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For Host Larry Wilmore, A Year Of 'Extraordinary' Highs And 'Humbling' Lows

Wilmore is still fine-tuning The Nightly Show, which fill the late-night spot on Comedy Central vacated by Stephen Colbert. The show launched just as Wilmore's 20-year marriage was coming to an end.



February 19, 2015

Guest: Larry Wilmore

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Larry Wilmore, is the host of "The Nightly Show," the new program that follows "The Daily Show" in the 1130 spot vacated by Stephen Colbert. Wilmore used to be "The Daily Show's" senior black correspondent. Jon Stewart is an executive producer of the new show and chose Wilmore to take over Colbert's time slot. "The Nightly Show" often starts with an opening monologue by Wilmore. The centerpiece is a discussion moderated by Wilmore on a social, cultural or political issue. The panels include politicians, journalists, actors, musicians and comics.

Wilmore has worked in TV a long time. He wrote for "In Living Color," created "The Bernie Mac Show," co-created with Eddie Murphy the animated series, "The PJs," was a consulting producer for "The Office" and was the show-runner for the new sitcom, "Black-ish." Here's how he started the first edition of "The Nightly Show" on January 19, Martin Luther King Day.


LARRY WILMORE: Tonightly, the Oscar nominations are out, and they're so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them.


WILMORE: Oprah marched on Selma this weekend. She has a dream that "Selma" shall overcome "The Wedding Ringer" at the box office.


WILMORE: Yeah, we talk Selma, Ferguson and Eric Garner. It's Comedy Central's worst nightmare; a brother finally gets a show on late-night TV.


WILMORE: Yeah, but of course, he's got to work on Martin Luther King Day. Let's do this.


GROSS: Larry Wilmore, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your new show. So...

WILMORE: Thank you.

GROSS: ...Talk to us a little bit about thinking through what kind of show you really wanted to host. You had a half hour to work with. What are some of the ideas you abandoned, and what's the format you came up with?

WILMORE: Well, it's pretty much the way we first talked about it - a show where there would be both a panel segment with discussion and a comedy segment in the beginning. The only thing that was - took some talking through - and the show is still evolving, you know, as we're on the air right now - is what we call the third act, and that's the part where we do this, like, keeping-it-100 place. And Jon and I talking about that, we wanted to do something that was both comic in that third act, but was - also felt like a resolution to what we were doing at the same time. So that was a bit of a challenge, trying to figure out what that is, and that's still going to continue to evolve and be different types of things.

GROSS: Well, you often start with, you know, an opening comic monologue. Let's hear the one from...


GROSS: ...Martin Luther King Day, which was your first broadcast.


WILMORE: Thank you. Thank you very much. Calm down, calm down, calm down. Thank you. Thank you. So I have to say, man, I am so excited to be here. This is so exciting. I mean, I feel like there's so much to talk about, you know? Oh, man, especially if I had the show a year ago.


WILMORE: Man, all of the good-bad race stuff happened already.


WILMORE: Seriously, there's none left. We're done.


WILMORE: Happy MLK Day, everybody.


GROSS: Now, that's really funny - the idea of that you wish you'd done the show a year ago 'cause all the good-bad race stuff happened already.

WILMORE: All the good-bad race stuff is done.

GROSS: How did you come up with that?

WILMORE: Well, it was - as we were developing the show, we were like, man, if we were on right now, we could cover this. Like, every month that went by, it seemed like...

GROSS: Something terrible was happening (laughter).

WILMORE: I know. It's the irony of doing this type of work, you know? As things go on in the world, you realize it's also fodder for your show, you know? It's one of the horrible ironies of doing this type of thing.

GROSS: The centerpiece of your show is panel discussions, and on those panels are, like, politicians, pundits, comics, people who've lived the subject that you're talking about. It's a real mix. So why did you want to do panels as the centerpiece instead of, say, something more along the lines of "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report," where either it's, like, you know, fake news, so to speak, satirical news or you're in persona as somebody?

WILMORE: Well, when you're doing - you know, when you're doing a show like this, you have to figure out exactly what your show is about, right? And "The Daily Show," at its core, is the answer to "The Nightly News," you know? And the Colbert show, at its core, was kind of an answer to what you would call opinion news, you know - your Bill O'Reilly, that sort of thing. So we had to figure out, who was our cousin in that? And for me, it was kind of like "Meet The Press" or George Stephanopoulos, you know, "This Week" - that sort of show. And at the heart of that show, the show was really about a conversation. So in the DNA of the show, it has to have that feeling, and it has to have that mission. And that's why the panel part of it is so important because it's both who our cousin, you know, our doppelganger in the real-world news, and it's what the mission statement of the show is - is to have a conversation about something.

GROSS: You end the show with a segment called Keeping It 100. I will confess, I didn't know the expression until your show (laughter).

WILMORE: I am shocked, Terry, that you would know - that you would not know such an expression.

GROSS: (Laughter). So explain the expression and what the segment of the show is.

WILMORE: OK, so keeping it 100 means keeping it 100 percent real, and it comes from the expression called keeping it real, which means you are being completely honest. But it's kind of a fun term that's been around for a while, and I've used it in comedy for a little bit. And, you know, it's funny. I thought it would be an interesting way to ask a question, and that's pretty much how it came about. What was interesting, the actual etymology of it was, we didn't have that - we had, like, two test shows in front of an audience and two not in front of an audience, so we had very little time to figure out what our show was. Because Colbert left, they had to break down that set. And then we moved in, and they were building our set, right?

So we had very little time. And we were trying to figure out what that third act was and how we were going to comically finish our conversation. And I had, like, a - I was up till, like, 430 in the morning the night before our last show just trying to think of it, and that just kind of came to me. I was thinking about, well, what is our show? And I thought, at the heart, our show is about keeping it real, keeping it 100 percent real, and that's where I came up with the idea.

GROSS: I love the segment because you get to ask questions that are maybe a little bit indiscreet, maybe go, like, a little bit further...


GROSS: ...Than most people would be comfortable going. And then, if the person answers in an honest way, you give them a little keeping-it-100 button or...

WILMORE: Sticker, yes, for our hands.

GROSS: If they don't, you throw teabags at them because the answer is weak tea. So let's hear an example of this. And you are comparing what you'd use to being, like, the Comedy Central version - your version - of, say, the Sunday morning shows, like "Meet The Press." This is a question asked of Cory Booker, who's now a senator from New Jersey, former mayor of Newark. This question is asked to, like, all the politicians. And let's see how you handle it (laughter).


WILMORE: OK, you ready? Got to keep it 100.


WILMORE: Do you want to be president?


WILMORE: Audience?


WILMORE: I've got some weak tea for you.


BOOKER: Let me just say this. We all - and especially in politics, we are far more too concerned with position than purpose.

WILMORE: You get all the weak tea.


BOOKER: I'm just trying to keep it real.

WILMORE: Yes - the answer is yes.


GROSS: I love that because it makes me think, like, in - there are so many times I wish I could throw teabags (laughter), I guess.

WILMORE: Sure. Yes, exactly. It's our own kind of tea party, I guess. Well...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. It must be so gratifying, when somebody gives you an answer that you really think isn't honest or that is totally evasive, to actually throw teabags at them (laughter).

WILMORE: Yes, it's fun because people are used to speaking in a very guarded way, you know?

GROSS: Especially politicians.

WILMORE: Exactly. Politicians always say what they mean, but they never mean what they say, you know? So their words are always chosen so carefully, so it's fun to break that down, you know? When he started to go into that flowery explanation, it's like, no, no, no, no, no. We're not that type of show. You don't get a flowery explanation of why you don't want to answer the question because that's what it is. The flowery explanation is your explaining why you don't want to answer the question.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you've gotten your show at the end of this incredible era of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - so brilliant, so groundbreaking. What kind of pressure does that put on you?

WILMORE: Yeah, it's funny, though. That was one - part of the ad campaign was, no pressure. Now I understand that ad campaign. At first, I'm like, why would they say that? Now I get it, Comedy Central. Now I get it why you put that up there. You know what? There's pressure all the time to do a show. I don't really look at it in those terms because you're really too busy just trying to make your show what it is. And luckily for us, Jon Stewart is one of our executive producers. So Jon's going to be involved with our show, you know, for as long as we're on, and that's really great.

GROSS: So how has hosting a nightly show four days a week changed your life, if you still have one, outside of your job?

WILMORE: The second part of your premise is correct (laughter). You really do not have a life. That's the thing they really don't tell you when you sign up for these types of things, you know, is that you were pretty much busy all day, and you're pretty tired at night. And you go home, and you have tons of homework all the time, which, for me, that part of it isn't too bad because I always am interested in news and that sort of thing. But my mornings are spent, you know, seeing what's going on, and my evenings are spent doing research for the next day. So it's pretty full. There's very little time on the weekends, even.

GROSS: You've been off this week. The show was dark this weeks - well, since last Thursday, really - "The Nightly Show" and "The Daily Show." So what have you been doing this week, working on the show?

WILMORE: I've been away from the show for a little bit. I hosted the Writers Guild East Awards on Saturday night, and that was a lot of fun. And then I shot home to Los Angeles real quick Sunday, Monday, saw my kids and some of my brothers and sisters, parents and everything for a quick trip, had a meeting at my daughter's school - one of those college counseling things - still got to do all of the dad stuff - and just got back last night. And I'm heading to the office after we speak and start preparing next week's shows and all kinds of little odds and ends types of things.

GROSS: So your kids are young adults now?

WILMORE: Yes. My son is in his last year in high school. He's about to go off to college. And my daughter is a junior in high school.

GROSS: Gosh, and you have to live on a different coast from them to host the show.

WILMORE: I know. It's insane. But at least they're older now, which is good. It would have been - I don't think I could have done it like this when they were younger. At this point, they're like, great, Dad. Go for it, you know? We're all - we're on your side out here.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, and he's the host of the new program "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show," on Comedy Central, Monday through Thursday. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore. He hosts "The Nightly Show," which is the new show that follows "The Daily Show" Monday through Thursday on Comedy Central. And before that, he wrote for a lot of different sitcoms and also appeared regularly on "The Daily Show" for several years as their senior black correspondent.

So you've done a lot of TV. Let's talk a little bit about your life in TV, which started with Rick Dees' show. And Rick Dees was like a countdown, Top 40 DJ - right? - who also had the hit "Disco Duck" in the mid-'70s (laughter).

WILMORE: That's right. Thanks for bringing that up.

GROSS: You're welcome. So what was the show, and what was your contribution?

WILMORE: That was my first foray into television writing. I was mainly a stand-up comic and an actor at the time. That's how I started my career as a performer. I found it very challenging to - you know, to go on auditions and, for the type of act that I had, to get seen in Hollywood at the time. I felt a little frustrated. And I felt going into writing and producing might give me, you know, a better chance to control my own career rather than be at the whims of Hollywood finding me and that sort of thing. And Rick Dees was the first - was my first TV writing job. I just wanted to break into, you know, that side of the business. A friend of mine was writing on the show, and they had a spot open. And, you know, it's one of those entry-level type jobs. You don't know what you're doing yet. Most of your time is spent writing jokes for the hosts and writing sketches. But I only did that for about six months. And then I got hired on "In Living Color." And that one really - that really was my boot camp of comedy writing, was working on "In Living Color."

GROSS: That was a great sketch comedy show.

WILMORE: Yes, it - I felt very fortunate to be a part of it. It really was groundbreaking at the time.

GROSS: So you've written for a couple of shows where the premise was an African-American kid from the city gets sent or ends up in the home of wealthy people. Would you explain the premises of those shows?

WILMORE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Well, there's "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air," which Will Smith comes from West Philly, ends up with his aunt and uncle in this mansion in Bel-Air, Calif.


GROSS: And there was another one.

WILMORE: Well, that show I was a writer on for a short amount of time. Of course, I had nothing to do with that premise. That's your basic fish-out-of-water thing. The one that I created was "The Bernie Mac Show," where his sister's kids from Chicago came to live with him in California. And he was a successful comedian. And that one wasn't as much as - like, "Fresh Prince" really was about going from the projects and living in Bel-Air, you know, and your life changing in that way. "The Bernie Mac Show" was more about Bernie's life changing because kids are now in his life. So it was more from that perspective.

GROSS: And he was very resentful as a father. (Laughter).

WILMORE: Absolutely.

GROSS: He worked hard at it, but he didn't want to be in that position - or as a surrogate father, yeah.

WILMORE: Yes. Yes, and the theme of that show is that kids are terrorists, and I do not negotiate with terrorists.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: So that's what the theme of that show is. So it was very much from his point of view, not from the kids' point of view.

GROSS: And you created that show.


GROSS: So I'm just interested in hearing about you creating the show, in part because one of the recent panels that you did on your show, on "The Nightly Show" was about black fathers. And it was a really interesting conversation that had both, like, comics and people who were really serious people, including the columnist Charles Blow from The New York Times. So were you thinking a lot about fatherhood when you came up with that idea? Or were you just looking for a vehicle for Bernie Mac?

WILMORE: When I came up with "The Bernie Mac Show?"

GROSS: Yeah - which, by the way, won a Peabody Award. Yeah.

WILMORE: Yes, thank you. At the time I came up with "The Bernie Mac Show" idea, it was a combination of things. Bernie had done a bit in his act about taking his sister's kids in. And that - so that premise was there from Bernie's act. I wanted to do a show about kind of what I call the heartache of parenting, as opposed to the difficulties of parenting. And just from having seen my mom, who was a single parent raising six kids - and at the time my wife was going through some struggles - and just observing all of this and seeing it in the culture and wanting to make that into a TV show, I was very much interested in that at the time. And the other part of it was how kids were emancipating themselves and doing these things where they were becoming in charge. And I thought - that's something in the culture that I also wanted to dramatize at the time. So it was a combination of things. But it wasn't so much - that one wasn't based so much on the issue of black fatherhood, interestingly enough. Even though that's what kind of was being dramatized, that wasn't the real theme of it, I guess you could say.

GROSS: So "Black-ish," a sitcom about a black family - you were the showrunner originally. That show seems, format wise, to be inspired in part by "30 Rock." It just seems to me so many shows now, in terms of, like, the style of the show, borrow from "The Office" and "30 Rock." The fake documentary...

WILMORE: And "The Bernie Mac Show." (Laughter).

GROSS: And the Bernie Mac - OK, OK. What do you think comes from "The Bernie Mac Show"?

WILMORE: Well, I mean, when we came on the air, the only single-camera show was "Malcolm In The Middle." And so when "The Bernie Mac Show" came on, it - I wanted to create this feeling very similar to that we were eavesdropping on the action, that the action wasn't presented to us in that kind of proscenium-style, three-camera setup, which just really looks like filmed theater almost, you know. It has kind of a flat quality to it, which worked when it first came out because that seemed real. But after a while, it seemed to have artifice with it. And what started seeming real was this single-camera approach. And so I wanted to take advantage of that and make it seem like we were always eavesdropping on action. And that's exactly what "The Office" had after that. Now, "The Office," of course, was done at the same time, in England, when I was doing my show. But those shows kind of brought that in there, where, you know, it had that kind of feeling. Now, "30 Rock" was more of a live cartoon it seemed like to me, which was kind of the fun of "30 Rock." You know, it was almost like you were watching a comic book come to life in some ways. And you're right about "Black-ish." "Black-ish" has kind of a combination of that because Kenya is a big fan of "30 Rock." It's one of his favorite shows. So it's funny that you brought that up. And it manages to have both of those types of things going on in it.

GROSS: I think the thing that "30 Rock" has brought into sitcom is the really short scene, which probably originates in "Seinfeld" with, like...

WILMORE: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: Music in between scenes - like, a little, short music button in between scenes, like a little stinger - and then, also, the thought bubble thing, where something that somebody's thinking or a little, like, flashback moment is kind of filmed almost parenthetically and inserted in. And then - it's a quick thing, lasts a few seconds, and then you're back in the action.

WILMORE: Yeah, now, I call that the "Family Guy" style of comedy. I believe "Family Guy" really started doing that as a cartoon, that real quick, cut-to-the-joke style. And a lot of shows started adopting that. So you can kind go back to "Family Guy" actually.

GROSS: Interesting, OK.

My guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of the new Comedy Central program, "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show" at 11:30. After a break, he'll talk about why this has been a year not only of high points, but of low points. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Larry Wilmore, the host of the new program "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show" at 11:30 on Comedy Central. Wilmore is "The Daily Show's" former senior black correspondent. Jon Stewart chose Wilmore to host a show in the time slot where "The Colbert Report" used to be.

Let's talk a little bit about your life. Where did you grow up?

WILMORE: I grew up in Pomona, Calif., suburb of Los Angeles - 30 miles east of Los Angeles.

GROSS: I remember you telling me, the last time we spoke, that you went to a Catholic school where I think you were one of, like, two black students. Was that a high school or...

WILMORE: That was my high school. I went to public school up until about the fourth grade, and I think starting in fifth grade, I went to the Catholic school through high school. Sacred Heart School in Pomona in grade school and then Damien High School in La Verne, Calif., and Damien was an all-boys school. In that school, me and my friend Rick, we were the only blacks in our class. And, of course, we both played on the basketball team of course.

GROSS: What was it like for you to be one of only two black students in your high school class?

WILMORE: Well, it's funny because I never went to a predominantly black school, so I always felt like - my phrase is, I feel like I'm at a family reunion and I'm not in the family, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: That's how I always put it (laughter) because you have friends and everything, but, you know, there's something where you just feel you don't quite fit in. But I was always - I always compartmentalized so many different things. I mean, I was an athlete, so I hung out with the jocks. I was smart, so I hung out with the nerdy kids. But I was also into theater, so I hung out with the misfits is what I call it, you know? So I was always in different groups and those groups never quite overlapped, so the racial part of it was just another one of those groups, you know? - in one sense.

GROSS: So being Catholic, did that remove you from a part of the black experience that so many people have of coming up in the black church?

WILMORE: Yeah, like that style - yeah, I don't have that kind of Southern experience, let's say, of the fire-and-brimstone preacher type of thing. Certainly not in my comedy - yeah, I come from more of the guilt-ridden, neurotic type of...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: Like I said, I have more in common with the Jewish brand of comedy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: And I've always related to that. Like, Groucho was always my comic hero, you know, and that sort of thing. So I've always related to that just because, you know, Catholic and Jew, I mean, it's very, very closely related - a lot of holidays, a lot of guilt.

GROSS: What did religion mean in your life or your family's life?

WILMORE: It was really important to me. I thought about being a priest at one point to be honest with you when I was really young. And then I heard about the whole no-sex thing and I was like...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: I don't think that's going to work out.


WILMORE: But I had always thought about some kind of life of service, but I just felt like it just wasn't for me ultimately. And I left the church for a while, I was agnostic for a long time - struggled with that. And I went to a Protestant church for a while, did the whole getting saved and all that. And then when I got married, my wife was a very devout Catholic. And I thought, well, you know, this is as good as anything. I kind of - I think I kind of evolved into a deist to be honest with you. It's kind of my view on God and religion these days.

GROSS: When you say deist, what do you mean?

WILMORE: I believe in God, but I just accept the fact that there are many different ways for people to reach God. So I don't believe that one religion has the - necessarily the advantage over another in that search for God and for meaning in life. So that's kind of where I stand on it now. And I'm very, you know, for us to raise our kids - I'm actually - my wife and I are going through a divorce right now.

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry - yeah.

WILMORE: Oh, that's OK. I just wanted to say that in case people are getting the impression that - that that's going on. But we raised our kids as Catholic 'cause I knew how important it was for her, and it was important for me, too. And I thought, let's give our kids a nice foundation of something and then they can choose what they want to do later 'cause I think it's good to have a nice foundation in it. And if they want to leave or if they want to do whatever, I think, you know, at least they have something to start with.

GROSS: Well, I'm just thinking your life is complicated now, going through a divorce and starting a new show. That's a lot.

WILMORE: It was quite a year, Terry. I'll tell you because it was tough when people would say, aren't you so excited about the new show? And I couldn't really say, well, yes (laughter) but I'm going through a divorce right now, too. So it's a swirl - this year's been a swirl of emotions because, you know, we were married for 20 years. It was a long time. But it's an amicable one; we're good friends and everything. So it's something we've been going through a long time - that kind of thing so.

GROSS: Well, glad it's amicable. But it just goes - like, I have this theory that seems so true so often - when something great happens to you, something bad...

WILMORE: Yeah. Isn't that interesting?

GROSS: ...Is happening too to kind of balance it out (laughter).

WILMORE: And, Terry, this year has been extraordinary because it is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me in my career and the lowest thing in terms of my personal life.

GROSS: Yeah, uh-huh.

WILMORE: It happened at the exact same time. And to go through that is a very humbling experience, but you know what? To be honest with you, I always feel like - and take this however you want it out there but - I've always felt like I had a guardian angel in some of those ways because you need a tremendous amount of humility when you're doing something like this. And it is important to keep grounded in certain ways, and nothing grounds you more than having to deal with an issue like that. And if people that know me know that - both me and my wife - we keep our kids first. It's our, you know, it's a priority in our lives. So having that to think about all the time really grounds you in a good way.

GROSS: Right.

WILMORE: As difficult as going through the situation is, it actually, ironically, helps you deal with the other thing.

GROSS: Right. So let's talk more about your coming of age. When you were growing up, your father was a probation officer.


GROSS: Did he tell you stories about the job and the people on parole that he was working with?

WILMORE: Not specifically, but my father is a real law-and-order type guy. Like, he believes that most people who come into the system probably are criminals (laughter). He doesn't have the other belief that they're probably have been done wrong, you know? And so he's a very law-and-order type of guy. He has a very wry sense of humor about it. So it's funny that that's what I got growing up was that point of view about law and order.

GROSS: So I think, like, so many African-American parents now are trying to talk to their children about what happens if you encounter police - how to behave and what not to do. Did your father, the probation officer, give you advice like that? Did he feel...


GROSS: And did he feel it was necessary?

WILMORE: No, not at that time. Look, I came up in a different time. When I was a kid, there was kind of a given that there were some really bad racist police out there. That's just what America was like when I was a kid. So I think you knew that something bad could happen to you. There was no need for that talk. I don't know any black kid that didn't think that could happen. So the whole notion of a talk kind of seems, you know, kind of seems redundant. It's like what is it about racism that you can't see that you don't know (laughter)? You know, people forget how bad it was at a certain time, you know? When I was born, there were still different drinking fountains you had to drink out of. My parents came from Chicago. They saw some of the worst racist stuff. So that was kind of just in the air. You just kind of knew that you better be cool in that situation 'cause something bad could really happen to you. No one had to really tell you that.

GROSS: What have you tried to pass on to your children about the police?

WILMORE: You know what? We haven't had real deep discussions about that to be honest with you. My son has Asperger's and he's very - he's very shy kid. And, you know, he's not the type of outgoing kid - I've never had to worry about him being out in that situation I suppose, you know? We haven't talked about it too much. We've talked about it in some ways in terms of the culture, but not so much in the specific way. And they're just getting to an age where that would make a difference anyway right now, you know? When they were younger, there was really no reason to have that discussion.

GROSS: Right. My guest is Larry Wilmore and he now hosts "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central, Monday through Thursdays at 11:30, right after "The Daily Show." Jon Stewart is the executive producer. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore who now hosts "The Nightly Show" right after "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central Monday through Thursdays. Jon Stewart is an executive producer of "The Nightly Show." Larry Wilmore used to be the senior black correspondent on "The Daily Show" - he's also been a showrunner on several TV shows including "Black-ish." Your parents divorced when you were in high school or junior high school?

WILMORE: No, I was a lot younger. I was about 8 or 9, I think.

GROSS: Oh, OK. And your father after the divorce left his career as a parole officer, he went to med school and I assume he actually became a doctor.

WILMORE: Yeah, that was years later. That was - he did that when I was in college - later in high school and college. But my parents split when I was a lot younger.

GROSS: What message did it send to you that your father could change careers in his 40s?

WILMORE: It was very inspirational actually because I was trying to struggle with what to do in my life at that point. You know, I had always been a good student in coming up - although my last two years in high school were very difficult for me emotionally - there was just a lot going on. And I kind of - I think I kind of abandoned my academic career and I always - I kind of regretted that because I was a very good student. But I think it was too much for me emotionally to handle in my life at that time. And I kind of escaped into, I think, theater and performing also when you talked about speech - those types of things. And I did a lot of escaping in those last two years in high school.

And by the time I got into college, I was very concerned about what I was going to do. And when I saw my father do that, it gave me the confidence to just pursue what I wanted to do because I thought, look, at 40 I can still turn around and go back to school if my father's doing that. So ironically, he gave me confidence to do it. But I think one of the big turning points - one summer I sold books door to door. And I went into all these people's houses - this was when I was still in college - and I met so many people who were unhappy in their lives. I could just see it, you know? With their kids and everything and I thought, Larry, do something that's going to make you happy at the end of the day. It was actually a very inspirational thing for me to do that. That was a big turning point.

GROSS: What kind of books were you selling door to door, encyclopedias?

WILMORE: It was like those - this was back in the days, once again, pre-Internet like those big - this was like a big encyclopedia thing - It was called "The Volume Library" I remember. And then there were some kids' books, too. And you go to a different part of the country to sell books. So spent a whole summer - I spent a whole summer in New England just going door to door selling books.

GROSS: That's weird (laughter).

WILMORE: Yeah, I know.

GROSS: Did people ask for you to come? Or did you just knock on doors in their neighborhood?

WILMORE: You know, I don't know why I did it, but it was one of the biggest turning points of my life. And I just - something drew me to it. I think I wanted to get away and just do something different one summer. I think somebody at school told me they were doing it - I thought, that sounds like a good adventure. And it was life-changing in a lot of different ways; it really was.

GROSS: So you would just knock on doors uninvited? Or people...

WILMORE: Yes, you do.


WILMORE: I remember - I'll tell you a story. This one guy - I knocked on the door - this one guy came to the - opened the door with a shotgun...

GROSS: Nice.

WILMORE: ...And said get the blank off of my porch right now. I literally jumped out of my shoes - I've never done that. My shoes were left on his porch. And I got out of there.

On another time, I was riding a bike, and I got hit by a car in an intersection - flew off the bike.

GROSS: Oh, God.

WILMORE: There was some other times where I used to hitchhike to where I was going sometimes. Those were the days when you can actually hitchhike. And I remember coming up with a trick where if I saw a car that was stuck on the side of the road, I would pretend like my car was broken down and I would get picked up right away. So I - it was such an adventurous summer - it had a lot of adventures in it.

The thing I'll never forget, though, was I went into this house - they were, I think, Portuguese immigrants these people. Their English wasn't very good and they had these kids and I was showing them the kids' books. And the kids loved it, you know? And then when I got to the price, I could tell that these people had no money - nothing. And then I looked around, Terry, and I saw there was not one book in the house. I just realized what was going on here. And I was very fortunate - both of my parents were - had come from a family of educators, and books were very important. My mom was a teacher and a substitute teacher in her spare time, and we always had books in the home. So I remember I came back later that summer because they take the order and then you deliver the books. The father - of course he couldn't buy the books - but I remember I left a whole set of books for them on their porch at the end of that summer and just left it there for the kids. I'll never forget those kids.

GROSS: Oh, don't you want to know what happened to the books and if they used them?

WILMORE: I know. I hope that they did, but I wanted them to have the books, you know, so I just - I just bought it myself and left it there.

GROSS: What a nice gesture. What books were important to you growing up?

WILMORE: I loved reading everything growing up. I'm kind of a self-educated person in many ways 'cause I dropped out of school and - when I was in college after about three years or whatever - but I always spent a lot of time just reading on my own. When I was a kid, I used to read through the whole encyclopedia just because it interested me. I love learning things, and science was a big interest growing up. I always loved reading biographies. I wanted to learn about people. I went through different phases of people I was interested in. I think nonfiction has always been more interesting to me than fiction. Although, you know, there was a lot of fiction that you read growing up, too. But to this day, I still love nonfiction better, I think.

GROSS: You have eyeglasses that you wear. Did you have glasses as a kid?

WILMORE: Yes, I was called The Professor growing up because I wore glasses at a young age. I didn't know I was blind until I realized - what? I always had to sit at the front of the class because I couldn't see the blackboard - and I realized, oh, I can't see. And I got - I don't think I got glasses until I was maybe in the fourth or fifth grade, you know? And it just - I realized how blind I really was. So, yeah, I've been wearing glasses forever.

GROSS: And so people called you Professor as a kid?

WILMORE: Yeah they - well, I got called a lot of names growing up. But The Professor was one that I was called for a long time 'cause, you know, that's how I spoke even when I was young. I loved learning new words when I was a kid. And that was the one thing I really learned about reading was discovering new words, building vocabulary at a young age, that kind of thing.

GROSS: How did you figure out you wanted to go into comedy?

WILMORE: You know what? There were two parts to that. One, I always liked making people laugh. My brother and I did that growing up. But I didn't know if I could do that as for a living. And so the decision to do that came out of me realizing I may as well just do it. That was when I was in college. I remember sneaking into The Comedy Store when I was underage, and I remember seeing, like, Richard Pryor trying out material on stage - seeing David Letterman emceeing in there. And just thinking, man, there's no way I could do this; these people are just too good, and just dreaming about it back in those days and wanting to do it but not knowing if it was something that I could do.

GROSS: What was your early stand-up like?

WILMORE: My early stand-up - very early on I did a lot of impressions and I did - it was kind of a hodgepodge act. I did some silly one-liners; I did political stuff, observational things. It was kind of a collection of things - of different styles, I guess you could say. But it wasn't, you know, to go back to your earlier thing - it wasn't the preacher style of comedy that was like let me tell you what's going on, America - here's what the problem is. You know? It wasn't that; you know, it was more - you know, it kind of had just a different speed to it, you know?

GROSS: Well, I remember the last time we spoke you said that you came of age comically in the era of "Def Comedy Jam" with comics like Martin Lawrence and Bernie Mac.

WILMORE: As a performer, yes.

GROSS: As a performer, even though you eventually, you know, wrote for Bernie Mac and created his sitcom.

WILMORE: Yeah, 'cause - and I'm a big fan of those guys, too, by the way. Even though that wasn't me, I'm still a big fan of them.

GROSS: So was it hard for you to come up then - were there certain expectations of what an African-American comic was supposed to say and supposed to do?

WILMORE: Absolutely, and I was always very frustrated by that because to me - I didn't grow up in that atmosphere. When I was - by the time - when I was performing at that point, Hollywood wanted a certain type of comic - that "Def Jam Comedy" style of comic that was very loud, very brash, very much from the ghetto - had that sensibility.

But when I was coming up, there were many different styles of what you would call black comedy. There was Bill Cosby who was the storyteller, you know, and just told stories about growing up. There was Dick Gregory who was a political comic who really did political humor. There was Godfrey Cambridge who was kind of a hipster, you know; it was more of a sly type of take on the culture. Flip Wilson was more of a vaudevillian type of joke teller, you know, told classic-type jokes but in a way that was kind of him. And then you had Redd Foxx who was what you would call your Party Records type of comic, you know, who did blue material and that kind of thing, you know? And they were all completely different and distinct types of comics. They didn't fit into one type of mold, you know? You would never confuse Flip Wilson with Redd Foxx. You just wouldn't.

GROSS: My guest is Larry Wilmore, the host of the new program "The Nightly Show" which follows "The Daily Show" at 11:30 on Comedy Central. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Larry Wilmore, "The Daily Show's" former senior black correspondent, who now hosts the new program "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show." When we left off, we were talking about breaking into comedy.

So what was your first big break?

WILMORE: So it really was "In Living Color" was really the first big one. That's where I really learned how to do it under pressure, how to write under pressure because we were under pressure all the time. And what was great about "In Living Color" was I got to write something that I could really relate to and that was - it felt dangerous and exciting, and you were writing about, you know, something important and there was content there, and, you know, all those issues. It was very exciting.

GROSS: And you had Keenan Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans and Jim Carrey.

WILMORE: Unbelievable cast. The talent in that cast was ridiculous.

GROSS: So did you feel like you found your people when you started working on that show, people who shared a comic sense, a sensibility?

WILMORE: (Laughter). That's hilarious, in a lot of different ways, too, because keep in mind I was on the writing staff and writers are more of your misfits in Hollywood, you know? So, you know, you're the smartest guys, but you don't get credit for it, (laughter) you know? It's one of those things. That's how you feel as a writer, you know?

But it was such a nice band of people there, you know? You felt like you were going to get fired all the time. We were always making each other laugh. We were doing very dark humor that never got on the air in that writer's room - but, you know, and it was competitive. It was all those things. And we knew we were writing for people who were very talented. So that made you want to raise your game up, too, and made you want to write funny stuff. And you wanted to make Keenan laugh, you know? And that sort of thing.

GROSS: So this might be way too personal, so just tell me 'cause you don't have to talk about this. I was - you have a collection of satirical essays kind of in different persona that came out in - I think it was 2009 - called "I'd Rather We Got Casinos: And Other Black Thoughts." And it's dedicated to your nephew Timmy and you write, whose laugh will never be forgotten. May I ask what happened to your nephew?

WILMORE: Yes. My nephew was 22 and he was - he just happened to be in the wrong place, and he was shot and killed. And it was devastating to our family. It still is. We'll never forget him. He was this really special kid. And that happened while I was trying to write the book, and it was very difficult to write it at the time. But, ultimately, I used that as inspiration to finish it. I ended up writing it, I think, in six weeks and it took me about eight months to get to that point where I could actually do it. So it was very difficult.

GROSS: Was anybody ever prosecuted for it?

WILMORE: Nope, nope.

GROSS: No one knows who did it? Was it a no-snitch kind of thing?

WILMORE: I think it was more of a no-snitch type of thing 'cause I think people might've known who did it. He was at a friend's house, who they were looking for - the friend of the house he was at - and he just happened to be there. And the guy - some guys came in, and I think they both started running, and they shot him in the back of the head.

GROSS: That's really horrible. I'm very sorry.

WILMORE: No, I'll never forget that morning. It's something you just don't forget. But he was a good kid. So when I talk about violence in the community and those type of things, I do have a firsthand account of it also. I know how devastating it can be to families. It's horrible.

GROSS: Are you - glad is the wrong word here, but is it a good thing for you that you have a comedy vehicle now in which you can talk about issues? You can address violence. You can address fatherhood. You can address, like, the things that are central to who we are as individuals and as a society and also be a comic at the same time. You can bring those two parts of your life and your concerns and of reality together.

WILMORE: I think it's - I'm very fortunate to be in this position. I absolutely love that I can do that. It really is the ultimate type of job for me because I have both of those sides to me.

As you know from talking with me, I'm not just a comic who's on stage all the time. You know, I can be very thoughtful about these things, but I can be very silly at the same time. We could have a completely different interview right now, (laughter) you know? But I like the fact that - look, there are a lot of issues - look at ISIS, look how - I mean - that is a force we - I don't even know how to categorize a group like ISIS and the type of inhumane things that are going on. And I think sometimes we need to talk about those things with sobriety and sometimes we do need humor. I think we need a combination of the two. And I feel very fortunate that I'm one of the people that can do that because I do look at the world from both of those standpoints with a tremendous amount of both of those.

GROSS: It's been great to talk with you again. I thank you so much for talking with us. Congratulations on your new show. And...

WILMORE: Thanks, Terry. It's great talking to you.

GROSS: ...I hope something for life in addition (laughter) to doing the program.

WILMORE: Absolutely. (Laughter). I agree with that.

GROSS: Larry Wilmore is the host and an executive producer of the new program "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show" at 11:30 on Comedy Central. The show is on hiatus this week and returns with new additions next week.


GROSS: You can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And if you have trouble syncing up your schedule with our broadcast schedule, check out our podcast.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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