The cruelest joke Comedy Central ever played was yanking Larry Wilmore off the air just as the 2016 campaign was heating up.
“I was shocked by that and very frustrated,” the former host of “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” said last month. “But I’ve been in television long enough to know you get canceled. Things like that happen.”
The 58-year-old comic, whose credits include reporting for “The Daily Show” and creating “The Bernie Mac Show,” is also experienced enough to know that TV sometimes offers second chances.
On Friday, the new streaming service Peacock will begin airing “Wilmore,” a weekly series that will tackle current events like the #MeToo movement, racial injustice and, of course, the race for the White House.
The following week, Peacock, which is free for Comcast users, will premiere another weekly talker, this one hosted by Amber Ruffin, who, like Wilmore, is Black.
The irony that the streaming service is owned by NBC Universal is not lost on anyone with even a cursory knowledge of talk-show history.
NBC’s signature program, “The Tonight Show,” has never gone to a person of color. Same goes for the “Late Night” slot, which boosted the careers of David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers.
“There’s this thing old Black people tell you all the time, ‘You’ve gotta see it to believe it,’ ” said Ruffin, who joined the “Late Night With Seth Meyers” staff in 2014, making her the first Black woman ever to write for a late-night network show. “So when people are like, ‘When did you know you wanted to do late night?’ I go, ‘Never.’
“I mean, there was a minute while Arsenio Hall was on, I thought, ‘Maybe,’ but then that stopped quickly when his show stopped.”
“The Arsenio Hall Show” certainly had a cultural impact, thanks to a sax-playing Bill Clinton and an unforgettable Prince mini-concert. But the show was canceled in 1994 after five seasons. An attempt to revive it in 2013 lasted less than nine months. Ratings were less than stellar.
Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle enjoyed success with their own self-titled programs, but relied more on sketch comedy than replicating the Johnny Carson model.
“George Lopez had a show. D.L. Hughley, Wanda Sykes, Chelsea Handler, Arsenio Hall all had shows. They all went away because people weren’t talking enough about them,” former “Daily Show” correspondent Wyatt Cenac told me five years ago.
“Maybe it’s easier for us to rail against the lack of diversity or you can support the minorities who are out there. FX had a show produced by Chris Rock with W. Kamau Bell, but it didn’t get ratings and it wasn’t profitable so the network had to get rid of it. You can put executives’ feet to the fire, but we also have to hold our own feet to the fire.”
A month before that interview, Jon Stewart handed over the reins of “The Daily Show” to Trevor Noah; the mixed-race host has become Comedy Central’s biggest star. Last year, NBC turned over its 12:30 a.m. time slot to Indian-Canadian Lilly Singh.
And Ruffin’s on-air appearances on “Late Night” in segments like “Amber Says What?” and “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” have become show staples.
Her bubbly personality contrasts with her sometimes bitter words, as in a piece she did last week in which she listed President Donald Trump’s past remarks about the military while grooving to a slow jam. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Ruffin shared a series of personal experiences with the police that were as powerful as any protest.
Meyers is an executive producer for “The Amber Ruffin Show.”
“One of the things we’ve learned at our show is the benefit of having different voices, voices that are not the same as mine,” said Meyers. “That’s why Amber has sort of thrived on our show, filling this space that nobody was filling.”
Ruffin, 41, who will continue to clock in at “Late Night,” won’t have guests on her show in the beginning. The plan is to dig in deep on four topics over the course of 30 minutes.
“Amber does a beautiful job of taking a look at saying, ‘OK, what’s the best way to address this insane series of headlines for today?’ ” said executive producer Jenny Hagel, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “Is it a song? Is it a sketch? Is it a bunch of monologue jokes? Is it Amber dressed like a bee but wearing a top hat? To me the best part of late night is getting to react every day in a new and fresh way to what’s going on in the world.”
Wilmore does plan to have guests, just as he did on his Comedy Central series. On the top of his invite list is author Isabel Wilkerson, who was just added to the lineup for the Star Tribune/Minnesota Public Radio series “Talking Volumes.”
Based on comments Wilmore made during the TV Critics Association virtual press tour last month, the new program sounds a lot like his last one. That’s a good thing.
Back in 2016, I raved about Wilmore’s coverage of the political conventions, challenging both parties (well, mostly the Republicans) with scathing commentary, unhinged field reports and panel discussions more penetrating than the overly rehearsed remarks spewing out of talking heads on cable news.
“I don’t expect to have to explain things to the audience,” Wilmore said a few weeks ago. “I expect the audience to be smarter than I am. People know what’s going on. They don’t want to be talked down to.”
One significant difference from “The Nightly Report” is that Wilmore won’t start off with a live audience. Neither will Ruffin.
“In my mind, I’ll just hear uproarious laughter at everything I say,” Ruffin said.
It’s that kind of confidence that gives her and Wilmore a solid chance of going where few people of color have gone before.
“I think we’re able to shake off what we’ve been fed,” she said. “People are like, ‘Oh, because I look this way doesn’t mean I’m relegated to these positions. I can do anything.’ And audiences are like, ‘Oh, I can watch anything.’ I think that’s the way everything is headed. Everyone’s fixin’ to be everything.”
@nealjustin • 612-673-7431
When: Starts streaming Friday on Peacock.
The Amber Ruffin Show
When: Starts streaming Sept. 25 on Peacock.