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'The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore' Debuts In Slot Vacated By Stephen Colbert


This is FRESH AIR. Last night, Comedy Central premiered the replacement for Stephen Colbert in the late-night TV slot following "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. It's "The Nightly Show" with Larry Wilmore. And our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The year 2015 is going to be a busy one in terms of late-night television. In March, James Corden replaces Craig Ferguson as the new host of "The Late Late Show" on CBS. In May, also on CBS, David Letterman steps down as host of "The Late Show," replaced in September by Stephen Colbert. And Colbert's timeslot replacement on Comedy Central premiered last night - "The Nightly Show" with Larry Wilmore.

Like Colbert, Wilmore was a "Daily Show" correspondent before getting his own show. Wilmore's reports were some of the best and most biting in the history of "The Daily Show." "The Daily Show" billed him as its senior black correspondent. And he usually acted as unofficial interpreter, explaining racial differences and sensitivities to his white host. On "The Nightly Show," Larry Wilmore eliminates the middleman, but continues his particular comic perspective.


LARRY WILMORE: Tonight-ly, the Oscar nominations are out, and they're so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them.


WILMORE: Oprah marched on Selma this weekend. She has a dream that "Selma" shall overcome "The Wedding Ringer" at the box office.


WILMORE: Yeah, we talk "Selma," Ferguson and Eric Garner. It's Comedy Central's worst nightmare - brother finally gets a show on late-night TV.


BIANCULLI: I really like watching and reviewing opening-night talk and satire shows. But you have to accept the limitations. This initial glimpse is only that - a first impression because talk shows, more than most TV genres, are unusually fluid. Every new show hits the ground running with lots of ideas in play. Some work and stay. Others are altered or completely scrapped as the new show and the new host strive to find a distinct voice.

Over the summer on HBO, another veteran "Daily Show" correspondent, John Oliver, launched his own show called "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver." Quickly, its distinct specialty turned out to be the extended story, a lengthy comic focus on a single topic. "The Nightly Show," as it begins, adopts a similarly ambitious approach, devoting the bulk of each show to a single issue. In the premier, it was the idea protests, everything from the civil unrest in Ferguson to complaints about the absence of black films and talent on this year's list of Oscar nominees.

One of Wilmore's approaches is the same trick used by Stewart, Colbert and Oliver - pull clips from local and national TV news shows and comment on them sarcastically. Last night, Wilmore did it to play against audience expectations, starting by saying that a particular movie was robbed by not being nominated for best picture, and noting that its subject was as resonant now as when he was a child, Wilmore had the entire audience thinking he was talking about the movie "Selma," about Martin Luther King Jr, until he cut to a clip of "The Lego Movie." And as Wilmore continued and showed a TV news clip, he made it clear that he was going to deliver his opinion and that it wouldn't always be protectable.


WILMORE: No, everything is not awesome.


WILMORE: How did "The Lego Movie" not get nominated for best picture? God, this was shocking. (Sighs) Well, in less shocking news, this also happened...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: While the civil rights movie "Selma" earned a best picture nomination, director Ava DuVernay was snubbed. So was lead actor David Oyelowo.

WILMORE: Oh, black people didn't get nominated for an Oscar? (Yawns).


WILMORE: Yeah, man, I guess. Look, don't get me wrong, Ava DuVernay should've definitely been nominated for best director. But David Oyelowo - whatever Yelowo? Whatever, he's a British brother. I don't really care about them. All right.


WILMORE: I could care less. All right, so, what do we as a people need to do? Man. You know, I wish there were a black Hollywood expert who could go to bat for us.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Reverend Sharpton has called for an emergency meeting here in Hollywood next week to discuss possible action around the Academy Awards.

WILMORE: Sharpton?


WILMORE: Again? I mean, no one else could represent us? Look, look, Al, Al - Al, Al slow down, man. You don't have to respond to every black emergency. You're not black Batman.

BIANCULLI: In another segment, Wilmore even criticized Oprah Winfrey, who had described the Ferguson riots as unfocused. He used a local TV news clip to bolster his point, a clip that showed photos of young African-American men being used as targets on a police shooting range.


WILMORE: It's not that these protests are less focused. It's just that the goals are less tangible. In the old days, it was about being able to sit at a lunch counter or going to the same schools or even voting. Today, we're just trying to not get shot on our way to work. Now, look, I know it sounds like I'm exaggerating. People may think, hey, hey, come on Larry, calm down, calm down, police aren't targeting black guys. OK.


WILMORE: Roll 122.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Tonight, a South Florida family is outraged by this image right here and others. They say North Miami Beach police used it, and the images of five other minorities, as target during weapons training.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: People that are out there are supposed to be protecting us are using us as target practice.

WILMORE: That story was reported way back in today.


WILMORE: OK? The police in Florida are literally using pictures of young black men as targets. Now, how can we see that and be surprised when it happens in real life? I'm not surprised when Kobe hits a jumper. That dude practices.

BIANCULLI: Those parts of "The Nightly Show" worked very well. The rest of the show, the bulk of it, was devoted to a roundtable discussion, with Wilmore as moderator like Bill Maher on HBO's "Real Time." This segment will take work before it really works. Interviewing several people at once is harder than talking to just one person. And even with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker as one of the opening-night guests, that part of the show didn't sparkle as much. But it may depend upon the topic.

And the intended focus of Wilmore's Tuesday night show, which he announced at the end of Monday's premiere, was enough to draw a collective gasp from the studio audience. The topic? Bill Cosby. For Larry Wilmore and the brand-new "Nightly Show," that's reaching for a comedic and topical third rail and intentionally probing a very uncomfortable and volatile subject. But that was Wilmore's specialty on "The Daily Show," and it's smart of him to continue it on his own program. I don't have any idea what Wilmore's opinions are regarding the Cosby allegations and their coverage by the media, but I already know I'm eager to find out.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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