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From Ferguson To The '16 Election, Larry Wilmore's 'Nightly Show' Has Found Its Voice


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're closing 2015 with a series of some of our favorite interviews of the year - up first, Larry Wilmore. Last January, he started his program "The Nightly Show," which is on Comedy Central right after "The Daily Show." He'd formerly served as "The Daily Show's" senior black correspondent. "The Nightly Show" has become a great place to go for a comedic take on the days' news and occasionally for some genuine outrage. Wilmore and his team are especially good at addressing issues dealing with race, and that's perhaps the most difficult subject to talk about in America. We're going to hear the interview with Wilmore that was originally broadcast on Aug. 19, the day of "The Nightly Show's" 100th episode. We started our interview with a clip of his show from the previous week when he marked the one-year anniversary of the day 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo.


LARRY WILMORE: I just have to say, this past Sunday marked one year since the shooting death of Michael Brown and subsequent uprising in Ferguson that followed. And, man, I can't believe it. It's been a year already. Whew. I mean, it's crazy how time flies when you're in a constant panic about getting shot by the cops.


GROSS: Larry Wilmore, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on what you've been doing on your show. You joked on the first edition of your show that all the good/bad race stuff had already happened and there was, like, nothing left to say. Like, you're done. Since then - I'll just rattle off a list here. Walter Scott was killed by a cop in Charleston, S.C. Freddie Gray died in a police van. A cop pulled his gun on a black teenage girl and then sat on her as she was returning from a pool party in Texas. Dylann Roof killed nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The Confederate flag was removed from the State House in South Carolina. Sandra Bland was stopped after failing to signal when she was changing lanes. She died in jail, probably a suicide. A University of Cincinnati campus policeman killed Samuel Dubose. I know you knew that there was going to be racial stuff happening (laughter) but really, did you expect all this to be happening early on in your tenure on the show?

WILMORE: Terry, that is the - that is the saddest introduction to a comedy segment I think I have ever heard. Oh, my god.


WILMORE: That's - just a typical American year sounds like to me. No, that…

GROSS: But this is - OK, this is the stuff you have to deal with on your comedy show…

WILMORE: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: …And somehow find what's funny about it so that you can all...

WILMORE: There's not a lot. There's really not a lot.

GROSS: After the shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C...

WILMORE: Sure. It's horrible.

GROSS: Nine people were killed there, a massacre - really horrible.

WILMORE: I know.

GROSS: And then it's up to you to find something to say about it. I want to play how you handled it.


GROSS: So here's Larry Wilmore on "The Nightly Show."


WILMORE: Now, I have to tell you guys, we weren't going to talk much about this at all. I mean, seriously, we're a comedy show, right? I mean, what we built here isn't really designed to handle this kind of tragedy. And let me just say, I know we talk about race a lot on this show, but I think we can all agree this time that this is a racially motivated attack, you know? I think it's a...


WILMORE: But also, it couldn't be clearer when it comes out of the killer's mouth, right? But even with all of that evidence and on a day like today, Fox News just makes my [expletive] head explode.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Well, last night's deadly attack taking place at a historic church in South Carolina, the gunman's horrifying attack on faith.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The question is, was it a crime out of race or religion?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They could be calling it a hate crime because it happened in a religious institution.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So if we're not safe in our own churches, then where are we safe?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Although it's being investigated as a hate crime, there's still some pieces we have to put together.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Some look at it as, well, it's because it was a white guy, apparently, in a black church. But you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility toward Christians. So - and it was a church.



WILMORE: All right. I know you guys don't want to admit that racial stuff is going - that racial stuff isn't going on. But how can there be any doubt when it came out of the gunman's mouth? Let me remind you what he said.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I want to shoot black people.

WILMORE: He told his victims, I want to shoot black people. I think when he says black people, he means black people...


WILMORE: ...And not Christians.

GROSS: There's Larry Wilmore on "The Nightly Show." Did Fox News make it easier for you to find where the joke was because they became the joke in a way?

WILMORE: Yes, in that sense, absolutely. And part of you kind of feels a little guilty for even having laughs on that day. But then the other part of you feels like sometimes you need to laugh just to express some kind of emotion just to be able to deal with those types of tragedies. You know, there are tragedies that happen all the time in America, but there are certain types of tragedies that kind of pull us together and make us pause and give us a chance to reflect about where we are, where we're going and that sort of thing. And it's incidents like this that I think give us that type of opportunity. So, you know, getting laughs out of it - we're a comedy show - that's kind of our job, unfortunately. It is the biggest irony of ironies I think I've ever faced in my entire career, Terry, I'll be honest with you, that I would be mining this type of territory on a daily basis and getting laughs out of it.

GROSS: So I want to give another example of how you've been dealing with issues in the news. So this was after Sandra Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation, and a police dashcam recorded what happened. You played the video and showed how the police officer keeps escalating things. Like, she's in a bad mood and…

WILMORE: That's right.

GROSS: …Isn't being, like, totally compliant about it. But he keeps escalating things in ways…

WILMORE: That's right.

GROSS: …You keep pointing out, until he finally, like, demands that she put out her cigarette, that she gets out of the car.


GROSS: He threatens to remove her from the car. And I should mention in this clip that we're going to hear, we're also going to hear a clip within the clip of Don Lemon on CNN.


WILMORE: I saw a woman who was very irritated, probably having a bad day - most likely because she was pulled over - right? - smoking a cigarette to calm down, complied with everything the officer asked for. Then it got confusing because he told her to put out her cigarette but then offered to light her up by pointing a Taser at her head. Now, to me and most reasonable people, it's very clear that this officer was wrong.

DON LEMON: If you are being stopped by a police officer, whether that police officer is right or wrong, don't you do what he says until afterwards? Then you can sue him. Then you're still alive.


WILMORE: OK, first of all, I don't know who you're yelling at. And secondly, should one be on one's best behavior when the cop pulls one over? Ideally, yes, but most importantly, the cop is a professional. Right?


WILMORE: I mean, should he not have been on such a power trip? OK, now I'm yelling, Don Lemon, thanks.


WILMORE: Sorry, let me calm down for a second. I mean, it's easy to say, black people, why aren't you acting like the Dowager Countess when a cop pulls you over, right?


WILMORE: Oh, hello, officer. I'm so pleased you...


WILMORE: ...Unexpectedly dropped in on me. Would you like some tea I brewed in my glove compartment here...


WILMORE: ...Right next to my stash of weed you're suspecting that I have? God. I mean, yes, that would make sense. But on the other hand, the fact that we live in a world where black people have to strategize so they're not brutalized by police is insane.


GROSS: OK, that last line (laughter) that's not even a comedy line. That's just like a…


GROSS: …This-is-insane line.


GROSS: Can you talk about coming up in the writer's room with how you wanted to handle this particular story?

WILMORE: Right, well, that's our thesis point. That's the line that I'll say, look, here's what I feel is going on here at this moment. I had just reread Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" where he talks about those moments of escalation that police officers can go through. And he uses the incident, I think that happened - I think it was in Harlem? I'm not sure - where he carefully plots out - it's fascinating, Terry - of how each second there was a certain type of escalation that didn't necessarily need to happen, you know, and how much of it is the officer's responsibility to be in control of that. And that's what training is for. That's why training is so important in police work. It's to make sure your body doesn't take over what you're supposed to do because your heart starts racing and you just get into this mode. A lot of this I didn't even know about. You know, it's almost like you go into dinosaur brain mode, where that just takes over and you just act instinctively. And when you're acting instinctively on this kind of primal level, a lot of things happen - things like when we talk about systemic bias or those type of things. You act out in certain ways. And it's very worrisome to me - something that we don't talk about in police behavior towards certain individuals. And that's what I was thinking about when we were doing that piece, was Gladwell. Yeah, this woman had a bit of an attitude. She was a bit upset that day. I don't know what was going on through her. But I feel like it, still, regardless of that, the police officer, it's his responsibility not to escalate that. But to escalate it to pointing a Taser at her and dragging out of that car was so unnecessary. And also the fact that as a black person in America, when you're pulled over by the police, you have to strategize in a way so you - bad things don't happen to you, you know. It's just terrible. So…

GROSS: Are you feeling that personally?

WILMORE: Well, I have an interesting relationship with this. My father was in law enforcement growing up. He was a probation officer. And I've always understood the point of view of the peace officer, you know, because of my dad. And so, what's interesting is that, because I have that understanding, I think I'm a little bit harder (laughter) on police because I feel it's their job to be better than us in that situation, not to be on our level, you know? And I have buddies back in Pasadena who are on the force, you know, and we talk. I understand how difficult their job is and the things they have to face. It's very difficult. Police have to have one of the most difficult jobs in society today. But at the same time, I think, a person in that position, their responsibility has to be high as well.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, who hosts "The Nightly Show" weeknights Monday through Thursday on Comedy Central. Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, who hosts the satirical news show "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central weeknights at 11:30.

So one of your real issues is Bill Cosby. You do not miss an opportunity (laughter)...


GROSS: ...To go after Cosby. And to exemplify that, we're going to play a piece that you did on the Voting Rights Act...


GROSS: ...And on voting restrictions in which you still manage (laughter) to try to…


GROSS: …Drive to Cosby. So here's Larry Wilmore.


WILMORE: Let me just remind you to why we have the Voting Rights Act. Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson, who I've got to say is definitely one of my top five Lyndons...


WILMORE: ...Passed the VRA which prohibited any and all discriminatory voting policies. So no more literacy tests, no more poll tax, right? So what's changed? Well, in this case, they're not so much trying to revise history, as they are trying to revive history.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: The new rules reduced early voting to 10 days from 17, eliminated same-day registration, ended a program to preregister high school students and banned out of precinct voting.

WILMORE: They're making voting [expletive] than Bill Cosby at a sleep clinic.


WILMORE: Right? That's right [expletive], I haven't forgotten about you. I have not forgotten about you.


WILMORE: By the way, three more women came out against you yesterday, you sick bastard, all right? I got a Google alert on this [expletive], all right? In fact, the only reason I did this whole piece, the only reason I talked about Jeb and Hillary and the Voting Rights Act, the only reason why I woke up this morning, showered, put my deodorant on, tied my tie, spent an hour doing my hair, the only reason - the only reason I'm here tonight was so I could get to that joke and call you out. And let me just say, worth it.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK, that's...

WILMORE: Oh, my god (laughter).

GROSS: …Larry Wilmore.

WILMORE: Oh, man (laughter).

GROSS: So you were hardly alone in being angry at Cosby.


GROSS: But you seem to have, like, a special anger. And it made me wonder, like, do you know him from TV circles 'cause he used to...

WILMORE: Nope. No.

GROSS: You know, you've written sitcoms.


GROSS: It wouldn't have surprised me if you worked with Cosby....

WILMORE: Nope, never did.

GROSS: ...Or if you heard stories about Cosby.

WILMORE: Yep, that I have.

GROSS: You have? You'd heard about that in the past?

WILMORE: Yep, yep, yep. I think the thing that makes me the most - well, there's certain - several things about that that make me angry - the period of time that these things have happened over, the fact that these women have these allegations but people could care less. It was like, who cares about what women have to say, you know? You know, the whole idea of a powerful man being able to shut up all these women is so abhorrent to me. That issue was what really drove me first is the idea that a powerful man can just shut women up, you know? That's what started this whole thing. It had nothing even to do with the fact of liking Cosby or not liking Cosby. It was that simple issue. And I didn't even know how much of a feminist I was. And I realized oh, my god, I was raised by a single mom who had to raise six kids. I have three sisters. Larry, you've been a feminist your whole life. You really didn't know it until you've been presented with these issues. And it was the Cosby issue that made me realize how much I really cared about women's issues and how much I realize it's important for me to be an advocate for issues that aren't necessarily my own - to be an ally for issues. So if I don't do anything else - look, if the race stuff - all that stuff is funny. Even if that went away, I think me being an ally for women's issues is probably the most important thing that I feel I'm doing on the show.

GROSS: So your show started in January, on Martin Luther King Day, and it's changed. I think it's really evolved. I liked it a lot when it started. I like where you're going now. Describe a little bit how you've tried to, you know, just, like, toy with the format of the show...


GROSS: ...As the show was learning - as you were learning what the show's voice was.

WILMORE: For me personally, as the host, oh man, Terry. It was so difficult those first couple months (laughter). I mean, you're just in the middle of this storm, just trying to figure out how to do this show and wondering if it's working, if you even feel funny. And as I was doing it, I got a lot of counsel from Jon Stewart, which was great. And Jon was very tough on me, by the way, but tough in a good way, where he's tough with - Jon is always tough with the truth, you know? He gives you praise when you get it, you know, when you're there, when you're seeing it, you know? He's really - his clarity's really amazing. It's frustrating because he's - he always seems to be right, too. It's one of the most frustrating things about working with Jon.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: It's true. Even when you think, no, Jon, sorry. Sorry, Jon, you're wrong on this one. About a week later you go, he's right. How did he do that?

GROSS: Can you give us an example of something he said that turned out to be really good advice?

WILMORE: Well, absolutely. The biggest thing he said in the beginning - and he would almost say it with - not really anger, but maybe frustration. He would say, hey man, stop being a host. Stop it, you know? Just be yourself. Just be yourself up there. Just stop hosting the show.

GROSS: What does that mean? What did that mean to you?

WILMORE: Well, it took a while for me to interpret it. But what it is, when you're first starting a show like that, you're acting everything because you're not comfortable yet, you know? But you can't fool Jon. He can see right through that. So no matter how much praise I got about the show, Jon's like, no, no, no, no, no. You're pretending this right now. You're not owning it yet. You got to own it. You got to put your opinion out there, and you got to just get inside there and just be it, you know? We had these conversations several times, you know? And he would be more emphatic each time. And it was funny because sometimes he would do this - this was hilarious. I would do, like, what I thought was a really fun show. I thought, man, that was really fun, you know? That was funny. And so I'd meet with Jon, and he goes, so man, so how's it going? How did you think last night's show went? And I know that's a trap. I already know it's a trap, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: I go, uh, I thought it was good (laughter). And he's like, oh, you did? I'm like, yes, I did (laughter). I thought it was good. And then we'd start this conversation, and I'd slowly realize, OK, I get why he's considering it not what I should be doing. For him, it didn't matter that I got laughs or that I got this. He was always encouraging me to raise the bar, not just in content, but in making sure that my point of view was very clear and very precise and that I owned it and that I was myself. So he kept pushing me into that. So that was the evolution of the show, to be honest with you. It all centered around that.

GROSS: So you were describing how Jon Stewart told you you have to develop your voice. You have to have an opinion and own it. I want to play an example of a piece where I think you really did that (laughter) so...

WILMORE: Thank you.

GROSS: ...This is about the Confederate flag. This was before it was officially taken down in South Carolina, so there was still the controversy about whether it should be taken down.


GROSS: So here's your take on that on "The Nightly Show."


WILMORE: OK, for the record, the Confederate flag - it's not a proud symbol of tradition or heritage. It's a symbol of oppression and intimidation. That's not my opinion, that's an objective fact. On March 21, 1861, the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, stated that the Confederate government was based on the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. That speech is now called the Cornerstone Speech because that idea is the cornerstone of the Confederacy. You don't get clearer than that.


WILMORE: Now, some people say that Southern states should fly the Confederate flag because it's a symbol of their heritage. But if we flew every flag from our past, why aren't we flying the Union Jack in front of the White House?




WILMORE: And for the record, South Carolina, you don't get to make the heritage argument because the stars and bars hasn't been flying over the State House since the Civil War. It went up in 1961 to mark the centennial of the Civil War and, coincidentally, right around when the black people started with the wanting of the civil rights. In 1961, it was a reminder to black people that they should know their place. It has always been used as a symbol of intimidation and terror, and that's what it remains today. In fact, because displaying the swastika is illegal across much of Europe, skinheads and neo-Nazis often adopt the Confederate flag in its place. It's such a racist symbol that it does double duty as the backup racist symbol for another racist symbol.


WILMORE: That's crazy. OK, so for the record, I get it that plenty of honorable people have fuzzy feelings about the Confederate flag, but that's irrelevant. Their nostalgia will never trump the people who see it as a symbol of hate. And for a state to fly this flag, that hate is the message they send to their people. So for the record, does there really have to be a debate on whether or not you should take it down? Just take it down. You won't get in trouble.


WILMORE: Just do it. Do it right now. Go ahead. Seriously, take it down now.


GROSS: That's Larry Wilmore on "The Nightly Show." Well, you had a point of view.

WILMORE: That's exactly right.

GROSS: Clearly expressed (laughter).

WILMORE: Yes. And that - and by the way, that Jon called me up on those occasions and said that's what I'm talking about, man. That's exactly...

GROSS: Did he say that after this piece?

WILMORE: Yes, absolutely. He said that's what I'm talking about, you know? And I was like yes, I understand. I get it, you know?

GROSS: My interview with Larry Wilmore was originally broadcast on Aug. 19 of this year, the day of the 100th episode of his Comedy Central program "The Nightly Show." After we take a short break, we'll hear from the anchors of "Saturday Night Live's" Weekend Update, Colin Jost and Michael Che as we continue our series featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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