I come not to bury Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show — Comedy Central has already taken care of that. Nor do I come to dance on its grave — Larry Wilmore has already taken care of that.
I come to humbly point out why I stopped tuning in.
My colleague Caroline Framke explained that part of the reason the show wasn’t renewed was because it lacked the ability to live on the internet.
"The Nightly Show was never built to produce shareable content in the first place," Framke wrote. "While all the segments make sense in context of the show itself, the majority of them aren’t very conducive to being lifted out and shared as standalone clips."
One of those unshareable Nightly Show segments is a roundtable discussion that mimics Real Time with Bill Maher. Why an executive or a showrunner would think that a designer-impostor Real Time with Bill Maher was going to be a hit with social media-sharing millennials who enjoy "Samantha Bee plunging the hot spear of truth into men who don’t understand abortion!!!" or "John Oliver eviscerating Dr. Oz and his snake oil!!!" mystifies me.
But The Nightly Show did have one viral hit from its roundtable, just not in the way it intended.
This roundtable is why I’m not sad to see The Nightly Show say goodbye
Back in September, the show invited Bill Nye the Science Guy to talk about the discovery of liquid water on Mars and created one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences in recent memory (above).
At the time, water on Mars was a huge scientific breakthrough, and Nye was going to explain the meaning of the discovery in plain English for those of us who don’t get the magnitude of the finding. In Nightly Show fashion, Nye was joined by alleged comedians Ricky Velez and Michelle Buteau.
"You and I, everybody, fungi, oak trees, sea jellies — everybody is descendent from Martians. It is wild," Nye says, explaining the theory that water on Mars could perhaps explain life on Earth.
"Are we alone in the universe? And more importantly perhaps, where did we all come from?" he adds.
Nye’s genuine, earnest explanation is met by Velez yelling.
"I’m not worried about Mars. Why would I be excited about Mars? I’m barely excited about Earth," Velez yells. "Trump is first in polls right now!"
Buteau chimes in too.
"If it’s Caitlyn Jenner’s tears, tell me about that water on Mars," she says.
Therein is the problem: You have two comedians, and Wilmore, peacocking for laughs and attention and Nye trying to explain something in a way to get people interested. It’s imbalanced. There are interruptions, snark for snark’s sake, and three people trying to drag down the conversation to prove their humor.
The main argument that Velez and Buteau are making is that the human brain is only capable of thinking of one important thing at the time. That we’re only capable of conceptualizing things in mutually exclusive terms. Which I suppose is a weird stripe of unintentional comedy.
Nye is a good sport, but there are points where it’s almost disrespectful. And the only genuinely hilarious part is when Nye gets in a burn when Buteau poses an idiotic question:
It’s not bad to care about things
The frustrating part is that there’s a way to make this segment funny, and it’s something that Stephen Colbert was really good at with The Colbert Report. Colbert’s persona on that show allowed him to get into the sort of weird, hilarious territory I’m assuming The Nightly Show was aiming for. But Colbert never lost sight of letting his guests shine, and framed his comedy in a way that showed that he genuinely cared about what they were talking about.
This Maurice Sendak interview shows Colbert at his best. It’s an entire interview about children’s books — a seemingly frivolous subject — and it talks about how they can be dumb and terrible, but not at Sendak’s expense. It also manages to shed light on what makes Sendak so special (just listen to way he talks about the lost art of illustration at around 4:40):
When asked during a Reddit AMA about his panels with comedians, Wilmore gave a puzzling answer.
"It's funny," Wilmore wrote. "When we have expert panels, no one's interested in that. You just can't really please people."
There’s no care in that Bill Nye Nightly Show segment. No listening. Just jokes.
Larry Wilmore is hilarious. That’s the biggest shame.
The sad part in this cancelation is that Larry Wilmore is and can be a hilarious human being. He’s shown us that he can be hilarious and engaging about the topics that he’s tackling on The Nightly Show — race, the media, politics.
During his monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year, he displayed his cutting ability to make laughs bump up against groans, and a particular Brian Williams-Lester Holt zinger that I can’t help but think about today. (MSNBC announced that Brian Williams would be getting a show the day Comedy Central announced Wilmore’s cancelation.)
It’s not hard to see why Comedy Central would try to take advantage of Wilmore’s strengths and think a more free-form type of segment would let him shine and crack his one-liners. That would have been fine, but there was this constant need to add in more "snarky" comedians when Wilmore could have been enough. And that was enough for me.