Don’t Use That Tone With Me!

How Tone Killed The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.

Somehow, the last decade has seen the news good for little except entertainment, while entertainment was where many started to go for news content. The Daily Show with John Stewart and then Trevor Noah. The Colbert Report and then Late Night with Stephen Colbert. The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. Wait no… scratch that last one. Despite the fact that many of us had high hopes for The Nightly Show, it’s brilliant host, and it’s high minded ideals, the show fell flat. It didn’t deliver what it promised. Those of us who knew and admired Larry Wilmore’s work didn’t see evidence of it in the show’s writing. Those of us who believed in the show’s promised goals were often let down by the end of the episode. Viewership started to fall off, dramatically. By the time it was cancelled, there were theories as to why ranging from conspiracies to racism to simple network politics. In many ways, the latter is probably the closest to the truth, if only because it is the politics of most networks to pull resources from shows that are underperforming. What is more alarming is just why it was underperforming.

First, let me be clear. Race relations, race politics, and racial issues affect ALL Americans. The only way there will ever be peace and healing is to understand that we are only as strong as what we do to our neighbor, to the person we fear and the person we hate as well as the person we love. Until we all learn that, it will keep being someone else’s problem and the cycle will continue. So what is the point of this? Simple. The Nightly Show should never have had a solely Black audience. The issues the show talked about were pertinent to everyone. Police brutality, politics, water quality in Michigan, drought, and far more topics than I can list here. Topics that affect everyone. Yes, topics that often predominantly affect the Black community, but that everyone should know.

The issue wasn’t the subject matter, however. The trouble was tone. And, sadly, the real trouble was that they frequently aimed for the lowest common denominator. The program was rife with stereotypes and jargon. We all know that stereotypes become stereotypes because there is a grain of truth in them. When you know your audience, it can be appropriate to indulge in those isms that unite people. However, when you know that you’re playing to a mixed audience… no, when you are specifically trying to inform a mixed audience, it is counterproductive. Very soon, you have turned off anyone who isn’t a part of your community. They leave, taking negative stereotypes with them. That leaves The Nightly Show preaching to a choir already informed on the issues they’re speaking about.

Credit where credit is due. Now and then, the show managed to accidentally stumble onto a serious note. Talking about the draught in California. Larry’s time in California made him want to be serious about it, unfortunately his panel wasn’t interested in being serious. Speaking about the two West Point cadets giving Black Panther salutes in their graduation photo got a rare salient point from Ricky Valez about military procedure and the reason for it. They were consistently reminding people about the horrors of Flint Michigan and the serious need for funding without letting us forget the mismanagement and corruption. The frequent reminders about Bill Cosby and Bill Ayers, the information about the tampon tax, and other women’s issues were also well covered.

In the end, it just wasn’t enough. They should have known it wasn’t going to be enough. That time slot was held for a highly educated audience. The Nightly Show and The Colbert Report have been the news to watch. They have been the primary check against the mainstream media. The Colbert Report, specifically, was satire… requiring a high level of audience intelligence. Larry Wilmore has the chops to write to an intelligent audience. Whoever made the decision to go low-brow are to blame for the death of what could have been a great show. If anyone needs proof of that, look to The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He also often covers racial issues, but does so in an intelligent high brow way. He expects his audience, regardless of color, to understand the humor and the content. And his numbers are climbing.

I don’t know what is going to happen with that time slot. It is a sad loss of Stephen Colbert’s successor. It is a sad loss of important content. Comedy Central doesn’t offer all that much of that, the news offers little to none of that. It is getting harder and harder to find curated content that is both witty and accurate. I hope they find someone to fill the slot before too long. Unfortunately, I hold out about as much hope of that as I do of race relations significantly improving during my lifetime.