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With Larry Wilmore’s ‘Nightly’ gone, Trevor Noah is the only host of color in late-night

The shutdown also poses questions for Comedy Central

Comedy Central has canceled The Nightly Show, the comedy show hosted by Larry Wilmore, nearly 20 months after its January 2015 debut, citing flat ratings. The show’s final episode will air Thursday night. Going forward, @midnight with Chris Hardwick will move to 11:30 p.m. until a more permanent replacement is announced.

Wilmore, 54, was named as host of The Nightly Show in 2014, after spending years as a “senior black correspondent” on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the creator and executive producer of The Nightly Show. “I’m really grateful to Comedy Central, Jon Stewart, and our fans to have had this opportunity, but I’m also saddened and surprised we won’t be covering this crazy election, or ‘The Unblackening’ as we’ve coined it,” Wilmore said in a statement. “And keeping it 100, I guess I hadn’t counted on ‘The Unblackening’ happening to my time slot as well.”

“I’m also saddened and surprised we won’t be covering this crazy election, or ‘The Unblackening’ as we’ve coined it.”

According to Deadline, the show was averaging 400,000-550,000 live viewers as a follow to Trevor Noah’s Daily Show. When Wilmore was following Stewart, those numbers averaged 600,000-800,000. With Wilmore gone, Daily Show host Noah will be the only person of color in late-night. Save for Samantha Bee, the lineup, on cable and network television, is dominated by white men. The Nightly Show made history when it named Robin Thede as head writer, and she became the first black woman in history to hold the title in late night. Comedy Central president Kent Alterman is reportedly happy with Noah, despite having his own ratings troubles when compared with Stewart. Noah is leading the ratings pack among men ages 18-24, according to Nielsen data. Wilmore always offered something of an adult coda to the fratty humor of Noah’s Daily Show.

In April, Wilmore was the host of the final White House Correspondents’ Association dinner for President Barack Obama. His speech, which ended with, “You did it, my n—-,” received mixed reviews. Comedy Central executives were hoping the performance would provide a bump for Wilmore, but it never came. Originally, the slot following the The Daily Show belonged to Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report, the arch, Beltway-skewering O’Reilly Factor send-up beloved by Stewart’s core audience of largely white college-educated liberals. When Colbert was named as host of the Late Show and Comedy Central announced that Wilmore would fill his shoes, it was an enormous promotion, the biggest of his career, and one that required Wilmore to relinquish his early position as showrunner on ABC’s Black-ish.

The show had its strong points, especially Wilmore’s opening monologue. Wilmore’s continued excoriation of comedian Bill Cosby, which quickly evolved into a segment called “We haven’t forgotten about you m—–f—–,” was another. But the Nightly Show struggled to find a rhythm with its panel segment, which featured Wilmore, a guest, and two show contributors discussing a news topic of the day, Real Time with Bill Maher-style. Unfortunately the time constraints of Wilmore’s half-hour slot limited the discussion and resulted in facile conversations that only scratched the surface of a given issue. The segment allowed for Wilmore to ask maybe two questions.

The cancellation of the Nightly Show speaks to a problem with Comedy Central’s 11 p.m.-midnight programming. The network came to rely on the one-two punch of Stewart and Colbert for consistent ratings and Emmy nominations, especially during presidential election years, beginning with Stewart’s coverage of George W. Bush. The Noah-hosted Daily Show failed to net a nomination for this year’s Emmys.

For Comedy Central to cancel the show two months before an election that’s filled with all sorts of unprecedented factors and comedic gifts – namely, whatever happens to tumble out of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s mouth on any day ending in “Y,” – appears to smack of a serious vote of no confidence. But multiple reports have attributed the timing of the announcement to contract decisions. The network had a looming deadline to choose whether to re-sign Wilmore and 15 other Nightly Show staffers to one-year contracts. It decided to pass.

“Even though we’ve given it a year and a half, we’ve been hoping against hope that [the Nightly Show] would start to click with our audience, but it hasn’t happened and we’ve haven’t seen evidence of it happening,” Alterman told The New York Times. Wilmore’s career as a television writer began with the ’90s Rick Dees show Into the Night, but he quickly progressed to In Living Color and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and created The Bernie Mac Show.

There’s a question about what this means for Insecure, the new HBO comedy starring Issa Rae.

There’s a question about what this means for Insecure, the new HBO comedy starring Issa Rae that premieres Oct. 9 after spending nearly three years in development. In 2013, HBO announced that it would be developing the show that’s now known as Insecure with Rae and Wilmore as co-writers. But after Wilmore was named as Colbert’s successor in Comedy Central’s 11:30 p.m. slot, his role was dialed back, and Wilmore is currently credited as a co-creator and consultant on the show. Rae, who is an executive producer on Insecure, has always spoken about Wilmore in glowing terms.

“Working with Larry was an amazing experience,” Rae said at Insecure’s presentation at the Television Critics Association press tour in July. “He really helped me to hone my voice and just be confident in the story I was trying to tell and building a steady foundation. Ultimately,” she continued, “he got The Nightly Show opportunity and it’s an opportunity he’s wanted for a long time. He tried to stay as hands-on as he could, but he’s too busy right now. He’s been able to stop by castings and by set just to give two cents and give us words of encouragement and is just a general support overall. We love him.”

Given that HBO has become a home to two other Daily Show alumni, John Oliver and Stewart himself, we’re keeping an eye on whether Wilmore could or would return to Insecure in a more expanded role. Wilmore’s most recent tweet, sent Sunday night, quoted the Beatles song Two of Us: Two of us riding nowhere / Spending someone’s / Hard earned pay / You and me Sunday driving / Not arriving / On our way back home.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.