The departure of Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report was always going to leave a huge hole in Comedy Central’s nighttime line-up of commentary and satire. They were going to need a big personality to fill that hole and, man, did they make a mistake with Larry Wilm…
Sorry, I actually fell asleep writing his name there. Larry Wil… Damn, give me a second, here. Okay, Larry Wilmore’s great when he’s doing a three-minute slot on the Daily Show but, wow, he cannot hold an entire show for toffee; he just doesn’t have the chops for it. It’s like watching a cardboard cutout with an animated mouth. His attempts to be pally and knowing with the audience – who are at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – feel forced and, ultimately, flat. As for his ability to deliver a joke, DHL he most assuredly is not. Sure, John Oliver over on HBO, another relatively newbie satirical anchor, fluffs some of his lines, but at least there’s passion there. Oliver, like Jon Stewart, is physical in his delivery of comic truth. Wilmore just sits there, basically making ‘wonk-wonk’ noises like an adult character in an old Peanuts cartoon.
But Wilmore is just one of the problems with The Nightly Show. The main issue with the show is that it is essentially just more of the same. While the decision to go with an African-American host is cool (though the fact that we live in a world where such a thing is still actually of note says a lot about how far we have to go), we’ve basically just ended up with another man behind a desk being clever. Again (sorry Larry), if Comedy Central had picked a host with at least a rudimentary nervous system, perhaps that might have mitigated, a little, against the ennui of watching yet one more bloke telling us all how it is.
You see we already have Stewart and Oliver preaching from the pundit’s pulpit. What made Colbert different – and gave the satirical comment circle its edge and variety – was that he embodied a character, Colbert the GOP media mouthpiece and rightwing nut. Stewart and Oliver – and now Wilmore too – all talk as themselves, but the Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report was a comic creation, dripping with irony, a proper work of satire. It provided the perfect counterpoint to Stewart and Oliver’s rage against the machine by allowing us to laugh, ridicule and critique, all at the same time, the pomposity and willful arrogance of the elite – surely satire’s most important function.
That’s why – although I was prepared to give The Nightly Show a chance – I felt kind of depressed when it turned out that Samantha Bee, The Daily Show’s longest-serving regular correspondent, was not chosen to take over the Colbert Spot. It would have been a perfect fit. Bee’s correspondent character creation – a sort of fatuous, bigoted Fox News-style lady, waiting possibly either to become a republican wife or to run for senate as a Tea Party candidate – already inhabits a universe that matches perfectly with Colbert’s Bill O’Reilly-type animal. There was even a perfect narrative ready for the handover: “feisty female correspondent makes good to become first female anchor, etc., etc.” And that show, the show that never was – The Bee Report – would have been able to continue seamlessly with the pitch-perfect Republican news propaganda piss-take that today seems even more necessary than ever, given who now controls both Congress and the Senate. But I guess not even a satirical comedy news show is quite ready enough to put a woman at the helm just yet.
It is such a wasted opportunity – not just for gender equality on TV but also for proper performance satire – especially given what a snores-fest The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore is turning out to be. The powers that be could hardly have claimed that a show such as The Bee Report (keep saying it, because if you say it enough it might come true!) would have been more of the same, since that’s exactly what they did opt for, meaning that all we get now is a choice of male-centric sermonizing. That has its place, of course, but you need the performance satirical comedy alongside it, otherwise the commentary loses sight of what it’s actually about and starts to take itself too seriously. And then you get Bill Maher!
So, Comedy Central chicken out of doing something really challenging and innovative and plump instead for a poorer version of a format we already have; and instead of hah-hah, we get blah-blah; instead of the Bee, we get the zzzzzzzzzzz.