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An Uneven But Auspicious 'Nightly' Opener

Larry Wilmore brought The Nightly Show to Comedy Central on Monday night. i

Larry Wilmore brought The Nightly Show to Comedy Central on Monday night. Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Comedy Central hide caption

toggle caption Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Comedy Central
Larry Wilmore brought The Nightly Show to Comedy Central on Monday night.

Larry Wilmore brought The Nightly Show to Comedy Central on Monday night.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Comedy Central

It's perhaps not surprising that the strongest part of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on its debut Monday was the part that looked the most like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, with which it shares considerable DNA. Wilmore opened with an observation that the Oscar nominations are "so white a grand jury decided not to indict them," acknowledged Selma and said the words "Eric Garner" and "Ferguson" in the teaser before the show open even rolled. (What was on Colbert's show the "pre-eagle" moment.)

The first segment, which brought Wilmore to the anchor desk — the same glass-topped table he'd use later for the panel segment — was top-notch. Wilmore flitted from the ubiquity of Al Sharpton ("Al, you don't have to respond to every black emergency; you're not black Batman") to the state of protesting, including the success of a demand that Harry Potter-branded chocolate be free trade — which Wilmore called "the only chocolate that got justice."

Wilmore broke, however, with the formats of the previous Comedy Central late-night shows in the Jon Stewart multiverse when he introduced a panel in the second segment. The panel featured Sen. Cory Booker, musician Talib Kweli, comedian Bill Burr and Shanaz Treasury, the one woman in the group and the only one listed as a regular contributor to the show. With Wilmore, it made for a five-member roundtable doing a segment that was a little over seven minutes. That time consisted mostly of a series of one-on-one conversations between the panelists and Wilmore — and very, very little engagement between panelists. They then returned for a segment that Wilmore called "Keeping It A Hundred," which refers to, as he phrased it, keeping things 100 percent real, with realness to be judged by audience applause.

The "Keeping It A Hundred" segment featured things like Talib Kweli trying to answer the question, "When it comes to black images, is hip-hop part of the problem or part of the solution?"

Now, with all due respect to the people who make the show, that's a terrible question. It's somehow both simplistic and much too vague to answer. "Black images"? All of hip-hop is either solution or problem? Furthermore, any lawyer would tell you it's assuming facts not in evidence to take it as a given that hip-hop is (1) monolithic enough to categorize in either of those ways, or (2) either solution or problem. As Kweli looked at the ceiling and tried to make sense of the question by restricting his answer to "corporate mainstream hip-hop that celebrates negative images of black people," Wilmore again cautioned him to "keep it a hundred."

Yes, shows like this are always trying to generate conversation with sometimes outrageous prompts, but it seemed particularly unfortunate for the very first question to essentially equate any recognition of nuance — the understanding that the question is flawed — with a failure of realness.

Stuff like that is important, because this show is designed to be really smart as well as really funny, and smart comedy doesn't really need traps like that. My hope would be that they'll either come up with a different recurring segment or keep it to the more personal questions that worked a little better, like asking Treasury which side of the street she would walk on if a white person were walking on one side and a black person on the other. (She sidestepped the question by saying it would be based on which person was hotter, which somehow earned her an "I Kept It 100" badge even though it neatly evaded the obvious point of the question.)

The panel stuff needs a little work, on the whole, but that's entirely to be expected. Panel discussions are really hard, and they take time to settle into. It's hard to settle on the right amount of cross talk, and it's hard to get people into doing it if they're used to appearing on shows where everyone waits politely to be asked a question by the host. Getting the people on the panel into discussion with each other will give it more of the feel I think they want it to have, rather than just a multi-person interview, but the elements are there. It's great to see somebody experimenting with what to do in those 22 or so minutes, even if it may take a little time to get all the wrinkles out.

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