Larry Wilmore is best known as “senior black correspondent” for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has been an Emmy and Peabody award-winning writer and producer for such shows as the Bernie Mac Show, The Office and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and is the author of the book I’d Rather We Got Casinos and Other Black Thoughts. After this interview took place, Comedy Central announced that Wilmore will host a new series to replace The Colbert Report called The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore.
Grant Reeher (GR): Commentary about The Daily Show brings up questions about what journalism is, what it is becoming, the relationship between what’s real and what’s true, etc. How do the folks who work on the show view what it is they are producing?
Larry Wilmore (LW): We view it as comedy, as a show that first of all tries to be funny. Of course, it has to have a point of view of why we think something should be funny or what we actually think is funny about something. But we are not doing the show as a method to do another news show or to present it as, “Hey, listen to us because this is the real news.”
GR: Is the show under more pressure now, because of the impact that you are having and because a lot of people do turn to this show to get their news?
LW: No, we don’t feel any extra pressure. To be honest with you, we don’t even talk about it or think about it. It’s not an issue. It’s funny because we do get asked that a lot. We think that people take us probably more seriously than we intended to be taken. It’s a kind of unintended consequence of being a hit show with someone as smart and engaging as Jon Stewart. I think he really makes it what it is.
GR: A lot of my college students get a significant part of their news from the program. Are you folks conscious of that when you put it together?
LW: I would attribute that more to laziness on the part of the students — wait, students are lazy? What? I think it’s the way people watch television in general more now, too. Who watches the network news anymore?
GR: This may seem like a silly question, but in your writing, in your creative work, why the focus on issues of race?
LW: That is a silly question (laughs). Some of it just happened that way. I find a lot of that satire pretty funny, and I guess it never seems to be not interesting to mix it in. I have been doing things since the mid-’80s about race. The early jokes when I did stand-up, when I was talking about — because I’m light-skinned — a lot of people were fascinated with, “What are you mixed with?” They would ask me that question. So I finally said, “Look, let’s make it easy. If I was a beer, I would be Negro Lite, and I am a third less angry than the regular Negro.”
The issues have always changed over time. One of my first shows was In Living Color, and it was like bringing the hip-hop movement into television; it was a whole cultural movement which is more than black. It was music, it was clothing, it was the way people speak … even tattoos. I mean, hip-hop brought in a whole new culture. And then I did a show called The PJs, which was an animated show with Eddie Murphy. That was more of a hard satirical biting show in the vein of The Simpsons. I mean, we had a crackhead as a character on the show, and he would say lines like, “Whoa, gotta go. Crack don’t smoke itself.” Just really outrageous lines. You couldn’t even do that today, and this was 12 years ago. The Daily Show is interesting because I could do more political, cultural satirical comedy that is topical and that is in the news.
GR: You mentioned anger in your joke. Does anger play a role in your creative life, and how do you channel that if it does?
LW: No, anger doesn’t play a role for me. I would say exasperation does more than anything else. I’m not really an angry type of person. But exasperation, I usually can’t believe something. My style can sound that way. My book has a piece where I was exasperated over Black History Month. Twenty-eight days of tribute to make up for 400 years of slavery? I’d rather we got casinos. I mean, it is a very exasperated line.
GR: Some of the pieces in your book, as I read them, seemed to me, for lack of a better phrase, as commentaries within the black community. First, does that phrase even make sense, the black community?
LW: It makes no sense at all. What is this black community anyway?
GR: (laughs) Let me try it this way. Some of your pieces read to me as kind of in-house satires.
LW: Inside baseball.
GR: Yes, for example, your letters to the NAACP about changing the designation “African-American” to chocolate. Other pieces seem more about race relations, like your piece on why black men don’t see UFOs. Do you think about your pieces in that way? Are there different types of commentary?
LW: You are right, some of it is talking to the community in some ways. Certainly my evidence of why Jesus is black. Sometimes it’s the most absurd things, like it’s OK to hate black people who work at McDonald’s at the airport — that doesn’t make you racist. Which came from me being treated horribly by the people at McDonald’s at the airport all the time, but the black people who work at Starbucks are fine, so those black people were OK to me. It became this real absurd piece. But then there is another piece called “The End of Racism,” which is actually a more thoughtful piece about what it really means to come to the end of racism … but then it gets absurd again when I make a distinction. Not everything is racist or not racist; some things fall in the category of brother-friendly or not brother-friendly.
GR: I really enjoyed one piece you haven’t talked about, called “Text Messages from a Birmingham Jail.” I laughed out loud when I turned the page and saw the title.
LW: You are the right age group for that.
GR: The concept of that piece seems pretty edgy. You’re playing around with a sacred document from the civil rights movement. How do you navigate that kind of humor when you are getting into that territory?
LW: That’s a great question. Early on in my career, when I worked at In Living Color, I had to say, “Look, anything is fair game, as long as you have a good take on it.” There are some things for taste reasons or for just regular human reasons you wouldn’t make fun of. I wouldn’t make fun of somebody with cancer; that doesn’t make sense to me. But there are some things, just because it is a document, why would that not be thought of for jokes? I wouldn’t make fun of Martin Luther King’s house getting bombed or something like that, but it is such an iconic thing — Letters from a Birmingham Jail — that just that phrase, to twist it around a bit seemed funny.
GR: You’ve been involved in a lot of different kinds of work in the entertainment world: writer, actor, stand-up comic and producer. Do you think one type of role suits you best?
LW: I would say probably producer, just because I like seeing the whole picture of something. I work on a couple of projects right now and it probably is the most fulfilling. Performing, like the stuff I do on The Daily Show, is probably the most fun — you know, the instant gratification type of thing. Writing is the hardest, but I have been able and kind of have a real knack for it. So it is one of those things I hate; I hated homework from school, so I chose a profession where I have to do it every day of my life, pretty much.
GR: Do you see your career going toward a particular direction, where you will focus more on one thing?
LW: No. I have always done other things, and I am also interested in other things besides comedy. I am actually developing a radio show for a friend who is a life coach and dealing more with the life issues and that sort of thing. I have been developing my own kind of philosophy to help people get clarity in their lives, and that sort of thing. I am also an amateur magician. I have come out of the magic closet this past year, and I have been doing it for a year. So now people want me to come to conventions and that stuff and lecture. And so there are all kinds of things going on.
GR: What’s your worst trait?
LW: Definitely it’s procrastination. I actually procrastinate my procrastinating, that’s how horrible I procrastinate. You know, I am actually going to procrastinate writing but first I have to procrastinate that actual procrastination, so, that is absolutely my worst trait. In fact, people would say, “Larry, why do you write?” I would say because I have a deadline, otherwise I would never get anything done.
GR: Finally, what professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?
LW: Probably The Daily Show. To be honest with you, I did not see that coming. It was nothing I planned, it was not a direction of my career that I thought was coming at that point. It was kind of a detour for me at that time, but it was a creative break that I really needed. I didn’t see it coming, it completely surprised me. Everything else that happened from it has been not only a bonus in my career, but to my life, to be honest with you.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.