In the three months since Larry Wilmore took over the post-Daily Show time slot on Comedy Central, his program, titled “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” has slipped with ease into its role as the antidote to an all-white late night lineup.
But while most of the attention around “The Nightly Show” is rightly centered on the program’s unique capacity to talk about race, Wilmore’s show (which is produced by his lead-in, Jon Stewart) has also positioned itself, rather surprisingly, as a unique forum for discussing family life.
In the first two months of the show’s existence, Wilmore and his roundtable of commentators (usually made up of celebrities and politicos) have tackled whether or not parents should be concerned about vaccines (twice), same-sex marriage, “black fatherhood,” the ethics of “designer” babies, parenting and the role of women in the black community.
The most direct example, which aired on Feb. 10, featured a panel discussing discipline and parenting styles:
Choosing to tackle these topics, especially within the first few months of production, separates Wilmore from the likes of John Oliver (another “The Daily Show” alum) and political comedy veteran Bill Maher.
Oliver has taken to investigating complicated political topics such as net neutrality and the voting rights of U.S territories on his show “Last Week Tonight.” Maher, whose “Real Time With Bill Maher” has a similar panel discussion format to “The Nightly Show,” sticks almost exclusively to satirizing and critiquing American policy and the politicians who make it.
Even “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” where Wilmore once acted as the “Senior Black Correspondent,” focuses most of its attention on gathering clips of cable news segments to prove hypocrisy and poke fun at the establishment.
And while Wilmore certainly dabbles in those waters at times (he recently devoted an entire episode to interviewing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio), “The Nightly Show” is a far cry from the policy-driven focus of his satirist colleagues.
Charlton Mcllwain, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, isn’t surprised at all that “The Nightly Show” has trended toward discussions of family-related matters.
Mcllwain believes that Wilmore’s experience as a prominent comedian and writer in and out of the black community — his producing and writing credits include “In Living Color,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The Office” — provides an important explanation for why his show tackles topics relevant to families more often than other late night shows, he said in an interview with the Deseret News National.
“Historically, family has always been a focal point for African-American comedians,” Mcllwain said. And that focus stems, at least partly, from the fact that African-Americans have been tasked with presenting a positive view of black families in America.
The belief that African-Americans struggle with middle-class family values gained special prominence in 1965 with the publication of a study on the economic concerns of black families by sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The study asserted that the black community was plagued by weak family structures, and that strengthening those structures was the best antidote to black poverty — a conclusion that, as the Deseret News National’s Lois Collins pointed out earlier this month, permeates through modern discussions of how to fight poverty in urban areas and continues to be debated.
On Feb. 4, Wilmore tackled these issues head on. He led a discussion with the hip-hop artist Common, comedian Mike Yard, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow and founder of the Center for Urban Families' Joseph Jones, on the impact of what Blow called in the segment the “pathologizing of black men” and black family life.
Common, Yard, Blow and Jones all discussed the role their own fathers played in their lives, as well as the damage the narrative of black inadequacy in the home has done.
“We need to hear this to clear up a lot of misconceptions,” Wilmore said in the episode, referring to the panelists’ stories. “Children are resilient, and cultures are resilient,” he continued, “and we learn from our parents in so many different ways.”
Academic research such as the Moynihan report, Mcllwain said, created a strong and pervasive image that blacks “grew up in a culture that was antithetical to American values,” and it has been the task of stand-up comedians and other pop-culture icons from the black community to “respond, correct or challenge some of these perceptions.”
In other words, many black comedians have worked to negate that narrative by openly relying on black family life for comedic inspiration.
As a result, family life has been a mainstay of black comedy routines for decades. Bill Cosby, despite his recent controversies, became one of the most influential comedians of the 20th century largely because of his positive portrayal of a black family in his stand-up and on his hugely popular prime time sitcom “The Cosby Show.”
Other television shows of the 1970s and '80s, such as “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” similarly sought to establish in the popular (and largely white) mind that family is central to the black experience.
In fact, Wilmore acted as show runner for a sitcom centered on a middle-class black family, ABC’s “Black-ish,” before he stepped down to assume the duties of his current late-night gig.
So as the media seeks to shake up content to keep up with the needs of an increasingly diverse audience, and as the family sitcom continues to struggle toward an untimely death, Wilmore’s attempts to discuss family life in a light-hearted, but often poignant, manner may prove to be a new model primed for an ever-jaded market.
JJ Feinauer is a Web producer for the Deseret News National. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: jjfeinauer.