Larry Wilmore: Little to Laugh About

Sep 16, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Award-winning writer, actor, director and producer Larry Wilmore, currently providing laughs on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” will be among the participants in the 21st annual NAMIC Conference, running Sept. 16-18 in New York. He will be a panelist discussing the topic “The Media and the Minds of the Masses: Cultural Awareness vs. Cultural Wariness.” In anticipation of the conference, Mr. Wilmore spoke with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the state of diversity in the television industry.
TelevisionWeek: In terms of diversity, how do you think the networks are doing today, particularly on-camera?
Larry Wilmore: It’s hard to sum it up in a soundbite, but it’s better than it has been before in front of the camera, especially in dramatic series. It’s in the comedies that things are a little bit thinner, from my point of view, because that’s more of my expertise. Drama series do a better job handling diversity, but there does seem to be a lack of minority-lead shows, you know, where a minority is clearly the lead. Sometimes that goes in cycles, and I think we’re in a down cycle right now.
TVWeek: Could it be that the lack of minority presence is not just coincidental, but something orchestrated by producers and networks?
Mr. Wilmore: I think it’s a combination of that, but I would also put the responsibility for the disparity on the writers and creators. The people who are pitching and creating these shows need to make more of an effort themselves (to create cultural diversity). The bottom line at the networks is that if a show works, it works. They don’t care who’s in it. So even though I’m one of the writers and producers, I’ve tried to encourage brothers and sisters, saying, “Come on, guys. Let’s do a better job with this.” “Grey’s Anatomy” is proof that you can have a show with amazing ratings and a fantastic, diverse cast. Even the showrunner [and creator], Shonda Rhimes, is a black woman. That’s pretty extraordinary in terms of progress.
TVWeek: When you created “The Bernie Mac Show,” did you find that funny is colorblind, that race doesn’t matter if it’s funny?
Mr. Wilmore: Absolutely. That’s very true.
TVWeek: But since it went off the air, there hasn’t been another African American sitcom to take its place. Why not?
Mr. Wilmore: It’s odd to me. I worked very hard to get that show on the air. One of the biggest reasons it got on was because Bernie’s star was on the rise. Everybody at the other networks really liked our pilot, and that put a lot of pressure on Fox. Fox was the least happy with it, believe it or not. It is bizarre. They never thought the show was really that great, that’s how ridiculous it was. The show kind of got on in spite of their banking it.
TVWeek: What was the network’s reaction when you were winning Emmys, the Peabody Award and a Humanitas Prize for the show?
Mr. Wilmore: They just got more and more mad at me because it proved that I was right. It wasn’t good in their eyes. They were like, “Well, those are just awards, big deal, blah, blah, blah …”
TVWeek: Have you found more diversity with what you’re doing now on “The Daily Show”?
Mr. Wilmore: I really enjoy doing “The Daily Show” and I think it’s great what they have done in terms of diversity. Everyone had a perception of “The Daily Show” that it was a funny show, political satire, but it was pretty white-bread. All the reporters were white, from a performer point of view, not in terms of audience enjoying the show. I’m speaking about women, too. In the last year, it has changed dramatically. Many of the classic people have left to do bigger and better things, and the sense that I got from them is that they wanted to shake it up a bit and have more diverse viewpoints on the show comically. They put John Oliver on the show from England, me an African-American, John Hodgman the egghead intellectual, Aasif Mandvi. Everybody has his or her own distinct voice, and that’s really helped the show. I’ve gotten so many comments from people saying that they really, really enjoy the show now, and maybe they hadn’t watched it as much before, but now they really, really watch the show.
TVWeek: Is it true you’re the black correspondent for “The Daily Show”?
Mr. Wilmore: No, I’m the senior black correspondent. Don’t ever make that mistake again!
TVWeek: Do you think diversity is still an ongoing battle to be fought, that there will never be a time when there will be enough diversity?
Mr. Wilmore: I think it’s probably true that there’s never enough diversity. I think one of the biggest problems is that, while it’s not a plot or a conspiracy, many minorities are invisible. It’s like they’re not on the radar screen and so we have to make an effort to stay on their radar, as opposed to anyone keeping you out. The sense that I get from all my years in the business is that you have to make an effort to keep in front of people and to keep showing you’re relevant by being marketable. If you want minorities in a comedy, write them into a comedy. You have to keep doing it until it becomes part of the landscape, so that you don’t have to do it so much.
This is my first time going to the [NAMIC] convention. I’m very happy to talk about these issues, though, because I’ve been involved with them for a long, long time.
TVWeek: Are African Americans well represented on TV today?
Mr. Wilmore: I don’t think so in comedy. I can’t think of an African American situation comedy. There’s Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne,” but that’s on cable. The networks don’t have any African American comedies. Hopefully, we can change the landscape.
I’m trying to do that now, I’m writing something for myself. I’m actually working on that — “The Larry Wilmore Show” — right now. It’s always been my evil plan and now seems like the right time to do it. I have an idea that I’m trying to pitch around, so we’ll see what happens.

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