Why a Podcast Was the Perfect Move for Larry Wilmore
In August, late night TV fans were shocked to learn that Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show had been canceled after just 19 months on the air. Comedy Central contended that the show had failed to make a significant impact, a claim which anyone who watched the show would find dubious (and that Jon Stewart himself challenged on the night of its final episode). After hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner just four months earlier, it looked as though Wilmore was about to become a major player in late night. Instead, the network pulled the plug less than three months before the election. The loss of The Nightly Show was a tough break for anyone who enjoyed Wilmore’s thoughtful reflections on politics and race relations. Thankfully, those who have been looking for his perspective in the Trump era had their prayers answers earlier this month when it was announced that he would be hosting a new podcast called Black on the Air, which would be broadcast on The Ringer.
If anyone was a good fit for the podcast format, it was Wilmore. As strong as The Nightly Show was, if one thing worked against it, it was time constraints. As a half-hour show, Wilmore only had about 21 minutes to look at the issues of the day, and while the show had plenty of great moments, sometimes it was easy to tell that he simply wasn’t able to cover everything he wanted to, at least not in the proper detail. This was especially true during the show’s panel segments. While the discussion on Wilmore’s panels was often intriguing, the segments only lasted about five or six minutes, and you got the feeling that they often had to wrap things up before they could get to the real nitty-gritty of whatever topic was being handled. In the podcast format, Wilmore has more time to take deep dives into important subjects and have lengthier conversations with coveted guests. The Nightly Show was a great program that was slightly hampered by time constraints; Wilmore won’t have to deal with that problem now.
We’re only two episodes in, but he’s already managed to get an impressive caliber of guests, as his first two episodes have featured Norman Lear and Bernie Sanders, respectively. Lear felt like an especially crucial guest for the Trump era. After all, who could do a better job of explaining how America managed to elect a populist bigot than the man who created Archie Bunker? In the interview, Lear talked about his experiences with his grandfather, who he characterized as a decent person who held some unfortunate views. While he denied that he was the specific inspiration for Bunker, we got a clear picture of how Lear was inspired by those around him. On Comedy Central, this interview would have been condensed into a brief segment, and while that still might have been insightful and entertaining, it was far more interesting to see Wilmore operate in a setting where he can engage with a guest for as long as he sees fit.
The Sanders interview was equally captivating. Bernie was a frequent guest on The Nightly Show, and in fact, he more or less announced his candidacy on the show. While Wilmore never explicitly endorsed Sanders and was critical of him from from time to time, it was clear that he was receptive to the progressive platform that Sanders was running on. In the podcast interview, they had a lengthy discussion about the rise of Trump, in which Sanders suggested that Trump ran on a fraudulently populist campaign, paying lip service to the needs of working class voters, but not offering any actual concrete solutions. While Sanders declines to directly say that he would have succeeded where Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed, you do get the feeling that he believes that had he been given the chance to oppose Trump in the general election, his own form of left-wing populism would have been an effective counter to Trump’s aimless rambling about how much he loves coal. Sanders and Wilmore also discussed how Trump capitalized on racial resentments, and how white America’s collective fear of The Other ultimately played a large role in his victory. Finally, the pair discussed how Democrats’ complacency on economic issues led to progressive voters being reluctant to embrace Hillary’s campaign, which was often viewed as being a continuation of an uninspiring status quo. It was a fascinating conversation that doubled as an autopsy of the disastrous 2016 election. There was also an obvious mutual respect between Wilmore and Sanders that made the interview quite enjoyable to digest, even when dark subjects were touched upon.
Granted, as great as all of this is, it’s still a shame that Wilmore no longer has the prime real estate of an 11:30pm time slot. In The Nightly Show‘s brief run, Wilmore revealed himself to be one of America’s most intelligent and reasoned political commentators. Because of that, one can’t help but wish he still had a show where he could hold a captive audience and challenge the apolitical humor of Jimmy Fallon. That being said, a podcast is the perfect format for Wilmore; it’s always been clear that he’s more interested in lengthy, detailed discussions than easily digestible five-minute segments. With Black on the Air, Wilmore has enough time to say everything he wants to say and discuss every possible subject with his guests. The show is already off to a strong start, and there’s plenty of reason to think it will only get better from here.