From a quarterly viewer of the Nightly Show

Switched ON January 19, 2015, the blackest time of the American calendar — MLK Day.

But the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore will be turned OFF this Thursday. Naturally, the host regrets he won’t be covering our cool black president’s final windmilling & head sliding out of the White House. Wilmore said in a statement:

“I’m… saddened and surprised we won’t be covering this crazy election or ‘The Unblackening’ as we’ve coined it. And keeping it 100, I guess I hadn’t counted on ‘The Unblackening’ happening to my time slot as well.”

Comedy Central said it’s canceling The Nightly Show because viewership numbers just weren’t there.

I know. I felt invested in Wilmore’s success, but watched the Nightly Show just quarterly.
I grew up with Wilmore’s scripts on POC TV’s In Living Color.

Enjoyed his Senior Black Correspondent on “The Mothershow” (aka The Daily Show with Jon Stewart).

Felt sorry he got upstaged by Obama’s comedy at the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner. And that he got The Colbert Report timeslot — Wilmore is a nonalcoholic cocktail compared to Stephen Colbert’s fake-frothy-patriot infused with Bill O’Reilly-white-pepper and 2nd-Amendment-gunpowder presented in an irony-scented fog. (Many Colbert fans did a text-message breakup with Comedy Central, being dicks about the Nightly Show’s pop-culture references and blasé, blasé, blasé, blasé science coverage.)
Keeping it 100, I would’ve watched Wilmore more if he had axed the panel part of the show.
The problem with multi-person discussions? You get a cage fight with extroverts blindly throwing verbal punches. Or a league of super friends facing an alien force threatening Earth, together!

What you rarely get is viral video.
Have you seen this Nightly Show panel about the state of black protests? You haven’t. The round table features noble bachelor Sen. Cory Booker + “We don’t have to have an interview, Don Lemon” rapper Talib Kweli + white-comedian-with-black-jokes Bill Burr + Indian actress Shenaz Treasury.

“Are white people tired of black protest?” Wilmore asks Burr, who brews up some uncharacteristically weak tea.

“Speaking for all white people, I don’t know, I got to be honest with you, is protesting legal? ’Cause it seems like they say it is, but then the cops show up immediately, and then there’s a fight, and everyone gets arrested. So I don’t know if you’re allowed to.”

Burr’s flaccid response gives Wilmore nothing to pump, so he pivots to Treasury. What about protesting in India? Wilmore asks. Famous hunger striker Gandhi might be tempted to eat if he lived in our 99-cent-menu America, she says.
This aired on the debut Nightly Show, in the throes of national Black Lives Matter protests. Yet both the comedy and the commentary seemed so…diluted? Booking Kweli or Booker for solo appearances would’ve been like hearing the straightforward anthem “I Am The Black Gold Of the Sun” on terrific repeat. But this panel? Unpoetic. Unmanageable. The Nightly panels pretty much stayed that way. Eight months in, a reddit commenter said of Wilmore’s moderating skills, “Larry just sort of hangs on a cross most of the time.”
Topical comedy panels. For decades Bill Maher has trucked in this trade. A story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2001 was discussed on his Politically Incorrect show, with panelists Kathy Griffin, MTV Rock N’ Jock Dan Cortese, and GOP Congressman Mark Foley (before his young boy sext scandal). Even with Maher supplying a steady rhythm of unlikable bad-boy commentary, you could not Auto-Tune their desultory discussion and make it listenable. Now on HBO’s Real Time, Maher has kindof reimagined the multi-person panel… in that he barely lets guests talk.
No one’s arguing against comedy conversation! Even though there’s less “talk” on late night TV. Barely any on the Daily Show now or its spinoffs. Jokey informative talk is an ascendant podcast- & live-show genre.

Even I was in Vegas this past Saturday at the AAJA conference, moderating a Q&A with Ronny Chieng, the lovably sarcastic Chinese-Malaysian on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (pic below). I tried my best Marc Maron impression, getting out of the way enough to let the audience understand Chieng more intimately. Setting him up to spike jokes. Conscious of the entertainment value of every question I asked the law-degreed-up comedian, Chieng, yet striving for the cerebral.

Our audience stayed with us the whole hour plus — which I realize is not the same as locking in a million viewers Nightly. I just think only a few ringmasters can pull off the multi-person panel. Sometimes it’s better keeping it two performers on one trapeze.

This article first appeared in the NewsZinger newsletter.