By Melissa Maerz
Updated January 19, 2015 at 09:00 PM EST
Peter Yang/Comedy Central

Soon, Larry Wilmore will be famous-famous. Right now, he’s what he calls “cable famous”: Many people already know him as the “senior black correspondent” from The Daily Show, and hardcore fans know his work as a TV writer (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color), showrunner (Black-ish, The Bernie Mac Show), and actor (How I Met Your Mother, The Office). But when his new talk show, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, premieres tonight on Comedy Central, he’ll get noticed on a whole different level. “I have the best type of fame for this moment,” he told EW late last year, during an interview at a New York diner. “The only people who know me are the people who like me already, because they’re fans of The Daily Show.”

As if to prove Wilmore’s point, a scruffy young man in a newsboy cap approaches the table to tell Wilmore he’s a “huge fan.” Wilmore is nice about it. (“Thank you!” he says. “Nice hat! It’s very… appropriate.”) But the whole thing makes him a little nervous. “I’m approaching that area where it’s like, ‘Yeah, I know that guy. He’s not that funny!’he says. “Wait ’til EW does that Who Sucked This Year issue!” Who, us? Never. Standing united with the Huge Fan guy, we talked to Wilmore about what to expect from The Nightly Show, why the networks don’t greenlight more sitcoms like Black-ish, and what it was like to grow up in Catholic school as one of only two people of color in his senior class. Our conversation follows below.

EW: You told Terry Gross a few years ago that when you went to the barber shop, no one in there knew who you were, or what The Daily Show was. Is that still true?

Larry Wilmore: My joke is that three black people watch The Daily Show at any given time. So if I’m watching it, that counts, and there’s only two left. It’s a silly joke, but you know, different types of comedy reach different cultures. I get recognized by some people in my community, but not a lot. In fact, they would say, “What do you do?” And I would say, “Well, I did The Bernie Mac Show.” And they would say, “Oh, really? Well, do you know so-and-so?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I hired them. I was the boss!” They don’t believe it. It’s like, “Did you meet Bernie?” What are you talking about? Do you understand how show business works? Obviously not!

Why do you think The Daily Show has a mostly white audience?

I don’t know if I’d say white. I think it’s current-event-news people. I’m being facetious, because I know there are a lot of people of color who like those kinds of things, but my other joke about black people is that we don’t have time for irony. You gotta give us the joke straight-forward. It’s like, “I gotta go to work. I gotta feed my kids. I’m tired. I don’t have time for irony. Just give me the joke.” [Laughs]

But you must be interested in irony if you’re having your show premiere on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

Yeah, well, one of the first bits I did on The Daily Show was that I felt that to really make Martin Luther King Day equal, it would be just another holiday: It would be about mattress sales and that kind of stuff. I guess it was symbolic. The Nightly Show started [with the title] The Minority Report, and it seemed appropriate to start on Martin Luther King Day. I had my first joke already written: “Yeah, I gotta work. I know!

How do you feel about it not being called The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore anymore? Did you really change the name because Fox had a pilot called Minority Report?

Well, there’s not much we can do about it. Fox had picked up their show and started sending us a couple of letters, it just because too much of a pain to always have to talk about the show with its full title, like TMRWLW #SorryFox! And I actually ended up liking The Nightly Show a lot, because then I thought, Well, people can now define their own notion of the show. No one has to feel dis-invited to the party.

Comedy Central didn’t ask you to come up with something broader?

Not at all. I like The Nightly Show. People ask me what it is, and I say, “If you’re watching The Daily Show, and it feels like it’s getting a little darker, you’re probably watching The Nightly Show.”

Tell me about the structure of The Nightly Show.

The first part of the show will be me doing my thing, like Jon [Stewart] or Stephen [Colbert] does: weighing in on what’s going on. And then we’ll open it up to a panel format. We’re still working out the second and third act. There’s going to be a lot of people on the show. I really love having conversations and deconstructing things. I don’t mind not having a laugh every second. Sometimes things deserve a little more discussion, and then you can have some fun after that.

I’m interviewing you at a time when, just last night, people were protesting the Eric Garner verdict in Brooklyn. How would you have covered that on your show?

It’s difficult to talk hypothetically about comedy. But one of the things we talk about [in the writers’ room] is, What are people trying to get out of the protests? Protests exist to do different things. In the 1960s, they existed to change laws. Segregation was a legal issue that needed to be changed and protesters had very specific goals. Sometimes today’s protesters don’t have very specific goals. Are you trying to say, “We don’t want cops to be racist?” Well, okay. How long you gonna march for that? Good luck!

We were thinking about having a cop and a brother on the show, sitting next to each other. We cut away, and when we cut back to them, the brother’s already in a choke-hold. It’s like, “Guys! Stop it!” “I’m sorry, Larry. It just kinda happened!” Surreal moments like that–that’s how ridiculous my mind is.

This is such a terrible, wonderful time for The Nightly Show to premiere. You think about the past year, how it began with Donald Sterling, and then Ferguson, and Eric Garner, and…

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—and it clearly was the worst of times. I couldn’t have started the show at a better worse time. But I’m so excited, and I’m hearing so much from people who are excited for me. You know, I’m walking down the street and someone says, “Good luck on your new job!” What stranger says good luck on your new job? That doesn’t even make sense! It’s like, “Hey, Larry! I heard you got a new house! I’m a fan of back porches!”

I think there’s a big hole in late-night commentary that hasn’t been filled in a long time, and people want someone good to do it. Do you feel there is any pressure on you, as the former “senior black correspondent” of The Daily Show, to school people about race?

I don’t look at it that way. I look at it like, white or black, the universe is upside-down, and here I am explaining what is absurd about it.

Politically, you call yourself a “passionate centrist.” Is comedy easier for centrists, because you have more options–you can skew right or left–instead of just approaching every joke from one party’s platform all the time?

For me, it makes it more fun, because I don’t give a damn where I come out on it. I’m deconstructing the subject matter to find out, How do I really feel about this? What is my true opinion about it? Or does my opinion even matter?

Are you playing a character on The Nightly Show, like Stephen Colbert did, or is this the real Larry Wilmore?

On The Daily Show, I am playing a character, with the senior black correspondent. But on the new show? Not the way Stephen Colbert does. That would be exhausting. It’s just the TV version of yourself. Like if you talk to Jon [Stewart], he’s not that amplified. He’s very low-key, kinda sly.

I talked to Jon Stewart about you. He said that you have this innate ability to be the adult in the room. Do you see that about yourself? To me, it rings true, because even when Jon Stewart’s getting angry, or even play-angry, on The Daily Show, you’re the guy who’s very measured in his tone, even when you’re like, “F— you.”

“Go f— yourself” is, I believe, what I say. “F— you” is so crude. [Laughs] When I was a kid, people used to call me The Professor, so that gives you a little insight. You know, I wore glasses, I wanted to be an astronaut, I was really into science, just a nerdy little kid. I had my head in books all the time. I did magic tricks. Any nerd thing you can think of, I did. I was also into sports, and speech and debate, and theater, but I guess I have an older soul. One of my favorite comics is Buster Keaton. He always had that very calm demeanor with the crazy world spinning around him. Because I’ve been the boss a lot, I’ve adopted that demeanor, maybe as a survival mechanism. I think people appreciate it when you’re the calm one, even if on the inside you’re like, “How the f— is this gonna happen?”

So you were a pretty serious kid? I read that you grew up watching the news every day with your grandmother. Walter Cronkite was your favorite anchor?

Yeah. I got to meet him once. I got a Peabody Award and he gave me the award. To me, it just didn’t get bigger than that. I actually made him laugh! I said, “I never thought Walter Cronkite would say my name! I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, so I’m imagining you on screen, like…” [Wilmore does a spot-on Cronkite impression] “‘Astronaut Larry Wilmore blasted off yesterday.’ But at most, I’d be lucky to get something like, ‘Larry Wilmore was arrested yesterday.’ In a strange world, it could be: ‘Former astronaut Larry Wilmore was arrested yesterday.'” That made him laugh.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that when you were growing up, the most prominent role for black comedians was “the fast-talking ex-con.” At the time, stand-up comedy was a little bit more raw, focused on sex and drugs. Did you make a conscious effort to do something different?

Well, I am a natural contrarian, but I think it just wasn’t my style. A lot of that boisterous style grows out of the black church, that preachy style. Like, Lemme tell you the truth! I’m gonna tell everybody! But I grew up Catholic. We’re quiet. It’s about being guilty about something inside of us and sacrificing things. So the lifestyle is naturally more introspective. I didn’t have that fire and brimstone voice. I thought I was going to die from doing the wrong thing!

What was it like growing up in a Catholic school where you were one of only two people of color in the whole class?

That was interesting. I remember my friend and I we were the only black guys in our senior class. Our classmates were pretty cool, but we had some issues with some people at the school who were a little “racisty,” if you know what I mean. We thought we were the representatives, so we were all fiery about it. Like, I’d come to school with a big afro, just to see what the priests would do. We had a Dean of Discipline who’d say, [Wilmore breaks into an Irish accent] “Mr. Wilmore, you’re going to have to cut your hair.” And I’d say, “Well, Father, technically, the rules say it can’t go down over your ears.” [Laughs]

You were kind of the senior black correspondent of your own high school?

No, I didn’t think of it that way. I certainly was funny in high school. I ran for office and won just because I was funny in speeches. It’s not like I had a platform. I just made fun of the teachers. The priests were so funny. They were these Irish Catholic priests and they had such personality. The principal had this very serious nature. His clothes always looked a little too pressed, and whenever they raised money for the school, it was like, Where’s that money going to? And so he gave this speech and he walked out of the gym and I did this impression of him: [Wilmore takes on an Irish accent] “May I have your attention please? I can’t stress the importance of the candy drive enough this year. My Mercedes is in such need of an upgrade!” Afterward, he said, “I hear you do an impression of me. And I said, “No, Father. I don’t do you. I do Father Travers.” [Laughs]

What was your first paid gig in comedy?

The first thing that I did was the Improvisational Theater Project in Los Angeles, when I was in college. They had an opening for someone because Forest Whitaker had just quit, and Forest was a friend of mine. My teacher said, “Larry, you should audition for that.” It was a show we wrote through improvisation with messages about drugs and stuff, and we toured it around to schools. I think it was called School Talk. We went to this one school and it was all troubled kids. I’ll never forget this one kid talking about seeing somebody get their head blown off right in front of him. He was like 12 or 13. I realized how important what I’m doing can be to other people, not just to me. Then I started doing stand-up comedy, which was a totally different road.

Who did you open for in those early days? Who were you on stage with?

George Lopez. We used to go to open mic nights together. Oh man, all kinds of people. That was the heyday. I remember seeing Dana Carvey before he got Saturday Night Live, or Jay Leno, or Michael Keaton. I used to sneak into the Comedy Store when I was underage, and Richard Pryor was on stage trying out stuff. For a while I thought, I can’t do this. These people are just too good. Stand-up was in the front seat. Acting was just something else I could do. I liked stand-up because you’re the CEO of what you’re doing, where acting feels like the lottery.

How did you go from acting on shows like The Facts of Life to actually writing for sitcoms?

Writing came from being frustrated with not being able to get auditions. What they were looking for wasn’t matching what I was giving. They were casting what you were talking about earlier: the fast-talking ex-con. If you were from the ghetto, that was good. “Urban” is what they call it. And that wasn’t me. I did political humor, off-the-wall stuff, silly humor. I knew I had to make my way as a writer/producer and one day write my own thing.

You wanted to create more roles for guys like you?

No, I wanted to create more roles for me, specifically! [Laughs] I was very selfish about it!

The 1990s was such a great time for black sitcoms and sketch comedy shows–The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Martin, A Different World–and you were involved with many of them. What happened between then and now? Why did shows like that largely disappear from the networks?

I’ve had a lot of opinions about this. One of the things the networks did was to start segregating the shows. They thought, if it’s a black show, it has to be on with other black shows, in a black “block.” And then, it had to be on a black channel. When I was growing up, The Jeffersons were on with Maude–they were just funny shows! Anybody would want to be on next to The Cosby Show, or Fresh Prince. It didn’t make sense to me. It marginalized those shows. By the time I did The Bernie Mac Show, there were no black shows on television, let alone family shows.

Coming into an environment like that, how do you get a show like Black-ish made?

You get it made because people at the network are very excited about it. Kenya [Barris] had a great story based on his life and it just clicked when Laurence Fishburne got involved. Who doesn’t want to be involved in that?

How much of Black-ish were you involved in before you left for The Nightly Show?

I helped develop the first 12 or 13 episodes, and produced the first three or four, including the pilot. And I went back about a month or so ago and pitched some stories. Kenya and I still have that phone call now and again, like, How’s it going?

Black-ish was inspired by Kenya’s life, but as the showrunner, you must see yourself in that story, too.

One of the things that made me laugh from Kenya’s script is that he’s trying to have it both ways. So the kid comes over, looking for grape soda, and it’s like, “Oh, you would assume we had grape soda?” And the kid’s like, “Found it!” [Laughs] That’s very funny to me. You get mad that someone would think that, but it’s actually true.

Can you think of any moments in your real family that are like that? Where you don’t want to believe that you’ve become the cliché, but you’ve totally become the cliché?

Oh yeah, all the time! My mom always had a conspiracy theory that everybody was black. She would look at someone and say, [Wilmore whispers] “Oh, look look look! She’s black!” Back in her day, people would pass as white, so from her point of view, it’s like, “She’s black!” But for me, it’s like, nobody’s hiding the fact that they’re black. That’s Hillary Clinton, mom. She’s not black.

As the showrunner of Black-ish, did you ever have to explain cultural references to network executives who didn’t get the joke?

Absolutely. There was one episode that Kenya wrote called “The Nod.” [Editor’s note: In the episode, “the nod” is half-jokingly described as “the internationally accepted yet unspoken sign of acknowledgement of black folks around the world.”] Some people just don’t know what that is, so you have to explain what that means. It’s actually kind of surreal. Things get appropriated at different times. A few years ago, the fist bump was a “terrorist fist bump” on Fox News. Now, [Sean] Hannity and them are doing it. Dick Cheney’s probably doing it. It’s not so terrorist-y! But we were doing that in the ’80s. You can see Magic doing that. Brothers stop doing that once it gets appropriated. So take it, Today Show!

Did you always want to host your own show?

Back in 2006, I mapped this out to my manager, and this was one of the destinations.

You mapped out a plan, back in 2006, to get your own show?

Correct. And there was a road to that. I was like, “I can’t just create a TV show for myself right now, because I don’t have that relationship with the audience. I hadn’t done stand-up in years.” So I had to build that. I did a lot of panel discussions on stage that nobody even knew about, like for the Writers’ Guild. I also knew that I had to take small roles as an actor and build up my career more. A lot of that was eating humble pie, but there was a plan. And I can go back even further. In 2001, I sat down with my manager, and I said, “I want to really start branding myself.” And then later on, I said, “Now that I’m branded, I need a platform.” I don’t know if I make goals so much as throw something out there and start walking toward it. You don’t know how you’re gonna get there. You just keep walking. There’s ups and there’s downs, but they’re just part of that process.

What were the down times for you?

Well, on a professional level, getting fired from The Bernie Mac Show. That was devastating. We won tons of awards on that show, and the network just never understood what we were doing. It was very frustrating.

If you were to write a 10-year plan now, just like you did in 2006, what would it focus on?

People are always like, “What else you workin’ on?” It’s like, “That’s not enough?” I’m just trying to make The Nightly Show as successful as possible. This is too big of a thing on its own to have anything else going on, so right now that is the thing to do. My 10-year plan would be to have this for 10 years. [Laughs] Not a bad 10-year plan. My 10-year plan is to stay right here.

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