Larry Wilmore on How He Landed The Nightly Show and What He Learned From Jon Stewart

Plus, the last-minute name change

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When CBS tapped Stephen Colbert to succeed David Letterman as its Late Show host, many people assumed Larry Wilmore—The Daily Show's "senior black correspondent" since 2006—would be a natural fit to take over Colbert's 11:30 p.m. Comedy Central slot. But not Wilmore himself.

"I didn't think about it at all. I was working on the Black-ish pilot at the time, so my mind was trying to get that going," said Wilmore, who had signed on as showrunner for the ABC comedy (he previously created The PJs and The Bernie Mac Show). But his Daily Show boss, Jon Stewart, set his sights on Wilmore, and last May, Comedy Central announced that he would indeed step in for Colbert to host The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore.

The title ended up being short-lived. Fox began developing a series based on the 2002 Tom Cruise sci-fi film Minority Report, which would have forced Wilmore to use his show's full name on all platforms. So in November, the program was retitled The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.

What hasn't changed is the show's concept: a mix of Wilmore's unique comic voice and a panel discussion about the day's pertinent issues. "No one has taken the point of view of the underdog, which is my view of the world," he said. "And Jon's idea was to populate it with people who don't always get a shot in that landscape. So it's a combination of those two things."

Before The Nightly Show's well-received debut Monday, Wilmore sat down to discuss his new show, its last-minute name change and how mastering social media can be even more daunting than replacing Colbert.

Adweek: I understand why you had to lose The Minority Report, but how tough was it to make that title change so late in the game?

Larry Wilmore: Well, we made the call on the field, so to speak, before it really got too late. Part of our constructing the show was understanding how the audience sees content these days. They see it through social platforms—Twitter, Facebook—so your show has to live in those environments. And it was becoming very difficult to operate in those environments and having to use The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore as a complete tag all the time. We were being confined legally by doing that in all forms of everything, and it was becoming a nightmare. And I thought, "Guys, I don't want it to be March and we have to change our name, after we've already been on." I said, "Let's just do it now, before it really came to a head." It was in late October or early November, so there was still enough time. But the show didn't change, only the name did.

And the name change probably helped in the long term, because you've said your show won't just be about a minority view.

Right. The show gets to define itself, instead of someone having preconceived notions and either being disappointed or let down. With The Nightly Show, just like with The Daily Show, the show says what it is.

Who came up with the panel discussion format?

That was Jon's idea.

So is it going to be similar to Bill Maher's old Politically Incorrect? 

I would say, look at it as if The Daily Show and Politically Incorrect had a baby. It will be a combination of both those things.

When you heard that Colbert was replacing Letterman, did you really think about going after his old job?

I thought my window had closed. I had done a Showtime special [2012's Race, Religion and Sex] that was this type of thing, where I had a panel discussion and it was comic pieces, and I loved it. It didn't go to series, but I thought, hey, I had fun and I gave it my best shot. Some things go, some things don't. So I was very happy to be doing Black-ish and trying to make that work.

But a viral campaign started on Facebook and Twitter: "Oh, Wilmore needs to replace Colbert!" And it started from there. Then Jon came up with this idea and pitched it to me, and I was like, "Sure. I can't say no to that! I've wanted to do that forever!"

You had to step down as showrunner of Black-ish to do this. Are you still involved there in any capacity?

No, not at all. I joke that we still have a Batphone relationship, but that's about it. Which is actually true!

With every new late-night show now, it seems as if the digital component is almost more important than the show itself.

Absolutely. [Jimmy] Fallon was very smart about that.

So what will you be doing in the digital space?

We're constructing that from the beginning. We have a digital component, which we're calling Extra Nightliness, where people can keep experiencing the show on another platform. That will be everything from taped pieces to, if our discussions go longer, seeing more discussion there. And also the way that people can experience it, whether it's on Tumblr or Twitter or Facebook, we're trying to be smart about that now, as opposed to reacting to it later.

I don't want to ask what's the best advice that Stewart or Colbert have given you, but what's an example of something you saw them do on their shows that you want to emulate on yours?

Working with Jon was a lesson in and of itself. I've run shows before, I've done all that, but what Jon is doing is not only the head of that show, but he's the one on camera and there's a lot of different elements. And I've learned a lot watching how Jon did it, how he would manage things, and as the day went on you'd get more focused and more focused, so he wouldn't have to expend all his energy in the beginning. And people get a chance to really contribute in big ways before you weigh in specifically, instead of trying to micro-manage everything all the time, which would be so exhausting. That was a big lesson, seeing how Jon just managed his day.

Doing a prime-time show and a late-night show is apples and oranges, but how has the act of launching a show changed from back when you were doing The PJs and Bernie Mac?

Part of it is the social media aspect. People have opinions about what you're doing so much quicker, and that opinion spreads so much quicker. That's probably the biggest change. And you have to pay attention. You cannot ignore it. The viral factor can be the make-or-break thing for a show. On Black-ish, we were very concerned about that because the title had some baggage in the beginning. I remember we were showing it to some community groups, and I heard some black audiences were like, "I don't like the idea that some white people made this show called Black-ish!" I'm like, "No, no, no, no! Kenya [Moore] came up with this. This is his life!" They're like, "Oh, OK." But that's something that could have had a viral component to it that would have been impossible to put out. For no reason at all, they just had a negative opinion about something! So a lot of our energy was spent doing that, you know, as opposed to just making the show.

We've seen more product integration into late-night shows in recent years. Do you have anything lined up yet, for specific segments?

We'll look at those things, definitely. We don't really have segments quite yet, those will evolve on the air. But we certainly talked about it. I know Stephen did a lot of that, so I'm sure we'll do that as it comes up.

As you get closer to the debut, what's been the biggest hurdle for you?

The biggest thing is managing my time, because you have to do this every day, and there's only a certain amount of time in the day to get essential things done. So figuring out your schedule is the toughest part of it. Finding stories has not been difficult! That's the part where it's like, "Oh my God, I wish we were on, we'd talk about this!"

John Oliver was able to go into late night—when some people were saying, "How is this going to be any different than The Daily Show?"—and immediately make a huge impact and show that there's still a whole unexplored area in the late-night landscape. How much did that embolden you?

Hugely. I was concerned, too. It was very exciting to see him carve out his own space like that. And you're absolutely right. It told me, OK, just do your own thing, and people either come to the party or they don't. People could easily have said,  "I don't want to hear him talk about that, for that period of time!" You never know. So with mine, I have to be myself in this. I'm doing things that interest me, and using my particular skill set. And hopefully, people will come to the parties here!


@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.