It usually takes a while for a late-night show to get its feet under it, and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Comedy Central's replacement for The Colbert Report, is no different. It's still a little clunky, particularly in terms of editing, and it feels as if all involved are figuring out the right ratio of jokes to information.
Yet there's a lot to recommend here. This isn't an out-of-the-gate success like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, but that show only had to do one episode per week. For a series that airs four times a week, The Nightly Show is already on an impressive upward trend.
Let's look at the show's first week, element by element. If you haven't caught up, you can watch episodes of the show at Hulu.
The best thing about The Nightly Show is that it focuses on one topic in every episode. Some topics proved stronger than others. Tuesday's show on the rape allegations against Bill Cosby was a solid half-hour of television, for instance, while Thursday's episode tackling thawing relations between the US and Cuba suffered a bit from everybody involved feeling a little disconnected from the topic at hand. (Wilmore admitted up top that he didn't know much about Cuba, and it showed.)
The format of the program itself feels a touch rigid right now. The episode opens with a comedy segment, similar to the opening sequence from The Daily Show, where Wilmore sits at a desk and riffs on the day's topic.
From there, each episode heads to a segment where a panel of experts and comedians discusses that topic. These segments have received the most criticism, and for good reason. They're choppy and unevenly edited, occasionally feeling like panelists have had their points cut down simply for the sake of making time. Though this was the weakest spot of week one, it's also the most likely to improve, as all involved get a better idea of the time constraints.
The final segment, "Keeping It 100," is the program's chief innovation and best reason to exist. Wilmore asks each of the panelists a question they have to answer absolutely truthfully. If the audience judges they have lied, the panelist is booed. If they tell the truth, they receive cheers. It's a neat way to differentiate the two segments featuring the panelists, and it has a bit of a feel of an old 1950s game show to it.
Plus, ultimately, it's just cool to have a show devoted to issues of interest to America's racial minorities that primarily features those racial minorities. When white comedian Bill Burr made a joke on the panel in Monday's debut episode about "speaking for all white people," it was so funny precisely because the show often slots white men into the "token" roles minorities would play on other shows. There's a fun subversiveness to this that The Nightly Show will surely play with in weeks to come.
It's hard to find a good host for the panel discussion format, but Wilmore proves surprisingly adept at it in week one. He's convivial and fun to watch, and he makes sure all of the panelists are included equally. Plus, his questions in the Keeping It 100 segment are quick, cutting, and probing, exactly the sort of thing to keep his guests on their toes.
Wilmore has an affable quality to him that keeps the rest of the show skating along, even when a joke fails. Several of the show's correspondents — who come into the opening sequence to offer a quick "report" on some topic of note — are a little stiff and uncertain on camera, but Wilmore is great at drawing them out and getting big laughs from their presence.
As with all hosts in their first week, Wilmore has some jitters. The show keeps overloading him with false bravado that doesn't really work with his personality. But it's a promising debut and one that, notably, cuts against the personalities of most other late-night hosts.
Here's where the show really needs work. The panel segment, just by virtue of how it's presented, isn't going to reliably produce great jokes with every episode. That means the bulk of the comedy burden falls on the opening segment and the Keeping It 100 segment. The latter is consistently amusing, but the former succeeds or fails based on how adroitly Wilmore and company handle the topic of the day.
The Cosby and State of the Union shows did good work with their material, but both Monday's opening episode (which was too nebulous in its tackling of the relationship between black people and the police) and Thursday's Cuba episode suffered from a paucity of good gags. Fortunately, humor is another area where the show is likely to improve, as its writers figure out both the show's voice and that of its host.
There's a lot riding on The Nightly Show, and Stephen Colbert's shoes can't be easy to fill. But it has a cushy timeslot, between Daily Show and @midnight, so it seems likely Comedy Central will give it time to find itself. That it's already well on its way is what might be most impressive about it.
The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore airs Monday through Thursday at 11:30 p.m. Eastern on Comedy Central.