What killed The Nightly Show?
A post-mortem on what the Comedy Central show got right, and where it went very wrong
The Nightly Show, Comedy Central's late-night successor to The Colbert Report hosted by The Daily Show alum Larry Wilmore, was canceled yesterday due to low ratings and — crucially — an inability to generate viral content. The cancelation was a surprise to fans and a worrying sign for Comedy Central, which has yet to recover from losing Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
The end of The Nightly Show — which has featured more nonwhite talent than most anything on TV — has understandably generated some controversy. Some blame The Daily Show's anemic ratings for failing to provide an adequate lead-in for Wilmore. Others cite simple racism. Others say the show just wasn't very good, or that The Nightly Show and The Daily Show are struggling against formidable opponents in Samantha Bee's Full Frontal on TBS and John Oliver's Last Week Tonight on HBO, both of which benefit from only having to produce one episode a week. Some think the panel format was doomed from the start because there just wasn't enough time to make it good.
I rewatched a bunch of episodes to try to test some of these claims. Here's what The Nightly Show did well, and what it could have done better.
News of the The Nightly Show's cancelation occasioned plenty of mourning, but any survey of Twitter (or comment threads) reveals it also sparked plenty of vengeful joy. (Type "nightly show" into Reddit's search engine to get a representative sampling.) Of this latter group, many said they were former viewers who resented its preachy tone; they'd tired of being "lectured." While it's true that Wilmore has a twinkly professorial vibe, I didn't remember getting this particular feeling from The Nightly Show, even in its early days. Wilmore's gentle riff on the disturbing video of Sandra Bland's arrest, for instance, pretty noticeably doesn't share the hectoring tone of any of the other clips he cuts to. On rewatching, I didn't find them preachy. However, I did find that the point of view the show took for granted — that is, the position from which it laughed — wasn't always mine. (That, some might say, is what made The Nightly Show valuable!)
Former English professor and current lawyer Jason Steed published a useful Twitter essay on humor a few days ago that seems applicable here. He observes that "humor is a way we construct identity — who we are in relation to others. We use humor to form groups and to find our individual place in or out of those groups. In short, joking/humor is one tool by which we assimilate or alienate. In other words, we use humor to bring people into — or keep them out of — our social groups. This is what humor does. What it's for." We feel actively rejected (or preached at, or lectured to) when we're not the obvious intended audience for the joke. This might have cost The Nightly Show viewers.
So, while The Nightly Show did what humor does — signaling in-groups and out-groups — the out-group was big, and it didn't take to being excluded.
A related criticism was that The Nightly Show only ever covered race. It objectively didn't — the show covered a wide variety of subjects including money in politics, science vs. religion, and the presidential race — but it certainly did deliver Wilmore's sensibility, and Wilmore has never apologized for speaking from his very particular (and crotchety) perspective. Still, if The Nightly Show wasn't always about race, it did feature a lot of black people talking to black people. That — to an audience accustomed to humor with assumptions about in-groups and out-groups that matches theirs — might register as being "race-obsessed."
That said, The Nightly Show had plenty of rough moments.
It took a long time for this show to find its footing. Stewart and Colbert developed personas for their shows, and while Wilmore did too, he never committed fully to a specific tone. The show varied pretty wildly in register, and when it settled on a format, it only worked as well as the version of himself Wilmore selected for that day. Typically, a Nightly Show episode consisted of a Wilmore monologue followed by a segment with a correspondent, followed by a discussion with a panel. Sometimes these panels went well.
But sometimes — when Wilmore was in a less interventionist mood — they went badly.
Take Bill Nye's appearance on the show to discuss the possibility of life on Mars. The clip garnered over a million views and turned into an intense online referendum on the show's quality. It's a case study in how not to run a panel. The segment begins with Wilmore (a nerd at heart) scuttling his nerdiness to ask whether "we should give a shit about life on Mars." This wasn't just implausible coming from Wilmore; it effectively established Bill Nye as the target and set the stage for Ricky Velez and Michelle Buteau to repeatedly and loudly talk over Nye, saying life on Mars doesn't matter unless it's big enough to see or there are sex tapes. Nye tried again and was interrupted again. "If it's Caitlyn Jenner's tears, yeah, tell me all about water on Mars," Buteau says, laughing uproariously.
This is the kind of television that makes you dumber; it was a waste of Bill Nye and a disastrous use of the panel format. Velez and Buteau got so invested in role-playing American ignoramuses that they forgot the basics of show logic: Let the guest talk.
Sadly, this was one occasion when The Nightly Show did go viral: People love Bill Nye, so it turned into an internet rage-fire that got more oxygen when Wilmore offered to answer questions in a Reddit IAmA. (Here's Wilmore's response; he eventually had Bill Nye back on the show to tell everyone to "let that shit go.")
The Nightly Show was also uneven comedically, often committing to extended, not-particularly funny bits. (Here's one example — start at 2:05). Or take Wilmore's coverage of the police crisis in Oakland when the department went through three police chiefs in nine days: Fourteen police officers were found to have had sex with the same underage prostitute, but the allegations took a backseat to a mildly amusing sketch in which Wilmore tried to interview the Oakland police chief only to have the interviewee replaced three times during the interview.
All that said, Wilmore's monologues sparkled when he was really on, and The Nightly Show was terrific when he relaxed into the most thoughtful version of himself. He was one of the earliest people to come out against Bill Cosby with deadly (and deceptive) ease, and his monologue on the Democratic presidential nomination is just a pleasure to watch. (Wilmore, like Stewart, is kind of a serious guy at heart, and his comedy works best when he lets those convictions and feelings shine through.)
The Nightly Show will be remembered for its more adventurous segments too, like when Wilmore interviewed gang members at the Baltimore Protests about their truce, or when he interviewed a group of Donald Trump's black supporters back in March of this year. He's also had Rand Paul and Gary Johnson on the show. The fact that those segments were as compulsively watchable as Bernie Sanders' appearance in January shows Wilmore's range and curiously goofy comfort with other points of view.
Some segments were just pure genius: Wilmore brought Neil deGrasse Tyson on to refute rapper B.o.B.'s claims that the Earth is flat. And The Nightly Show's roundtable on science vs. religion, featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson and pastor Carl Lentz, was more substantive than a six-minute segment has any right to be.
A kind of critical consensus about The Nightly Show, even among fans, was that the panel format didn't work: There just wasn't enough time for a conversation to develop, and it took an expert hand to shepherd people — most of them non-experts — into a topical exchange that's actually worth watching.
This was more or less my position too, largely because of the Nye thing. But after watching several panels back-to-back, I'm reconsidering. The bad panels really are bad (it turns out too many comedians will sink a roundtable), but there are so many good ones! Some worked well because of their guests — Jussie Smollett was a phenomenal panelist back in March, for instance. Others worked because of how adept some contributors have gotten at guiding these conversations (Jordan Carlos and Grace Parra are standouts). And some are terrific because of their subject matter: Whether it's black women and dating or the role of money in politics or Arsenio Hall on Donald Trump, I kept finding more panels I wanted to watch. For all its unevenness, The Nightly Show featured a lot of stuff — and a huge amount of incredible talent — that you just wouldn't see anywhere else.
That doesn't necessarily mean it belonged on Comedy Central; its audience clearly isn't there. But here's hoping a version of The Nightly Show finds a home somewhere new. We need it.