Just when the storm over political correctness seems about to burst—a storm stoked most recently by Jonathan Chait’s New York magazine piece accusing the left of virtually censoring free speech (Michelle Goldberg nicely dissects Chait’s arguments here)—Comedy Central has debuted The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. And damned if this show, more or less from the left, isn’t designed to confront just those PC pieties.
Amazingly, The Nightly Show is currently the only late-night talk show hosted by an African-American, and Wilmore opened his first show, on January 19, with the just the sort of perfectly reasonable ethnic-based complaint that could, if your victimology meter was set on hair-trigger (or in the hands of Rush Limbaugh), be read as “PC”: “Brother finally gets a show on late night TV!” he said. “But, of course, he has to work on Martin Luther King Day.”
But the show’s format and Wilmore’s style—he’s as easygoing and open-minded as Colbert’s character was intense and rigid—defy the Chaity caricature of PC.
Wilmore, a veteran comedian, writer and producer, who played “the senior black correspondent” on The Daily Show—a sly job title that pointed to the show’s overwhelming whiteness—is clearly no black power radical. But his politics appear to be more progressive than his moderate temperament might lead you to believe. As Dave Itzkoff of the Times writes, “Mr. Wilmore said he wanted his show to look at ‘events in the world from the perspective of the underdog,’ while being ‘provocative and absurd, all those things rolled into one.’”
In that first show, Wilmore laughed at Al Sharpton running to protest the Oscar snub of the movie Selma. “Al, Al, Al, you don’t have to respond to every black emergency,” he said. “You’re not a black batman.” Then he asked, point-blank, “Are we protesting too many things here?” Still, Wilmore clearly believes in activism; he zeroed in on recent protests that he believes have produced results: the climate change demos in September that, he says, helped the US and China reach a climate accord; nationwide minimum-wage protests that led to twenty-one states raising their wages.
The Nightly Show seems consciously designed to laugh at the confusions and mystifications that ideological identities, left or right, trail in their wake. The show’s format more closely resembles Bill Maher’s show than Jon Stewart’s or John Oliver’s: After a Wilmore monologue (the only really scripted part of the show), Larry convenes a panel of four different guests every night to discuss a single topic. The panel is a combo of comedians, journalists and people who have some sort of relevance to the topic, like a former sniper when Wilmore focused on controversies over American Sniper, or an anti-vaxxer on measles night. The set-up can, but doesn’t always, kindle conflict.
The show’s signature segment, called “Keep it 100” (as in keeping it 100 percent real), is meant to step on the cracks in a guest’s political identity.
For instance, Wilmore asked comedian Sabrina Jalees, a Canadian and a lesbian, to imagine that there’s “two terrorists, one’s about to blow up a roomful of Canadians and one a roomful of lesbians. You’re a sniper: which terrorist do you take out?” (The Canadians, she joked, because she’s making money up there.)
He asked Soledad O’Brien, whose father is black and mother is Latino: “If you had to choose one side to identify with, which one would it be?” (Black, she said, “because blacks need a lot of support right now.”)
John Leguizamo, of Puerto Rican and Colombian descent, got the question, “Which Latino identity do you hate being mistaken for the most?” and Leguizamo answered, “I love all my Latino brothers—Argentine.”
The questions—many are versions of “Would you do X for a million dollars?”—can be silly. And the gimmick of handing out stickers for the guests who’ve kept it 100, or teabags for those whose answers were “weak tea,” could quickly become tiresome.
But Wilmore does tease people to come out of their ghettos for air, and not to take ethnic and ideological identities so seriously.
Who knows what Larry would ask Jonathan Chait? But it might be something like, If you knew you had to invade a country to take revenge for 9/11, would you pick one that had something to do with the attack, or one that spells its name with the letter Q without the letter U?