On the first edition of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, the host spent Monday night — the closing moments of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — speculating on the effectiveness of black protest movements. Those protests included everything from ones in Ferguson, Missouri, to show-bizzier ones about the lack of Oscar nominations for Selma.
As a theme, it was both good for comedy, allowing Wilmore in his solo opening segment to suggest that the always-excitable Rev. Al Sharpton may be "literally stretching himself too thin," and opening up a ripe field of engagement for the longest part of the show, a table discussion with guests Sen. Cory Booker, rapper Talib Kweli, comedian Bill Burr, and regular contributor Shenaz Treasury.
Wilmore, in settling into the Colbert Report time period, said, "a brother finally gets a show on late-night TV," which may come as breaking news to W. Kamau Bell and Arsenio Hall. His opening monologue contained one killer bit of video culled from a Monday newscast — apparently a police department in Florida is using pictures of young black men as firing range targets. At the table, he and his guests tossed around the protest theme, with the host asking questions, setting up jokes, and proving that he's not going to be an impartial referee, noting at one point, "We are in a relationship with the police [and] our relationship is really f--ked up at this point."
The tone at the table was intriguingly eclectic. Sen. Booker was prone to launch into earnest-politician-
speak while Treasury sounded as though she'd been polishing a few good punchlines. Burr may have gotten the biggest laugh of the night during a segment called "Keep It 100." When the host, who'd noted that the white Burr is married to a black woman, asked what race he'd prefer their baby to be born, the comic said, "After hearing these stats? White. White all the way." Wilmore congratulated him for keeping it 100 percent real.
Wilmore's past credits consist not only of his time as a commentator on The Daily Show, but also as a key brain behind the frequently brilliant Bernie Mac Show; the often amazing animated series The PJs; and the smart new ABC sitcom Black-ish. What all this good work suggests is a man who knows how to shuffle race cards so adroitly, you realize afterward that he barely needed to play them.
Wilmore's manner sometimes suggests connections to a 1960s tradition of topical comedians: Mort Sahl, in the way Wilmore can seem genial while making a devastating point; Dick Gregory, in the way Wilmore radiates a confidence that doubles as a quiet power. That combination is a valuable one that will serve him well as a nightly observer of the widespread craziness of an America he must make funny, must satirize, must reduce to comprehensibility.
First episodes of a nightly comedy-talk show are a drop in the bucket — we barely have a sense of how Wilmore's creation is going to play out over the rest of the week, let alone the months to come. Nevertheless, it's fun to make an instant judgment combined with baseless speculation about the future. So here's mine: He's got some work to do in the pacing of the table discussions, but Wilmore's sensibility is immediately relatable: common sense enlivened by a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo.
The Nightly Show airs weeknights at 11:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.