December 19, 2014

TV: Hopefully, Larry Wilmore is More Than Just a Name

 



New host, new title, same problems replace the” Colbert Report.”

Comedy is all about timing and Amy Poehler was spot on when she said at the annual American Comedy Awards, “I think a lot of people ask ‘Are women funny?’ but I think not enough people make the statement that black people are funnier than white people.”

The next day, Larry Wilmore is tapped to succeed Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report.”

On first thought, the choice was an obvious no-brainer. Wilmore has been one of the funniest working writers and comedians of the past 20 years, a killer Senior Black Correspondent on “The Daily Show” and long overdue for something more substantial than a consulting producer title and the occasional acting gig. Then I heard the title….

“The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore” will debut in January 2015 after “The Colbert Report” ends its run in December.

While Colbert plays a character with a super right-wing slant, with Wilmore you can hear the slant already in the title. This could be a problem. Colbert plays the show straight while he makes fun of himself (and others) by lambasting idiocy from right-wingers or whoever. “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” make for an effective hour largely based on their dynamic of Jon Stewart as the straight man channeling an inner Walter Cronkite, while Colbert plays the raging Id that serves as cable news today.

The choice is inspired but leaves two huge questions: Seeing that Stewart is the faux-news kingmaker (google “Daily Show” alumni), does Wilmore have that gear to play off Stewart while headlining his own show? And, has this show painted itself into a corner?

Does anyone remember “Chocolate News” or “Totally Biased” with W. Kamau Bell?

News, like “The Colbert Report,” was satire that reflected culture but failed when the satire veered into proselytizing. It’s bad enough to have to explain your joke instead of letting the audience in on it.

“Key & Peele’s" success largely relies on cultural and racial issues as well but the trick is the duo shows humanity in light of everyone being, to some degree, the victim and assailant of cultural gaps, not one particular demographic. “Totally Biased” was good (not great) but not given the time or budget to succeed. Bell easily had the most diverse correspondent base but was afraid to step over the line that made his standup comedy amazing. It may only seem like a name but “The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore” already carries luggage from his predecessors. If the show went something towards “The WilMore Report” (carrying the same syllabic emphasis as Colbert), the show is focused on the performer, not a topic.

Ultimately, Amy Poehler is wrong when she thinks that not enough people make the statement that black people are funnier than white people. That’s a no-win argument. It’s universally accepted that Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby are the architects of modern standup while Cosby also revolutionized the modern sitcom. Without Dave Chappelle, there wouldn’t be “Key & Peele” or “Kroll Show” or “Inside Amy Schumer” or any other standup sketch comedy show.

In the end, people ultimately just want something that is funny and relatable. I am a great fan of Wilmore and he is a great choice but there is definitely something more to the simple platitude of “What’s in a name?”