Larry Wilmore (‘The Nightly Show’) ‘keeps it 100’ about Emmys, diversity and vaccines [Exclusive Video]

In January, “The Daily Show‘s” former Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore took over the 11:30 p.m. Comedy Central time slot with “The Nightly Show,” but “I wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen,” he says in our exclusive video chat (watch it below). “In fact, I remember there was an article about who might take over for [‘The Colbert Report‘], and they were talking about people from ‘The Daily Show,’ and I wasn’t even in that article.”

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The Nightly Show” follows a different format from most late-night talk shows, typically opening with a scripted monologue before transitioning into a panel discussion about the topic of the night. The show often ends with a segment called “Keep it 100,” in which the panelists are challenged to be 100-percent honest when asked an especially provocative question. For instance, Wilmore asked conservative pastor Michael Faulkner if he would change his position on gay marriage if Jesus were gay.

Originally conceived as “The Minority Report,” “The Nightly Show” was intended as a forum for a broader, more diverse points of view. “[Creator and executive producer] Jon Stewart was very passionate about putting on a show where voices that we didn’t get a chance to hear all the time could finally be heard: minority voices, underdog voices, people you don’t get to see all the time,” says Wilmore. “At its core, this show has to take on the role of sticking up for the underdog.”

But while the panels deal with contentious issues like feminism, racism, and even the Bill Cosby rape scandal, Wilmore thinks of it “as me at my black barbershop, just busting everybody’s balls, because that’s the feel there. It’s a safe environment. There’s no hate being thrown around. It’s all fun, but we’re going to call you on your shit if you say some fucked up stuff, you know what I mean?”

Given the show’s penchant for tackling race and politics, it’s perhaps surprising that one of its most controversial topics thus far has been the recent debate surrounding vaccines. “The anti-vax thing, there’s so much nuance in that and so much misinformation, disinformation floating around in there, and people are so emotional about that issue too,” says Wilmore, adding, “I have a son who has Asperger’s, who’s on the autism spectrum, and he’s been vaccinated and everything too. I know there was nothing about the vaccinations that caused that, and I would not want to risk him dying from something for him not to be who he is.”

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The fact that vaccinations are controversial at all is odd to Wilmore: “Who would have thought, protecting yourself against measles – ‘Larry, careful, that is a very divisive subject.’ Are you fucking kidding me, we’re talking about measles! Who wants the measles?”

“The Nightly Show” enters the late-night landscape during a period of unusually high turnover; in addition to Stephen Colbert’s departure from Comedy Central to prepare to take over CBS’s “The Late Show,” NBC’s “Tonight Show” and “Late Night” and CBS’s other late-night property “The Late Late Show” have also changed hands since 2014. On top of that, Jon Stewart recently announced that he’ll be leaving “The Daily Show” by year’s end.

That could be good news for new programs at the Emmys, which this year split the Best Variety Series category into separate races for talk shows like “Nightly” and sketch comedies like “Saturday Night Live.”

But while many viewers first became aware of Wilmore as a “Daily Show” correspondent, he was already an Emmy-winner by the time he got there. He won Best Comedy Writing in 2002 for the pilot episode of “The Bernie Mac Show,” but while that experience was a significant turning point in his career, it was more bittersweet than one might think.

“It meant a lot to me at the time because I was having so many fights with the network,” he explains, “and I eventually got fired like eight months later … During that time I really learned to just bet on myself, and it gave me the confidence to go back to what I did from the beginning, which was performing. If I’d never gotten fired from ‘The Bernie Mac Show,’ I probably never would have been on ‘The Daily Show’ … so it’s interesting how high highs and low lows can get you to just keep it real, just keep it 100.”

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Wilmore once served on the board of directors for the Writers Guild and thus is familiar with the awards process, so in addition to the shakeup in the Emmys’ variety field, he’s also watching other races with interest: “With the Emmys, the categories have always been kind of odd … I think they should come up with a dramedy category for shows like ‘Orange is the New Black‘ or ‘Nurse Jackie.’ They’re not really comedies, and they’re not dramas. I think they need a new category for that, because shows like ‘Big Bang Theory‘ clearly aren’t the same as ‘Nurse Jackie.'”

But while he’s honored to be in the awards conversation, he keeps everything in perspective, and he’s certainly keeping it 100 when he admits with a laugh, “At the end of the day it’s all self-serving congratulations, too, so a lot of people don’t even give a shit about it – and rightly so, I might add.”

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