SAM SANDERS, HOST:
All right. Listeners, before we start, just a warning. There are a few bleeped words and sensitive language in this conversation, so beware. But also, like, it's fun bleeped words and fun sensitive language, so it's cool.
My guest today is a man of many talents. He's a creator, a writer, an actor. And you're a magician.
LARRY WILMORE: Absolutely. Yes, I am. In fact...
SANDERS: How is...
WILMORE: ...I have a deck of cards in my hand now. I always have a deck of cards in my hand.
SANDERS: (Laughter) No.
WILMORE: Or I'll play - look, look...
(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS CLAPPING)
WILMORE: Hear that?
(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS CLAPPING)
WILMORE: That's a deck of cards.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS CLAPPING)
WILMORE: Been doing magic since I was a kid. It's been a lifelong hobby. But I'm a member of the Magic Castle. I've performed there before.
SANDERS: Stop it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WILMORE: It's just one of my things that I love but I, you know, don't do for a living. But it's just a nice - it's a fun hobby. It's a great escape just from everything else, you know? You could just go off and practice some moves. Or, you know, I do a Sunday Zoom with a couple of my magic buddies where we hang out.
SANDERS: Stop it.
WILMORE: And it's just fun.
SANDERS: I love it (laughter).
WILMORE: No, no. It is in - I embrace this nerd lane completely.
WILMORE: I have no reservations. You can't - no one can shame or humiliate me. I'll say, OK, motherf*****. Watch this trick. And they go, oh, f***. You're right. This is awesome, you know (laughter)?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. My guest today is comedian Larry Wilmore, creator of "The Bernie Mac Show," co-creator of "Insecure." He wrote for shows like "The Office," "In Living Color," "The PJs" and "The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air." He was also a correspondent on "The Daily Show." And he had his own late-night show a few years back called "The Nightly Show." Now Larry Wilmore is back in the hosting chair with something new on the NBC streaming service Peacock. It's called "Wilmore," obvi.
In this chat, we'll get into his career, including that "Office" episode he appeared in and why it probably wouldn't air today. We'll also discuss his thoughts on the recent protests and that one joke he made to Barack Obama in 2016 at the White House Correspondents Dinner. You'll hear that later on. But first, let's get back to the magic.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: Did you ever think about trying to make money from magic?
WILMORE: Well, there's an old joke. It's, what's the difference between a pizza and a magician? And the answer is, a pizza can feed a family of four, you know?
SANDERS: Oh. Oh. Oh.
WILMORE: And it's a - I said - it's an old joke, you know? So magic I never really saw myself doing that. I never saw myself as some kind of professional magician, to be honest with you. It was just always something that was fun.
SANDERS: Are any of the lessons of magic that you've picked up in your time with magic transferable to comedy and comedic writing?
WILMORE: Oh, absolutely. In fact, there's something about jokes where you're always kind of hiding something that you delivered to the audience, you know?
WILMORE: You're kind of hiding where you're going in the setup. And then, the punchline delivers that thing that the audience didn't know was going on. Kind of the setup is kind of your misdirection or your setup. And then, the punchline is, you know, that rabbit coming out or whatever you want to call it, you know? And it happens in different ways and in different combinations. But there - that technicality of jokes is very - it's very important. I'll give you an older example. Buster Keaton...
WILMORE: ...Was always one of my favorites, you know? And one of my favorite Buster Keaton scenes, it's a very famous scene - you've seen it - where his car's stuck on some train tracks. And he and his wife, you know, they're newly made. They're trying to push it off. And you see the train coming, you know? And there's this panic, you know? They're trying to push it off, trying to push it off. They can't. It won't move. And then he just gives up. And he puts his fingers in his ears. And the train goes by. And it's on another track, you know?
WILMORE: And yes. And we laugh and everything. And that feels like that's the joke. But that's actually the setup, because as soon as he relaxes and they go whew, a train comes from the opposite direction and destroys the car, (laughter) you know?
SANDERS: (Laughter) Nice. Nice.
WILMORE: And that's the real joke, you know? And to me...
WILMORE: ...That's what good comedy is, where you're already laughing at something. You're in the moment. Like, much of Chappelle's stuff has that kind of construction, where he's taking you on this thing. And you think you're laughing at something. But he's setting you up to have you actually share this other thing that he's getting to, you know?
SANDERS: Yeah. I want to talk about what you're working on now and what's in the future for you. But I think we have to start by telling our listeners all of the stuff that you've worked on before so they can really get a sense of who you are.
WILMORE: It's going to take up the whole interview, I'm telling you.
SANDERS: I know.
SANDERS: Add to this list as you see fit. You wrote for "In Living Color."
WILMORE: I did.
SANDERS: You wrote for "The Jamie Foxx Show"...
SANDERS: ..."The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air." You created "The PJs"...
WILMORE: Yep. Yep.
SANDERS: ...And "The Bernie Mac Show"...
SANDERS: ...Co-created "Insecure." On top of that, you were on "The Daily Show" for years. Then you had your own....
SANDERS: ...Late night show on Comedy Central following "The Daily Show."
WILMORE: Wrote on "The Office." "The Office" was for show...
SANDERS: And you were on "The Office."
WILMORE: Wrote, produced that.
SANDERS: What else? Keep going. Keep going.
WILMORE: "Sister, Sister's" come back to life on Netflix. People see the...
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.
WILMORE: I was a writer on that and producer. And...
SANDERS: Yeah. Which one was your favorite?
WILMORE: Oh, God. Back in those days or overall?
WILMORE: I think the first season of "The Bernie Mac Show." Nothing can compare to that. It was just - I was doing something different. I didn't know what was going to happen with it, you know? It was just kind of magical. The funniest all the time was probably "The PJs." We made each other laugh...
WILMORE: ...So hard on that show. I mean, the jokes...
WILMORE: ...We got to tell on that show were so much fun. But every show had its fun for a lot of different reasons. But we had a crackhead on "The PJs," you know? We had those types of characters.
WILMORE: I mean, how many times do you get to write that kind of stuff, you know, where he did lines like, well, got to go - crack don't smoke itself, you know? Like, that...
SANDERS: (Laughter) And we should just, like, say, the show itself - for those who don't know - it's an American, stop-motion animated, Black sitcom about...
SANDERS: ...An urban public housing project. Just the premise is kind of groundbreaking.
WILMORE: Yeah. But we had lines that were, you know, hardcore lines. I remember the kids were talking, and one of them says, Juicy, I hope I never get old. And he says, well, the statistics are in our favor.
WILMORE: And then - I mean, that's just a hardcore joke. But how prescient is it about what's going on and that kind of stuff, that we were talking about, like, that type of stuff in the late '90s, you know?
SANDERS: Listeners, coming up, we'll talk about Larry Wilmore's new show and deconstructing the year of our Lord 2020.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: You're about to launch another late-night show - what? - this month.
SANDERS: Tell folks what it's about.
WILMORE: The name of the show's called "Wilmore." It's on the new streaming platform called Peacock that's been launched by NBC Universal. And it's me coming back into the late-night fray in a slightly different way. It's - kind of more has the feel of what I'm doing on my podcast, where I'm interviewing guests and I kind of weigh in at the top of it. And we're kind of doing it in this new COVID world. Like, the guests are virtual. Of course, they're not in the studio. I mean, we have, really, zero budget.
WILMORE: I mean, so we spent all our money on these two monitors, and then I'm sitting - I'm, like, in the dungeon of the defense department or something, you know?
WILMORE: But we really did a good job just making it look good and everything. But it's very simple - very, very simple - just me kind of having that conversation that America said it wanted to have. So that's what we're deciding to have every week...
WILMORE: ...That conversation.
SANDERS: What is that conversation?
WILMORE: Well, this summer the biggest one was about race, you know? And America...
SANDERS: I have a theory about that conversation. No one actually...
WILMORE: Oh, sure...
SANDERS: No one actually really wants to have it. They only want to have a conversation about race so that it confirms what they already believe about race.
WILMORE: I wouldn't say no one; I would say a very targeted group of people don't want to have it (laughter).
SANDERS: OK. Explain. Explain.
WILMORE: I think there are many people that would like to have it, but there are many people that don't want to have it. I wouldn't say no one wants to have it, you know?
SANDERS: See? I think, though, even the folks that think that they want to, they want to have a conversation about race that never offends their sensibilities. They want to have a conversation about race that never implicates them. And, like, that's what I find frustrating, you know?
WILMORE: Well, I would - the other side never wants to have the conversation, period, because it implicates them, you know?
WILMORE: And so they want to stay away from that talk. So why have an implication about your people and your ancestors when you know it's guilty? I'll give you an example of this, Sam.
WILMORE: Like, in our literature and in our modern entertainment, let's say, and all that stuff and the way that things are depicted, do you know that you can't really show the true horrors of slavery to people right now? You really can't. You know why? Because people can't take it. They're not going to...
SANDERS: I never watched "12 Years A Slave" because I was like, nope, I'm good (laughter).
WILMORE: But also, Sam, that's even just a sliver of it. That really doesn't tell you, you know? But when you start looking at even some of the equipment that was used to shackle human beings and to torture people, it's devastating to your soul to think about it. So there's a lot of doors that people want to shut for very good reasons.
SANDERS: So does comedy help have that conversation?
WILMORE: Well, we're not having that hardcore conversation.
SANDERS: (Laughter) OK. Yeah.
WILMORE: I'm just saying, one of the reasons why this is difficult - because this is in our DNA. This happened to us. This is our - part of our story. And there's a lot of not wanting to have to feel all those things because we could say, well, that was in the past; we did that. But people have to understand that the past is linked to the present. It's not...
SANDERS: Mmm hmm. Yeah.
WILMORE: It wasn't just chopped off at some point, you know?
SANDERS: Well, and it's pervasive. I think a lot of white people this year are having their eyes opened to the extent to which race has been involved in every part of their lives - where you live, where you go to school, the TV you watch. Like, all of these things are influenced and affected by race. Like, people never think about why their neighborhoods are mostly white or mostly Black. And it's like, oh, there's a reason for that. There's, like, a reason for that that's, like, documented.
And I think that eye-opening that so many Americans are having this year, it is unsettling to them. It is very unsettling. And I see that unsettling in them, and I have no patience for it. I'm just like, OK, well, deal, you know? And I don't know. It's like, is there a way that comedy helps with that discomfort, the discomfort of enlightenment that so many folks are having this year?
WILMORE: I don't know. I mean, for me, that's just my approach to things, you know?
WILMORE: And this is just a subject that I'm interested in.
WILMORE: But I generally see the humor in almost everything. So I'm kind of twisted in that way, you know? (Laughter).
WILMORE: So that's how I shape the world, you know?
WILMORE: So I'm going to look for the satire in something or the twist in something or find the humor in things; at the same time, keeping it real when you have to or, you know, not dishonoring the seriousness of certain situations that they demand, but my point of view's going to be deconstructing it in some way where there's humor.
SANDERS: What do you think in the culture right now is in need of deconstruction, a thing that hasn't been tackled enough in that way so far?
WILMORE: Oh, everything as far as I'm concerned, you know?
WILMORE: 'Cause I think we talk about things on the surface a lot, you know, in our discourse. A lot of it is the way that media is consumed, the culture of it. And now we're in a social media culture where people are expressing ideas in one line or with memes or that type of stuff. So for me, I've always been contrary, and I've looked on both sides of things. And I enjoy doing that, you know? I don't take party lines on any subject, you know? I like to do my own homework, you know? And that's part of what deconstruction is is just because somebody says something - and even if they say something in anger - doesn't mean I have to agree with it, you know? It just means that they might be upset, you know? But let's just look at this thing. You know, like, with Black Lives Matter, like, I have no problem with the slogan. But it doesn't mean I have to agree with the organization. It's like, well, when did we have that meeting, that I'm supposed to agree with their organization?
WILMORE: That's a meeting I wasn't invited to. It's like, they're...
SANDERS: Listen; all these meetings I'm not being invited to...
WILMORE: (Laughter) Yes.
SANDERS: ...Like, the same meeting where they decided that we're going to call ourselves B-I-P-O-C now. Did you hear about that, like, BIPOC?
WILMORE: Exactly. Exactly. Who's...
SANDERS: Who called that meeting? All the Black folks that I know are like, what is this?
WILMORE: I have no idea.
SANDERS: And everyone who's defend - so BIPOC stands for Black, indigenous, people of color.
WILMORE: Right. It makes no sense.
SANDERS: So now, instead of saying people of color, they want to say BIPOC. And so I'm like...
WILMORE: I still don't know what it means.
SANDERS: Yeah. And so I'm like, why are y'all doing that? And then, all these people who are not Black are like, well, we did that out of respect for y'all. We're putting Black first. And it's like...
WILMORE: Yeah. No. Well...
SANDERS: What? I don't understand.
WILMORE: It's what the left tends to do as a fault is they just want to make something that was done with good intentions initially, they go down this rabbit hole of making it absurd, you know?
SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.
WILMORE: And you just want to take them by the hand and just slap it and just say, stop it.
WILMORE: Nobody's asking for that. Just Stop it...
SANDERS: Yes. Yes.
WILMORE: ...You know? They can't - they can never accept yes for an answer. They always have to push something until it's like, OK, no, (laughter) you know? Finally.
SANDERS: And they can never just be...
WILMORE: You have your yes...
WILMORE: ...But you keep pushing me until I - now I have to say no. Are you happy now?
SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
WILMORE: Yeah (laughter).
SANDERS: And it can never just be simple. Like, anything that feels simple, that's problematic. It needs to be complex and, like, too much. And it's like, I'm just - I'm tired. And I'm just Black. Sorry, guys. I'm just Black. I don't need the terms and the language and the this and the that. Just chill.
WILMORE: Well, it's because they celebrate nuance over clarity, you know? They put a premium on nuance where clarity is the thing that is more operative in the real world. That's how you get things done is with clarity. Nuance is how you keep talking about something until you're blue in the face because nobody can ever agree on something.
SANDERS: All right. When we come back, we revisit Diversity Day on "The Office."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: Do you - I mean, I hate to tell you about how you, like, find humor in this stuff. But, like, I imagine, in terms of, like, topics to skewer, topics to, you know, write jokes about, I mean, there must be a few things harder than coronavirus. Or is it easy? I don't know.
WILMORE: I don't think we'll be talking about the coronavirus because it's...
WILMORE: ...To me it's - I don't find that as a social topic. That's a thing that's more suited for the news, I feel, rather than what I'm trying to do, which is more how we're interacting socially and talking about the election, which we're going to cover, too. But for me, like, I could talk about performative protest versus productive because that's a conversation...
WILMORE: ...Not a lot of people are having, you know? Like, for me, it's like, OK. Thank you, NBA, for being woke and caring about everything. And you got Black Lives Matter on your basketball court. Good for you guys. Oh, you got it on your warm-up jerseys, too. Fantastic. Well, wait. OK. So now on your jerseys, what's going on there? So now one person's got education reform - this person, hands up, don't shoot. Another person has say her name. How about this, say your name. What is your (laughter) - I want to know who's shooting.
WILMORE: I don't need all this on jerseys. I already get it.
WILMORE: But say your name. I don't even know who's playing anymore, you know? You're so concerned about these type of things, you know...
SANDERS: All the jerseys just say BIPOC (laughter).
WILMORE: Yes. And to me, that - see? Now, see, Sam, you're laughing. This is what I mean about deconstructing and finding...
SANDERS: You did it. You got me. You got me.
WILMORE: ...Finding the humor. So it's not...
WILMORE: If you said, how is that funny? I'm like, well, let's deconstruct it. And we'll find the humor in it, you know?
WILMORE: But, Sam, it's f****** absurd. It's like, I get it. You guys care about this. But how much of this corporate rabbit hole are you going down, for Christ's sakes, to prove a point? I get it. And everybody's kneeling for the national anthem. So why are we even having the national anthem at this point?
WILMORE: If everybody agrees that we should be protesting, I don't even know - it's a waste of time even playing. If the only guy standing is the guy selling peanuts in the stand, why are we even having it?
WILMORE: And he's standing because he doesn't want to sit with that peanut thing on him, you know?
WILMORE: It just doesn't even make sense.
SANDERS: Or just, like, play another song that we all can agree on. Let's start out every game with, like, Beyonce's "Love On Top."
WILMORE: Thank you.
SANDERS: Everyone likes that song. That would be great.
WILMORE: There you go. Who's going to sit to that?
SANDERS: We're going to dance to that. We're going to do the Electric Slide to that.
SANDERS: We're going to do the wave to that.
WILMORE: So what happens is something that starts as a protest, to me - because this is how human nature goes - it turns into something else. It's got - guys, if we all agree on it and everybody's doing it, sorry, that's not a protest. That's an agreement.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.
WILMORE: And by the way...
SANDERS: You right.
WILMORE: ...I do think it is powerful that sports teams want to do - you know, they want to do some act to show that they're in solidarity. I got no problem with that. I'm not crapping on that at all. It's just, when it leads to this ad absurdum type of behavior that really has just no real meaning outside of us seeing it, you know?
SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and then that gets more coverage than the actual real thing that the NBA did over the last few weeks.
SANDERS: A lot of these teams across the country have promised to make their basketball stadiums voting sites. That's a big deal.
SANDERS: That is humongous.
WILMORE: That is a big deal. Yeah, that's...
SANDERS: You know? And, like, we're not talking about that; we're talking about the jerseys. It's - like, there's such a focus on image and not substance right now.
WILMORE: Yeah. And that's what I mean. That's direct action. So that is - those - things like that are pluses because, you know, now we're dealing with direct action, and that doesn't require sloganeering, you know?
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. In all the shows that you've worked on and made and been a part of, has there been any topic that you just totally and entirely refused to write a joke about?
WILMORE: Not me. You're asking the wrong person about that.
WILMORE: But, I mean - but I'm also an adult. I'm not going to be irresponsible and just, you know, put things that really don't belong in something just 'cause you want to have it in there, you know?
SANDERS: Yeah. I bring this up as a fan of "The Office," a show that you wrote for, a show that you served as consulting producer for. And you've talked before about one of my favorite episodes of "The Office," "Diversity Day."
WILMORE: Oh, yeah. That was fun.
SANDERS: This is the episode where you play a trainer leading the office in a seminar on racial diversity. It is this hilarious horror show of offensiveness. It's brilliant.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
STEVE CARELL: (As Michael Scott) How come Chris Rock can do a routine and everybody finds it hilarious and groundbreaking? And then I go and do the exact same routine, same comedic timing, and people file a complaint to corporate? Is it because I'm white and Chris is Black?
SANDERS: But you said a while back - recently, actually - at the Television Critics Association, you said that there was no way that the show could be produced today, and you - and I've also heard that you said that there were outtakes that couldn't even make the air back then.
WILMORE: I don't think you could do that episode on network television. People would have so many objections to it and that type of stuff. You know, when you were mentioning earlier about how people say they want to talk but they don't want to hear it, I think that falls under that category, where...
WILMORE: ...It just feels like we're not in the same culture. But yeah, I have to find that. I had some DVDs of the outtakes from that episode because when producing it...
SANDERS: Do you remember any of them?
WILMORE: No, not - it was just outrageous, you know? Just doing this Chris...
SANDERS: Come on. Give us a little bit. Give us a little bit.
WILMORE: I don't have anything to tell you...
WILMORE: ...Because I would be misquoting anything, you know?
SANDERS: OK. OK.
WILMORE: But I just remember that episode - well, that whole Chris Rock routine thing, you know, with Steve saying the N-word on television, you know, you just can't...
SANDERS: (Laughter) You can't do that anymore.
WILMORE: You can't do that today. Even though he's quoting the Chris Rock episode, you know, you still couldn't do it, which is crazy.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Couldn't do it.
WILMORE: And that was kind of his point, the character's point, that it's his routine, you know? He's just doing it.
SANDERS: Yeah. It's funny to hear you talk about this because I interviewed Rainn Wilson a while back.
SANDERS: And he said that, like, half "The Office" couldn't be made today.
WILMORE: Yeah, he's probably right. Yeah.
SANDERS: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
WILMORE: Oh, God. I don't know. I mean, you're talking to the guy who, at the correspondents' dinner, called the president, my nigga. You know what I mean? That's who you're talking to (laughter). So...
SANDERS: You can't see it, but I'm pumping my fist in the air right now. I forgot about that, Larry.
WILMORE: (Laughter) I mean, so remember...
SANDERS: Oh, my God.
WILMORE: ...That's who you're - you're asking me if I wouldn't do it. I'm like, remember who you're talking to.
SANDERS: Yes. I had forgotten about that.
WILMORE: I did something that 99% of the population wouldn't do. That's who you're talking to.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WILMORE: 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 nigga. You did it.
WILMORE: There was a rallying cry from people who said, yes, Larry Wilmore, thank you. That was the Blackest thing I've ever seen in my life, you know?
WILMORE: ...Of people who really got it and got what I was talking about, you know...
SANDERS: And I...
WILMORE: ...Which to me was so satisfying, you know?
SANDERS: And I'm guessing Obama got it, too.
WILMORE: He did - which, you know, was so awesome that he would. In fact, he was giving a speech at Howard, like, the next week, and he said, and as Larry Wilmore said - and I was like, oh, my God, is he going say my nigga in front of Howard, you know?
WILMORE: But he quoted the quarterback part of the thing that I I was talking about, that a Black man couldn't even lead a football team...
WILMORE: ...Which is the point I was making, you know?
WILMORE: But he was very, very gracious about it, very cool. He never once made it feel like, all right, nigga, we gave you a platform; I don't know what you're talking about there, you know?
WILMORE: Like, that type of thing. He was very cool about it. So that was nice.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. I'm going to let you go after this, but last question for you - when you write your last show, which I hope never happens 'cause you keep writing them...
SANDERS: ...And I want to keep watching them, but, like, when it's all said and done, what do you want the Larry Wilmore legacy or through line to be?
WILMORE: How about, he kept it a hundred? (Laughter).
SANDERS: There you go. All right, my fellow BIPOC, thank you so much. I really appreciated this conversation.
WILMORE: (Laughter) OK.
SANDERS: It was super fun.
WILMORE: I still don't know what means. But thanks.
SANDERS: Me neither (laughter).
WILMORE: Thanks for having me on. I really - great talking to you. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: Thanks again to Larry Wilmore. His new show is called "Wilmore." It's on the NBC streaming platform Peacock.
All right, listeners, don't forget. This Friday, per every Friday, we are back in your feeds with a new episode. And for that episode, you should be involved. We want to hear from you sharing the best part of your week. Just record yourself on your phone, tell me the best part of your week, and send the voice file to me at firstname.lastname@example.org - email@example.com. All right, listeners, till Friday - thanks for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. Stay safe. We will talk soon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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