Monday, August 15, 2016

Late-nightmare: The end
of ‘The Nightly Show’ and what it means

AFTER 19 MONTHS on the air, “The Nightly Show,” Larry Wilmore’s much-anticipated late-night news commentary program on Comedy Central, has been canceled effective Thursday, a victim of constantly declining ratings, the loss of a priceless lead-in program, and — just maybe — a public that wasn’t ready for quite so much color in the late-night palette at one time.

TheWrap and other entertainment trade pubs broke the story earlier today, shortly after Wilmore reportedly broke the news to his staff this morning.

“Unfortunately, it hasn't connected with our audience in ways that we need it to, both in the linear channel and in terms of multi-platform outlets and with shareable content and on social platforms as well,” Comedy Central president Kent Alterman told The Hollywood Reporter.

It’s the final chapter in what’s been a long downward spiral for a show that deserved better. Wilmore, whose comedic pedigree is impeccable (his DNA in everything from “The Bernie Mac Show” to “Black-ish” to HBO’s upcoming “Insecure”) replaced Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report” in the 11:30 p.m. Comedy Central time slot in January 2015. Wilmore, capitalizing on his role as “Senior Black Correspondent” on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” took on issues of race, ethnicity, politics and the wider culture with passion and flair.

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Wilmore held his own for months, enjoying the initial reactions to his refreshing take on the day’s events and the added plus of the best lead-in he could ask for: “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which preceded Wilmore’s show at the top of the hour. It made for a one-two punch that worked.

Confidence at Comedy Central was high. “The Nightly Show” was renewed in September; plans at that time were for the show to continue through the end of 2016. But something had happened the month before Wilmore signed his contract extension; Stewart resigned as anchor and provocateur-in-chief at “The Daily Show” last August.

The “Nightly Show” decline began shortly after that, and it never stopped. Nielsen reported that, as of early May this year, “The Nightly Show” averaged 492,000 same-day viewers, putting the show dead last behind all the top-tier late-night shows. “The Colbert Report,” which “The Nightly Show” replaced, averaged 1.1 million same-day viewers.

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IT GOT WORSE. A problematic moment for “Nightly” happened on April 30, with Wilmore’s appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, a performance widely (though not universally) seen as a disappointment, with critics roundly panning Wilmore’s comic jabs.

He didn’t help himself by violating a cardinal rule of roast: Don’t immunize the guest of honor from being the main target of opportunity. “Wilmore seemed to be in search of a Presidential Medal of Honor, throwing his harshest punches at TV Networks and the print media,” The Post’s Claire Atkinson said.

That was just part of it. Other mainstream media were similarly uncharitable, beating “The Nightly Show” host like a chef making an omelet. John DeFore at the Hollywood Reporter: “He spent more time mocking a politician many are ready to write off, beating a Ted Cruz-as-Zodiac Killer bit into the ground. ... [T]he host of The Nightly Show made most of his jokes at the media's expense, and in this room full of reporters, they probably sounded meaner than they were meant to.”

Slate's Daniel Politi weighed in. "The vast majority of his jokes fell flat in a room that seemed to be groaning more often than smiling," Politti said. “Beyond a joke here and there, the whole monologue was really boring. A full 10 minutes could have easily been chopped from the whole thing and nothing would have changed.”

Celeste Farron, a New York Post reader: “He missed the mark because there was no humor. Who doesn't enjoy a good Roast with funny jabs where the person delivering gets away with mocking and insulting the guest of honor with humor? But with no humor, it was just a man standing there reading off a list of insults, which in this case were not clever.”

Greg Kamer, a New York Post reader, was especially acid in his indifference: “I decided I could find better uses for my time. So I washed my truck.”

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BUT HOW much of the reason for this cancellation was the public’s reaction to the messenger, and how much was reaction to the message itself?

The problem may have been one of a cultural disconnect as much as anything else. More than any other late-night host working, Wilmore jumps headlong into race as a fertile topic for discussion, and does it with a brio and a wry wit that speak to his intention to make conversation about that enduring American third-rail topic as ecumenical and accessible as possible.

                  The new playa: How Larry Wilmore changes late-night
(Medium, February 2015)

If the crowd of swells at the WHCD is any microcosmic identifier of America, that’s a conversation we’re only willing to have marginally, just a little at a time. There’s no question that Wilmore pushed racial hot buttons that night.

And then, of course, there was Wilmore’s parting line to President Obama: “I’m going to keep it 100. Yo Barry, you did it, my nigga.” That was a transformative moment in both the political culture and the teleculture, a linguistic crossing of the Rubicon that many Americans (and certainly some of the people at the WHCD) consider an irredeemable transgression.

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Just before Wilmore appeared at the White House dinner, Salon television editor Sonia Saraiya posted a trenchant, engaging piece about him, an essay whose assessment of him was more hopeful and charitably panoramic than those critics who’d react hours later — a piece whose perception of late-night’s monochromatic identity couldn’t be more spot-on:

“[L]ate-night hosts become beloved to the audience at home because they become trusted, household figures; not just walking joke machines, but a frequent friend over for a drink after dinner. But trust and safety and, more saliently, respectability— especially in the context of culture being transmitted from a box in your house — are incredibly politicized concepts, steeped in their own sad history of alienation and marginalization. American race and gender relations being what they are, it has been difficult for any host that isn’t a white man to fit into the vaunted role of late-night host.”

Wilmore tried to “keep it 100” about race in a culture that dreads any race-related dialogue being kept 100 — not for very long anyway. Collectively, as a society, we’d sooner undergo waterboarding.

The attempts to amiably bring us to those moments of our most combustible national truth — five nights a week for 19 months or during a White House dinner in April — may have been Wilmore’s undoing.

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THE PHRASAL portmanteau of the headline of this blogpost isn’t just idle wordplay. With Larry Wilmore’s departure, Trevor Noah remains the only obstacle to the major-network late-night landscape reverting back to the all-white wasteland it used to be not that long ago.

On April 28th, on the occasion of the 100th episode of the Trevor Noah “Daily Show,” Forbes, borrowing from Nielsen data, reported that his show’s viewership had dropped by 37 percent since Stewart’s departure.

“Noah reached his highest rating with his first episode,” Forbes reported. “The September 28th episode scored a 0.41 rating in the key 18-49 demographic and just over 1 million viewers.

“Since Noah’s highly anticipated debut, ratings have tapered off and have dipped as low as .18. Under the South African comedian’s tenure, The Daily Show typically scores a 0.32 rating among adults 18 -49 and roughly 820,000 viewers.”

So there’s a question that’s built into this post’s headline coinage: With Wilmore’s Thursday goodbye after 259 episodes, is the late-nightmare ending (according to the conventional metrics of ratings and eyeballs and advertisers) or is it ready to start all over again?

Image credits: Wilmore, Noah, Nightly Show and Comedy Central logos and title card: © 2016 Comedy Central.

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