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Other segments from the episode on June 5, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 5, 2007: Interview with Larry Wilmore; Commentary on Wikipedia.

Transcript

DATE June 5, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Larry Wilmore, senior black correspondent on "The
Daily Show," his mixed-class background, specific sketches on
"The Daily Show," and his type of humor
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When thorny issues about race are in the news, Jon Stewart often calls on "The
Daily Show"'s senior black correspondent, Larry Wilmore. Until recently,
Wilmore worked primarily as a television writer. He won an Emmy for writing
"The Bernie Mac Show," which he co-created. He wrote for the sketch comedy
show "In Living Color" and the sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." More
recently, he's written for "The Office," and appeared in an episode as a
diversity counselor.

Before we talk with Wilmore, let's hear a clip from "The Daily Show." Here's
Jon Stewart.

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")

Mr. JON STEWART: Thank you very much. I'm pleased to be joined on this
special day by our senior black correspondent, Larry Wilmore.

Larry, thank you for joining us. Appreciate it.

Mr. LARRY WILMORE: Thank you, Jon. Thank you. Well, Condoleezza Rice's
testimony before Congress was a proud moment for all African-Americans.
Dissembling and avoiding responsibility for a catastrophic mistake used to be
the white man's purview. But it's clear that in today's America a black woman
can finally be judged by the lack of content in her character.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Larry Wilmore, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, how did you come up with
the name "the senior black correspondent"?

Mr. WILMORE: That was the head writer D.J....

GROSS: Javerbaum.

Mr. WILMORE: ...who I can never pronounce--yeah, I can never pronounce
D.J.'s last name. But it was D.J.'s idea to do that joke, you know, and I
wanted to do a joke initially making fun of the fact that I was the first
black correspondent. And we kind of wrote a piece like that, but then we
said, `No, let's go after'--this macaca thing came up, and we decided to do
that. But D.J. thought it would be a good idea to at least put a little hint
of that in there in the beginning, and he came up with that joke "senior black
correspondent," and for me to take umbrage at it right in the beginning.

And first Jon announced me as `black correspondent Larry Wilmore,' and I
wouldn't say anything until he announced me as the senior black correspondent
Larry Wilmore. So...

GROSS: Is there a kind of story that you think like black correspondents were
typically called on to do in, say, local news that you wanted to play off of?

Mr. WILMORE: A little bit of that. I used to write for "In Living Color"
years ago, the sketch comedy show on Fox, and we did a couple of sketches when
the riots happened in Los Angeles, where suddenly they would send the black
correspondents you never had seen much into some of the most dangerous areas
where there were things going on, you know. And we just thought that was
funny, because it always seemed like when bad stuff was happening in black
areas, we'd suddenly see these black correspondents we had never seen. So
that joke had always kind of been in the back of my mind.

GROSS: So how do you look for the right stories to cover for "The Daily
Show"?

Mr. WILMORE: You know what? It's so amazing how stories just kind of fall
out of the air, you know? As you're thinking of--it's almost really hard to
answer that, because you just look at something that happens and then just
think about it and come up with a point of view on it. Like, for instance,
D.J. thought it would be a good idea to do something on Black History Month.
So I just thought of something for Black History Month, you know, the fact
that I wasn't that crazy about it. I thought it would be a funny take, you
know, that I was kind of bored with it, you know? But he just thought it
would be a good idea to do something on Black History Month.

Where, on the other hand, I thought it would be a good idea to do something on
Martin Luther King's birthday, so it was just that simple, you know. And even
before Barack Obama announced he was--well, when he announced he was going to
make a decision to run in Springfield, like a month before he did, I thought
it would be a good idea to do a piece on that. So we had planned a month in
advance to do something on Obama's announcement, and then some things just pop
up at the last second, like the Michael Richards did that whole thing in the
comedy club. I mean, that stuff is just like manna from heaven, it falls in
your lap. You know?

GROSS: Well, you actually did a piece on the N word, and you did it as an
investigative story...

Mr. WILMORE: Mm.

GROSS: ...with John Oliver, who's also a correspondent on "The Daily Show."

Mr. WILMORE: Yes.

GROSS: And one of the things you did was talk to a New York City councilman
named Leroy Comrie, who, you know, who had proposed banning the N word, I
think a voluntary ban.

Mr. WILMORE: Yeah.

GROSS: Why did you want to use this as the point of departure for the piece?

Mr. WILMORE: Well, it was just absurd, you know, making a symbolic ban on
one particular word. And we just thought, `That's the satirical jumping off
point,' you know? `Why the one word? You know, why are we picking on that
word?' In fact, we have many jokes in it, you know, isn't it racist to just
pick on the N word, you know? Why aren't you picking on other words, you
know? And we just thought it would be a fun thing to do, and I think it was
Jon Stewart's idea to team up John Oliver and myself as an investigative team.
He thought that would be something fun that they hadn't quite seen before, so.
It all fell into place rather quickly once the idea came about.

GROSS: And every time that you and John Oliver need to say the N word to
illustrate the point you're trying to make...

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

GROSS: ...you're the guy who has to--he points to you and you have to say the
N word because you're the black guy, so you can say it.

Mr. WILMORE: Exactly. That is the politically correct thing to do, so we
were--what was funny about that is we would be trying to be politically
correct, supposedly, but being very politically incorrect at the same time.
That was a lot of fun to do.

GROSS: Now...

Mr. WILMORE: And I think Oliver got a lot of enjoyment out of that, too.

GROSS: Now, every time the N word is--every time you actually say the N word,
it's bleeped. I want to play a clip from...

Mr. WILMORE: Well, it actually isn't bleeped on YouTube, and it wasn't
bleeped when it was first aired on Comedy Central, it was when they re-ran it.
It's funny. I'll tell you real quick. We had this whole discussion about
this with the censor, and it was ironic that we're talking about a word that's
going to be banned and then Comedy Central bleeps it and censors our use of it
on the air, so it was very ironic.

GROSS: So you say initially it wasn't bleeped?

Mr. WILMORE: Well, our person who calls standards and practices on the show
was on the phone with them for at least an hour trying to get them to not
bleep the N word in this piece, and we had a section at the end where we said,
you know, everybody's bad thing, you know, like, whether it was spic or
whatever this was, and they were going to bleep out all of that except for Dan
Bakkedahl, that name. We thought, `This is insane. The whole piece of the
satire is to point out these are words that are being banned, and then Comedy
Central's going to ban them so we can't hear them? It's ridiculous.' So
finally, at the 11th hour, they allowed us to go unbleeped for the first two
broadcasts of it, but in the morning, they bleeped out. And then on the
Comedy Central Web site, which is insane, because it's on the Internet, and
you would think that would be, you know, kind of the area of freedom for
information, it's bleeped on the Comedy Central Web site. But it is unbleeped
on YouTube, which I think someone probably unlawfully put it up there.

GROSS: Well, I didn't realize that there were two versions. As the artist
who created this piece, which one would you rather hear?

Mr. WILMORE: Yeah. I would rather hear the unbleeped version; it's time for
us to put the N back into NPR.

GROSS: Now, why do you want to hear the unbleeped version, knowing that
whenever you use this word, some people are going to be really offended, no
matter what the context is?

Mr. WILMORE: Terry, you haven't had Al Sharpton in your office in a while,
and you need him to get there. So this is the fastest way to get him over to
your office.

GROSS: But really, we're going to be getting e-mail from people who are
really offended, even though this is a comedy bit.

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

GROSS: So..

Mr. WILMORE: Well, it is satire, you know? And the whole point of the
satire is to point this out, you know? And it's the funniest form of it, too,
so to me, you know, it's like I feel the same way when people want to burn,
you know, "Huckleberry Finn" because it has the N word. Well, you know,
that's literature. It was done like that at the time, you know? Just because
that word can be offensive doesn't mean that the literature doesn't have any
value.

GROSS: OK, so this is an excerpt of Larry Wilmore's piece on the N word on
"The Daily Show," and he's part of an investigative team in this piece on John
Oliver. And so here they are in a councilman's office in New York, a
councilman who wants to have a voluntary ban on the N word. And John Oliver
starts off the piece.

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show")

Mr. JOHN OLIVER: Leroy, are you at all concerned that we are banning one of
the most versatile words in the English language? It can be used as a noun.

Mr. WILMORE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, what's up, my nigger?

Mr. OLIVER: A verb.

Mr. WILMORE: Hey, man, don't nigger those potato chips.

Mr. OLIVER: An adjective.

Mr. WILMORE: Oh, so now you nigger rich?

Mr. OLIVER: An adverb.

Mr. WILMORE: Man, that's some niggardly...(word censored by station).

Mr. OLIVER: Are we kissing goodbye to all of this?

Councilman LEROY COMRIE: I think that all of those usages are just vile and
need to be stopped.

Mr. OLIVER: What do you say to rappers who need that word in terms of a
rhyme scheme?

Councilman COMRIE: Need the word? I don't think you need the word.

Mr. WILMORE: I'm not sure about that, Leroy. Finish this phrase. "I'm not
saying she's a gold digger, but she ain't mess with no broke"...

Councilman COMRIE: "I'm not saying she's a gold digger, but she ain't mess
with"...

Mr. WILMORE: "She ain't mess with no broke."

Councilman COMRIE: Fool.

Mr. WILMORE: Do you understand how rap works, councilman?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: When you were writing this sketch--and I assume you were in on the
writing of it, since you are a writer as well as a performer.

Mr. WILMORE: Mm-hmm. Right.

GROSS: Were there disagreements behind the scene about whether to use the
word or not, and how to use it, and where to draw the line?

Mr. WILMORE: Oh, no, the whole point was to use the word. I mean, that was
the whole point of doing it, and was to use it as much as possible. In fact,
there was one segment where--we ended up cutting it, but it really got big
laughs, where I asked the councilman, I said, `Leroy, isn't it tough when you
ask kids not to do something, they usually want to do it? So if you tell them
not to say the N word, all day long they're just going to go "Nigger nigger
nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger
nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger
nigger nigger nigger nigger."' And I just went on and on for a good 40
seconds, and he was just--he was just so funny. And I would take a breath and
keep going, `Nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger.' And it
was just really, really funny, because he could not believe that I just kept
saying it, you know, like that. And John Oliver just--you could see in his
face he was laughing so hard, he was trying to hold it. But it was really a
funny piece.

GROSS: The councilman at the end doesn't come off looking so good, with him,
like, really missing the point of the rhyme here. How do you feel when that
happens, if you have a real life person and he doesn't come off looking very
good?

Mr. WILMORE: He was actually a very good sport about it all, you know? He
broke a couple times and just started laughing, because he did find it absurd,
some of the things. And a lot of that--John and I had figured out some jokes
ahead of time, but we ad libbed a lot of it. We did this whole Smurf run,
where we substituted the Smurf for the N word, and we just drove him crazy
asking him questions using Smurf instead of the N word. You know? And so he
was really a good sport, so we completely--we were all cool on that.

GROSS: Is there anything that you find basically misguided about how like
American culture is reacting to the word and to who can say it and who can't
and what, you know...

Mr. WILMORE: Well, you know, I think it's more than probably that word. It
seems like we're kind of caught up in words, in general, and offensive words.
I mean, look, clearly the way Michael Richards did that was horrible. I mean,
that is the wrong way to do it, you know? I mean, but the way that Richard
Pryor used it in his routines, you know, was very emotional. It brought you
into his routines because it was such a vivid recollection of his childhood.
You know? And you knew that was the way people talked, and that was the
language that he uses, you know, and many blacks still use that word as a
disarmament of the horrible way it was used against them, you know, in some
ways. And some people have no idea of what that word is and just use it
carelessly. But the Michael Richards thing clearly was the wrong usage of
that. It was just bad. And that incensed a lot of people. And, you know,
and rightly so. But then you can't throw everything into that same group, you
know, just because one person said this, you know?

GROSS: My guest is Larry Wilmore, "The Daily Show"'s senior black
correspondent. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Larry Wilmore, who's known on
"The Daily Show" as the senior black correspondent. He's also--he created
"The Bernie Mac Show" and wrote for "In Living Color." You may have seen him
as the diversity day training guy on the diversity day episode of "The
Office."

I want to play another sketch from "The Daily Show," and this is your take on
Black History Month.

Mr. WILMORE: OK.

GROSS: So let's hear it, and then we'll talk about it.

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show")

Mr. STEWART: As you know, February is Black History Month. Here to offer
his insight, "Daily Show" senior black historian Larry Wilmore.

Larry, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

Mr. WILMORE: OK, first of all, Jon, relax. It's not Black History Month
yet. We all have about 45 minutes to blow off some steam before we bow our
heads in solemn reverence for Harriet Tubman and the Tuskogee airmen.

Mr. STEWART: Larry, I don't think you should undersell contributions of the
underground railroad and black pilots in World War II. I think it's obviously
worth taking time to commemorate these achievements.

Mr. WILMORE: Don't let me stop you.

Mr. STEWART: Larry, I feel stupid. Don't you feel that Black History Month
serves a purpose?

Mr. WILMORE: Yes, the purpose of making up for centuries of oppression with
28 days of trivia. You know what? I'd rather we got casinos.

Mr. STEWART: Larry, it's not...

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

Mr. STEWART: I'm perhaps not in a great position here, but I don't think
it's trivia. I think it's important.

Mr. WILMORE: Really? OK. Name the important stuff.

Mr. STEWART: Well, like--like you were saying, Harriet Tubman.

Mr. WILMORE: All right.

Mr. STEWART: And the Tuskogee airmen.

Mr. WILMORE: OK.

Mr. STEWART: And the fellow that invented the peanut.

Mr. WILMORE: Uh-huh.

Mr. STEWART: And the heart operation dude.

Mr. WILMORE: Right, right, OK. All right. Now we're at February 5th, OK?
By the eighth, we'll be down to the Wayans brothers. Seriously. And not even
the famous ones. Zeppo.

Mr. STEWART: Larry, what are you suggesting that we do?

Mr. WILMORE: Jon, let's be honest. Black History Month is a drag, OK?
White people have to pretend they care about black people, black people have
to pretend they care about history, it's a lose-lose, OK?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's really funny.

Mr. WILMORE: Thank you.

GROSS: That's Larry Wilmore from "The Daily Show." So why did you want to do
something on Black History Month, and do something that put it in such a
skeptical light?

Mr. WILMORE: You know what? I think part of this kind of character I've
come up with, looking for equality in different ways, you know, like wanting
to be ignored or wanting to be dismissed like the way other groups are in the
same way. And maybe there's a little too much reverence for some of these
things like black history, thought it might it be a good satirical jumping off
point. Plus, every black comedian I've ever seen talk about black history has
always mad at the fact that it doesn't get enough attention, you know? It's
always, `How come there are only 28 days in February and it's Black History
Month?' You know, jokes like that. So I thought it would be funny to take the
opposite tact, like 28 days is way too long, you know. We could accomplish
this, you know, in a PBS special, ladies and gentlemen, you know. So that was
kind of a satirical jumping off point.

GROSS: Do people often take you the wrong way and think that like you're
really putting down the contributions of African-Americans in American
history?

Mr. WILMORE: I haven't heard that from anyone. Most people find it kind of
a relief, you know? I think it's hard for people to be so reverent about
stuff all the time, you know, you have to have kind of a light approach to
some things sometimes, you know. But luckily for me, black people don't watch
"The Daily Show," so I'm in the clear when it comes to that. You know? Whew!

GROSS: Do you think that's true?

Mr. WILMORE: No, of course not. You know, some people do. But not in the
same numbers. Like, I go to the same barbershop I've gone to for years, and
no one in there knows that I'm on "The Daily Show." It's hilarious, you know.
Like, I've told my barber, and he's like, `Oh, OK, what show is that? When it
is on? Whe--buh?' And I'm like, `It's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.'
`Who--who's guy?' It's like, you can't win. But, you know, if you say, `Yeah,
I was on "The Steve Harvey Show."' `You was on "Steve Harvey Show"?' You know,
or something like that, you know.

GROSS: Now...

Mr. WILMORE: It's really amazing.

GROSS: How did you come up with your character? I mean, like, on "The Daily
Show," you dress in like, you know, very conservatively in a suit and tie.

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

GROSS: I know it's supposed to be a news show, but...

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

GROSS: Did you create a persona for yourself?

Mr. WILMORE: Well, not quite. There were some ideas to make me maybe a
black conservative, but I didn't want to be pigeonholed. Like, I didn't want
to just take the opposite point of view of something or that sort of thing,
and I didn't want to be a liberal or conservative and take divisive stances
that would be like what I call cheerleader comedy, you know, where you're just
cheerleading for one side or the other. So it's, `Whoo! Yeah! I agree with
you!' You know? I thought it would be more fun to be contrary, you know, and
just--you know, it's more--it's closer to my natural sense of humor, the
contrariness, you know? So whatever point you're going to take, I'm not going
to take the opposite point, I'll just be contrary to you, you know. And it's
a very frustrating point of view, because you're not sure where this person
really stands, and the ability to argue either side of the issue with as much
passion, too, can frustrate people. And I think it's a fun place to do comedy
from, and...

GROSS: Now...

Mr. WILMORE: I can both defend the N word and I can attack it at the same
time with the same amount of passion, and so you're like, `Well, where is he
coming from? Where does he stand?' You know.

GROSS: Larry Wilmore is "The Daily Show"'s senior black correspondent. He'll
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH
AIR. Here's music by the late pianist and composer Jackie Byard.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Larry Wilmore, who's
now best known as "The Daily Show"'s senior black correspondent. He also
co-created "The Bernie Mac Show" and wrote for "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air"
and "In Living Color." He's been a consulting producer on "The Office," and
appeared in an episode as a diversity trainer. Here he is in a scene from
that episode, "Diversity Day." He's been called in by the company after
Michael, played by Steve Carell, treated the office to his version of Chris
Rock's N word routine.

(Soundbite of "The Office")

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) At Diversity Today, our philosophy is about
honesty and positive expectations. We believe that 99 percent of the problems
in the workplace arise simply out of ignorance.

Mr. STEVE CARELL: (As Michael) You know what? This is a color-free zone
here. Stanley, I don't look at you as another race.

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) See, this is what I'm talking about. We don't
have to pretend that we're color blind.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Exactly.

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) That's fighting ignorance...

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) We're not color blind.

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) ...with more ignorance.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) With more tolerance.

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) No, with more ignorance. Right. Exactly.
Instead, we need to celebrate our diversity, OK?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Let's celebrate.

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Right. OK.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) OK, celebrate good times. Come on! Let's
celebrate diversity, right?

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Well--yes, exactly. Now, here's what we're
going to do. I've noticed that...

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) You know what? Here's what we're going to do. Why
don't we go around and everybody--everybody!--say a race that you are
attracted to sexually. I will go last. Go!

Unidentified Actor: (In character) I have two.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Nice.

Actor: (In character) White and Indian.

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Actually, I'd prefer not to start that way.
Michael, I would love to have your permission to run this session. Can I have
your permission?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Yes.

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Thank you very much. And it would also help me
if you were seated.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) OK.

Mr. WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Thank you.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Have you ever had to be in that position--not of being the counselor,
but of being in one of those official diversity training sessions?

Mr. WILMORE: Not quite like that, although I participated in a big one for
NBC with like the big-wigs. It was like a conference on diversity, and, you
know, Jeff Zucker was there, and I think it was Bob Wright. I think it was
Bob Wright. There were some--I mean, some of the big-wigs, Kevin Reilly. And
I was on a panel speaking about--from my point of view as a writer and
show-runner at the time--I wasn't really performing--and talking about some of
the issues on television in regards to writing. And, you know, it was pretty
interesting, you say your point of view and all that kind of stuff. But it
wasn't quite like what we did on "The Office," of course, you know, where it's
a little more condescending from that point of view, you know.

GROSS: So when you were at that NBC session about diversity.

Mr. WILMORE: Uh-huh.

GROSS: What were some of the points that you raised?

Mr. WILMORE: Well, some of these are kind of particular to the actual
writing profession, and there's some issues--like, I would raise issues like,
many times black writers will write on black shows but you won't see black
writers on white shows, you know, and I felt that that was a huge problem, you
know. Like, for some reason, we don't understand the white culture at large,
something? I don't get that, you know? That's the main culture, you know?
And that many times their attempts to include black or minority writers would
only happen at the lower level. They would be unpaid, called "diversity
hires," and I always thought that pigeonholed the writers and put them at a
disadvantage, where to my mind there were many qualified supervising
producers, co-executive producers and that sort of thing.

And I was always there to promote the writers who were already in the Writer's
Guild and who were already working on shows but weren't getting some of the
high profile jobs like some of their other counterparts, you know. When they
would diversify shows, they would bring in the person with the least amount of
experience, and that always put them in a weak position. So I was always
there to defend, kind of, you know, those positions.

GROSS: Well, you worked in television as a writer, actor and producer, and
the earliest program that I recognized on your bio was "The Facts of Life."

Mr. WILMORE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Which was a spin-off of "Good Times." This was from 1983.

Mr. WILMORE: Oh my God. People are saying, `How old is this guy, anyway?'

GROSS: So what did you face in terms of casting when you were starting to
work in television in the early '80s?

Mr. WILMORE: Sure, sure, sure. Well, at that point, it was kind of
interesting, because Eddie Murphy was just starting to really break out on a
big level, and he brought that--he really took Richard Pryor's shtick to more
of a middle class type of thing, you know? But it still, it was like the
fast-talking ex-con was kind of the way it was always said in audition
breakdowns. And I think Robert Townsend--he and Keenan really went to town
with that in "Hollywood Shuffle." And as a performer at the time--I was an
actor and a stand-up comedian. Every audition I would go in, I would have to
be some kind of fast-talking ex-con, you know, I'd have to be--they would
always want you to be more "street," which was always the word, or more
"urban," which was the code word for "black who hasn't been educated," you
know, is urban, you know. But it's funny. When they would call "Friends" an
urban comedy, it meant smart, white people who were really educated but just
are kind of slackers, you know? So I always found that distinction
interesting.

And so I couldn't--I, you know, it just wasn't me to do that type of thing,
you know. And so I felt I needed to carve out my own niche in comedy. I've
always had kind of an entrepreneurial spirit, and so I decided to get into
television, to write my own thing eventually. And after a while, I really
started enjoying writing and producing, to be honest, and I stopped performing
as much as I did. And plus, it was in the heyday of the "Def Comedy Jam,"
and, you know, the Martin Lawrences, the Bernie Macs and all those people, and
it just really wasn't my time, I think, to make my mark. So I just waited in
the bushes, Terry, until it was my time to strike.

But it's interesting, because I wrote for all those people all those years,
which was great. It was a lot of fun. And they're really--it was kind of the
golden age of that type of comedy. We were really some fantastic comedians to
come out of all that, that "Def Comedy Jam" era, I like to call it.

GROSS: Did you get any of those fast-talking ex-con roles?

Mr. WILMORE: No, I did not. I did not. Not talking like this, no.

GROSS: Right, yeah. It reminds me of a character in "Hollywood Shuffle" who
has this very proper accent, but he has to audition with this like...

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

GROSS: ...really street, you know, `Give me the gun' kind of...

Mr. WILMORE: Right, yeah. (As fast-talking ex-con) I ain't be got no gun.

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. WILMORE: Yeah.

GROSS: What are some of the TV shows you grew up with?

Mr. WILMORE: Wow. Boy, I really was a kid of television. I used to have
the TV Guide memorized as a kid, you know? I could tell you what night
everything was on, you know? Some of the early shows I remember, "The Flip
Wilson Show" was one of the earliest comic influences on me. That and "Get
Smart." In fact, I just bought the DVDs to "Get Smart," and my kids watch it
all the time. One, because it was so satirical; and the other because I just
thought Flip was so funny. And it was the first time I saw, you know, a black
man with a TV show that was his own, you know? I mean, in those days, that
was unheard of. I think Diahann Carroll was the only other black person to
have her own show as the lead. And Bill Cosby was on "I Spy," but that was a
little different, you know? Here, it was Flip Wilson's show, and he was just
so funny to me. That was my first big influence.

And later on, I was influenced by a lot of things like "All in the Family,"
"Sanford and Son," you know, and stand-up comics like Steve Martin, Pryor, and
I was always a fan of the old comedy. Big, huge fan of the Marx Brothers,
even to this day, and Keaton and Benny and all those people, so. But TV--I
watched everything on TV back then. I became a news junkie early on, too. My
grandmother, when she'd visit us when I was a kid, would watch the news every
night, and I would sit there--you know, you just want to spend time with your
grandmother, but I would watch the news with her and I became a news junkie
pretty early on. Even back in those days, I can remember watching Walter
Cronkite, you know.

And then, I was very lucky to meet Walter Cronkite years later. And, as a
kid, I'd always wanted to be an astronaut, you know. And it was at the
Peabody Awards, Walter Cronkite actually gave me the Peabody, and, boy, it was
a huge honor. I mean, he was such a big icon to me. And I thought, `You
know, I never thought I'd hear Walter Cronkite say my name.' You know? You
know, in my wildest dreams, it was like, `Astronaut Larry Wilmore was shot to
the moon yesterday.' You know? But, you know, if I was lucky, it was like,
`Larry Wilmore was arrested yesterday.' You know? I mean, that would be the
only way I'd hear, you know. Or maybe it'd be, `Former astronaut Larry
Wilmore was arrested yesterday.' And I actually made Walter Cronkite laugh,
and I thought, `I'm done with show biz. I made Walter Cronkite laugh.' And he
shook my hand and said, `That was really funny,' and everything, and it was
great. So that was a really nice closing of that circle.

GROSS: Well, now you're a fake newsman.

Mr. WILMORE: I know. And I didn't know at the time I'd actually be on "The
Daily Show." And it's funny, because that night I was talking to Ted Koppel
and Dan Rather and, you know, these guys are huge, you know, never thinking
that one day I'd be mocking what it is that they do.

GROSS: Well, but there really is news on the show, you know?

Mr. WILMORE: Yeah. Right.

GROSS: So did being a news junkie come in handy for "The Daily Show"?

Mr. WILMORE: Absolutely. And my wife always makes fun of me--or derides may
be the better word--that I, you know, because newspaper's always on the floor
and that kind of stuff, because I read The New York Times, LA Times, sometimes
Wall Street Journal, you know, and I'll read a lot online, too. And, you
know, to her it's just trash, you know? `Why is it in the room?' You know?
But I just like knowing what's going on out there, and also what are the
different points of view on it, too, you know? I would always watch different
news, too, BBC News or--I love it when I'm overseas and I get to see their
local news and see what people are talking about, you know? And I just like
to know what's going on. I don't know what that is, you know?

But it definitely comes in handy, because then when you're doing "The Daily
Show," you just, at your fingertips, you have a lot of recall, you know, for
something you may have read like a week ago that was some little article about
something, you know? And you go, `Oh, you know what? There was this guy, he
said something about bah-bah-bah-bloo-bloo-bloo.' You know? `Oh, yeah, let's
look that up.' We'll look it up. `OK, you know, let's do something on that.'
You know? So it can come in handy for that.

GROSS: My guest is Larry Wilmore, "The Daily Show"'s senior black
correspondent. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Larry Wilmore. He's "The Daily Show"'s senior black
correspondent. He's been a consulting producer for "The Office," co-created
"The Bernie Mac Show," and wrote for "In Living Color" and "The Fresh Prince
of Bel Air."

Your brother writes for "The Simpsons." I always find it so interesting when
siblings end up in the same profession, particularly when it's a
hard-to-get-into profession.

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

GROSS: You know, like television, when you're both writing for such great
shows.

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

GROSS: Is there any explanation for this?

Mr. WILMORE: Guardian angels. Always guardian angels. My brother and I, we
didn't have the easiest childhood. And there was one point, you know, my
parents divorced when we were both kind of young, and there was six of us
kids, and my mom had a really tough time, and at one point everything was in
such a shambles. And I'll make a long story short, but our roof literally
caved in, Terry. I'm not making this up. It literally caved in during a
rainstorm, I remember, and my brother and I were just looking at, and I looked
at him and I said, `Marc, I am not going to wind up like this, man.' And I
decided to dedicate myself to doing what really, you know, made me happy
first, and that was comedy. And I became a stand-up comedian, and he followed
in my footsteps. And he started doing stand-up about a year after I did, you
know, and my brother is just really, really funny. He's always just been
funny, you know, and I always thought he was funnier than I was. He's just
naturally funny.

And he got a reputation as--he started writing for television shortly after I
did, too. He started on "In Living Color." And he was, in fact, was in the
cast, I think the last year. But Marc got a reputation for being funny doing
extra things on writing staffs. When we were writing "The PJ's," I had Marc
in the cast and on the writing staff. I knew a lot of people from over at
"The Simpsons," and Marc dropped by at "The Simpsons." They didn't know who
Marc was, and he pretended like he was the mayor of St. Louis or something,
because they did this joke about St. Louis or East St. Louis. And he went
in there and tore them a new, you know--I don't know if I can say that on NPR.

GROSS: You can't!

Mr. WILMORE: OK. And they were--and he was like, I guess, `Who wrote it?
Who wrote it?' And he had on like this horrible loud jacket, too. He looked
like he was like some mayor from some small town or something. And he went
after the guy who wrote it, and the guy was so scared and everything. It was
so funny that he would actually go to the writing staff. And then, you know,
he told them that it was just a joke, and they could not believe it. They
laughed so hard. They thought it was the funniest prank you could ever pull.
And I remember, they sent him this fantastic, beautiful "Simpsons" jacket at
the time. And then, a couple of years later, I guess there was an opening
there, and they asked Marc to be on the writing staff, you know. It kind of
happened like that. He pulled a prank on them, and they thought it was so
funny they wanted him to write for the show. You know?

GROSS: It's a great story.

Now, you said you didn't have an easy childhood, and that your parents
divorced when you were young, and your mother had a hard time after the
divorce...

Mr. WILMORE: Uh-huh.

GROSS: ...and being the mother of six kids.

Mr. WILMORE: Right.

GROSS: Did your family change class after the divorce?

Mr. WILMORE: Yeah, that's a very good question, actually. It seemed like we
were very middle class when I was...

GROSS: Your father was a doctor, right?

Mr. WILMORE: No, my father became a doctor later, actually.

GROSS: Oh! Oh!

Mr. WILMORE: He went back to school in his 40s, and he had been a probation
officer up until that time and decided just one day he wanted to be a doctor.
And he went back to school, took some pre-med classes, got accepted into UCI,
Irvine Medical School, and became a doctor. It was pretty amazing. And it
actually inspired me to do whatever I wanted to do. I thought, `Hey, man, if
this doesn't work out, in my 40s I'll go to medical school or something.'

But during the time we were children, it was a little different. You know, he
was a probation officer, and we were in Catholic school, and my mom basically
was raising the six of us, and, you know, money didn't always come at the
right time. You know how those things can go, when two parents are kind of
fighting. And it was not easy. So we definitely kind of went from middle
class to lower class like almost overnight. Although, with a very middle
class sensibility, you know.

We never--I don't know, it's such an odd thing, you know. It's funny, it
gives you an interesting perspective on life, too, when you really don't have
any material goods, and you're not sure if you're going to be able to pay your
light bill or your heat bill or all this stuff. But yet I always had a middle
class sensibility that, `You know what? If you just work hard, you can get
out of that.' You know? You don't have to blame too many factors around you,
just keep going forward and keep working and all that stuff, you know. It was
very--my parents are from the Midwest, actually, so we always had that
sensibility, even though we were faced with tough times, you know.

GROSS: Did you change neighborhoods, and were there difficult parts, if so,
of having a middle class sensibility in a lower class or poorer neighborhood?

Mr. WILMORE: Not really. I think our neighborhood kind of went down,
unfortunately, actually.

GROSS: So you could stay.

Mr. WILMORE: Yeah. It worked out great for us.

GROSS: You were able to stay.

Mr. WILMORE: Worked out fantastic, in fact. I'm all for that neighborhood
going down thing, by the way. But I think a part of my schizophrenic comic
point of view is because here I am, you know, we're just trying to put food on
the table most of the time, right? And I'm going to, you know--I went to an
all boys' Catholic high school, where a lot of these kids are rich kids, and I
couldn't relate to their thing at all, you know. But yet, if you talk to me,
you wouldn't know that we didn't have anything, you know? I never presented
that. I didn't wear that on my sleeve, you know? I was like part of the
debate team, I was always a really good student. I got a scholarship to go to
high school, in fact, you know. And people always associate, I think, lower
income with maybe lower intelligence or lower IQ or whatever, but so it's
interesting how those things are kind of associated. But I found out that
there's a lot of people hiring...(unintelligible)...some real idiots, too, and
some people, you know, the lower income or whatever turned out to be some of
the best people around. And vice versa, you know. You get a little bit of
everything, so.

But yeah, it really taught me some important lessons about just being out in
the world, you know. It doesn't matter where you're from, you know, you can
just fit into almost any situation, you know, so.

GROSS: It's probably been helpful to have lived in different classes...

Mr. WILMORE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...in terms of writing?

Mr. WILMORE: Mm. Definitely. Having been in both the middle and the lower,
and then as a writer you're really in an elite class. Many writers went to
Harvard or are very well educated. I'm actually a college dropout. I dropped
out of school to get my equity card and join this theater production of
something where we got to write this thing through improvisation and be a
stand-up comic. And so I'm really blue collar, in terms of being around
everyone. But I'm very much self-educated, and I'm very well read, just like
they all are. I just don't have the credentials, you know? But I can relate
to that class. But I can also very much relate to the lower class. When I'm
working on a show, I think I probably spend more time with the crew and
talking to them, like when I'm running a show, as I do with the writers and
everyone else, you know, because I'm very comfortable with the union guys, you
know, and with the "Average Joe," so to speak, you know, because that's what I
was growing up. That's who I am. You know, I've just I do a lot of work with
people who don't have that background, too, so.

GROSS: Well, Larry Wilmore, great to talk with you. Thank you so much for
talking with us.

Mr. WILMORE: Oh, thank you, Terry, it's my pleasure.

GROSS: Larry Wilmore is "The Daily Show"'s senior black correspondent and has
been a consulting producer on "The Office."

Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers Wikipedia, and what it has to
say about the future of encyclopedias and knowledge itself. This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Geoff Nunberg expounds on the verity of Wikipedia as
compared to the whole of human knowledge
TERRY GROSS, host:

Like many of us, our linguist Geoff Nunberg refers to Wikipedia, but wonders
if its widespread use signals the rebirth of the encyclopedia or the end of
it.

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: If defenders of traditional print culture were looking
for a portent that end times are upon us, they might have found it in a
sentence from one of Paul Krugman's New York Times columns a couple of months
ago. The sentence began, "A conspiracy theory, says Wikipedia, attempts to
explain the cause of an event as a secret plot." That phrase "says Wikipedia"
had me doing a double take. We usually reserve that kind of attribution for
sources that have acquired an institutional voice that transcends their
individual contributors. We can say "according to the Oxford English
Dictionary" or "in the words of the Encyclopedia Brittanica," or, for that
matter, "The New York Times says." But it was odd to see that lofty syntax
used to talk about Wikipedia. It was as if Krugman had quoted some anonymous
graffiti written on the wall of a bathroom in Nassau Hall and introduced them
with, `According to Princeton University.'

But then, maybe Krugman was just owning up to what most scholars and
journalists keep as a guilty secret, which is that they rely on Wikipedia all
the time. By "rely on," I don't mean just for doing preliminary research,
which is what scholars usually say about how they use Wikipedia, in the same
tone that they adopt when they cop to glancing at People magazine in the
dentist's waiting room. I mean using Wikipedia as a primary source of
information, or at least I do. In fact, I've been keeping a log of the
questions I've gone to Wikipedia with in the last few months:

Which Edsel models were full-size cars? When did Henry Wallace deliver his
century of the common man speech? What's the difference between discrete and
continuous probability distributions? When did Nirvana first perform "Smells
Like Teen Spirit"? And that's not to mention all the names I looked up for my
"Whatever Happened to" file: Pi Zadora, Chuck Noblock, Elian Gonzalez, Yma
Sumac, Vanilla Ice, Joey Heatherton, and the guys from Humble Pie who weren't
Peter Frampton.

I almost never bother to verify the answers. Usually I don't much care. Like
most people, I suspect, I use Wikipedia for idle ruminating, usually when I
ought to be doing something else. And anyway, Wikipedia has as good a chance
of being right on these as anybody else does. You figure it isn't going to
lead you wrong about probability distributions or when Robert Clemente was
National League MVP or when Phil Collins joined Genesis. There are just too
many people out there who make it a point of pride to know that stuff. And
where else would you go to find out about Pi Isadora, the undead or fantasy
characters? I haven't actually read any of the "Harry Potter" books, but I
figure that any group of people who take the collective time and trouble to
compile a 7,000-word article just on Lord Voldemort have got to know what
they're talking about.

But it's imprudent to trust the wisdom of crowds when it comes to fixing the
date of birth of Daniel Defoe or the titles of Max Bierbaum's works or what
Joyce had to say about Ibsen. And Wikipedia's even more helpless at
explaining any of those writers. The collective process isn't going to be
able to produce the consistent viewpoint or the engaged tone of voice that
criticism requires. In fact, the pros of Wikipedia is inexorably drawn to a
kind of corporate impersonality. It's the way the English language would talk
if it had no place to go home to at night.

But I expect most users recognize Wikipedia's strength and limitations. At
their best, the articles are arrays of more or less reliable facts. At their
worst, they're so jumbled and incoherent that factual incorrectness is a mere
side issue. I think of what the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said about a
paper once submitted to a journal. "This isn't right. This isn't even
wrong." But what do we expect? The most exasperating thing about all these
arguments about Wikipedia is that everybody seems to assume it's a single
entity, the way an encyclopedia is. The Wikipedians explain how this open,
collaborative process is lurching toward a neutral and methodical synthesis of
all human knowledge. The critics charge that it's undermining the conceptions
of expertise and intellectual order that the encyclopedia has embodied since
the Enlightenment.

But in one form or another, that picture of human knowledge was always a grand
illusion, even back when we could believe in the unity of high culture. By
now, the encyclopedia and the dictionary are really just symbols that we honor
with inattentive piety. Actually, it's my guess that most of the people who
harrumph about how Wikipedia is nothing like an encyclopedia haven't actually
opened one for some time.

But then, Wikipedia is steeped in exactly the same bookish nostalgia. That's
implicit in the name "Wikipedia" itself, and in the ferociously Oedipal
rivalry the Wikipedians feel with the Brittanica. And it explains the
exaggerated deference that Wikipedians pay to publish sources, even though a
lot of the books and articles the contributors cite turn out to be no more
reliable than Wikipedia itself.

The irony is that Wikipedia really signals the end of the encyclopedic vision.
It's only when you actually try to implement that view of collective knowledge
that you realize how fond and delusional it is. You deposit this multitude of
strangers in a single place, you shouldn't be surprised when you come back and
find nothing but a jumble of footprints in the mud. That's actually a fair
picture of what human knowledge has always been, but it was never so evident
before now.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California Berkeley.
His book "Talking Right" will be released in paperback this month.

You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

By the way, I just recorded a performance with a guitarist from Los
Straitjackets and singer Big Sandy. They did songs from their new CD, which
is inspired by Mexican Spanish language cover versions of rock 'n' roll hits
from the '50s and '60s. We'll feature the concert soon. Meanwhile, here's a
track from Los Straightjackets' "Rock en Espanol."

(Soundbite of Spanish language cover version of "Lonely Teardrops")
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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