After 12 years on the air, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart became required viewing during the Dubya years, when much of the nation was desperate to look to almost anyone else for political leadership. The Comedy Central series offered nightly catharsis in five- or eight-minute bursts, voicing the anger and frustration largely absent in the mainstream media, which had been snookered into war and barely seemed to realize it. Mocking Bush eventually became so synonymous with The Daily Show that some pundits even wondered whether Stewart would have anything left to do once President Obama moved into the White House.
Farce made Stewart, but it’s tragedy that’s allowed Larry Wilmore to finally hit his stride on The Nightly Show. When the Colbert Report successor debuted on Martin Luther King Day, Wilmore cracked that, as a comedian and a commentator, he wished his show had been around a year ago: “All of the good bad-race stuff happened already,” he joked, referring in part to the 2014 killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice by the police. “Seriously, there's none left. We're done.”
Except we weren’t. In the five months since Wilmore began his show, we’ve suffered the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Walter Scott in Charleston by law enforcement, the Charleston church massacre by a white-supremacist monster, and other incidents of racially motivated brutalities and indignities. As Stewart continues his victory lap, including the streaming of all 2,000-plus episodes of The Daily Show until his last day on Aug. 6, Wilmore has finally come into his own as a political authority after seeming to retreat from the position in earlier drafts of his show.
Wilmore’s laid-back demeanor is his most obvious departure from the comically overreacting Stewart and the enthusiastically narcissistic conservative-caricature version of Stephen Colbert. While Stewart performs physical comedy from behind his desk and Colbert basked in the studio audience chanting his name like a modern-day Mussolini, Wilmore plants his feet when greeting viewers at the top of each episode and gregariously but routinely sends up the fans shouting “Larry! Larry! Larry!” On set, he looks like the writer that he is.
When The Nightly Show premiered, it was easy to see Wilmore’s show-running past (on The PJs and The Bernie Mac Show, and hired for Black-ish until he left to host on Comedy Central). The easygoing Wilmore leaned back and handed over two of the show’s three segments to panelists, putting his trust in the collaborative semi-democracy of multiple perspectives (of comedians, artists, experts and politicians, many of them mugging for the camera) over the power of his single voice. It was a noble attempt that highlighted the diversity of people who deserve to be listened to — a refreshingly realistic array of various permutations of race, gender, sexuality, creed and comedic personalities — but ultimately a failed one: The improvised panel segments just weren’t that funny. (You try coming up with hysterical and thoughtful sound bites on the spot on national TV.)
In more recent episodes, though, Wilmore has reclaimed his roost, commenting more extensively on current events — and in so doing, reminding us why we needed a late-night host of color doing political humor with racial honesty in the first place. After a 15-year-old African-American girl was attacked by a cop at a pool party earlier this month, The Nightly Show provided a necessary history of the dangers of “swimming while black.” The mass slayings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were likewise followed by a powerful Nightly Show segment on the centuries-long pattern of white violence against black houses of worship. Last week’s daily updates on the diminishing political status of the Confederate flag added up to a deep and sustained discussion about the Stars and Bars’ meanings and persistent popularity.
It’s not that Stewart or John Oliver on HBO’s superb Last Week Tonight can’t deliver these kinds of segments focused on racial history from a minority perspective — but the fact is, they haven’t. There’s also something to be said about the rightness of hearing about black lives from a black person — a state of affairs The Daily Show also advocated in a painfully incisive piece called “Helper Whitey” that pointed to how the causes of oppressed groups — in this case, the undeniable racism of the Confederate flag — only gain currency when white dudes such as Stewart voice them.
With panelists now relegated to just the last segment, The Nightly Show is finally giving loyal viewers what they've been waiting for: a measure of relief, comic or otherwise, from the sanity-testing events of the day. When the show’s running on all cylinders, as it was on June 29, it’s as funny, emotional and informative as anything The Daily Show has ever put out. Wilmore told Clarence Thomas to jump into a hole for the ridiculous claim, made as part of the justice's dissent against gay marriage, that slavery did not deprive slaves of their dignity or humanity.
And comedian and panelist Guy Branum celebrated the Supreme Court’s pro-love ruling by poignantly and hilariously declaring, “When I was 14, I thought I was going to have to hide who I was for my entire life. Three days ago, my black president turned the White House rainbow. That's how drunk I got [this weekend].”
Co-panelist and trans activist Janet Mock then reminded us of the employment, housing and health care challenges that continue to plague LGBT communities, especially youth, on the margins.
I’d argue that Last Week Tonight aims more for edutainment — in the best possible sense — than catharsis. The global perspectives of the English Oliver and Stewart’s South African heir Trevor Noah, the latter based on his stand-up, provoke discomfiting self-examination — certainly a worthy comedic goal, but far from a salve.
Perhaps even more important than The Nightly Show’s instances of momentary catharsis, though, might be Wilmore’s Catholic, fatherly, pro-gay, pro–death penalty, space-obsessed, pop-culture geek “blerd” (black nerd) persona. In other words, he’s not just a spokesman for Black America but an actual human being with a bunch of needs and interests unrelated to his identity as defined by the U.S. Census. The jocular Wilmore also has a great foil in MVP contributor Mike Yard, a grumpface who sounds like a Muppet and hails from the Virgin Islands — a slight but welcome acknowledgement of the geographical and cultural diversity of the category of “African-Americans.”
The Nightly Show’s triumphs, though, are just as much Stewart’s as they are Wilmore’s. The Daily Show now counts among its literal and virtual spinoffs four series on three channels: The Nightly Show, The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight and Samantha Bee’s untitled, “issues-oriented” political humor show, set to debut on TBS later this year. These shows expand not just what political comedy and bleary-eyed late-night TV can be but, at last, who gets to tell the jokes. So don’t mourn Stewart’s retirement. He came, he saw, he mocked and he conquered.
Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.