I'm a late night junkie - I've been to dozens of tapings, and I even spent time working at Conan's TBS talk show. The last few years have been VERY exciting when it came to late night transitions. Leno out, Conan in, Conan out, Leno in, Lopez out, Fallon in, Seth in, Oliver in, Letterman out, Ferguson out, Corden in, Hardwick in, Chelsea out, Colbert out, Wilmore in. And I'm missing a bunch.
The current newbie is Mr. Larry Wilmore - the former The Daily Show with Jon Stewart correspondent and replacement for Stephen Colbert's 11:30 time-slot. So - how is it?
Let's start at the top of the show. The first three episodes of the show all had a strong racial component - either in the commentary or in the event that was covered. From the all-white oscar nominations to agreeing with President Obama at the state of the union (because he's black), it's clear where this show wants to go. Hey - the show was originally called "The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore"! Diversity in late night is absolutely an issue. But maybe they shouldn't be so blatant about it. I predict people will get bored of the racial skewing humor and will tune in to a show like The Tonight Show during that time-slot for a bigger variety of what's going on in the world. It's actually a stroke of luck that their generic show title will allow them to expand to more general topics down the line if they chose.
As Larry pointed out in his first cold open, this show would have been great to have a year ago, as America went through… well… the last year. But will race continue to have as much play in the media as it currently does? How will The Nightly Show compensate for a lack of racial stories in the news when they fade away? How will they make up more and more comedy out of what seems to be a higher visibility of police shootings in the mainstream media?
The answer lies with Larry Wilmore. He's a great host. He's confident on the air - he doesn't show the nervous signs of a host that had big shoes to fill. He started miles ahead of Fallon, Meyers, and even Conan. The strongest part of his show is his opening desk bit. It's the standard "talk about and joke about the news" that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have been so successful with. He's hitting the jokes, though they don't seem to come out as hard or as fast as they did with his predecessor or his lead-in. That'll take time - but I also don't think that the audience is ready for a long blast of minority-based commentary. I love that it's there, and I love how he really digs into one topic - but I also want a little more of a generic take on it as well. None of the interviews with his correspondents have been anything memorable - the most recent one with a not cuban "Cuban Correspondent" fell flat when he just tried to tell Cuban-American history through movie clips. The interviews just doesn't come off as smart as The Daily Show, and he hasn't yet shown his ability to "nail" a serious topic with the power of John Oliver.
How can he get there? First thing's first, the panel has to go. Maybe not forever - but as more of a recurring bit. The four-guest panel feels like it was ripped right out of MSNBC's Saturday morning programming. That's not necessarily a bad thing - the guests have come from a diverse group of independent and mainstream news sources, along with one of the show's own correspondents. But it goes downhill from there. There is very little room for discussion in the eight-minute conversation. They fit in multiple questions - but there's very little time for each guest to elaborate. It doesn't help that one of the correspondents admitted that he didn't know as much about politics as the real panelists, even though his purpose at the table was to provide smart yet comedic commentary. The roundtable is okay - but it just isn't creating any memorable comedy moments that his competitors were bringing nightly. I bet eliminating one or two people from the panel will help make it more natural. Also - with a themed panel, the guests don't have the leeway to talk about their projects or to just have fun (like on The Daily Show when they completely scrap their show plug and just go on a tangent with Jon).
Larry Wilmore has a lot of potential in a great time-slot - but he is a much better anchor than he is a host/moderator. If he were to do an additional segment about what's going on in the world (with the occasional roundtable), his personality would come out much stronger. He's sharing the spotlight with up to five other people per show between the correspondents and the guests - let him have the spotlight a bit more! He's such a confident anchor that he should get more alone time.
And at a purely technical level, there's a few issues. I hate to be that fresh-gutta-college director who wants to critique guys who do it for a living - but I have a very hard time following the conversation during the roundtable. The 180 line is crossed quite often. When going from a wide shot to a single or a two shot, I often have to re-allign my brain as to where at the table everyone is.
While we're talking tech - the desk, being so long, creates a big distance between Larry and the audience during the first part of the show. They should bring him closer to the audience - I bet that would bring in more and louder laughs. Larry has great facial expressions when he's talking - let them see it live! Then, bring in a wider roundtable for the conversations, or move to a secondary set (a-la Bill Maher or Colbert).
The graphics package for the show is unique for a talk / news show. Rather than the traditional side box, the graphics are all on the lower left of the screen. The main focus of the graphic is usually cropped out from the background. It causes an unbalanced look with the graphic on the left and Wilmore centered - the right side of the screen is just too empty! Maybe we'll get used to it.
And now to my biggest critique of the show - the "Keep It 100" segment in which he asks his roundtable guests a question with two potential answers. The audience gets to decide if they are being "real" by their applause. The problem is that the questions are ones that deserve more elaboration, and the guests have already showed their frustration with not having time to explain their answers. The questions might be good for creating sound bites that can be socially shared - but those who aren't as quick on their feet (ie. legitimate media sources) will struggle and end up looking bad. He should change up that bit by having a variety of "end of show" segments (similar to what Craig Ferguson used to do), or by doing a much shorter anchored desk piece on a different topic from the rest of the show (similar to Bill Maher during his roundtable or John Oliver with his one-off YouTube videos).
So to recap - Tone down the minority themes just a touch, let Larry have more alone time, only sometimes feature a roundtable, make the roundtable smaller, scrap Keep it 100, and let the guests on the show have more wiggle room. The show has a lot of potential - and very popular shows preceding and proceeding it. I'm pretty convinced we will see Larry around for years to come - but with a very different show to what we see today. I get that it may seem that I'm saying that the show should be more like every other show on television - but with a better mix of what has been proven to work with his unique perspectives, the show can be great.
vote votesI plead the 5th.