different than those of more traditional news organizations.
“I’m always aware of the fact, no matter what show I’m doing, that I’m not in a vacuum. I’m in a relationship with the audience,” Wilmore said. “And I’m very respectful of that relationship, believe me. I’ve done enough TV over the years. I always feel like once I put on the show, it really belongs to the audience and you become a curator of the show. That’s really how the relationship works. And the audience knows. If you’re fucking it up, they will let you know. Anybody who is a Scandal fan will agree with me. That’s your show.”