Last week, Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show started up in Stephen Colbert’s old spot, and with four days in the bag it’s had a minimal amount of time to establish its particular format and vision. Granted that shows like this in particular need time to grow into what they are capable of being, and of course living up to the size 14’s of truthiness and freedom was never going to be easy, but a week in and The Nightly Show isn’t exactly working for me. Your mileage may vary, you may insist that Wilmore deserves more time, and that’s all fair. But my problems with the show are not the growing pains sort of things, they’re some fundamental aspects of the show that I think are misguided.
First up, Wilmore himself is hands down the best part of the show. So they’ve got the important thing. They’ve got a host who can do this job. But the basic format of the show is playing against that strength.
Shows like this have a very definitive and designed rhythm, unique to each show. The Daily Show for instance starts with Stewart giving five minutes of riffing on headlines, followed by eight minutes of a more in depth piece, that usually has either a correspondent report, or a pre-produced correspondent video segment, followed by eight minutes with the guest, and thirty seconds for the moment of zen after the last commercial. There’s variance of course, but that’s the basic rhythm of most of the shows.
The Nightly Show begins with a very short intro from Wilmore, then launches into five or so minutes with a correspondent. Then a few minutes by Wilmore on the topic of the night. Then the bulk of the show is Wilmore talking with his guest panel about the night’s subject. And then thirty seconds of Wilmore to cap it.
Notice the problem with that? Their strongest element is Wilmore and he’s barely featured on the show. The opening correspondent bits just have not been humorous, and those starting bits should be the attention grabbing lead. What if instead of Jon Stewart, the opening bit on the Daily Show was done by a different staffer every night? Regardless of the talent of Jessica Williams, Jason Jones, etc., the rhythm just wouldn’t work because at that point you’re leading with the seasoning, not the meat.
As to the panel? I hate the panel. Now part of this is simply personal preference, and I can appreciate that. This show was explicitly pitched as a riff on Meet the Press and other panel style shows. So its presence is a fundamental building block of the vision that is driving the show. The problem is that it’s basically a Bill Maher clone. Four people I’ve almost never heard of trying to talk over each other and score points by saying something audacious or funny. I hate Real Time with Bill Maher. Now if you don’t, The Nightly Show might be for you, but for me it’s a deal breaker.
Three fourths of the time I watch(ed) The Daily Show or Colbert Report, I will shut it off when the guest comes on. Wilmore is making an honest effort, through things like his “keep it a hundred” to try to cut out the bullshit. But it backfires horribly because while it tries to be about keeping things honest, all it really does is ensure black-and-white talking points instead of the gray area that is so much more interesting. Colbert and Stewart live in that gray area. The problem with America isn’t people being willing to say audacious things and then stick to their guns. That’s everything on news, cable or otherwise. The gray area is what I want.
At the end of an episode of either The Daily Show or Colbert Report, I feel that I know more about the world than I did before. After an episode of The Nightly Show, even though each episode is dedicated entirely to a specific topic, I don’t know anything more than a scattering of opinions of people playing to a crowd. I don’t watch this sort of show in order to see what joke John Leguizamo can come up with about Cuban refugees off the top of his head. I want intelligent and incisive (and yes funny) commentary on the subject that tells me something new.
The reason Colbert worked is because it established a clear identity with a stark and original take and went for it night after night without giving an inch. And more, that take was one that was saying something that mattered, with its satirizing of a downright venomous aspect of American media. Colbert held up a dark mirror, while Stewart held up a perfectly clear one. And that combination meant that their efforts reinforced each other even when hitting the same topics. Right now The Nightly Show is committed to a format that clones the same junk on a dozen other channels, rather than either satirizing it or taking a fresh approach to news.
As it is, The Nightly Show more closely resembles a toned down and jovial version of the show Jon Stewart went on and burned down than it does a rightful heir to Colbert’s mantle.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.