Larry Wilmore has had a prolific entertainment career–the former standup comedian has served as a writer and producer on popular television shows such as The Office and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air–but it was his breakout role as “senior black correspondent” on The Daily Show that earned him his current gig. In January, he debuted as the host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show, which now fills Stephen Colbert’s vacated 11:30 p.m. slot. The show features Wilmore’s own daring, satirical take on news, and he is winning critical praise for his willingness to tackle controversial subjects such as racial stereotypes, wealth inequality, and Islamophobia. As a result, The Nightly Show has managed to retain more than three-quarters of the viewers who previously watched The Colbert Report.
Fast Company: Something you do well on the show is make uncomfortable things funny. Sometimes I’m like, Is the panel really discussing this?
LW: I feel the same way. It’s a tightrope. We find the provocative first, not second. That’s the process: Find the story, and then build the funny around it.
Except sometimes you start with something funny and do the switch. When you talked about the video of that Oklahoma fraternity doing that racist chant, you poked fun at the person for recording it vertically, then landed with the fact that members of this frat go on to become congressmen. The viewer is like: “Oh.”
Right. “Why’d you have to go there? Why’d you have to make it that real?”
How is your persona on the show evolving?
It’s hard for me to say from the inside, you know? I’m just trying to find the balance of what I’m passionate about and what I should be talking about. Part of this show is to find underdog stories, and those can occur from many areas. We see on this show race, class, and gender.
What are you trying to create with the panel? You laud them for “keeping it 100”–being truthful about something–or toss “weak tea” at them for being dishonest.
I view the panel as people who have come into my barbershop. In a barbershop you’d never say, “So, what is your opinion on . . .?” It’s not going to be complete barbershop, but it won’t be complete Meet The Press. We did a funny one with Mike Tyson [on the panel], where I asked, “Who’s the greatest boxer? You cannot say ‘Mike Tyson.’” It was hilarious. But Keith Robinson, a comic, he didn’t care. He said, “Ali would have kicked his ass!”
What have you learned from all of your years writing and working behind the scenes?
How important it is to control the narrative. I wanted to be one of those people who says what we can talk about. “We’re talking about Ferguson tonight.” Let’s tell our story instead of hoping somebody else does.
Does that ever require negotiation with Comedy Central?
None. It’s the opposite. If anything, their note is, ‘We want more of ‘Larry,” which is the best note you can get.
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
I don’t have any artificial way of getting inspired. My inspiration is my deadline, you know? Like people say, Larry, why do you write? And I say, because I have a deadline. And if I didn’t, I’d probably never get anything done. ‘You can’t reschedule Monday,’ is one of my sayings.
One of my biggest sources of inspiration is human behavior. I love human behavior, how people act and react and interact . . . that’s probably my chief source of inspiration.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
That would surprise people? Probably just how involved it is, all day long. There’s no minute of rest all day long. There’s so many things you have to accomplish during the day in order to make the show, because there’s two big parts of it. The scripted, comedic part, and then the unscripted conversation. You have to be prepared for both of those. So it’s non-stop preparation. It’s not like you come in [stretching], like ‘Alllrighhtt . . . what time are we taping? Six? Okay, I’ll be back at 5:30. See you guys later, I’ll just make this shit up as I go.’
What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?
I wish I could answer that, but if I had time to have a favorite Twitter or Instagram account, I’d never get anything done.
This is my favorite tweet by far: Before we premiered, somebody said, ‘Larry Wilmore, I hope you and your shit show fails.’ And I’m like, hold on a second, give me a chance to make my shit show first. I mean, they said this before we were even on the air! I’m like, are you kidding me? Criticism is hilarious to me–that I would be criticized before I was even on the show! I would never wish somebody would fail before I even saw it. [And] even if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t say, ‘I hope it fails!’ Why would someone hope that I fail? And then [feel the] need to tell me that, too. It was amazing to me.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?
I’m always inspired by the small stories I see about people who are doing the right thing with no attention given to it. I used to watch Charles Kuralt on CBS’s Sunday Morning show, and they used to have all those stories. Also, when I see people around the world in the most dire situations doing stuff. Malala [Yousafzai], what she went through . . . man, if you’re not inspired by that, there’s just something dead inside of you. What they have to face in that part of the world, it’s just ridiculous. And then on a personal level, my kids inspire me all the time.