To convey the import of the recent news that comedian and writer Larry Wilmore is taking over the great The Colbert Report time slot, it might be helpful to think in terms of NBA introductions:
And now, at 11:30, from suburban Los Angeles, and The Daily Show, the 5'10"-ish, very clean, very articulate, very beige, Peabody and Emmy award-winning (and the Humanitas Prize, too, fine, but wow there's really a Humanity + Gravitas award?), the Diversity Day consultant himself... Larry Wilmooooore.
[suburban LA crowd goes wild]
After years of waiting (butlering?) with grace and wit as The Daily Show's "Senior Black Correspondent" it seems Civil Rights-era freedom fighter Jon Stewart is leaving the door open to the Comedy Central mansion (townhouse? rec room?) (and only from 11:30 -12, but hey, open bar is open bar!). And not only that: sounds like Larry's being encouraged to bring his young hooligan friends (or find some) and graffitti up the walls with as much community-affirming satire as they can muster in thirty minutes.
Great. So. Now what?
Like black presidents, black television shows, especially comedies, are tasked with the challenge of being, in the words of Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, "twice as good" and "half as black." This high standard has meant even shows that grow into national sensations (and network cash cows) eventually tip over from the weight of expectations to be both hilarious and correct. "In the black community, correctness, political or otherwise, remains part of the mortar that holds lives together," the critic Hilton Als wrote in an essay about Richard Pryor. And even that charismatic patron saint of edgy-black-comedy-with-heart-and-soul had his show cancelled after a few episodes due a to lack of relatability. Different era, different show, sure, but this is the same running joke that has kept television shows told from a white point of view.
In 2009 I interviewed Wilmore while promoting his book, I'd Rather We Got Casinos: And Other Black Thoughts, and he wondered about the promise of then-honeymoon-period Obama: "If people…view [Obama] as just Obama, then it's not that big a deal to imagine a black person as a lead in a show; just like anyone else it's the actor who's doing it, and the blackness doesn't have to alienate executives." The president, just by being the president, can expand non-black America's ability to relate to blackness.
Wilmore, a skilled writer and performer, now has the chance to similarly expand our ability to emapthize. For a black writer/showrunner he possesses the relatability resume of your dreams; like Obama, he has both curiously mixed blood lines and an institutional pedigree, and most importantly, he carries all the baggage with a certain aplomb (at least on camera).
But, OK, how can Larry execute best? Since we want him to win, and since I don't particularly want to rhetorically meander on this subject anymore, let's look around the contextual cultural landscape and create an accessible list of current touchstones and models that can influence the vision and production of this show.
A Quick Survey of What The Minority Report Could Be and Shouldn't Be
(Or something—just some shit to think about, OK?)
The Panel Show
On Comedy Central we've recently seen The Jeselnik Offensive and The Burn with Jeffrey Ross not quite make it with a predominantly panel format. Confirming that, for many of us, 1) panel shows look no different than commercials (we skip though, searching for good TV), or, 2) they're the last thing we see before realizing we're no longer slaves to television schedules and turning the stupid box off (probably to pay attention to the smaller slightly smarter box). Skit shows like Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele do better, deploying the Chappelle formula of loose narrative sketch schmoozed over by adorably charming personalities as the leaders of a trend that does not appear to be fading.
Chocolate News—the David Alan Grier-hosted comedy-news show—arrived during the heat of the Obama campaign (i.e. a perfect time to launch a "black Daily Show"; though, maybe, don't call it "Chocolate News"?). Now, looking back at the show's extremely quiet entrance and exit, a waffling Salon review still resonates:
Grier, as the newsmagazine anchor, doesn't get many laughs, perhaps because we aren't familiar enough with the real Dags of the world. For the most part, his models are local nobodies, not well-known black media personalities. When Stephen Colbert launched his "Report," he made it clear to anyone with a sense of irony that he was riffing on Bill O'Reilly and his ilk. But even if Grier were to base his caricature on a media figure like Tavis Smiley or Tom Joyner, how many of us would get it? And how much fun could you make of either of those guys, anyway? Political humor is best served as a poke in the eye of power; Smiley and Joyner's influence and name recognition aren't anywhere near as strong as O'Reilly's.
It's tougher for Larry Wilmore to play with the conceit of a Stephen Colbert type show because there's no Bill O'Reilly or Fox News to play the model (and enemy). If you do that with a "perspective largely missing from late night" you may be left with an audience missing from late night.
This Monday TMZ published the most important elevator footage in American history and within, oh, 20 minutes, Black Twitter had scooped a full episode of The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight in memes, jokes, and riffs about #whatjaysaidtosolange. (Maybe not a full episode. But it would have been the show's highlight segment.) Twitter has less influence than it sometimes seems, but in the past a tape like this would be a foolproof goldmine for TV, and now viewers are more likely to look like bored Jay and Bey at that Brooklyn Nets game later that same night.
And, the thing about the internet is, no one has to worry about censors dulling the edge of their material. The difficulty any new show faces is resonating with the young(-ish) hip-hop generation when it can't use that generation's language on television. This includes the n-word, yes, but also a lot of general slang. (Maybe even the culture of slang creation itself.) The Boondocks and Chappelle's Show did it well, but one was a cartoon and the other had everyone's best black friend at the time to soften the landings. I'm not sure the high road to success is available here. There are no more high roads.
Well, I guess there's one more high road, though it hasn't been cleared yet: Take a couple of those typical "white pedigreed Harvard Lampoon" television-writer spots and hold them for a Black Twitter comedian or two, and a maybe a rapper (good writer value in MCs, once you get past the million dollar top shelf guys), coach 'em up with one of the best comic showrunning minds in the business, mix them in with the pool of comics and writers you were already looking at, then fight off the censors and PC police and wash, rinse, repeat. Proceed to writing your "most innovative show now that we're over Louie and the new lady comedies, we love your progressive black television program" Emmy acceptance speech and retire an "I'm rich, bitch" franchise-making, door-opening, game-changing legend. Oh, and then finally return to the dark abyss from which all the energy that invigorates comedy and human existence— black, white, or alien—originates.
Patrice Evans is a writer living in NYC, and author of Negropedia.