TV’s a business. I get that. The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore was weak in the ratings and wasn’t showing any signs of getting stronger, so eventually this was going to happen. But today’s cancellation is surprising—and disappointing—because of the timing. With less than three months to go in one of the most racially charged elections of our lifetimes, the only African-American comedian with a major late-night program will be losing his time slot to an apolitical game show.
If you haven’t watched The Nightly Show lately, well, obviously you’re not alone. I won’t lie and act like a regular viewer, either—I’ve seen maybe a dozen episodes since watching every night the first week. What I saw was a show that was clearly learning from its growing pains—those episodes were usually better than the previous ones that I had seen, tightening in on what worked and tweaking what didn’t. Even when the comedy didn’t pull its weight the show was still valuable when, as it often did, it focused on topics that the other shows in the Daily Show diaspora didn’t usually touch, and always with a viewpoint those shows couldn’t replicate. It was a smart, often funny show, and the only one in late-night thoroughly from an African-American perspective, and thus an important part of the conversation.
It was also easy to overlook. Easy, even, to forget. The weak lead-in didn’t help: as we’ve written about before at Paste, The Daily Show is far from mandatory viewing under Trevor Noah. It’s not a surprise that Wilmore’s ratings took an immediate hit when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show, a plunge The Nightly Show never began to recover from. The Daily Show may not be a lost cause, but it’s definitely a shadow of its former self, a sad afterthought, which did nothing to help the better show that aired immediately after it.
More than that, though, is the fact that there’s simply too much of this kind of TV right now. John Oliver and Samantha Bee have eclipsed both Wilmore and Noah with their own Daily Show-style programs. (Perhaps if Wilmore’s crew also only had to make one episode a week The Nightly Show could’ve been as strong as Bee and Oliver’s shows.) Stephen Colbert’s CBS show is itself a disappointment compared to The Colbert Report, but his political work can still be as sharp and electrifying as the Report, as we saw last month during the political conventions. Even Seth Meyers has regularly gotten more internet attention for his more punchline-oriented, SNL-style political material on NBC’s Late Night. There’s more political comedy in late-night television than ever before, perhaps more than is needed, and it was only a matter of time before the herd was thinned a bit.
The big questions now are what happens to Wilmore and the time slot. We know that @Midnight, a tiresomely formatted game show only worth watching based on the guest comedians, will be temporarily moving to 11:30 PM next week. Comedy Central will be developing a new full-time show for the slot, and they haven’t indicated what they’re looking for and if it’ll be another news-based show. You might think the show Jessica Williams left The Daily Show to create would make sense, but that’s been described as a scripted comedy, and Williams seems too notable for the post-Daily Show slot. (If anything, she should’ve gotten that show when Stewart left.) If the network looks for a half-hour that’s not based on current affairs, it’ll end the 11-year-run of serious-minded political comedy that has anchored the network’s 11 PM to midnight block.
As for Wilmore, it’s hard to see where he goes from here. He might show up as a commentator on one of the other, similar shows on TV, but I’d be surprised if a major network gave him another shot at his own show any time soon. Networks can be reticent to gamble on a host who’s already failed elsewhere. W. Kamau Bell hosted a fine news-based comedy show on FX in 2012 and 2013 called Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. Despite critical acclaim, it was cancelled in late 2013 shortly after being moved to the brand new FXX network. It took two and a half years for Bell to return to TV with his own show again, and it was vastly different: instead of a nightly current affairs show, he now hosts the documentary series United Shades of America on CNN.
Late-night political comedy has been a relatively recent direction for Wilmore, though. He comes from the sitcom world. He was a writer and producer on a variety of sitcoms and sketch shows in the ‘90s, including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and In Living Color. He created The Bernie Mac Show, Eddie Murphy’s animated sitcom The PJ’s and a short-lived Whoopi Goldberg sitcom. Before joining The Daily Show, he was a producer on NBC’s The Office, and wrote one of the first notable episodes of that classic sitcom. He was just starting as a producer on Black-ish when he was offered his own show on Comedy Central. A return to that format, perhaps even to Black-ish, could provide Wilmore an outlet for his observations while perhaps bringing him the success that eluded The Nightly Show.
No matter what he does next, no matter how justified this was as a business decision, it’s still frustrating that Wilmore and The Nightly Show won’t be around to cover this election. The show regularly gave a voice to those most vulnerable in the case of a Trump presidency, and there’s no guarantee any of the other post-Stewart shows on TV would be interested in providing those perspectives as consistently as The Nightly Show did. If the cancellation had come at the end of the year, after the election, this wouldn’t be as disappointing.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.