When Stephen Colbert Announced that he was leaving The Colbert Report to take over David Letterman’s Late Night on CBS, there was an understandable heaving of sighs at the thought of losing one of television’s most unique and talented observers of politics and the press. Colbert had forged a trail that had been unexplored for years and even brought his fake comedic persona into the real world with appearances before Congress, newsmaker interviews, and founding his own Super PAC that raised more than a million dollars.
While fans could look forward to his reemergence as the host of Late Night, the vacancy at Comedy Central gave the network the opportunity to build a new franchise with a fresh outlook. Their selection of Daily Show alum Larry Wilmore was a positive sign. He is a bright, experienced, likable, and truly funny personality. The anticipation for his premiere was bursting with hope.
Unfortunately, the reality has not lived up to the expectations. Rather than presenting a program that could carry on in the tradition of satirical media scrutiny and, when appropriate, ridicule, the Nightly Show took a lazier approach that mimicked what many cable news networks already provide.
The opening segment is the best part of the program. It features Wilmore seated anchor-style at a desk delivering his take on the news of the day. The problem with the show is all of the rest of it.
By choosing to conduct a panel discussion with people that are often neither funny nor interesting, the Nightly Show took the lazy way out. What made Colbert and Jon Stewart shine was their penchant for bringing together the best professionals to write and produce highly entertaining and thought provoking material. There is no way that a bunch of random people sitting around a table engaging in extemporaneous banter, that is mostly attempts to impress the other panelists, is going to have the comedic punch of a well-scripted and rehearsed program. It takes work to be funny, insightful and entertaining, but what the Nightly Show did was to fashion a weak copy of The Five from Fox News and then lean back for a snooze.
The Nightly Show has very little preparation or input from pros with a track record for producing laughs or connecting with an audience. Consequently, the Nightly Show, in this format, can never have the relationship with viewers that Colbert and Stewart have had. As evidence of its failure, note that almost every episode of Stewart’s and Colbert’s shows resulted in clips being posted online that got as much or more attention as the original broadcast. The same thing happens with bits from John Oliver’s HBO program, Last Week. But this has rarely happened with Nightly since its debut a month ago?
Part of the problem is the array of guests. Those who have been reasonably good were the ones with actual experience in show business. However, the politicos and press performed no differently than they might have on CNN. That is not what most people watch Comedy Central to see. And the worst of it comes in the form of blatantly exploitative hacks like anti-vaxxer Zoey O’Toole, and Amy Holmes, who reports for the conspiracy-kook/televangelist Glenn Beck. Why would Wilmore give someone like that a platform on his show?
However, even with better guests there is no substitute for professionals with experience doing the hard work of crafting good comedy. And that is what Nightly is missing. It’s not too late to retool the program. Let Wilmore unleash his proven talent as a comedian the way he did in his appearances on the Daily Show. Strip out the gimmicky bits (i.e. Keep it 100) that will only become tiresome over time. Wilmore does not have to imitate Colbert, but he can learn from the format that was always changing things up. Colbert had The Word, Tip of the Hat, Better Know a District, the Threat Down, etc., and he kept them fresh by not doing hackneyed versions of them every day.
There is still an opportunity for Wilmore to become his own kind of icon over time if he’s committed to putting in the labor and collaborating with other talented pros. Television has enough panel sessions with people speaking off the top of their heads and saying nothing of interest. Wilmore is better than that and I hope he realizes it soon and trusts himself to carry the whole show on his own.
News Corpse Presents: The ALL NEW 2nd volume of
Fox Nation vs. Reality: The Fox News Cult of Ignorance.
Available now at Amazon.
On a separate but related matter, there will soon be another vacancy on Comedy Central’s schedule. When Jon Stewart leaves, the network needs to replace him with someone who can fit the format and expand it to even higher heights. It doesn’t have to be a superstar. Nobody knew who Stewart was when he took the helm from Craig Kilborn. (Although if they could scrape up enough cash to hook Tina Fey that would be awesome). But there is someone who seems to be uniquely qualified and well-suited for the job. John Fugelsang is a talented comedian with a broad knowledge of politics, current events, and culture. He can pontificate on matters that are serious in a way that is engaging, entertaining, and connects with an audience.
Fugelsang has the TV anchor good looks that draw people in before they’re aware that they are about to be hit with a punch line. And he has experience with both hosting a television program and interviewing people from politics and as well as other walks of life. It was Fugelsang who got Mitt Romney’s communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, to compare campaigning to an Etch A Sketch, thus cementing his reputation as a flip-flopper.