LOS ANGELES – Larry Wilmore isn’t exactly the new kid on the block. At 53, he’s a highly respected figure in Hollywood writers rooms, helping to shape “The Bernie Mac Show,” “The Office” and the new ABC sitcom “Black-ish.”
But aside from occasional appearances as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and a couple of Showtime specials, he’s unknown to the general public.
That all changes Monday with the debut of “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” which is charged with the daunting task of replacing “The Colbert Report,” one of cable’s highest rated shows.
“I have both the producer side to me and the performer side,” said a notably relaxed Wilmore a few days ago as he prepared for the first of four test shows. “The performer side, you’re hoping [an opportunity like this] happens. But my producer side really thought that window had been closed, to be honest with you.”
Wilmore thought he was too old. But enter “Daily Show” boss Jon Stewart, who has become sort of a showbiz kingpin, boosting the careers of Steve Carell, John Oliver and, of course, Colbert, who takes over for David Letterman in September. It was Stewart’s idea to have Wilmore fill the Colbert slot following “The Daily Show.” He’s also chief consultant for the new show.
“The biggest thing I learned from Jon is to keep attacking it, keep going at it,” Wilmore said. “He pushes you in directions that sometimes you’re uncomfortable with. We never went with whatever our first take was on ‘The Daily Show.’ Whatever our first joke was was just our starting point. Jon always encouraged us to go deeper.”
“Going deep” runs counter to the direction late-night TV is headed.
Jimmy Fallon, the new king of the pack, has created a high-octane party on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” with goofy games, fawning interviews and ambitious musical numbers. British actor James Corden (“Into the Woods”), who will take over CBS’ “The Late Late Show” in March, appears likely to follow suit.
“The Nightly Show” is decidedly different.
Wilmore plans to open each episode with his take on events of the day. The second part of the show will often revolve around a panel discussion deconstructing provocative topics.
That sounds more like a Sunday morning news show than a late night laugh fest. Wilmore even toyed with the idea of calling it “Meet the Rest.”
“If Colbert was a cousin of Bill O’Reilly, then we’re the cousin to George Stephanopoulos,” said Wilmore.
He has no illusions about getting major movie stars or pop divas to appear on the program.
“No way our show can compete with ‘The Tonight Show’ for glamour booking. We have to have people who are going to make our show fun and funny and interesting.”
The other unique aspect of the Monday-through-Thursday series is that it’s hosted by a black man, making him one of the few minorities in the game. In fact, Stewart originally wanted to call the series “The Minority Report,” a plan that was dashed after Fox and Steven Spielberg announced plans for a TV series based on the Tom Cruise action movie “Minority Report.”
Wilmore insists that he doesn’t know why late night TV has been dominated by white men.
“There’s already so much pressure about doing a show,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to get anything done if I was worried about those things. It’s just the reality.
“I do feel like it’s being broken up in some cool ways. I do feel like we need some women out there.”
He admits that it will take time to build an audience. Through years of experience, he said, he knows that these kinds of shows don’t launch fully formed.
“Some things you figure out sooner than others,” he said. “If you have a good relationship with the audience, they forgive you for things. As long as you’re having fun.”