ON JAN. 19, after considerable media fanfare, veteran TV writer-producer Larry Wilmore debuted “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central. Wilmore, who created “The Bernie Mac Show,” played an early role in ABC’s new and brilliant multiracial bellwether series “Blackish,” and who for seven-plus years was Jon Stewart’s minority-affairs go-to as Senior Black Correspondent on CC’s “The Daily Show,” followed Stewart that night and kept his promise to shake things up in the exclusivist late-night desert that, until that night, defined the chieftains of America’s TV after dark.
Wilmore’s been all over the place from the jump, weighing in on issues from the furious controversy over Bill Cosby addressing rape allegations to normalizing relations with Cuba, from the firmness of Tom Brady's footballs to the need for taking climate change seriously. “If we don’t figure this out,” he said, “it won’t be just black people saying ‘I can’t breathe.’”
And on Feb. 4th, in what Mediaite called the first great “Nightly Show” segment, Wilmore engaged in a deep dive on the particularly sensitive issue of black men and the police with a panel of four black fathers.
Wilmore appears on a set whose backdrop is a Robinson-projection view of the world upside down, and it’s an apt visual metaphor for Wilmore’s own industry; maybe never before has the world of U.S. electronic media been in such a heads-is-tails situation vis-à-vis race and ethnicity.
Wilmore’s program takes its righteous contrary place in a late-night environment where Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel are the walking symbols of the white male hegemony that’s characterized late-night broadcast TV almost exclusively since Steve Allen pioneered late-night on the “Tonight Show” in 1954.
And Wilmore breaks the mold in other ways. As an experienced TV comedian, writer, producer, showrunner and now the host of a major late-night franchise, he’s precisely the kind of success that has a big influence on Hollywood: one whose diversity is as much about what he does as who he is.
The fact that he’s African American complicates things wonderfully (for viewers) and seriously (for risk-averse TV suits).
The good complication for TV viewers is obvious; as an insider Wilmore plays a big role in programming that pushes back against a TV landscape that overlooks or marginalizes minorities, broadening our own perspectives and exposing us to the perspectives of others.
For TV executives, Wilmore frustrates the creative inertia that defines the U.S. entertainment industry on matters of race. It’s no longer enough to say or think that “there’s nobody out there.” And it hasn’t been for a long time.
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WILMORE MAKES his ascendancy in what can fairly be called the Shonda Rhimes era – an ongoing period in which the creator and/or executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “Private Practice” and (our latest guiltless pleasure) “How to Get Away With Murder,” has obliterated old assumptions about blacks and the power equation in modern Hollywood.
Shows like Fox’s “Empire” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” ABC’s “Blackish” — and the full-on commitment ABC has made to more diverse programming (“Fresh Off the Boat” just debuted, “American Crime” breaks in March) throughout the calendar — are also indicators of how the landscape is changing.
Rhimes’ juggernaut has raised the bar and the stakes for broadcast networks and their counterparts throughout the television universe. “Diversity” may be the hot buzzword for programmers right now, but whether the spate of minority-themed shows represents a sea change in perspective or just a momentary spasm is yet to be seen.
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Directors Guild of America study released in January, first-time minority directors helmed only 13 percent of episodic programming (read: dramatic shows) over the five-year life of the study (2009-2014). So much for bringing along the next generation.
There’s more that’s just as dispiriting in the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. Citing figures from the 2011-2012 season, the study found that minority show creators were only 4.2 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas; minorities were lead actors in 5.1 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas; and 62.5 percent of the writing staffs of those broadcast comedies and dramas were 10 percent minority or less.
In some metrics, the study found, minorities got better representation on cable properties – but in other ways less representation as well. One graph from the survey found minorities and women panoramically underrepresented anywhere from 3 to 1 to, in one case, 12 to 1.
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TO NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, the time’s more than right for television execs to adopt a mainstream mentality vis-à-vis minority viewers — an assessment, finally, of minority audiences as something other than “minority.”
“On top of just wanting to reflect how the world looks, diversity is good business," Salke told The Hollywood Reporter. "A show like Empire is a turbo boost to the change. It's a wake-up call that there's a gigantic audience that doesn't want to see themselves reflected in token casting. They want authenticity.”
Late-night is something of a litmus test for television as a whole; that’s why Wilmore’s “Nightly Show” could be such a game-changer. The role of late-night has genuinely evolved in recent years. From the beginning, Stewart and “The Daily Show” deftly blended reporting and on-point commentary; his Comedy Central counterpart, Stephen Colbert (who replaces Letterman on “The Late Show” later this year) joined, and then dominated, the national conversation. Late-night has become a source of actual news for the younger demographic of viewers that the industry and its advertisers covet.
And with Stewart’s Friday announcement of plans to step down from “The Daily Show” sometime later this year, the wagering over his replacement has already begun, with a number of names already floated. In the parlor game of name-dropping to come, most of the prospects will be white males. So why not Larry Wilmore? As someone with the multi-hyphenate talents Hollywood both needs and craves, he’s in the perfect position to be for late-night what Shonda Rhimes is for prime-time: An example of what happens when you change the game by changing the players.
Also published at Medium. Image credits: Wilmore: Peter Yang/Comedy Central. Rhimes: via electronicvillage.blogspot.com; possible original derivation: ABC. Directors by ethnicity chart: Directors Guild of America.