Larry Wilmore On 'Breaking Taboos' At The White House Correspondents' Dinner The Nightly Show host discusses his controversial performance at Saturday's event. He tells Fresh Air that his use of the N-word was an artistic decision.

Larry Wilmore On 'Breaking Taboos' At The White House Correspondents' Dinner

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This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. Was Larry Wilmore hilarious Saturday night at the White House Correspondents' Dinner or did he bomb? There's a lot of disagreement about that. Me, I thought he was really funny. We're about to hear how Larry Wilmore thought it went and why he chose to end it in such a controversial way. Still not sure what I think about that part. The dinner is an annual Washington press corps event that's also attended by a lot of celebrities.

The evening culminates in the president - the president of the United States - doing standup, followed by a guest comic who's the host of the evening. This year, it was Wilmore. President Obama is always hilarious and a tough act for any comic to follow. For the comic at the dinner, anything involving politics or the press is fair game. Larry Wilmore does that kind of comedy all the time. He's the host of the satirical news show "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central.

He has the timeslot that Stephen Colbert used to have. Let's start with how he opened on Saturday night.


LARRY WILMORE: Welcome to Negro night here at Washington - or as Fox News will report, two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in D.C.


WILMORE: That's how they do it. Nice to be here, though, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, or as you know they're going to call it next year, Donald Trump presents a luxurious evening paid for by Mexico.


WILMORE: We're very scared of that. But thank you so much. It's an absolute honor to be here tonight. I want to thank the president, the First Lady, Carol Lee and the White House Correspondents' Association for hiring me and Mitch McConnell for not blocking my nomination. Seriously, you've got to give Mitch McConnell credit. At this point, he could block LeBron James. He's unbelievable. But to tell you a little bit about me, so I am a black man who replaced a white man who pretended to be a TV newscaster.

So, yeah, in that way, Lester Holt and I have a lot in common.


WILMORE: And I have to admit, it's not easy to follow the president, man. You've got some jokes, Mr. President. The president's funny. Stay in your lane, man. You don't see me going around presidenting (ph) all the time, right? I don't go around passing health care and signing executive orders, pardoning turkeys, not closing Guantanamo.


WILMORE: Oh, wait, maybe I did do that. But I have to say, it's great. It looks like you're really enjoying your last year of the presidency. Saw you hanging out with NBA players like Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors. That was cool. That was cool, yeah. You know, it kind of makes sense, too, because both of you like raining down bombs on people from long distances, right? What, am I wrong? Speaking of drones, how is Wolf Blitzer still on television? Ask a follow-up question.

Hey, Wolf, I'm ready to project tonight's winner - anyone that isn't watching the Situation Room. No, all right, fine, I like Wolf. Fine.

GROSS: OK, that's Larry Wilmore's opening at the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night. Larry Wilmore, welcome to FRESH AIR.

WILMORE: Thank You.

GROSS: Whoa, when we invited you on the show to talk to us after the dinner, who knew (laughter)...

WILMORE: I know.

GROSS: ...How controversial you'd be. And we haven't even gotten to the controversial part yet.


GROSS: Did you hear that scream after your Lester Holt joke and that, like, that other, like, holler (laughter) after the Wolf Blitzer joke? Did you hear that on stage?

WILMORE: It was very difficult to hear any distinct sounds. All you could sense were collective displeasure for a lot of things.


WILMORE: But, yeah, I got a sense after the Lester Holt thing that I don't know if we like that, you know? But there were some, you know - but it wasn't too bad. But as soon as I did the Wolf Blitzer thing, I was like, oh, my goodness, I really struck a chord here. And it's so funny 'cause I really meant that as a more of a roasty type of thing, not like a - any kind of harsh criticism. And when you do a roast, you kind of, you know, that's how you kind of say things, you know?

But as soon as it came out of my mouth, I went, uh-oh, this is (laughter) not the right tone for this crowd.

GROSS: Well, what went through your mind when you thought this is not the right tone for this crowd? Did you think now all my material is going to be not the right tone for this crowd?

WILMORE: Oh, I thought, they have no idea what's coming up, you know?


WILMORE: They have no idea. And so in my mind, because, you know, as a comedian, you're also a producer of your own material while you're doing it. And so I start immediately editing the things that I know I can't do, you know? And I start cutting jokes as I'm going that I know have absolutely zero chance (laughter). So that's what I started doing in my head and then trying to just have fun at the same time and hoping that there is a connection, you know?

So that was the first thing that went through my head, was like, OK, well, let's figure out what's going to connect here was kind of what I was thinking.

GROSS: Can you tell us something that you decided to cut because you didn't think it would go over in the room?

WILMORE: Probably not a good idea.


GROSS: Am I going to lose all my listeners if you do that?

WILMORE: No, no, no, it's not that bad, you know. But some were just unnecessary, you know, or some I just didn't think were strong enough, you know. So there were a lot of different reasons, you know.

GROSS: Is there anything you improvised instead?

WILMORE: I didn't improvise any jokes, but I improvised probably after comments, you know, like am I wrong? And those type of things, you know. But, no, I did not improvise any jokes. I wrote a joke that day, I remember, the Harriet Tubman, Ben Carson joke

GROSS: You want to tell it?

WILMORE: It was - Ben Carson wasn't - came out against Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. And he praised Andrew Jackson saying he was a tremendous president. And I said, from the grave, Andrew Jackson replied, what did that jigaboo say? And (laughter) that was...

GROSS: Now, that was a real (unintelligible). People don't use that word (laughter).

WILMORE: Correct, but Andrew Jackson possibly may have used that word was my point.

GROSS: Yes, yeah.

WILMORE: His opinion of Ben Carson would have been starkly different than Ben Carson's opinion of him was kind of what the point was, you know? Especially at the expense of Harriet Tubman, for goodness' sake, you know?

GROSS: So you saw Saturday night as kind of a roast. Have you done a lot of roasts?


GROSS: Usually you're roasting a comic. And so comics can give it and comics can take it. But what was it like roasting people who were in the room who weren't comics?

WILMORE: You know, it's funny...

GROSS: And the camera was on them, you know?

WILMORE: (Laughter) I Know.

GROSS: I don't know if you could see that on, like, the Jumbotron in the hole.

WILMORE: (Laughter) No, I couldn't.

GROSS: But watching on TV, it's like, oh, there's Wolf Blitzer looking, like, really upset.

WILMORE: You know what - and I like Wolf Blitzer. I mean, he's a good guy, you know? It was just - it was really all in fun, to be honest with you. I had no idea the effect that all of this material might do by roasting people in the room, you know? And, you know, going through the material I just thought, I'm just going to try to tell the truth with these jokes and hit both sides. I wanted to really hit both sides fairly. Like, it would've been unfair just to make fun of, like, Fox News or one side or whatever.

I thought, no, I have to - you've got to be fair in this. You've got to spread it around. If I'm going to say something about Fox, I've got to say something about CNN or I've got to say something about MSNBC, you know? If I'm going to make fun of Trump, then I've got to make fun of Bernie and Hillary and make fun of Ted Cruz, you know? So I was trying to be evenhanded with everything, and as well as the president, too. The president's the ultimate guest of honor, but - you know, I have to do some barbs at the president, but you're trying to be careful with that, too, because he is the president.

GROSS: OK, so if you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, who hosts the political satire show "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central and, Saturday night, was the host-comic at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where his opening act was President Obama. (Laughter) Whoa (ph), that's...

WILMORE: You're very kind.

GROSS: ...That is a - such a tough act to follow (laughter) for anyone.

WILMORE: It's an impossible act to follow. He's not only very funny, but he also has good material. And he's so charming when he delivers it, too, that he's irresistible. He's the irresistible force, you know? So I feel it's impossible to really follow him. You know...

GROSS: ...Were you worried that he'd be doing jokes that you'd be doing, too?

WILMORE: Yeah, you think about those things, you know? And I thought he was going to come really hard at a lot of targets, you know? Like, people were saying, oh man, he's going for it, he's going to be edgy and everything. But he pretty - he did the same kind of thing that he normally does. He finds a way to do his brand of edgy and pointedness in a clever - he doesn't lose his charm when he's doing it, you know? Like, even when he did the Hillary Goldman Sachs jokes - it was very funny, but, you know, he can still maintain that support and relationship while doing that. He's very good at that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of the satirical news show "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central. And he, on Saturday night, gave the comic presentation at the White House Correspondents' Dinner following President Obama's comic presentation. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of the satirical news show "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. And on Saturday night, he was the host who did the comic presentation at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And his opening act was President Obama.

You were in the position of being an African-American comic at a dinner honoring the first African-American president in his final year in office. So it's really - it's kind of, like, quite an occasion.


GROSS: And you had to figure out, like, how are you going to address that? So we're now going to cut to the dramatic ending (laughter)...

WILMORE: Yes - dun, dun, dun...

GROSS: ...Of your presentation, which was very startling. So we're going to hear the lead up to that and then the very end and talk then about how controversial this was and why...


GROSS: ...You said what you said. So here we go - this is Larry Wilmore Saturday night at the White House Correspondents' Dinner following President Obama.


WILMORE: And this is your last year in office, right? So now your legacy begins. So I want to talk about what you're leaving behind - and I don't mean the black Jesus in the Lincoln bedroom.


WILMORE: No, I'm just saying make sure you take all of your culturally specific items with you so you can get your security deposit back, Mr. President. Quick impression of the next president moving in - what's cocoa butter?


WILMORE: That is - I've never heard of such a thing. (Laughter) But I have to say when it's all said and done, Mr. President, after eight years in the White House, we are really going to miss Michelle. We really are.


WILMORE: Thank you for being a good sport, Mr. President. But all jokes aside, let me just say how much it means for me to be here tonight. I've always joked that I voted for the president because he's black. And people say well, do you agree with his policies? And I always said I agree with the policy that he's black.


WILMORE: I say as long as he keeps being black, I'm good. They say what about Iraq? Is he still black? But behind that joke is a humble appreciation for the historical implications for what your presidency means. When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn't accept a black quarterback. Now, think about that - a black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team. And now to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world...


WILMORE: ...Words alone do me no justice. So Mr. President, I'm going to keep it a hundred - yo Barry, you did it, my [expletive]. You did it.


WILMORE: Thank you very much. Good night.


GROSS: OK, people are still talking about - I can't believe he used the N-word. So why did you decide to end that talking You know, you were about how when you were growing up there - just having a black quarterback was usually controversial.

WILMORE: Sure, absolutely.

GROSS: And you got such a big round for that and what you were saying was so heartfelt. And then you lost so many people with the N-word at the end. And, you know, like, Twitter and the Internet in general have just been going crazy. Can you talk about why you decided to refer to Obama that way?

WILMORE: Well, it definitely was an artistic choice that I thought of early on. And it's really hard to put into words - you know, one of the reasons why I set that up the way I did because what Obama means to me as a black person and to any black person really is hard to quantify in words. And, you know, the words that have been used against us over so long have been so charged and so horrible, and I wanted to take the opportunity to turn that upside down and to use it in the way that we've used it inside the community - not outside the community but inside the community - and not by everybody - as that show of affection that only we can understand.

And by putting that display public, I guess you could say, hopefully disarms the other attack of it. So I guess that was the underneath the artist approach to it. It definitely was a risk. It may not have been the smartest thing. I acknowledge that. It was definitely risky, but I thought it was a thing that I was willing to at least do.

GROSS: I think some of the African-Americans who were offended by it were offended for the reason that you just mentioned. You're only allowed to say that inside the...


GROSS: ...Black community, not outside of it. And you violated that rule I think in a lot of people's...


GROSS: ...Minds.

WILMORE: Well, you know, breaking taboos is a very dangerous thing to do. Making things public that aren't always public, you know, shining a light on something - you know, I've been called that word in my lifetime. You know, it's very - the ER version. And I made a distinction between the use of [expletive] against us and the use of [expletive] that we've used with each other. On the show last night, I said we conjugate the slur is what you have to do, you know? And...

GROSS: What do you see as the difference...

WILMORE: But beyond...

GROSS: ...Between the word ending in ER and the word ending in a?

WILMORE: Well, the one in ER is unmistakable is an attempt by, you know, white people to dehumanize and denigrate and demean black people, to make them less than human. And when we turned it around, it was our way of having camaraderie with each other, of using - of taking the power out of that word, you know, sapping it of its ability to dehumanize.

You know, and it isn't always the easiest thing to translate to people who aren't in that experience. But people who have done that - and not all blacks agree with that, and I acknowledge that - view it in that way. So that's, I guess, the best way to explain it, hopefully.

GROSS: Do you think it's partly a generational thing, too...

WILMORE: Definitely - it definitely is...

GROSS: ...Within the African-American community?

WILMORE: Absolutely, completely. And I acknowledge that. And by the way, I understand why people would be upset about it. I have no quarrel or criticism with that. I get it. You know, it is controversial. It is charged and all those things, you know? But part of it is a generational thing, and it is possibly a different way of just viewing who has the power to say what, you know, who has the right to be in charge of the narrative? You know, who gets to control what's being said about us or how we get say it, you know?

GROSS: Did you ask yourself beforehand how's the president going to be with this? And...

WILMORE: Absolutely.

GROSS: And what's it going to be like for him when everybody asks him what his reaction was as they asked his press secretary the following day?

WILMORE: The president was very kind and very gracious in his remarks because yes, I did run the risk of offending him. You know, and I wanted to make sure especially with the preamble that I made it clear what my whole point of saying that is.

You know, and as I said, it's something that not everybody can understand, but I feel that the president understood it and got it.

GROSS: Yeah, his press secretary Josh Earnest said yesterday to reporters that the president appreciated the spirit of Mr. Wilmore's expressions. I'm confident Mr. Wilmore used the word by design. He was seeking to be provocative, but I think any reading of his comments makes clear he was not using the president as the butt of a joke.

WILMORE: Absolutely. I completely agree with that.

GROSS: Another thing - you called him Barry (laughter). And...

WILMORE: Well, I was keeping it a hundred, you know?

GROSS: Right.


GROSS: But, you know, like, the thing is, like, with a president - like, he's the president. And you always...


GROSS: ...Use, like, honorifics in describing him.


GROSS: He's always, like, Mr. President and everything.

WILMORE: Correct.

GROSS: So just on, like, that basic level of calling him Barry - it was almost like taking a risk.

WILMORE: Well, that was stripping everything down to what that statement is, you know, what he means to me as an individual when I strip away the office of the presidency and strip away what this man means as a person, as a human being. That's why I've always said it doesn't matter what the legacy of the policies are. The meaning of his presidency is going to far outstrip that just by the mere example, you know, of him as a human being in there in the office.

And yeah, so - and by the way, Terry, it's very difficult for me to completely dissect and deconstruct what you do. I mean, a lot of it is an artistic expression and you just do it, you know? You come up with it - and it's not like I could do it as a thesis for a master's, where there's a lot of computative analysis of it. And I get it that people want all that from me, but much of it is creative expression, you know, when you're doing that, so...

GROSS: No, I understand. I always feel guilty for getting comics to deconstruct their jokes. Explain the...


GROSS: ...Punch line, please (laughter).

WILMORE: I know.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, so - yeah, but just, like, another thing about this. Like, I read some tweets from African-American parents saying I try to get my child to not use this word, and now I see somebody using it directly to the president, about the president. How can I explain this to my children? So what would you say to them?

WILMORE: Well, it was an artistic expression. It wasn't a state dinner, you know, where it was a policy speech or something. I was a comedian in a roast doing comedy. And yes, it was meant to provoke. And, you know, we're all having a conversation about it. And at that point, I think to promote a conversation with your child about that word and what it means could be a good thing, too, you know?

GROSS: So after your presentation, I went on Twitter to see what people were saying. Did you? (Laughter) Did you want to know?

WILMORE: Yeah. I mean, when we were - you know, afterwards, you know, we saw a lot of the comments and everything. And there was a lot of both negative and positive. So it was a very surreal moment all that stuff afterwards, you know.

GROSS: My guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of Comedy Central's political satire showed "The Nightly Show." He hosted the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night, where President Obama performed, too.

After we take a short break, we'll hear and talk about the sketch Wilmore did last night on his show which featured a Trump impersonator congratulating Larry for his performance at the dinner Saturday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Larry Wilmore, the host of the satirical news show "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. On Saturday, he hosted the White House Correspondents' Dinner, which culminates in the president doing a comic presentation followed by a presentation from the comic hosting the evening. Previous hosts include Stephen Colbert, Wanda Sykes, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and Cecily Strong. Wilmore was "The Daily Show's" senior black correspondent in the Jon Stewart era, and before that wrote for several TV shows, including "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" and "In Living Color." He co-created "The Bernie Mac Show." So last night on your show, last night on "The Nightly Show," you talked a little bit about using the N-word at the end of your presentation. And then you had on somebody - and I forget his name, but somebody who does a great Trump impression.

WILMORE: Oh, sure, Bob DiBuono. He's a comic. He's very funny.

GROSS: Yes. And so he was on your show doing a Trump thing. And of course...

WILMORE: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: ...This is about Trump hardly approving of your use...

WILMORE: Oh, yes, it's terrible.

GROSS: ...Of the N-word. So can - let's just listen to that sketch.



BOB DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) Congratulations, Larry. Credit where credit is due. You did an unbelievable job Saturday night.



WILMORE: Wow. Thanks? I mean, I thought maybe you'd come in and say something rude, like...

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) ...No, not tonight, Larry. I mean, you and me - buddy, we're the same. Brothers, really. It was fantastic.


WILMORE: Wait, no, we're definitely not the same.

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) Sure we are. No, we're brothers. I mean, from a different mother, except mine wasn't black.


WILMORE: OK, this is going to make me very uncomfortable.

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) Not as uncomfortable as the media Saturday night. I mean, that was fantastic. I mean, you killed them. Those poor bastards - I mean, they really are poor. I mean, so sad. They all dress like hobos. I mean...

WILMORE: I didn't.

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) ...You slayed them. And I haven't seen a black destroy like that since the Baltimore riots. I mean, you left that room like a CVS. You really did.

WILMORE: Wait, no, hold on a second. Now first of all, I was just joking. I did it in the spirit of a roast. I mean, it was all in good fun, you know?

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) But this is the big leagues, Larry. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. But you're inciting violence with your rhetoric. I'm so proud of you.


WILMORE: What? No. Violence - I did not incite violence.

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) Yes, you did. Look what happened after your speech - a fight. I mean, that's a sign of a good, divisive speech. I mean, come on.

WILMORE: Wait, hold on. Hold on. I didn't start - look, I feel like we have different standards (laughter) of what we think was a good night.

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) No, no - Wilmore and Trump, exactly the same. Simpatico. Really, I can't even tell where my regular, normal skin ends and where your black skin begins.

WILMORE: What are you...


WILMORE: OK, that's horrible. And we're not close. We couldn't be further apart.

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) You used the N-word on Obama. I mean, come on. So bold, so courageous, such a terrific choice. I was going to wait until my inauguration to do that, but you beat me to it...

WILMORE: ...OK, that's terrible. That is terrible. This is horrible. This is not what I intended at all. I can't believe it turned out like this. You're awful.

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) No, Larry, we're awful.

WILMORE: We are not awful. We're not in the same boat.

DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) Listen, what are you doing the next four years?


DIBUONO: (As Donald Trump) I'm going to need a running mate who will appeal to the blacks.

WILMORE: OK, no thanks.


WILMORE: No thanks. No, we're not all like - Donald Trump, everybody. We'll be right back.


WILMORE: Oh my goodness.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's so funny. That's an excerpt of last night's "The Nightly Show" with my guest, Larry Wilmore. I'm sure you knew you had to address Saturday night on your show last night, so how did you come up with that sketch as an idea?

WILMORE: Well, we were thinking of - you know, it's so funny how that process works. We just wanted Trump to weigh in on it, and it just came from out of that simple point of view - what would Trump think of it?

GROSS: This isn't the first time you've done a - how Trump calls people the blacks.


WILMORE: Yes, exactly. His words, not mine, yes.

GROSS: One of the things I think you do on your show is that you don't try to make it seem like as an African-American, you're the other and you have to, you know, speak to the normative audience of white people.


GROSS: You know, you are who you are. You have a lot of African-Americans who are correspondents for the show and panelists on the show - you know, as well as...


GROSS: ...White people and Latino people...


GROSS: ...And gay and straight people and so on.

WILMORE: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: But I thought you were doing that Saturday night, too, that you weren't doing, like - well, this is a normative white audience, so I will adjust my material for the normative audience because I'm not part of the - do you know what I'm saying?

WILMORE: Code switching, if you will.

GROSS: Yeah, that you weren't code switching, that you were just...


GROSS: ...I'm not going to do that.

WILMORE: Correct. Yes. That is (laughter) very much right. One of the things that I am proud of on the show is, as you pointed out, we have many different people of color on the show and Grace Parra, too, who's Mexican-American. And I've worked in television a long time, Terry. We've talked before, and...

GROSS: Yeah.

WILMORE: ...Many times, black people are reduced to one role on a show and people get to see just one shade, you know? And I like the fact that because they're - you know, we're all so different, we're put forth as individuals with different points of view. I know Mike Yard, who's one of the comics on our show - it's great when we get into a discussion about politics because we can have such different points of view.

And people don't have to think that we're a monolith and we all have to think the same or have the same speed - or even the way that we do humor can be different, you know? As you know, I'm very deadpan. You know, I can be self-deprecating, I can be sharp. And other comics who are black can be maybe broader or bigger or more in your face, and it's all good. We can be different. You know, we have different ways of doing it. It doesn't have to be reduced to one particular thing.

GROSS: On your show, on "The Nightly Show," you've had a couple of series about Obama. You have "The Unblackening" and "Obama Don't Care." Can you explain what both of those are?

WILMORE: Yeah, "The Unblackening" we thought was, you know, (laughter) was the shedding - America's shedding of the black presidency. Like, whoo (ph), man, these years are finally over. And it's kind of expressed in Trump's campaign - let's make America great again. Oh my God, can we move on, please? We get it. All right, black people, you've had your day. Fine. You're welcome. Thank you, you know? And that was kind of the comic idea behind it.

And the "Obama Don't Care" almost seemed like Obama seeming liberated by his last kind of year-and-a-half in office in kind of the choices that he was making, from his executive actions to what we called kind of the Afrocentric choices...


WILMORE: ...He was making to embrace his black side. You know, of course we said that as a joke, you know? But we just had some fun with that, you know? And - yeah, and so the "Obama Don't Care" came out of that.

GROSS: You're sometimes very critical of him. Like, last week you criticized his use of euphemisms in sending in 250 special operations...

WILMORE: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Troops to Syria and calling them personnel (laughter).


GROSS: Because you respect Obama so much, does it hurt when you think he's done something wrong and you criticize him satirically on your show?

WILMORE: I would not say it hurts. I feel like my feelings for him have to be irrelevant if I'm going to be fair about it, you know? Like I said - look, if my parents were on that dais, I'd (laughter) have to do jokes about them, and I love them, you know? I mean, that's just the way that it goes. And yeah, from Larry personally, a human being who loves Obama, you know, I admire the man so much. But Larry as a comic, I have to call out what I see, you know?

And when our government parses words, you know, when we're in engagements overseas, you know, sometimes I have a problem with that. It started in Vietnam, you know? Calling people advisers when they were - you know, people were sending their sons to possibly lose their lives for something.

Let's be honest about why they're going over there, you know? People know what sacrifice is. We can accept that, you know, for fighting for a cause we all believe in. You know, we've done it before. But let's be clear about what these things are, you know? I'm very suspicious about parsed words when it comes to sending our children to fight overseas, you know, because it's very important. It's a very important issue.

GROSS: We should take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of the satirical news show "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central. We've been talking about Saturday night, when he was the host and comic at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of the satirical news show "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. And Saturday night, he was the host of the White House Correspondents' Dinner and did his comic presentation right after President Obama's. And Obama was sitting at the head table just to the side of Larry Wilmore as he gave his presentation. So I don't know you well. I've interviewed you four times, which is a lot on our show (laughter).

WILMORE: And thank you very much.

GROSS: Oh, no, no, you're always so wonderful. I love having you on our show. But the impression I get from watching you on your show and watching you before that on "The Daily Show" and from talking with you, is that you're a really good soul.

WILMORE: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: And that you're also in the position of having to be very critical, satirically, of people, and I wonder if that's ever hard for you, particularly...


GROSS: ...On nights like Saturday night where you're lampooning people who are in the audience. It's your job to do that.

WILMORE: I know. It actually is very difficult for me. It's a very good question. I don't particularly always enjoy it 'cause it's not my normal mode of communicating, you know? But it's kind of become, I guess, my comic way. So you're right, I'm always in conflict with that. You're absolutely right. You know, I was very conflicted about some of those jokes, tone-wise, I guess I should say, but not content-wise. I believed in the content of them. It's - you are correct is all I can say (laughter).

GROSS: So what do you mean by tone-wise?

WILMORE: I was trying to find the right balance between what a roast feels like and doing jokes that I thought were the right type of jokes that I could be doing. You know, like when you're calling people out for something, having fun with that in a good-natured way and still being as truthful in the jokes as possible, you know, and finding that tone, you know, where it's not like I'm going up, I hate everybody. That wasn't what I was saying. You know, I was just pointing out the truths in what was going on.

GROSS: So I want to get back to the campaign.


GROSS: What are the things that you find most alarming in how candidates are speaking about race and ethnicity and religion?

WILMORE: I don't know if they're speaking about race in any thoughtful way that much. I mean, Trump has been criticized for the way he's kind of just throwing race just kind of casually out there - just that casual way he called Mexicans rapists, you know, or just really let that implication out there. Even if those weren't his exact words, he was fine with that implication allowing to just be there. And I thought that was wrong. And then the banning the whole Muslims comment is just so wrong and dangerous on so many different levels, you know?

It's funny, on the other side, race has had a different kind of impact. You've had this black lives matter movement, which has really gone after the left, which is kind of interesting. You know, it's kind of the way the left went after Johnson with the war, maybe, in the '60s might be an analogy, you know?

And that's led to some very uncomfortable movements, you know, because you have the old guard of the black establishment who completely supports, you know, that side, but then you have this new guard of maybe a young intellectualism kind of fueling this other we don't care about your prior relationship, we want you to address this issue. That's been really fascinating. You know, I never saw that coming.

GROSS: And you've been talking about that a lot on the show.

WILMORE: Yeah, because it's an interesting thing, you know? In my lifetime, certainly, the black voting bloc has been very monolithic with the Democratic Party, you know? I think that switched over maybe right before I was born, you know? So I've been in that world. And to see that kind of fracturing a bit and who knows? I don't know what's going to happen with that. Is that going to split apart maybe? Who knows in the next few years what that movement is going to do.

It's just - it's real interesting, though, you know? And I've always thought it might be a good thing to not be such a monolithic voting bloc, you know? But, you know, some of these things, they go over long evolutionary periods. I was working for Whoopi Goldberg years ago doing her show. And she used to have poker parties at her house. I don't know if she still does, but she's such a great host. And I was just looking through her library of books, and there was this - she had "The Black Almanac," I think it was called, from 1913 or something like that.

And it was fascinating, Terry. I was looking through it just to see what life was back then. Like, one of the things they - one of the statistics in the book was the number of lynchings that year. And I was like, oh, my God. You know, like, this is - it was such in black and white there. And it was just a - I can't even find the words for what that meant. But at the back of the book, there was this impassioned letter from someone.

I don't remember who it was. And I think it was a doctor - a prominent doctor who was imploring blacks to not be a monolithic voting bloc. But at that point, it was for the Republican Party. (Laughter) And I thought, that's interesting because now it's the Democratic Party. It's funny how that switched. But that speech could've been made in today's world, and it would have been completely valid.

GROSS: So it...

WILMORE: So I don't know. That's my dry political analysis of all that.

GROSS: So a question about preparing for Saturday night. I was trying to imagine what it's like to be sitting at the head table with everybody staring at you...

WILMORE: (Laughter) I know.

GROSS: ...Because you're staring at them and then thousands of people in the audience are, like, staring at you 'cause it's a huge ballroom...

WILMORE: I know.

GROSS: ...That the White House Correspondents' Dinner is held in. And, like, you're sitting next to the First Lady.


GROSS: And you're about to make this really huge presentation that everybody's going to be talking about. And you're supposed to be, like, eating and drinking and schmoozing...

WILMORE: (Laughter) I know, I know.

GROSS: ...And you're probably, like, a nervous wreck. I mean, how do you deal with that?

WILMORE: I know, and I was dreading that moment because I was like, what am I going to say? I hope I don't say anything - I hope I don't say the wrong thing to the First Lady, for goodness' sake, you know? But she could not have been more nice and just completely gracious and everything. She was funny. We talked a lot about a lot of different things. You know, and she was driving the conversation, too, you know...

GROSS: That's interesting, I was wondering if you had, like, thought of things to make small talk about...

WILMORE: No, I was too nervous.

GROSS: ...So there wouldn't be awkward silences.

WILMORE: I know. I don't know what to say to the First Lady. So how's it going? You know, I mean...


GROSS: Yeah.

WILMORE: ...I had no idea. How's that White House doing? You got any flat screens in there? What do you guys watch? You guys ever Netflix and chill? What do you guys do, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: Oh, I had no idea what to say. But we ended up - I knew that her daughter was choosing a college. And mine just did. And we talked about our kids for a little bit. And that was great, you know? She told me that they were about to make an announcement, you know, the next day. And so I was like, oh, that's interesting, you know. And we talked about politics for a while. And just to hear her views on things was so, so great. You know, she is - you talk about somebody who's real, she's such a real person and just so down-to-earth.

That was - I have to say, that was really one of the biggest treats of my career, also - the opportunity to just sit with the First Lady and have just a casual conversation, you know, especially before that was very, very cool. I'll never forget that.

GROSS: Do you eat and drink before a presentation like that?

WILMORE: Oh, I'm horrible. I can't eat anything. I nibbled at a little bit. And she said she hardly eats at these things, too. But - so I nibbled at a little bit. You know, I drank a certain amount of water. You've got to time your bathroom break properly, you know.

GROSS: I was just going to ask you about that.


GROSS: I know.


WILMORE: Like, the guy told us ahead of time, says, OK, now, I'm going to give you a signal if you want to go to the bathroom. I said, absolutely I'm going to want to go, you know? The last thing I want is during Obama's speech to have to cut out real quick or something...

GROSS: No, absolutely.

WILMORE: ...And then they're introducing me, and I'm running out like I'm at the Oscars when they're doing the acceptance speech or something.

GROSS: So after your presentation, your were on camera shaking Obama's hand and everything. But did you talk with him afterwards? Did he give you a sense of how he responded to what you said?

WILMORE: Not directly. I remember I was just kind of standing there. I may have been talking to Major Garrett. I'm not sure. And they were taking a picture on the other side. And Obama looked at me and said, Larry, come on over. Come on over. Get in the picture. Come on, you know? So he kind of, you know, scurried me over there. And I thought, oh, that's cool, you know, absolutely. I kind of ran over like a little kid. I want to play. Yeah, I want to play.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: You know, that's what it felt like. So he was so gracious and just very kind throughout the whole evening - yeah, and just made me feel very comfortable and very welcome before and after so...

GROSS: Larry Wilmore...

WILMORE: Thank you, Terry. I appreciate it.

GROSS: ...It's always so great to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming back to the show.

WILMORE: It's always an honor to talk to you, Terry.

GROSS: Larry Wilmore is the host of the political satire show "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. He hosted the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night. Coming up, we listen back to my interview with Jesuit priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan. He died Saturday. This is FRESH AIR.

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