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Larry Wilmore, Casualty of the Late-Night Wars

‘The Nightly Show’ wasn’t ‘The Daily Show’ — and that made it expendable

Getty Images
Getty Images

One year and seven months after its debut, three months before the election, and far too soon, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore is dead. Late night’s massive transfusion of new blood has suffered its first casualty.

Comedy Central’s plug pulling is especially abrupt: Wilmore will keep it 100 one last time this Thursday. In the meantime, Chris Hardwick’s hashtag-heavy game show, @Midnight, will no longer air … at midnight, taking over Wilmore’s 11:30 post–Daily Show time slot until network president Kent Alterman decides on a replacement.

So why, exactly, was the state of The Nightly Show so dire that Alterman chose to yank it from the airwaves with no backup plan in place? How did it get there? And the eternal question in late night, where succession spats and PR maneuverings are getting positively Game of Thrones–y: what now?

Alterman’s reasoning was straightforward. Basically: It’s the ratings, stupid. “We’ve been monitoring it closely as for a year and a half now and we haven’t seen the signs we need in ratings or in consumption on digital platforms. We’ve been hoping it would grow,” Alterman told Variety. Later in the story, he added, “As much as we thought ‘Nightly’ was evolving creatively, it just wasn’t resonating with our audience.” And it was evolving: Wilmore never offered much in the way of viral YouTube clips, but his monologues were uncommonly precise dismantlings from a wry and impassioned perspective that felt increasingly well suited to the news. It was the show-size version of Wilmore’s “Senior Black Correspondent” Daily Show bits we needed and Wilmore himself deserved — and now it’s gone.

Wilmore’s viewership bears Alterman’s statements out, mostly. According to The New York Times, Nightly started its run with a steep dropoff from predecessor The Colbert Report, dropping from 1.7 million viewers in Colbert’s last year to just under a million in Wilmore’s first. In 2016, Wilmore’s average has dropped to 776,000. But Alterman’s decision-making feels too straightforward, almost, for an era when shows’ stock (and networks’ programming decisions) is determined by much more than raw numbers, given those numbers’ increasing inadequacy for measuring a show’s true cultural footprint.

It’s impossible to discuss Wilmore’s underperformance without discussing that of his lead-in. Under Trevor Noah, The Daily Show, too, has taken a hit: While Jon Stewart brought in more than 2 million viewers a night at the end of his tenure, Noah is averaging less than a million and a half. Proportionately, Wilmore has sustained a far larger loss. But Nightly’s struggles don’t exist in isolation from The Daily Show’s. They’re directly related to them, and to the relationship (or lack thereof) between the two shows.

In television, introductions are everything. Networks have entire departments dedicated to what airs when, before or after what; in late night, that scheduling process is simpler, but no less an art. Back-to-back hosts need to complement each other as much as they need to connect, providing something similar enough to retain the same audience yet different enough that said audience won’t be getting the same show twice (and change the channel at the first sign of redundancy). And of course, the second host depends on the first host doing well; they’ll never have a chance to sell the viewing public on their own act if their lead-in doesn’t hold the audience’s attention.

This is how you get Seth Meyers, who earns some leeway for his literary-intellectual bent from Jimmy Fallon’s unquestioned silly-dude dominance, or James Corden, whose goofy streak is the perfect chaser for Stephen Colbert’s more high-minded cocktail hour. And it’s how we got a pair of hosts whose chemistry, as much as their individual performances, was a tough act to follow.

In Stewart and Colbert, Comedy Central had a gift. They were longtime colleagues before Colbert earned his own spinoff, and continued to vibe long after. (Remember those insanely charming intershow Skype calls that used to cap off every Stewart episode, right before the Moment of Zen?) And yet their shows remained distinct: The Daily Show a generalist, “Weekend Update”–style critique of both news and faux-objective news shows; The Colbert Report a take on blowhard punditry.

Noah and Wilmore didn’t have that relationship. Both came out of the Stewart regime, of course, but Noah still hasn’t solidified the international perspective that would supposedly define his Daily Show. Instead, he’s floundered, a fact well documented by other critics and acutely emphasized by recent events, like the show’s first failure in 15 years to earn an Emmy nomination and the departure of star correspondent Jessica Williams. Instead, it’s often felt like he’s doing a lesser version of Wilmore’s show, a running commentary on current events that combined the ire of a Samantha Bee with the inclusiveness of a panel segment, an uneven but nonetheless defining trait of The Nightly Show. Except when the more concentrated version comes second, not first, too many viewers just see a rerun.

Unlike Wilmore, though, Noah inherited an institution, one that Comedy Central has a vested interest in sustaining. Which preempted the obvious solution to its late-night problem — if Wilmore is in better creative shape, why not just bump Noah and move up Wilmore? — and rendered Nightly expendable all at once. Alterman has too much riding on Noah to let him fall on his own sword, just like CBS has too much riding on Colbert not to throw as much publicity muscle behind him as possible. Wilmore had to stand on his own, and couldn’t — in part because he didn’t have a solid base of shared viewers to fall back on.

And so we’ve arrived at a curious juncture: Noah’s faltering is beginning to have a domino effect, while the original tile stays firmly upright. Going forward, Alterman faces the challenge of recovering from the optics of muting one of late night’s precious few non-white-dude voices (“And keeping it 100, I guess I hadn’t counted on ‘The Unblackening’ happening to my time slot as well,” Wilmore sorta cracked to reporters) while finding a replacement to buttress Noah, not just follow him. The Daily Show may not be the talent farm it once was, though there are some correspondents who might be up to the job; Hasan Minhaj in particular comes to mind. Beyond that, the search won’t be easy. Asking someone to pull an entire programming block back on track never is.