Larry Wilmore's Departure Leaves Late-Night A Little Whiter, But The Real Problem Was The Dark Shadow

Frustrating as it is to see late-night television lose one of its few persons of color, Larry Wilmore's termination by Comedy Central was pretty much inevitable.


Wilmore (above), whose last edition of The Nightly Show will air Thursday at 11:30 p.m. ET, has been a solid host for 18 months. He just didn't get enough viewers, which is a very bad thing in television and in this case is also the pretty-much-inevitable part.

The problem isn't that Wilmore is black. The problem is that Wilmore is not Stephen Colbert. Just as the problem for Trevor Noah, who hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central at 11 p.m. ET, is that he's not the guy who preceded him, Jon Stewart.


Noah (above) remains on the job as we speak, but there's a lot of discussion in the TV biz about how long that will remain true. After almost a year on the air, Noah is getting less than half the number of 18- to 49-year-olds, the ones who matter to advertisers, that Stewart used to attract.

In Noah's case, some of that may be his own fault. He's smart and funny, but sometimes he comes off as a little too clever, the kid in the corner throwing off wisecracks.

He's good at that. But after years of Stewart's exasperated, bemused and incredulous Everyman behind the desk, Noah's style doesn't engender the same level of engagement.

Stewart's show got buzz. People talked about it the next day. In this era of ultra-fragmented television, that's the social media gold medal.

It doesn't diminish Noah's skills to say he hasn't gotten there yet. It does move Comedy Central away from where it was and where it would like to be again, which in turn explains why the network is rearranging some of the players.

Like, say, Larry Wilmore.

It's worth remembering that 17 years ago - which in modern technology terms might as well be the Paleolithic era - Comedy Central's niche in late-night TV was modest.

It was Craig Kilborn's Daily Show, a cheerful little boat bobbing along on the late-night river.

Then Stewart took over and while it's important to remember he never got anything like Johnny Carson-level numbers, he put The Daily Show into the center of the national media conversation.

How? Well, he blended strong comic skills with a massive amount of hard work on reporting and journalism.

Stewart constantly made a point of correcting anyone who called his Daily Show a news program, insisting it was just entertainment. It wasn't.

In an era when an ever-growing crop of on-air personalities have interwoven entertainment and news so tightly that you need the Hubble telescope to see the line between them, Stewart took his place near the head of a table whose guests range from Bill O'Reilly to Rachel Maddow.

Then, as if Stewart's own success weren't enough of a win for Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert stepped up from Stewart's back bench to become a cult star himself.

Eventually Comedy Central put Stewart and Colbert back to back - which, again, didn't draw tens of millions of viewers, but did give the network two of TV's most recognizable late-night brands.

So when they both left at almost the same time, there was no way that balloon wasn't going to deflate.

The classic sports analogy is the Phil Bengston Problem, referring to the unlucky fellow who took over coaching the Green Bay Packers when the legendary Vince Lombardi retired. No matter what Phil accomplished, it was going to be compared to what Vince accomplished and found wanting.


It's instructive to note that two other alumni of Stewart's Daily Show, Samantha Bee (above) and John Oliver, have also gone on to do similarly formatted shows that, to this point, have been markedly successful.

Bee's Full Frontal just got reupped at TBS, while Oliver is signed to continue Last Week Tonight through next year at HBO and will very likely continue beyond that.


Oliver (above) was mentioned as a potential Daily Show successor when Stewart announced he was leaving, and while we don't know what might or might not have been said, you wonder if Oliver decided to stay at HBO in part because he figured he was better off not stepping into that long shadow.

Wilmore was obviously willing to take that gamble with Colbert's old slot, just as Noah took it with Stewart's.

For what it's worth, the big problem here very likely is the darkness of that shadow, not the darkness of either man's skin.

But while Comedy Central tries to jump-start things in the short run, let's not forget that television in the larger picture still does have serious unfinished late-night business with skin tone and gender.