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Losing Larry Wilmore and Why It Matters—to TV, Women, and the Nation

| August 19, 2016

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Larry Wilmore during the final broadcast of "The Nightly Show"

I am devastated about the cancellation of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. Not only because the axe fell just under three months before a historically ugly election, shutting down one of our most astute observers. And not only because Wilmore has taken on everyday racism with a comedic vengeance, never more brilliantly than in the wake of the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in the back of a police van. Wilmore alone among reporters of any stripe traveled to a Baltimore diner to have a heart-to-heart with members of a Baltimore gang who had stepped up to help restore the peace. Sitting with them as they sipped tea and ate pie, Wilmore offered a refreshing view of a demonized group of people that is almost unheard of in popular culture. 

No, my devastation, my anger at Comedy Central, my exasperation that other programs with far less import get far longer to “resonate,” has to do with something more. It has to do with the fact that in the world of progressive male political comedians—where Bill Maher can’t relax without four men on the show to every woman, where Trevor Noah has at least four male correspondents to one female, and where Colbert can go days without a woman guest, sometimes seeming decidedly uncomfortable with the one sitting across from him (case in point, Viola Davis)—Larry Wilmore is an unabashed feminist. No comedy man in late night is a more relentless, fearless, and hilarious observer of the misogyny in the world around us. Nor is there any comedy man on late night who has been a greater advocate for women on his staff—the show provided unprecedented opportunities for women writers and producers as well as on-air talent.

Wilmore never, ever let up on his condemnation of Bill Cosby. He sat at his anchor’s desk while tampons rained down on him, illustrating how one got stuck between his eye and his glasses during rehearsal, as he introduced a segment called Tampon Tuesdays. It was aimed at protesting the fact that scores of states levy a sales tax on tampons while in New York, for example, men blithely purchase Rogaine and condoms sales-tax free. He took on the subject of “screaming Hillary,” focusing on an MSNBC segment in which Chris Matthews, Michael Steele, and Lawrence O’Donnell talked among themselves about the need for Hillary to tone it down. “No! No! No, Chris Matthews!” exclaimed Wilmore. “Of all people, you don’t get to be part of a conversation criticizing someone for yelling into a mic!”

In exposing issues affecting women, especially women of color, Wilmore shared the spotlight with four fabulous female on-air contributors, all women of color (balanced by the same number of terrific on-air male contributors). Franchesca Ramsey is a writer, actress, and video blogger who hosts the MTV web series “Decoded.” Her first viral video, "Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls," has garnered over 11 million views since it was uploaded in 2012. As The Nightly Show’s head writer for the first season and a half, Robin Thede was the first black woman to serve as head writer for a major late-night talk show. Holly Walker is an absolutely brilliant African-American comedian, a Second City alum. And Grace Parra is a Mexican-American writer who has a Columbia University degree in political science.

In the segments that featured The Nightly Show women, Wilmore served as their straight man. In her recurring segment “Lady Time With Holly Walker,” Walker reported on sex crimes in the military while having a massage, and on the need for medical marijuana for menstrual pain from a bathtub. During Women’s History Month, Thede demonstrated “black lady sign language” to “shed light on a phenomenon that can help people understand women better.” She explained: Let’s say you have a black woman in the office; we’ll call her Rhonda. And you notice she’s given to hand gestures that you might misunderstand, thinking she’s “being hostile when she’s not, or that she’s not being hostile when she is.” Declaring her demonstration “a public service,” Thede went on to model the single hand clap, the double clap vs. double clap on syllables, and the double-hand wave vs. the double-hand wave pull-back, then all of them together, as Larry sat by, struggling to keep up.

Grace Parra made regular fun of the shows on E! that traffic in pure nonsense. After Beyoncé was accused of using sweatshop labor to produce her products, Parra posed as a reporter on the subject. “I am here in sunny Sri Lanka where the celebrity fashions are making everybody sweat, Larry!” Parra exclaimed with a huge, idiotic smile, as “Nightly Nightly!” flashed in huge letters behind her.

In a regular segment “Hash It Out With Franchesca Ramsey,” Ramsey looked at what social media was getting right and wrong.  She focused her raging wit on Bill O’Reilly’s defense of slave labor to build the White House because the slaves had “decent lodging” and were “well fed”; on the backlash over Jesse Williams’ bold demand for equality and justice in his BET awards speech; and, perhaps most furiously, on Kanye West’s “Famous” video.

In that video, explains Ramsey, Kanye is in bed with wax figures of Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Caitlin Jenner, Bill Cosby, Chris Brown, Amber Rose, and Donald Trump, “all butt-ass naked.” She says it looks like “a crime scene,” castigates tweets declaring that it is “one of the most valuable pieces of art in our time,” notes that it’s not even original, being a scene inspired by Vincent Desiderio, and on top of all that, it’s “so misogynistic.”

“There are tons of wax tits in this video, but where are wax dicks, Kanye?” she says. “Then you’ve got Rihanna next to Chris Brown, you know, that dude that abused her? And let’s not forget, the video has multiple naked women in bed with an alleged serial rapist!”

On the occasion of the United State of Women Summit organized by the White House, where President Obama stood up and said “This is what a feminist looks like,” Wilmore’s panel that night featured Walker, Ramsey, and Tony-award winning actress Anika Noni Rose in conversation on the state of feminism in America. What does it mean today? Is it different for women of color? Is there still a place for chivalry? asked Wilmore. Regarding people who are “anti-feminism,” said Wilmore: “That doesn’t even make sense to me.”

In his second-to-last taping, Wilmore reprised “Tampon Tuesdays” with a Wednesday edition. It featured the show’s four on-air women cheering Fu Yuanhui, the Chinese Olympic swimmer, for breaking a sports taboo by acknowledging she’d gotten her period before a competition and hadn’t felt so great. He lobbed his last grenade at that “MF Bill Cosby” and added to his list “MF Roger Ailes,” reportedly now a Trump campaign consultant, describing Ailes (or Trump—Wilmore invites us to take our pick) as a “bloated, egomaniacal, rich, hate-spewing, blonde-stalking, misogynistic husk of a human.”

Then he talked about the pervasiveness of sexual assault in our society and the need for men to take action. “There’s a reason Cosby and Ailes and other serial harassers have so many victims,” said Wilmore. “Because for years, we let them get away with it. Because when we tell victims that their assaults didn’t happen, we also tell assailants that they don’t need permission. And when we protect powerful men, we make women invisible.”

Wilmore made women visible in every way he could.

We’ve been treated to a year and a half of skits, riffs, and panel discussions led by a man who was bold in calling out racism and sexism everywhere he saw it. But as the New York Times reported, “in the demographic most important to Comedy Central—young men—he has not made a dent.” What a surprise.

Unfortunately, America wasn’t ready for Larry Wilmore. This program was not more of the same. It clearly did not come from the usual white male mainstream point of view. White people were in the minority on the staff and on the panels. Far from perfect and certainly uneven, The Nightly Show still was something very special: an attempt at an engaging, multicultural, racism-free, misogyny-free zone. A hilarious learning center.

I used to be really sad that The Nightly Show wasn’t on network TV. Now it’s gone altogether, into the ether. The loss is ours.

Editor’s Note: Larry Wilmore was only the second man (the other was Jimmy Carter) ever interviewed by WMC founder Robin Morgan on her show, "Women’s Media Center Live With Robin Morgan," available on iTunes; click here to listen.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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