Larry Wilmore - Nightly Show

It’s incredibly tough to follow an act like Stephen Colbert.

For cable network Comedy Central, the task of filling the shoes of both Colbert and Jon Stewart – who both left their respective shows within months of each other – was a hard one. British comedian Trevor Noah was brought in to replace Stewart on The Daily Show and thus far, Noah has more than held his own. But The Colbert Report itself couldn’t be replicated.

Instead, Comedy Central created a brand new show, The Nightly Show, recruiting comedian Larry Wilmore (a writer and longtime “correspondent” for Stewart’s Daily) to host. It was a big deal: people clambered for more of-color faces in late night television, late night talk shows especially, and now Comedy Central would have two Black faces back-to-back on weeknights.

Wilmore, to his credit, “kept it 100” just like his show’s segment and then some. His deadpan humor, coupled with a Real Time with Bill Maher-esque roundtable for the show’s second half, made The Nightly Show engaging and very accessible to the social media crowd. Unfortunately, The Nightly Show didn’t even make it two full years before Comedy Central decided it was time to pull the plug.

Variety broke the news on Monday that Comedy Central would be cancelling The Nightly Show. The show will air its final episode on Thursday, August 18th. The variety game show @midnight will fill the weekday time slot following The Daily Show for the time beingThe network’s president, Kent Alterman, cited the cancellation as a “business decision,” even as he praised Wilmore’s talent and approach.

“We applaud Larry and his team for evolving the show,” Alterman said. “They created a community of contributors who were doing great comedy bits … [but] as much as we thought ‘Nightly’ was evolving creatively it just wasn’t resonating with our audience… we haven’t seen the signs we need in ratings or in consumption on digital platforms. We’ve been been hoping it would grow.”

Ratings-wise, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah was averaging almost double the number of younger viewers (278,000 to Nightly’s 153,000) and hence proved most worthy of the network’s push. Even @midnight‘s ratings were performing better than Nightly’s.

Wilmore expressed similar disappointment in a statement released Monday, as well. With the impending election season on deck, Wilmore had recently launched a new segment entitled “Blacklash 2016: The Unblackening” to cover election news.

“I’m really grateful to Comedy Central, Jon Stewart, and our fans to have had this opportunity,” Wilmore said in the statement. “But I’m also saddened and surprised we won’t be covering this crazy election… I guess I hadn’t counted on ‘The Unblackening’ happening to my time slot as well.” The end of The Nightly Show, at least, doesn’t mean the end of Wilmore – the comedian will likely devote full attention to serving as co-creator and executive producer of the upcoming HBO Issa Rae series Insecure.

Over the course of its nearly twenty months on air, Wilmore and The Nightly Show welcomed a variety of guests from multi-ethnic backgrounds and often tackled race-conscious issues in the U.S. This year, for example, Wilmore tackled the Flint Water Crisis, even inviting Aftermath rapper (and Michigan native) rapper Jon Connor to not only discuss the issue but perform on the show. He provided a platform for emerging voices like comedian Mike Yard; and countered the growing need for Black women voices in late night programming by having Franchesca Ramsey and Robin Thede as both correspondents AND writers. Wilmore closed the show, often, with a “#KeepIt100” segment, a chance during which he invited Twitter users to pose a question to him that he’d answer honestly, similarly to the question he would pose to guests during his roundtable segment.

It’s tough not to compare the cancellation of The Nightly Show with BET’s cancellation, two years ago, of another Black-issues themed late night talk show, Don’t Sleep with TJ Holmes. Don’t Sleep also adopted a roundtable format and was also measured against the competition (of which, The Daily Show was considered its foremost), and was similarly given the ax when its ratings failed to hold up to expectations. There is no shortage of late-night/variety talk shows on current events – Real Time and This Week Tonight (helmed by another former Daily Show correspondent, John Oliver) on HBO, The Late Late Show with James Corden, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS, and of course Colbert and Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show – but there IS a shortage of Black faces who host them.

With Wilmore’s departure, one wonders who might be the next Black person to get a late-night talk/variety show, and how long THAT one might last. In recent years alone, many have come and gone (one might recall DL Hughley Breaks the News on CNN and David Alan Grier’s extremely brief stint Chocolate News from 2008). Franchesca Ramsey and Jessica Williams, both Comedy Central affiliates, are commonly cited with the potential to fill the void of not just Black faces, but Black women faces on such programming (Ramsey was also recently featured on the MTV Town Hall on Race, “What Now?”). Is the issue one of ratings, or of just finding a balance that is Black enough for the demographic, but not “too Black” to turn off viewers from all backgrounds?

It’s likely that Wilmore and all those affiliated with The Nightly Show will have no trouble finding new work, given their Comedy Central credentials (and you can certainly expect Wilmore to resurface on Noah’s Daily Show at least a few times this election season). But will a Black late-night show host ever make it past two years on television? Or, with the rise of new formats – like YouTube/vlogs, SnapChat, Instagram’s elongated-video format, and even the growing popularity of podcasts – will Black late-night talk simply have to evolve and expand beyond just TV, to stand a chance?

Photo credit: Getty Images.