Though Larry Wilmore had always hoped to be a performer, his early career was as a comedy writer. He wrote for shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and In Living Color, and he created The Bernie Mac Show. He moved in front of the camera as The Daily Show's "senior black correspondent" in 2006. So when Stephen Colbert ended The Colbert Report last year, Comedy Central tapped Wilmore to host the replacement show.
The Nightly Show premiered in January. In the beginning, Wilmore struggled to hit his stride. "People are holding your feet to the fire immediately," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It was so difficult those first couple of months. I mean, you're just in the middle of the storm, just trying to figure out how to do the show."
Wilmore is a self-proclaimed nerd — and proud of it. He practices magic, loves space and cites Woody Allen and Monty Python among his comedy influences. "It used to be that the black comic figure had to have this bravado and always showed strength," he says. "Now there's a comic figure where it's OK to just be a nerd and be black."
He brings that sensibility to The Nightly Show, where he has to find the comedy and the outrage in the often tragic events of the day. When it comes to the incidents of violence between police and African-Americans that have dominated this year's headlines, the host is unequivocal: "The fact that we live in a world where black people have to strategize so they're not brutalized by police is insane," he says.
On the advice Jon Stewart (The Nightly Show's executive producer) gave him
The biggest thing he said in the beginning — and he would almost say it with, not really anger but maybe frustration — he would say, "Hey man, stop being a host. Stop it. Just be yourself." It took a while for me to interpret it, but what it is, when you're first starting a show like that, you're acting everything because you're not comfortable yet. But you can't fool Jon. He can see right through that.
So no matter how much praise I got about the show, Jon's like, "No, no, no. You're pretending this right now. You're not owning it yet. You got to own it. You got to put your opinion out there, and you got to just get inside there and just be it." After a while, I understood what he was talking about. He was always encouraging me to raise the bar, not just in content but in making sure that my point of view was very clear and very precise and that I owned it and that I was myself. He kept pushing me into that. So that was the evolution of the show, to be honest with you. It all centered around that.
On how Bill Cosby made him realize how much he cares about women's issues
I've never thought of myself as any advocate for anything, but I remember about 10 or 11 years ago I joined ... the Board of Directors for the Writers Guild of America, and I thought, "You know what? I've had a good career as a writer, I should really give back." But I thought, "I'm not particularly passionate about anything," but I realize many times when you show up for something you find where your passions are, even if you don't know it, and it was fascinating to me.
I realized how passionate I was about so many issues, and I didn't even know it, because the issues presented themselves to me and I had to declare where I stood. So I ended up fighting a lot for writers in certain situations, underrepresented writers, women in certain situations. I didn't even know how much of a feminist I was, and I realized, "Oh my God, I was raised by a single mom who had to raise six kids. I have three sisters. Larry, you've been a feminist your whole life, and you really didn't know it until you've been presented with these issues."
It was the Cosby issue that made me realize how much I really cared about women's issues and how much I realize it's important for me to be an advocate for issues that aren't necessarily my own, to be an ally for issues. I think it's one thing to be for your own issue and owning your own issue ... but I think it's also important to be an ally for an issue. ... I think me being an ally for women's issues is probably the most important thing that I feel I'm doing on the show.
On being a "blerd," a black nerd
For me it's just kind of who I am. I grew up doing magic tricks, but I also played sports. I'm still a magician. I'm a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, which I'm very proud of. ... I always have my cards with me. I'm always practicing. I'm always doing tricks, and that's kind of the nerdiest thing that I do — like I'm a space nerd. I love anything about space. If we're going to Mars, I'll have to stop everything and just talk about that all the time.
I'm actually working on a show for HBO right now I helped develop. We started a couple of years ago with Issa Rae, and she did a Web series called the Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and it's the same type of idea where I'm black and I'm awkward. I'm not black and sassy; I'm black and awkward as an idea. I think it's just how things evolve, that we find different ways to express and to laugh and that type of thing.
On the origin of his self-deprecating humor
I was formed by Woody Allen, by the Marx brothers, by Monty Python, so many different types of influences. I always said I was more formed by, I think, Jewish American comedy than I was black American comedy when I was growing up. So the self-deprecation ... that's where it lives. ... I identified with that very early on. It was just more of who I was.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A lot of us miss Jon Stewart and are left with a little hole in our lives. But let's focus on something positive. In case you haven't noticed, Larry Wilmore's satirical news show, "The Nightly Show," has become a great place to go for a comedic take on the day's news and occasionally, for some genuine outrage. Last January, he took over Comedy Central's 11:30 spot, which had belonged to Stephen Colbert. Wilmore was a guest on FRESH AIR a few weeks after his show premiered. Tonight is the 100th episode. We invited him back to talk about how the show has evolved.
When he started his show, he was already familiar to many "Daily Show" viewers from his role a few years ago as its senior black correspondent. "The Nightly Show" has assembled a diverse group of correspondents, writers and panelists, which is bringing many new faces to TV. Wilmore and his team are especially good at addressing issues dealing with race, and that's perhaps the most difficult subject to talk about in America. You'll get a sense of Wilmore's style from this comment on the program last week, marking the one-year anniversary of the day 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by white police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW")
LARRY WILMORE: I just have to say, this past Sunday marked one year since the shooting death of Michael Brown and subsequent uprising in Ferguson that followed. I mean, man, I can't believe it. It's been a year already. I mean, it's crazy how time flies when you're in a constant panic about getting shot by the cops.
GROSS: Larry Wilmore, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on what you've been doing on your show. You joked on the first edition of your show that all the good bad race stuff had already happened and there was, like, nothing left to say. Like, you're done.
GROSS: And since then - I'll just rattle off a list here. Walter Scott was killed by a cop in Charleston, S.C. Freddie Gray died in a police van. A cop pulled his gun on a black teenage girl and then sat on her as she was returning from a pool party in Texas. Dylann Roof killed nine at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. The Confederate flag was removed from the Statehouse in Charleston, S.C. Sandra Bland was stopped after failing to signal when she was changing lanes. She died in jail, probably a suicide. A University of Cincinnati campus policeman killed Samuel Dubose. I know you knew that there was going to be racial stuff happening (laughter) but really, did you expect all this to be happening early on in your tenure on the show?
WILMORE: Terry, that is the - that is the saddest introduction to comedy segment I think I have ever heard. Oh, my God.
WILMORE: Larry, let's just remind the audience you're doing a comedy show. Oh, my God. Just a typical American year sounds like to me.
GROSS: But this is - OK, this is the stuff you have to deal with on your comedy show and somehow find what's funny about it so that you can all...
WILMORE: There's not a lot. There's really not a lot.
GROSS: After the shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C...
WILMORE: It's horrible.
GROSS: Nine people were killed there, a massacre - really horrible. And then it's up to you to find something to say about it. I want to play how you handled it. So here's Larry Wilmore on "The Nightly Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW")
WILMORE: I have to tell you guys, we weren't going to talk much about this at all. I mean, seriously were a comedy show, right? I mean, what we built here isn't really designed to handle this kind of tragedy. And let me just say, I know we talk about race a lot on this show, but I think we can all agree this time that this is a racially motivated attack, you know? I think it's a...
WILMORE: But also, it couldn't be clearer when it comes out of the killer's mouth, right? But even with all of that evidence and on a day like today, Fox News just makes my [expletive] head explode.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Last night's deadly attack taken place at a historic church in South Carolina, the gunman's horrifying attack on faith.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The question is, was it a crime out of race or religion?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They could be calling it a hate crime because it happened in a religious institution.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So if we're not safe in our own churches, then where are we safe?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Although it's being investigated as a hate crime, there's still some pieces we have to put together.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Some look at it as, well, it's because it was a white guy, apparently, in a black church. But you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility toward Christians. So - and it was a church.
WILMORE: All right. I know you guys don't want to admit that racial stuff is going - that racial stuff isn't going on. But how can there be any doubt when it came out of the gunman's mouth? Let me remind you what he said.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I want to shoot black people.
WILMORE: He told his victims, I want to shoot black people. I think when he says black people, he means black people...
WILMORE: ...And not Christians.
GROSS: There's Larry Wilmore on "The Nightly Show." Can you describe what went on in the writer's room that day figuring out what to do about the Charleston massacre?
WILMORE: That was a very difficult day. I remember Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," they decided not to do anything at all. It was such a difficult day, they'd - I don't think they did any produced comedy in his first act. And we were really wondering about it. And I think I was just so outraged by the coverage of it as a faith incident because I take those things seriously. If someone is attacking someone because of faith, that is a serious issue. But this was clearly because of race.
GROSS: Did Fox News make it easier for you to find where the joke was because they became the joke in a way?
WILMORE: Yes, in that sense, absolutely and part of you kind of feels a little guilty for even having laughs on that day. But then the other part of you feels like sometimes you need to laugh and to get out something, you know, just to express some kind of emotion just to be able to deal with those types of tragedies. You know, there are tragedies that happen all the time in America, but there are certain types of tragedies that kind of pull us together and make us pause and give us a chance to reflect about where we are, where we're going and that sort of thing. And it's incidents like this that I think give us that type of opportunity. So, you know, getting laughs out of it - we're a comedy show - that's kind of our job, unfortunately. It is the biggest irony of ironies I think I've ever faced in my entire career, Terry, I'll be honest with you, that I would be mining this type of territory on a daily basis and getting laughs out of it.
GROSS: Well, you know, like, on "The Daily Show," you were the, quote, "black correspondent." And you were supposed to...
WILMORE: Senior black correspondent.
GROSS: Excuse me, I didn't mean to demean your role (laughter).
WILMORE: It's important that you use the proper terminology.
GROSS: That's right. And you were supposed to, like, satirically represent the black people...
WILMORE: Yes, right.
GROSS: ...On the show. But what's, like, the sense of responsibility you feel now as - you know, as an African-American hosting a satirical news show every night in this era where there's a lot of, you know, racially motivated attacks going on?
WILMORE: Well, it's interesting. On "The Daily Show," you know, you were very happy to be on this show with Jon Stewart, who had this incredible view of the world. And the comedy went through the prism of Jon's brain, you know, and you were happy to be a part of that. What's different about this show is I get to control the narrative myself, you know? I don't have to do it through someone else's vision, as great as that vision is. And what I try to do in this show, I have to broaden it out somewhat. Race is very important, of course, but so is class and so is gender. You know, I've always said from the beginning - our show - we try to take on the point of view of the underdog, and we look for the underdog stories and who's being underrepresented no matter where that story may be.
We did a very touching thing on the show. There was this kid. He was supposed to be a valedictorian. And he was going to use his valedictory speech to come out of the closet and to share with his parents at the graduation that he was gay. It was going to be this very personal moment. And the principal wouldn't allow him to do that. And in not allowing him to do that, he actually called his parents and outed the kid to his parents on the phone. I could not believe it, Terry. We were aghast at the show that a principal would do that and this was such an important moment for the kid, and they wouldn't allow him to make that speech.
So we reported this on the show, you know, and then as a surprise to the audience, we brought the kid out and had him do his speech on our show. We were all laughing and crying at the same time. And he was so funny, too. He was actually - it was a very funny speech, you know? And it was such a moving moment, and it just reminded us all, you know, the underdog stories we really are passionate and we really care about. And it just so happens that, for me, I get to own the racial part of that story because of who I am. It gets to be our particular corner that we can own; in the same way that Jon owned the political corner. You know, when Jon talked about the war, talked about the hanging chads, you know, he had that authority to talk about it. It was what he was very passionate about.
GROSS: Are there things that you feel you can say as an African-American satirist, like, a white person couldn't?
WILMORE: You mean starting with the N-word?
WILMORE: I think...
WILMORE: Yeah, but I think of course. But whatever your thing is, you get to own your thing, and that's cool. I think everybody knows that rule. And blacks, we've kind of had that relationship in a lot of different ways where we can talk about our role in America, you know, for instance, in a way that some people can't. So I think whatever your thing is, I think everybody accepts that you get to own your thing. It gets a little dangerous when someone else tries to own it, I think.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, who hosts "The Nightly Show" weeknights, Monday through Thursday, on Comedy Central. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, who hosts the satirical news show "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central, weeknights at 11:30.
So I want to give another example of how you've been dealing with issues in the news. So this was after Sandra Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation, and a police dashcam recorded what happened. You played the video and showed how the police officer keeps escalating things. Like, she's in a bad mood and isn't - you know, isn't being, like, you know, totally compliant about it. But he keeps escalating things in ways you keep pointing out, until he finally, like, demands that she put out her cigarette, that she gets out of the car. He threatens to remove her from the car. And I should mention in this clip that we're going to hear, we're also going to hear a clip within the clip of Don Lemon on CNN.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW")
WILMORE: I saw a woman who was very irritated, probably having a bad day - most likely because she was pulled over - right? -smoking a cigarette to calm down, complied with everything the officer asked for. Then it got confusing because he told her to put out her cigarette but then offered to light her up by pointing a Taser at her head. Now, to me and most reasonable people, it's very clear that this officer was wrong.
DON LEMON: If you are being stopped by a police officer, whether that police officer is right or wrong, don't you do what he says until afterwards? Then you can sue him. Then you're still alive.
WILMORE: OK, first of all, I don't know who you're yelling at. And secondly, should one be on one's best behavior when the cop pulls one over? Ideally, yes, but most importantly, the cop is a professional.
WILMORE: I mean, should he not have been on such a power trip? OK, now I'm yelling, Don Lemon, thanks.
WILMORE: Sorry, let me calm down for a second. I mean, it's easy to say, black people, why aren't you acting like the Dowager Countess when a cop pulls you over, right?
WILMORE: Oh, hello, officer. I'm so pleased you...
WILMORE: ...Unexpectedly dropped in on me. Would you like some tea I brewed in my glove compartment here...
WILMORE: ...Right next to my stash of weed you're suspecting that I have? God. I mean, yes, that would make sense. But on the other hand, the fact that we live in a world where black people have to strategize so they're not brutalized by police is insane.
GROSS: OK, that last line (laughter) that's not even a comedy line. That's just like a this-is-insane line.
GROSS: Can you talk about writing that, and again, like, coming up in the writer's room with how you wanted to handle this particular story?
WILMORE: Right, well, that's our thesis point. That's the line that I'll say, look, here's what I feel is going on here at this moment. I remember when we were tackling that particular part of it. I had just reread Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" the month before. I like to reread certain books just to get them back in my head, you know? And I'm a huge fan of Gladwell. He's - I just think he's brilliant, the way he synthesizes information. But in "Blink," it's interesting. It's so ironic that it all makes sense again now where he talks about those moments of escalation that police officers can go through. And he uses the incident, I think that happened - I think it was in Harlem? I'm not sure - where he carefully plots out - it's fascinating, Terry - of how each second there was a certain type of escalation that didn't necessarily need to happen, you know, and how much of it is the officer's responsibility to be in control of that. And that's what training is for. That's why training is so important in police work. It's to make sure your body doesn't take over what you're supposed to do because your heart starts racing and you just get into this mode. A lot of this I didn't even know about. You know, it's almost like you go into dinosaur brain mode, where that just takes over and you just act instinctively. And when you're acting instinctively on this kind of primal level, a lot of things happen - things like when we talk about systemic bias or those type of things. You act out in certain ways. And it's very worrisome to me - something that we don't talk about in police behavior towards certain individuals. And that's what I was thinking about when we were doing that piece, was Gladwell and how, yeah, this woman had a bit of an attitude. She was a bit upset that day. I don't know what was going on through her. But I feel like, still, regardless of that, the police officer, it's his responsibility not to escalate that. You acknowledge that, yeah, she's having a bad day. Let's just finish this and let's be done with it. But to escalate it to pointing a Taser at her and dragging out of that car was so unnecessary. And also the fact that as a black person in America, when you're pulled over by the police, you have to strategize in a way so you - bad things don't happen to - you know? It's just terrible.
GROSS: Are you feeling that personally?
WILMORE: Well, I have an interesting relationship with this. My father was in law enforcement growing up. He was a probation officer. And I've always understood the point of view of the peace officer, you know, because of my dad. And so, what's interesting is that, because I have that understanding, I think I'm little bit harder (laughter) on police because I feel it's their job to be better than us in that situation, not to be on our level, you know? And I have buddies back in Pasadena who are on the force, you know, and we talk. I understand how difficult their job is and the things they have to face. It's very difficult. Police have to have one of the most difficult jobs in society today. But at the same time, I think, a person in that position - their responsibility has to be high as well.
GROSS: So your show started in January, on Martin Luther King Day, and it's changed. I think it's really evolved. I liked it a lot when it started. I like where you're going now. I think you've...
WILMORE: Thank you.
GROSS: Deemphasized the panel discussion. It's still there, but it's not - I think it's not as long. You've added more interactions with your correspondents, more emphasis on your opening monologue. Describe a little bit how you've tried to, you know, just, like, toy with the format of the show...
GROSS: ...As the show was learning - as you were learning what the show's voice was.
WILMORE: Yeah, it's very difficult. You're kind of creating a show in front of the audience, which is a very difficult proposition. On top of that, I'm following the brilliant Stephen Colbert, who was beloved in that timeslot, you know? And you're - I mean, people are holding your feet to the fire immediately. And so, right out of the box, we wanted to establish our show as different, with a different energy, different point of view, try to, you know, get a following based on our own merits and all that type of thing. For me personally, as the host, oh man, Terry. It was so difficult those first couple months (laughter). I mean, you're just in the middle of this storm, just trying to figure out how to do this show and wondering if it's working, if you even feel funny. And as I was doing it, I got a lot of counsel from Jon Stewart, which was great. And John was very tough on me, by the way, but tough in a good way, where he's tough with - Jon is always tough with the truth, you know? And he's always - he gives you praise when you get it, you know, when you're there, when you're seeing it, you know? And that's what I love about Jon, you know? He's really - his clarity's really amazing. It's frustrating because he's - he always seems to be right, too. It's one of the most frustrating things about working with Jon.
WILMORE: It's true. Even when you think, no, Jon, sorry. Sorry, Jon, you're wrong on this one. About a week later you go - he's right. How did he do that?
GROSS: Can you give us an example of something he said that turned out to be really good advice?
WILMORE: Well, absolutely. The biggest thing he said in the beginning - and he would almost say it with - not really anger, but maybe frustration. He would say, hey man, stop being a host. Stop it, you know? Just be yourself. Just be yourself up there. Just stop hosting the show.
GROSS: What does that mean? What did that mean to you?
WILMORE: Well, it took a while for me to interpret it. But what it is, when you're first starting a show like that, you're acting everything because you're not comfortable yet, you know? But you can't fool Jon. He can see right through that. So no matter how much praise I got about the show, Jon's like, no, no, no, no, no. You're pretending this right now. You're not owning it yet. You got to own it. You got to put your opinion out there, and you got to just get inside there and just be it, you know? And it took a while to understand that because you're so nervous about everything, and you're trying to - I'm producing the show and starring in it. There's a lot of balls in the air, right? But after a while, I understood what he was talking about. We had these conversations several times, you know? And he would be more emphatic each time. And it was funny because sometimes he would do this - this was hilarious. I would do, like, what I thought was a really fun show. I thought, man, that was really fun, you know? That was funny. And so I'd meet with Jon, and he goes, so man, so how's it going? How did you think last night's show went? And I know that's a trap. I already know it's a trap, right?
WILMORE: I go, uh, I thought it was good (laughter). And he's like, oh, you did? I'm like, yes, I did (laughter). I thought it was good. And then we'd would start this conversation, and I'd slowly realize, OK, I get why he's considering it not what I should be doing. For him, it didn't matter that I got laughs or that I got this. He was always encouraging me to raise the bar, not only in - not just in content, but in making sure that my point of view was very clear and very precise and that I owned it and that I was myself. So he kept pushing me into that. So that was the evolution of the show, to be honest with you. It all centered around that.
GROSS: My guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central. After a short break, he'll tell us about the audition in which he thinks he found his voice. He'll explain why he spent so much time going after Bill Cosby and tell us why he describes himself as a blerd (ph) - a black nerd. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Larry Wilmore. Tonight is the 100th episode of his satirical news show, "The Nightly Show," which is on Comedy Central every Monday through Thursday at 11:30. He's worked in TV for 25 years mostly as a writer and producer. He was the executive producer of ABC's "Black-ish," was the creator and executive producer of "The Bernie Mac Show" and wrote for "The Office," "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" and "The PJs," which he co-created. He's also "The Daily Show's" former Senior Black Correspondent. Jon Stewart is the executive producer of Larry Wilmore's show and when we left off, we were talking about advice Jon Stewart gave him.
So you were describing how Jon Stewart told you you have to develop your voice. You have to have an opinion and own it. I want to play an example of a piece where I think you really did that (laughter) so...
WILMORE: Thank you.
GROSS: ...This is about the Confederate flag and the controversy about whether it should have been, you know, this was before it was officially taken down in Charleston, S.C. so there was still the controversy about whether it should be taken down.
GROSS: So here's your take on that. It's kind of like an editorial that you were calling For the Record. So here's Larry Wilmore on "The Nightly Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW")
WILMORE: OK, for the record, the Confederate flag - it's not a proud symbol of tradition or heritage. It's a symbol of oppression and intimidation. That's not my opinion, that's an objective fact. On March 21, 1861, the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, stated that the Confederate government was based on the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. That speech is now called the "Cornerstone Speech" because that idea is the cornerstone of the Confederacy. You don't get clearer than that.
WILMORE: Now, some people say that Southern states should fly the Confederate flag because it's a symbol of their heritage. But if we flew every flag from our past, why aren't we flying the Union Jack in front of the White House?
WILMORE: And for the record, South Carolina, you don't get to make the heritage argument because the stars and bars hasn't been flying over the state house since the Civil War. It went up in 1961 to mark the centennial of the Civil War and, coincidentally, right around when the black people started with the wanting of the civil rights. In 1961, it was a reminder to black people that they should know their place. It has always been used as a symbol of intimidation and terror, and that's what it remains today. In fact, because displaying the swastika is illegal across much of Europe, skinheads and neo-Nazis often adopt the Confederate flag in its place. It's such a racist symbol that it does double duty as the backup racist symbol for another racist symbol.
WILMORE: That's crazy. OK, so for the record, I get it that plenty of honorable people have fuzzy feelings about the Confederate flag, but that's irrelevant. Their nostalgia will never trump the people who see it as a symbol of hate. And for a state to fly this flag, that hate is the message they send to their people. So for the record, does there really have to be a debate on whether or not you should take it down? Just take it down. You won't get in trouble.
WILMORE: Just do it. Do it right now. Go ahead. Seriously, take it down now.
GROSS: That's Larry Wilmore on "The Nightly Show." Well, you had a point of view.
WILMORE: That's exactly right.
GROSS: Clearly expressed (laughter).
WILMORE: Yes. And that - and by the way, that Jon called me up on those occasions and said that's what I'm talking about, man. That's exactly...
GROSS: Did he say that after this piece?
WILMORE: Yes, absolutely. He said that's what I'm talking about, you know? And I was like yes, I understand. I get it, you know? It's just owning it. In the beginning of the show, I was so interested in hearing from other people and corralling a conversation, let's say, you know, what about this voice and that voice and that voice? And so the idea was, well, let's just focus on your voice first, and then we'll let those other voices in. So it was going from very egalitarian to very dictatorial let's just say.
GROSS: So we had been talking about all the great advice Jon Stewart, who has been the executive producer of the show, has given you. Does he remain the executive producer now that he's left "The Daily Show?"
WILMORE: Yeah, but he produces from like a hammock now. You know...
WILMORE: Who knows where he is. He's just drinking margaritas all day...
GROSS: What's it been like for you...
WILMORE: ...On his farm. I guess Jon has a farm now.
GROSS: What's it been like for you to watch him leave "The Daily Show" after - what, 16 years? I mean, you haven't even done a year yet, right? And I'm sure, like, you're probably totally exhausted.
WILMORE: Oh, my god, I know. How did he do 16 years? Oh, I remember, he was a lot younger when he started. It's very humbling. It's - I admire the man so much, you know? I admire all these guys that do this. It's a very difficult job. You really don't know until you're doing it, you know? But Jon particularly because he really forged that strong point of view on this little cable show that nobody cared that much about, you know? And I know how hard he worked - I - you know, having worked with him. And every little piece of the show that got on the air, Jon really had a hand in forging that point of view, being clear about the intention and all of those things. And I'll tell you, one of the nicest moments was on the very last show when Stephen Colbert turned the tables on Jon and he forced him to take a compliment, 'cause Jon will not take a compliment. He will not let you tell - he will not hear a thank you from him. He just won't let us do it. And when Stephen did that on the air, we were all like cheering backstage. It was so fantastic. It was the best thing that anybody could've ever done because he really deserved that.
GROSS: So one of your real issues is Bill Cosby. You do not miss an opportunity (laughter)...
GROSS: ...To go after Cosby. And to exemplify that, we're going to play a piece that you did on the Voting Rights Act...
GROSS: ...And on voting restrictions in which you still manage (laughter) to try to drive to Cosby. So here's Larry Wilmore.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW")
WILMORE: Let me just remind you of why we have the Voting Rights Act. Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson, who I've got to say is definitely one of my top five Lyndons...
WILMORE: ...Passed the VRA which prohibited any and all discriminatory voting policies. So no more literacy tests, no more poll tax, right? So what's changed? Well, in this case, they're not so much trying to revise history, as they are trying to revive history.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The new rules reduced early voting to 10 days from 17, eliminated same-day registration, ended a program to preregister high school students and banned out of precinct voting.
WILMORE: They're making voting [expletive] than Bill Cosby at a sleep clinic.
WILMORE: That's right [expletive], I haven't forgotten about you. I have not forgotten about you.
WILMORE: By the way, three more women came out against you yesterday, you sick bastard, all right? I got a Google alert on this [expletive], all right? In fact, the only reason I did this whole piece - the only reason I talked about Jeb and Hillary and the Voting Rights Act, the only reason why I woke up this morning, showered, put my deodorant on, tied my tie, spent an hour doing my hair, the only reason - the only reason I'm here tonight was so I could get to that joke and call you out. And let me just say, worth it.
WILMORE: Oh, my god (laughter).
GROSS: Larry Wilmore.
WILMORE: Oh, man (laughter).
GROSS: So I - you're hardly alone in being angry at Cosby.
GROSS: But you seem to have, like, a special anger. And it made me wonder, like, do you know him from TV circles 'cause he used to...
GROSS: You know, you've written sitcoms. It wouldn't have surprised me if you worked with Cosby....
WILMORE: No, never did.
GROSS: ...Or if you heard stories about Cosby.
WILMORE: Yep, that I have.
GROSS: You have? You'd heard about that in the past?
WILMORE: Yep, yep, yep. I think the thing that makes me the most - well, there's certain - several things about that that make me angry - the period of time that these things have happened over, the fact that these women have these allegations but people could care less. It was like, who cares about what women have to say, you know? You know, the whole idea of a powerful man being able to shut up all these women is so abhorrent to me. That issue was what really drove me first is the idea that a powerful man can just shut women up, you know? That's what started this whole thing. It had nothing even to do with the fact of liking Cosby or not liking Cosby. It was that simple issue. But yep - so that's the part of it that really drove me on it.
And it's funny because, you know, I've never thought of myself as any advocate for anything. But I remember about 10 or 11 years ago, I joined the - I was on the board of directors for the Writers Guild of America. I just wanted - I thought, you know what? I've had a good career as a writer, I should really give back, you know? But I thought, I mean, I'm not particularly passionate about anything. But I realized many times when you show up for something, you find where your passions are, even if you don't know it. And it was fascinating to me, I realized how passionate I was about so many issues and I didn't even know it because the issues presented themselves to me and I had to declare where I stood, right? So I ended up fighting a lot for writers in certain situations - under-represented writers, women in certain situations. And I didn't even know how much of a feminist I was. And I realized oh, my god, I was raised by a single mom who had to raise six kids. I have three sisters. Larry, you've been a feminist your whole life, you really didn't know it until you've been presented with these issues. And it was the Cosby issue that made me realize how much I really cared about women's issues and how much I realize it's important for me to be an advocate for issues that aren't necessarily my own - to be an ally for issues.
You know, and I feel the same way about the gay issue now. You know, I'm not a homosexual, but if I can be an ally for that issue, I think it's fantastic. But I think the women's issue was one that I really didn't know about and I had to examine my whole life. You know, even - I looked at my relationship with my daughter and all my talks with her, and I realized how I was involved in this journey even talking with my daughter about her role in the world and that sort of thing. So if I don't do anything else - look, if the race stuff - all that stuff is funny. Even if that went away, I think me being an ally for women's issues is probably the most important thing that I feel I'm doing on the show.
GROSS: Do you feel that what you said about once you showed up, you realized how...
GROSS: ...Committed you were.
WILMORE: I had no idea.
GROSS: Does that apply to a lot of issues that you're covering now? Now that you're in...
GROSS: ...The anchor seat and it's...
GROSS: ...Your responsibility to take a stand. And you're just...
GROSS: ...Consuming all of this news that you're...
GROSS: ...Becoming committed in a way you'd never been before?
WILMORE: That's exactly what happens because as I said, I never considered myself an advocate. I was just a silly guy who wrote jokes, right? (Laughter) You know, that's what I considered myself. And my passions came out when I'm presented with the situation because, you know, as Sean Connery said in "The Untouchables," (imitating Sean Connery) what are you prepared to do? You know?
WILMORE: Right? (Imitating Sean Connery) What are you prepared to do?
What are you going to do? Where are you going to stand on this? You know, Larry, you're in front of people, where are you standing? You can't be in the middle. You cannot afford to be without an opinion on this. You have to take a stand, so where are you going to stand? And once you declare where you're going to stand, you're owning that, you know? And you don't know many times until it's presented itself. And that's why I've always called myself a passionate centrist. It's not a political point of view. It's more of a point of view point of view (laughter). Like I always say half the time I disagree with myself, that's what passionate centrist means. And I will always change my opinion based on facts. Facts will always change my opinion. If I'm presented with facts that screw up the way I thought about something, sorry, I got to go with the facts.
GROSS: So let's take a short break here, then we're going to talk some more. My guest is Larry Wilmore, and his "Nightly Show" is on Monday through Thursday at 11:30 on Comedy Central. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore who hosts "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central. Now, in addition to doing the news in a satiric way, you have a character named Soul Daddy who's this kind of like '70s - you have like an afro and mustache and...
WILMORE: Big afro.
GROSS: ...Goatee and describe the clothes you wear, you know, big collars, big lapels.
WILMORE: Yep, kind of the leisure suit type of thing. And it's funny 'cause that started - it was completely by accident. We were - our opening title sequence for the show, we wanted to show figures from out history kind of - we were kind of like making fun of "Meet The Press" the way they have this opening montage of great historical figures. So we wanted to do something like that, but I also wanted to make fun of it. So I thought it would be fun to show me during the ages as well. And so we did a shot of me like in the early '60s at a typewriter with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. And then there's one from the '70s we have with that look. And then I have one from the '80s like where I'm at Chernobyl and I have like this Lionel Richie kind of hairdo - this shaggy Jheri curl. And then there's one of me in the present in the bathroom for some reason I'm playing air guitar; it doesn't make sense. But when I had that one on, when we were shooting that part of it, I had so much fun and I started improvising this conversation as if I was doing a show.
And here's the thing - here's how ridiculous - here's how silly my brain works. I was trying to just - trying to find out how to sit in the chair. And I saw this image we were using for research of Tom Snyder back in the '70s doing "The Tomorrow Show." And he had this fantastic pose where he has the cigarette kind of hanging in one hand with his hanging kind of hanging over. And he's kind of like leaning to the side. And it was hilarious just this kind of oh, you know, I'm just talking and I'm just hanging out and it was this whole kinds of groove. And I thought I love that Tom Snyder pose. And so I just did that pose. And by doing that pose, it just gave me an attitude. And I just started improvising and just having fun. And we thought we've got to do this on the show. And we ended up doing it. And whenever I do that sketch, I always look at the Tom Snyder picture and I get into that position and then I'm the character.
GROSS: That's great. So what are some of the other like '70s things that stand out for you?
WILMORE: The whole '70s is a great period. I think America just turned its brain off in the '70s (laughter). It's really unbelievable. We were like OK, '60s, we get it. We get it; there's a lot of important stuff, we get it '60s. We just want to listen to a little disco, watch a little "Star Wars," you know, and just chill for a little bit, you know? So it's funny. And the hedonism during the '70s was just out of control. It was just amazing to me how it was so different then. The - just the excesses were just off the charts in the '70s. So that period is just very interesting to me; it's really funny.
GROSS: So you started your career I think wanting to be a performer and ended up being mostly a writer. And now like you've had your own show since mid-January. Is this happening at a good time for you? Your show in the sense that...
WILMORE: I think so.
GROSS: ...You know, your children are close to being adults. And you can afford more now than you could've earlier to put more time into the show?
WILMORE: Oh, definitely. I don't think I could've done this even 10 years ago - certainly wouldn't have come to New York to do it, you know, maybe in Los Angeles or the whole family would have had to move. Yeah, I've always tried to balance the family thing and the work thing and try to strike a balance that works for me for my life as opposed to just be single-minded about my career. I've never been single-minded about it; I've always tried to have a broad perspective on it. I've turned down a lot of work over the years for different reasons. Quality of life has always been the top thing on my list. So, you know, that's - everything goes under that umbrella. So, you know, so far so good. But yeah, it is at a good time. It's good to do these types of things when the kids don't need as much attention; that is a fact.
GROSS: Your father changed career midlife, right? 'Cause he had been...
WILMORE: That's right.
GROSS: ...A parole officer and then went to med school?
WILMORE: He did. He was a probation officer. He worked in corrections - LA County sheriffs. And then he just wanted to be a doctor one day. He just decided to go back to school and did it in his late '30s early '40s. And that always inspired me. I always thought well, if this showbiz thing doesn't work out, maybe I'll go back and be a doctor, I don't know.
WILMORE: Who knows?
GROSS: That must have been a good thing for you to grow up with the sense that like change is possible; you can change.
WILMORE: Exactly. That's exactly right. You know, it was very inspirational. That's true.
GROSS: My guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of the satirical news show "The Nightly Show." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of the satirical news show "The Nightly Show," which is on Comedy Central, weeknights at 11:30.
So you've used the word blerd (ph), which is a combination word of black nerd. Why is that a thing now? That seems to be...
GROSS: It seems to be a thing. People have called President Obama a blerd. The movie "Dope" was about African-American kids who consider themselves nerds.
WILMORE: Sure. Well, you know, who knows? It used to be that the black comic figure had to have this bravado and always showed strength, you know, had the point of view of the ghetto and all that kind of stuff. So I think that, now, there's a comic figure where it's OK to just be a nerd and be black. I'm actually working on a show for HBO right now I helped develop. We started a couple years ago with Issa Rae. And she did a web series called "The Misadventures Of An Awkward Black Girl," you know? And it's the same type of idea, where I'm black and I'm awkward, you know? I'm not black and sassy. And, you know, I think it's just how things evolved, that, you know, we find different ways to express and to laugh and that type of thing. But for me, it's just kind of who I am. I mean, I grew up doing magic tricks, you know?
WILMORE: But I also played sports. And I'm still a magician. I'm a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, which I'm very proud of. I performed there in the close-up room. I always have my cards with me. I'm always practicing. I'm always doing tricks. And that's kind of, I guess, the nerdiest thing that I do. Like, I'm a space nerd, you know? I love anything about space. If we're going to Mars, I'll have to stop everything and just (laughter), you know, just talk about that all the time.
GROSS: That's interesting because when Penn - Penn Jillette, the magician, was on your show, you described him as one of your favorite magicians. And I was thinking, oh, like, Larry Wilmore has lots of other favorite magicians? But you must.
WILMORE: I do.
GROSS: I see now you do.
WILMORE: I have magicians that you've never heard of, though. That's the difference, you know?
GROSS: I bet. Yeah, right.
GROSS: So - but getting back to the blerd thing - the black nerd thing - there's so much of African-American culture - i.e. rap - that is so involved with bragging and with...
GROSS: ...Showing how, like, important and strong and brave.
WILMORE: Yes, I'm the best, and I do this.
GROSS: I'm the best, yes. Like, self-defeating humor is not part of that language.
WILMORE: Correct. And I was formed by Woody Allen, by Marx Brothers, by Monty Python, so many different types of influences. I was more formed by, I think, Jewish-American comedy than I was black-American comedy when I was growing up. So the self-deprecation, that's where it lives the most, was in that type of comedy. And I identified with that very early on. It was just - it was just more of who I was, you know?
GROSS: But here's the thing - if you do the self-deprecating stuff and call attention to things that you think are weaknesses, but you're in a kind of bragging culture and a culture of, like, strength and power, then you're exposing weaknesses that other people in the strength, power, bragging culture can take advantage of and use against you. So it can actually be dangerous in that respect, unless you're, like, you're so funny that you disarm people with your humor.
WILMORE: That's the key, Terry.
WILMORE: You got to be funnier.
GROSS: Funny enough.
WILMORE: You got to bring it. You can't be doing if you ain't funny.
WILMORE: But I've just always - you know, I just like to be contrary. I just - I don't want to do what everybody else is doing. I just want to be myself, you know? And if that's who I am, that's just who I an. As Jon said, you've just got to own it, man. I remember Bernie Mac when I was working with him. He said, man, just be yourself, man. Just be yourself. Like, he would say that all the time (laughter). I'm like, OK, Bernie. Why are you telling me? I don't know why. But that was his advice for everything, was just that.
GROSS: So do you have a favorite moment so far from "The Nightly Show"? I think my favorite moment is the moment when we let the kid do his valedictory speech. It really was a fun moment. I think his name was Evan. When he came on the show and did that, it was so much fun. Other than that, it's really all the spontaneous things that happen on panel, the things that we don't plan on and, you know, the things that happen in front of - in front of the audience, you know? That continues to be just a fun thing that I enjoy.
GROSS: Well, why don't we end with the valedictory speech (laughter)?
GROSS: And this is, again, a high school student who wasn't allowed to do his valedictory speech - or at least not the full speech - because he was going to come out in the speech, and the principal wouldn't allow that. And the first line that we're going to go to hear about Stephen Colbert, did you write that for him or...
GROSS: ...Was that really in his speech?
WILMORE: Oh, no, no, no, no. No, that was in his speech.
GROSS: That was really in his speech?
WILMORE: Yes, that was in his speech.
WILMORE: And that's - we - that's what we thought was really funny, that his speech - here we are putting him on my show, and in his speech he mentions Colbert. So that was very funny, yeah.
GROSS: OK, well, we'll hear what you do with that.
GROSS: Larry Wilmore, congratulations on the show so far.
WILMORE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: It's really been great. And thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
WILMORE: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Larry Wilmore is the host of "The Nightly Show," which is on Comedy Central, Monday through Thursdays at 11:30. Tonight is his hundredth episode. Here's his favorite moment so far.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW")
WILMORE: OK, Evan Young, ladies and gentlemen.
EVAN YOUNG: In the words of one of my heroes, Stephen Colbert, dreams...
WILMORE: Whoa, hold on. Hold on.
WILMORE: Did you just say Stephen Colbert? You wrote that? Come on, man.
YOUNG: Well, yeah. That's what's in the text of my speech.
WILMORE: I don't care. You can't say that crap on this show, man.
WILMORE: Seriously, who bought you a round-trip ticket with just one layover?
YOUNG: You did, I guess.
WILMORE: Exactly, I did. Continue.
YOUNG: In the words of one of my heroes, Larry Wilmore...
WILMORE: That's a valedictorian, y'all. That's a valedictorian. OK, now let's hear the part you refused to change. Go ahead. I won't talk.
YOUNG: All right. So since we're never going to see each other again, I thought I should share several of my deepest and darkest secrets. First, I dislike doing homework. Now, not all homework is bad. Sometimes it's helpful. But, like the Heimlich maneuver, you're only supposed to do it when it's absolutely necessary.
YOUNG: Otherwise, you're just to going to make children throw up for no reason.
YOUNG: Mrs. Gilmore (ph), I only read about halfway through "Crime And Punishment" before switching to SparkNotes for the remainder of the book.
YOUNG: And my biggest secret of all - I'm gay. I understand this might be offensive to some people, but it's who I am. When I was writing this...
YOUNG: When I was writing this speech, I was endlessly debating with myself whether I should reveal this, on account of how divisive an issue this is and how gay people tend to be stereotyped. And I thought that, if I did, I should repeatedly apologize and beg you guys not to think any differently of me. But then I realized I don't have to. I shouldn't have to. If there's one thing I learned at this school, it's that we can be friends, even if we profoundly disagree each other. So I have one final request for you - hug someone. That's right, hug someone. Students, hug a teacher. Democrats, hug a republican.
YOUNG: People who own a gun, hug one of those darn liberals who wants to snatch it out of your cold, dead fingers.
YOUNG: Trekkies, hug someone who likes "Star Wars" more. Mel Gibson, hug a Jewish person.
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about robots. They have the ability to assist us or replace us. Will we control them, or will they control us? My guest will be John Markoff, and science and technology reporter at The New York Times and author of the new book "Machines Of Loving Grace." He will warn that we're not prepared for this new world and its consequences. But we'll also talk about pretty cool robots, so I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.