Stephen Colbert, American hero and star of the dearly departed “Colbert Report,” would be the first to say that it’s almost impossible to fill the shoes of Stephen Colbert. Larry Wilmore, “Senior Black Correspondent” of “The Daily Show” has the unlucky job of doing just that. His new project, “The Nightly Show,” premiered last Monday in Colbert’s old, post-“Daily Show” time-slot. But skeptical members of the Colbert Nation (myself included) shouldn’t have worried: So far it’s really good, with the potential to be great.
In its first two weeks, “The Nightly Show” has distinguished itself as a unique satirical engine, a mish-mash of comedic styles led by a capable (and, more importantly, funny) host. Wilmore, a veteran comedian at 53, already seems comfortable with his new job. Originally called “The Minority Report,” the emphasis “The Nightly Show” places on diverse perspectives is pretty groundbreaking (which, when you think about it, is pretty sad). “The theme,” Wilmore said in an interview with Esquire, “is more of the underdog. And underrepresented voices.”
“The Nightly Show” is also less scattered than the segmented comedy stylings of Stewart and Colbert. Each night, Wilmore takes up just one topic for discussion, opening with a monologue and then moderating a panel discussion for the rest of the episode. Despite the show’s infancy, Wilmore is not afraid to address the most timely and controversial issues. In his second-ever episode, he focused on Bill Cosby and the several dozen rape allegations against him.
The panel format, reminiscent of Bill Maher’s setup on “Politically Incorrect” and “Real Time,” allows for varied opinions and perspectives that don’t usually arise from traditional one-on-one interviews. By zeroing in on a particular subject, Wilmore wrings both laughs and genuine insight from his guests. Rather than settle for a few jokes at Cosby’s expense, he offered an impassioned analysis (“that motherfucker did it”) and later led a candid debate about the intersections of celebrity and justice. This kind of chutzpah is rare, and in the present cultural climate, necessary.
One of the coolest parts of “The Nightly Show” unfolds in its final minutes, with a game called “Keep it 100.” Wilmore asks each panel member a tough question, tailored to the participant’s experience. (He asked of Sen. Cory Booker, for instance: “Do you want to be president?”). He rewards honest answers with “I Kept It 100” stickers. He pelts those who give unsatisfactory replies with teabags labeled “Weak Tea.” (Booker’s denial of presidential aspirations earned him a healthy dose of “Weak Tea”).
In the nearly 20 years since its premiere, “The Daily Show,” Comedy Central’s chief fake-news-but-actually-real-news show, has spawned several offshoots, including John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on HBO. And these comedians aren’t just writing new punchlines; they’re rewriting the way we consume and analyze the news. “Last Week Tonight,” for instance, has pioneered a kind of long-form, viral journalism. (Watch Oliver’s 14-minute investigation into the Miss America organization on YouTube for a rockin’ combination of jokes and hardcore reporting. Seriously. Watch it.) These comedians are getting young people to think critically about contemporary cultural and political forces. Wilmore has a particular knack for approaching serious and unpleasant topics from palatable, even enjoyable, angles. It’s hard to imagine a 30-minute discussion about Bill Cosby ending in anything other than frustration and miscommunication, but “The Nightly Show” channels those strong responses into productive, often funny, conversation.
“The Nightly Show,” now two weeks old, has already tackled issues like the racial politics of policing, “American Sniper” and anti-vaccination activism. Not every joke is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and Wilmore will no doubt tweak the format to keep things interesting. But, in his capable hands, “The Nightly Show” is a welcome addition to the TV listings. Satirical shows no longer just refract news into silly anecdotes or toothless punchlines. They fracture and complicate it, and then arrange those pieces into a new kind of journalism. And given our generation’s increasing apathy towards traditional reporting, that’s good news.