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Larry Wilmore Returns to Late Night With a New Peacock Series


Back when Larry Wilmore was about to introduce “The Nightly Show,” his short-lived late-night series on Comedy Central, he saw a tweet from an angry prospective viewer who wished failure on the host and his lousy show, which at that point had not yet aired a single episode.

Recalling his own reaction at the time, Wilmore said he thought to himself that he would at least like the chance to be terrible before being dismissed as terrible.

“It’s not even on yet, so how do you know?” he said. “You might be right, but let me do it first.”

That crabby electronic dispatch was prophetic, though: “The Nightly Show,” which was intended as a companion program for Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and a replacement for Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report,” lasted less than two years before its cancellation in August 2016.

For Wilmore, 58, a prolific producer, host and commentator, it remains one of the less successful entries on his lengthy résumé, which includes writing credits on comedies like “In Living Color” and “Sister, Sister,” as well as “The Bernie Mac Show,” which he created.

He has become a mentor of other emerging talents and helped shows like “black-ish” and “Insecure” find their footing, though he has yet to prove that he can be the center of his own TV program.

Four years after the “The Nightly Show,” Wilmore shrugged off its demise with the nonchalance of a veteran who knows not to get too attached to any particular opportunity. Comparing himself to a basketball player, he said, “That missed shot is forgotten, and I’m shooting again.”

Now, without really having to campaign for it, Wilmore finds himself returning to the arena of topical TV comedy. On Friday he will once again host his own late-night series, called “Wilmore,” for NBC’s Peacock streaming service.

It is a weekly program with a mission as simple as its title: to allow Wilmore to riff on the coming presidential election, other news events and whatever else he is panicking about in a given moment, and to interview guests he finds funny or interesting.

“Wilmore” is not necessarily his attempt to find closure after “The Nightly Show,” to prove that he can do the job or to see himself on television again. What it represents to him, Wilmore said, is the latest step in a continuing journey to figure out what he wants to say and to find the best place for him to say it.

“Being on camera isn’t that important,” Wilmore said in a recent Zoom conversation. “It’s fun, but when it went away, I didn’t miss it.”

“I don’t do this for the attention,” he added, “I do this for the expression.”

On an afternoon in late August, Wilmore was speaking from a sparsely decorated office at his home in Los Angeles. Despite the imminent debut of his show, he was an unhurried yarn-spinner who, when his interviewer least expected it, started flexing his skills as a sleight-of-hand magician and began making coins and playing cards disappear and reappear out of thin air.

He cautioned that, at its outset, “Wilmore” would be equally modest in its production values: He’ll be hosting from a basic studio with no audience while his guests join in remotely.

“We have zero budget,” Wilmore said with a chuckle. “I almost owe them money at this point.”

The new show grew out of an overall deal that Wilmore made last year with Universal Television and his ongoing conversations with executives there, during which he would drop hints that he wanted to oversee a comedic election town-hall special, similar to one he did for Showtime in 2012.

This past spring, Wilmore appeared on Peacock in a celebrity fund-raising program, anchoring remote segments in which he debated Sean Hayes on whether or not almond milk should be considered milk, and learned some potentially offensive Mandarin Chinese slang from his daughter, Lauren.

Dan Shear, who is Peacock’s executive vice president of comedy development, said that those segments had been persuasive indicators that Wilmore “needed to have a place in the cultural conversation — with everything that was going on in the world, it just felt really important to have him on the air right now.”

Shear said that Wilmore’s inauspicious history at “The Nightly Show” was by no means a strike against the host and had actually made viewers more eager to see him again.

“It’s a well-known fact that he hadn’t been on the air during the 2016 election,” Shear said. “That felt like such a loss for the audience that he wasn’t there through that.”

In May, after the police killing of George Floyd and the wave of protests that followed, Peacock asked Wilmore if he wanted to address viewers at that moment.

But Wilmore demurred, feeling that the time wasn’t right: “People were so upset and they didn’t know what to do with those emotions,” he explained. “Who am I to just go out and talk about this?”

Wilmore’s instincts have generally served him well since the start of his writing career in the early 1990s, when he took inspiration from Black creators who were producing their own shows, like Keenen Ivory Wayans (“In Living Color”) and Yvette Lee Bowser (“Living Single”).

Though Hollywood offered creative heroes to admire, Wilmore said that opportunities for writers of color were limited by prevailing attitudes in the industry.

“If you were Black you couldn’t work on a white show, but if you were white, you could definitely work on a Black show,” he said. “It was so condescending.”

Even so, Wilmore said that he tended to be overly picky about the projects he chose for himself and turned down jobs if he felt they did not fulfill a particular need or urgency within him.

Describing his thought process, Wilmore said: “Can I say the thing I want to say in this? If I can’t, I’m just somebody saying nothing, and I’m not good enough to be another empty voice.”

His forte, he said, has been coming in at the start of a new show and helping to populate it with memorable scenarios and characters — even Smokey, the crack addict he devised for “The PJs,” the animated series he created with Eddie Murphy and Steve Tompkins.

“I said you’ve got to have a crackhead in this,” Wilmore recalled. “I’m very proud of it. I live for that stuff.”

Wilmore has also helped advance the careers of creative partners like Issa Rae, who stars on “Insecure” and created that HBO series with him, and who started working with Wilmore after a fraught and unproductive development process at ABC.

At that time, Rae said, “I was creatively broken and very fragile and didn’t have the confidence in my voice.” But when she began her collaboration with Wilmore, she said, “he had such a calming, personable demeanor and asked the smartest questions.”

Over many conversations and meals, Rae said, she confessed countless personal details to Wilmore about failed relationships and about gripe sessions she had with female friends regarding their anatomy, much of which was woven into the “Insecure” pilot. “I was like wow, I’ve been duped, but in the best way,” she said.

And when Wilmore was approached about hosting what became “The Nightly Show” — in the midst of his development duties on “Insecure” and “black-ish” — Rae knew she couldn’t stand in his way.

“I was absolutely devastated, but I had to be understanding,” she said. “You can’t be mad at someone who’s doing his dream job.”

At “The Nightly Show,” Wilmore said, he knew he would be fighting to overcome the lofty expectations set by Colbert, his predecessor in the time slot, who had created a seminal work of political and media satire with “The Colbert Report” before he left to host “The Late Show” on CBS.

Wilmore said that he had sensed Comedy Central wanted a similar show from him, with repeatable franchise elements, “something that had more form to it, that seemed formulaic.”

But he wanted to make something more malleable: “I’m interested in keeping it 100 percent real, and whatever comes out of that expression can be on the show,” he said. “I’d rather keep a conversation going that might not be as funny, but if I’m just doing some silly bit, that doesn’t make sense.”

Wilmore was also comfortable sharing his spotlight with colleagues like Robin Thede, his “Nightly Show” head writer, who was one of several staff members who often appeared on camera.

“He set us all up for success and he was intentional about it,” said Thede, who went on to host her own BET late-night series, “The Rundown,” and to create and star in HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”

“He said to me, ‘I’m here to help you win,’ when I was on his show,” Thede added. “Other people only want to bring in people who don’t challenge their way of thinking. He revels in smart brains — that’s his happy spot.”

But as ratings for “The Nightly Show” declined — particularly after Stewart left “The Daily Show” in August 2015 — Wilmore could tell that Comedy Central had soured on him, he said. “There was a certain point where they didn’t even talk to us.” (Comedy Central declined to comment.)

At its cancellation, “The Nightly Show” was drawing about 776,000 viewers a night, far below the average audience of 1.7 million viewers that “The Colbert Report” attracted in its final year. (Since then, Comedy Central has fared no better with shows hosted by Jordan Klepper and by David Spade, each of which lasted less than a year.)

Wilmore said he held no lingering grudges against the network but admitted that he found a certain pleasure in the fact that Comedy Central still had not found a hit program to follow “The Daily Show.”

“My schadenfreude is full every day,” Wilmore said. “Every single day I have a cup of that in the morning.”

In the time since “The Nightly Show” ended, Wilmore has produced and developed other projects for broadcast and streaming networks and has hosted a podcast, “Black on the Air,” for The Ringer.

Wilmore plans to continue “Black on the Air,” which mixes personal monologues with his interviews of celebrities, politicians and journalists, while he hosts his Peacock series. He said the podcast had provided him with a crucial education in conducting long-form interviews and allowed him to reach places he could not get to in his late-night comedy round tables.

“I’ve learned so much about just having a conversation without needing to turn it into entertainment, being actively interested in what the other person’s saying and not just waiting to ask your questions,” he said.

But he does not necessarily see “The Nightly Show” as a lesson to be learned from or a skid to steer out of as he figures out “Wilmore.”

“As a producer,” he said, “I can only make a show what it has to be. It’s this conversation you’re having with your audience that tells you what a show has to be.”

Unlike with his “Nightly Show” tenure, Wilmore is proclaiming at the outset of his Peacock show that it is a limited-run series, planned for 11 episodes that will continue through the end of November.

“Is it going to get picked up? No,” he said. “This is going to be done, and then we’ll sit down at the right time and say, Is this something we want to do as a permanent thing?”

This time around, Wilmore acknowledged that he will be more of a known quantity than he was at the start of “The Nightly Show,” a status that comes with both advantages and disadvantages.

He fully expects to be criticized by audience members who will complain that “Wilmore” isn’t “The Nightly Show” — a program that he couldn’t get them to embrace in sufficient numbers when it was on the air.

Imagining himself addressing these detractors, Wilmore said, “Guys, each time I try something new, trust me, you’re going to object to it because it’s new. We haven’t seen it yet.”

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