Larry Wilmore, formerly the Senior Black Correspondent on "The Daily Show" -- a fake title for a fake news show -- Monday night assumed the real title of host of "The Nightly Show," Comedy Central's quite promising replacement series for the departed "The Colbert Report."
"Brother finally gets a show on late-night TV," he said at the top of the half-hour, "but of course he has to work on Martin Luther King Day."
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post called John Oliver's talk show "This Week Tonight." It is "Last Week Tonight."
Wilmore is now in the enviable, unenviable new position of having to follow a phenomenon: Stephen Colbert, who will be stepping out of his fake-pundit suit to host CBS' "The Late Show" come September. As the person behind and inside that character, Colbert was a cultural cult figure whose ironic self-importance let him (ironically) leave a mark on real world: At least four different insects, an ice cream flavor and a space-station treadmill have been named for him. He is the very definition of a hard act to follow.
But Colbert also came from "The Daily Show," whose success he had to live up to. Wilmore is a logical choice to succeed him -- political and social comment, which the time slot was as good as required to maintain, were already his stock in trade -- and that he's black makes a useful contrast to the Colbert character's extreme whiteness. The show, originally titled "The Minority Report" -- it was changed in deference to another series being developed from the Tom Cruise movie of that name -- has been designed expressly to engage "underrepresented" people and views.
In any case, Wilmore was off to a good start Monday night -- a little muted, which is his style anyway, and a little tentative, as would be expected. But he landed some punches and clearly had more than a little fun.
"I am so excited to be here," Wilmore said. "I feel like there's so much to talk about -- especially if I had the show a year ago. ... All of the good bad race stuff happened already. Seriously, we're done." Irony is still the order of the day at 11:30 p.m.
Where Jon Stewart's persona (much like that of another "Daily Show" veteran, John Oliver, on his "Last Week Tonight") is of a sensible man driven to distraction by the insanity of the world and the hypocrisy of the media, and Colbert's was (to reduce it to its outer shell) of a stern, self-loving nitwit, Wilmore's presence is friendly and avuncular. He chuckles often. There is a sting to his humor, but it comes swaddled in a deceptive softness.
Outrage is the default setting of the sort of news shows that "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" parody, but that is not Wilmore's affect; you might take him for a history professor, or a guidance counselor, or a dentist. Tonally, he has something in common with Kamau Bell, whose own late-night black-themed current-events comedy and talk show "Totally Biased," ran on FX, then on FXX, in 2012 and 2013. Bemusement is more his style.
Indeed, though he is not yet a household name, Wilmore has thrived for years as an industry insider, a writer on "In Living Color" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," creator of the great "The Bernie Mac Show" and co-creator of "The PJs," Eddie Murphy's controversial, ghetto-set, stop-motion sitcom. Lately, he was executive producer on ABC's "Black-ish."
As with "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," the "Nightly Show" set borrows the look of cable news shows -- cool colors, spaceship lights, a certain pomposity of design. The host, wearing a dark suit, dark shirt and dark tie, sat front and center before an upside-down map of the world, anything but pompous.
Wilmore opened his "anchor" segment with riffs on the Academy Award nominations: "So white a grand jury has decided not to indict them." He spoke about Ferguson and other protests, including the Eric Garner-inspired "die-ins" at New York's Grand Central Station. ("There's no better way to win the hearts and minds of white people than making them miss their train to Connecticut.") Of a Florida police department using images of minority men for target practice he said, "That story was reported way back today."
In the second half, the host was joined by a panel consisting of Sen. Cory Booker, comedian Bill Burr ("the white foil"); rapper Talib Kweli and show "contributor" Shenaz Treasury. It's a page taken from Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect," and it could benefit from potentially more antagonistic set of voices than Monday night convened.
After some general discussion of the uses, abuses and effects of protest, they moved on to a more productive segment called Keep It 100 (as in "100% real").
"I guess the white version is Truth or Dare," Wilmore said, "except here we don't have the dare."
Wilmore asked Kweli whether "when it comes to black images" hip-hop was part of the problem or part of the solution. Kweli went with "It's a symptom." Burr, whose wife is black, was asked to choose the race of his child. ("White all the way," he said, for the obvious advantages.) Treasury was asked which side of the street she'd choose, the one where a black man was walking or the one where a white man was walking. "It depends on who's hotter," she replied. Wilmore declared their answers "real."
And Booker was asked whether he wanted to be president. No one believed him when he said no.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd