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Keeping It 100: The Real Reason 'The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore' Was Cancelled
August 21, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 5 comments

There’s a rule of thumb in network executive suites that any TV program can survive low ratings, if there’s a potential upside. 

That upside can be anything from the prospect of imminent awards, and the boost in prestige to a network’s brand that can come with those awards, to good word-of-mouth, in which a modest-sized audience can grow over time as a show’s followers tell their friends, co-workers and neighbors what they’re missing.

What no TV program can survive, though, is a consistent pattern of deteriorating ratings.

The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore was never going to match the numbers of the show it replaced, The Colbert Report, let alone the show that started it all, The Daily Show.

When Nightly Show debuted on Martin Luther King Day in 2015 — the timing was both fortuitous and deliberate, Wilmore told a gathering of Television Critics Association reporters earlier that month — it pulled in around a million viewers. By March of that year, The Nightly Show was averaging 700,000 viewers a night.

That was well off the pace of The Colbert Report, which routinely pulled in 1.25 million viewers in its heyday, but still respectable, especially given The Nightly Show’s soft lead-in — Trevor Noah is no Jon Stewart — and the fact that viewers unfamiliar with Wilmore’s stand-up act were still getting used to his laid-back, affable nature and droll, deadpan delivery.

By last month, though, that number had dwindled to little more than 500,000 viewers. People who tuned in at the beginning, in other words, were no longer tuning in.

I should know because I was one of those viewers.

I adore Wilmore. I admire his way with words, the way he takes an obvious target — Donald Trump’s cray-cray presidential campaign, for example — and comes at it from a different angle. Any working comedian worthy of the name can riff on Trump’s latest faux pas and be funny; Wilmore is more apt to comment about how Al Sharpton or Spike Lee reacted to Trump’s latest outrage.

I admire the way Wilmore tackles big-picture issues like race in America, urban blight and police shootings, and the systematic erosion of privacy rights in the face of an ever-growing terror threat, and manages to stay funny without being strident or pedantic.

I admire the way he channels his anger, yet remains gentle.

It tickles me that, deep down, he’s just a big nerd and unafraid to admit it. He grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek, and he’s only too happy to tell you about it. He worships at the altar of super nerds George Lucas, J.J. Abrams and the late Gene Roddenberry — but there’s nothing false or contrived about his reaction when he takes on serious real-world issues like racial injustice and school shootings.

Night after night, during those early weeks and months of The Nightly Show, I tuned in to see Wilmore’s show-opening monologues.

Alone among the late-night comedians, he made a routine of going after Bill Cosby (“I haven’t forgotten about you, mother—!”) and called out political correctness when it needed calling out.

And when race-based police shootings threatened to tear apart entire communities in Baltimore, Ferguson, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, Wilmore could be counted on to go deeper than mere moral outrage. He can be sad and funny in the same breath, wistful and yet witty, gifted with insight.

“I had a dream that a brother needed to work on that day, so …” he explained to TV critics when discussing The Nightly Show’s decision to debut on Martin Luther King Day. That right there tells you all you need to know about his comic sensibility — droll, yet witty.

Wilmore didn’t change over time, but his show did.

By the end of those first few months, it was becoming increasingly evident that The Nightly Show was in a downward spiral.

It was partly the panel discussions, which tried to squeeze too much conversation into too short a period of time — just three or four minutes on some nights. The result tended to be more slight and superficial than meaningful, the antithesis of Wilmore’s comic sensibility and raison d’etre.

The Nightly Show was becoming more difficult to watch, for a simple reason. Wilmore was scaling back his presence — his opening monologues were being whittled down to no more than a couple of minutes on occasion — while a weak and ever-growing cast of unfunny supporting players was becoming ever more prominent.

Over time, it was hard to tell who the show was for, or about. The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore was no longer about Wilmore; it could just as easily have been rebranded The Nightly Show with Holly Walker, Ricky Velez, Mike Yard, Rory Albanese, Grace Parra, Jordan Carlos, Franchesca Ramsey and Robin Thede with Larry Wilmore, and hardly anyone would have noticed.

For a nightly program timed to last no more than 22 minutes — Comedy Central needed to wring every commercial spot out of those remaining eight minutes — already straining to fit in a panel discussion of the topic-of-the-day, handing off so much airtime to a weak supporting cast was tantamount to TV suicide. (I’m not a supporter of network interference as a rule, but surely someone high up at Comedy Central must have noticed. Executives at Comedy Central are as much to blame for The Nightly Show’s creative failings as anyone else.)

This is just one person’s opinion, of course, but for me, the supporting cast’s comic bits were uniformly cheap, juvenile, crass, amateurish, obvious, heavy-handed and singularly unfunny. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Wilmore was murdered by his own backup cast.

That was never more evident than during The Nightly Show’s final broadcast last week when Wilmore brought out the entire cast for a farewell and an off-the-cuff improv bit on fond memories of the writers’ room touched on such time killers as whether bestiality would make a suitable subject for comedy.

The Nightly Show’s spiritual father figure and late-night mentor Jon Stewart made a gracious, well-timed appearance to laud Wilmore for being one of the few late-night comedians to tackle issues of race and a culture-in-crisis, and do it with sensitivity and measured self-awareness. “What you, my friend, were tasked to do,” Stewart told him, as the audience looked on, “you have done and done beautifully. You gave voice to underserved voices in the media . . . It was a show that was raw and poignant and funny and smart and all those things.”

The Nightly Show may have passed on, Stewart added, but Wilmore will be back.

Perhaps. As Dennis Miller, Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall and others have shown, sometimes you only get one shot at a late-night comedy slot.

In one of the knocks against The Nightly Show, Comedy Central president Kent Alterman told the New York Times in announcing the show’s imminent cancellation just two weeks ago that it had failed to resonate with the audience, and hadn’t produced much in the way of viral web content.

That would be the supporting cast, again. The Nightly Show’s comedy bits were so puerile and adolescent; it seems they weren’t even good enough to make an impression on YouTube. Had Comedy Central executives been mindful about viral content, of course, they might have devoted more resources to a Nightly Show YouTube channel, a stronger web presence and wider exposure on quality, high-end video-streaming sites like Vimeo.

The positive effects of a strong supporting cast can’t be discounted, even on a late-night comedy program with a larger-than-life host that airs four nights a week. Stewart got real mileage out of his supporting cast of contributor-correspondents during his Daily Show heyday, but they were genuinely talented, and properly vetted.

Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, John Oliver, Aasif Mandvi and Al Madrigal, coupled with regularly recurring “guest experts” like Lewis Black and Wilmore himself, added immeasurably to The Daily Show’s success. They gave more than they took away.

It’s no accident that Colbert, Oliver, and Bee have gone on to host award-winning late-night shows of their own, or that Carell has gone on to a successful film career as a crossover actor with genuine poise and presence — he might possibly be this generation’s Steve Martin.

For now, The Nightly Show’s time period will be filled with airings of Chris Hardwick’s pop-culture-driven @midnight.

That speaks volumes about the state of the late-night public conversation right now. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon has exceeded all ratings projections, because it’s unapologetically silly, light, escapist entertainment that offers viewers a respite from the day’s news headlines, and because Fallon himself is affable and gentle and goofy in the best way. @midnight plays into the present public appetite for celebrity worship; Hardwick isn’t so much a TV host as a cheerleader for pop culture. The public appetite is clearly for late-night TV entertainment that takes their minds off their worries.

Wilmore is cut from a different cloth. With The Nightly Show, he showed he has more weighty issues on his mind than who will be the new James Bond, or where Doctor Who will surface next.

It isn’t Wilmore’s fault that The Nightly Show failed to resonate, to use the Comedy Central executive’s word. There’s more than enough blame to go around, starting with that same Comedy Central executive. Truncated, pointless panel discussions and a weak, puerile, thoroughly unfunny supporting cast didn’t help. Just keepin’ it 100….

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Ty Singleton
I was personally both shocked and saddened at the cancellation of Larry's show. I agree with commenter Dave, does it always have to be about profit? Jon Stewart said it best, "You gave voice to under served voices in the media". As far as this article's pointed criticism, "Truncated, pointless panel discussions and a weak, puerile, thoroughly unfunny supporting cast", I emphatically disagree! First of all, "Puerile" really? Give me a break, most night shows have an element of childishness at times, isn't that part of their charm? I thought his supporting cast were sufficiently funny, albeit silly at times. I think the real problem was, even though no one wants to admit it, the humor was too Black for the show's intended audience. It's like being at a Tyler Perry movie with all the Blacks splitting their side in laughter while a large number of the White audience are sitting there like deer in headlights. Just keeping it 100.
Feb 15, 2017   |  Reply
Twitter is dieing. It's not the shows failure. I still don't understand why there were only 700k viewers. First, This needs to be available to rewatch and under less scrutiny. Second, stop being this hard for comedians. This guy literally is one of the best in the world. Don't look at every fault. You should have let Larry go. I don't watch tds anymore. The standing, the new song, it's horrible. Last but not least, some shows are not ment to be profitable. I find the most stunning example the moving of sesame street to hbo. The error in the minds, the whole world heard it. You couldnt be more wrong. This is how things works best. A little incentive, a little heart. You are making a mistake America. I know you can't support your own people anymore. Nationalism is taboo. Create more space for the victim minded peeps but never forget where true inspiration comes from. It rises when all are focussed on creating a new way forward, without havin the gloves on. Be bold, be raw, be 100.
Sep 26, 2016   |  Reply
I have to agree. Same reason I stopped tuning in that supporting cast was hard to stomach not funny at all. I wanted more Wilmore and those round table discussions with celebrities I could care less about those .Wilmore was the heart of the show...and then they filled it with a bunch of nonsense.
Aug 27, 2016   |  Reply
this dates me, but i miss letterman. tried colbert for 4-6 weeks after letterman but i could not connect. tried wilmore's show for 2-3 weeks but i never laughed............... may try kimmel??????
Aug 24, 2016   |  Reply
"Truncated, pointless panel discussions and a weak, puerile, thoroughly unfunny supporting cast didn’t help." I agree completely. I started out watching the show, then progressed to watching only the Larry Wilmore parts and skipping the supporting cast bits, then pretty much not watching it at all. And the last show, when he brought out all the supporting cast, was all but unwatchable. Too bad. Certainly I have no desire to watch either Jimmy Fallon--the only thing I like are the thank you notes--or Chris Hardwick--although I used to like him in small doses on Craig Ferguson's old show. I occasionally watch Seth Meyers when he does the opening shtick and selective bits of Colbert, but no one currently on has my attention for the entire show.
Aug 22, 2016   |  Reply
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