Larry Wilmore already succeeded Stephen Colbert once, as host of the program (now dubbed “The Nightly Show”) that follows “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. And he sought to do it again Saturday night, delivering a pointed, coolly received routine as the featured entertainment at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Wilmore had sporadic moments, but never found his rhythm.
The so-called “Nerd Prom” has become a potentially treacherous assignment for comics, perhaps especially since Colbert flayed then-President George W. Bush, along with the assembled media, a decade ago. Intense partisanship and the heat of a presidential race surely raised the degree of difficulty this go-round.
In the unenviable spot of following Obama, Wilmore hit many of the same themes, and certainly spread his salvos among a wide array of targets, from each of the cable news networks to an assortment of politicians. He also tackled race more aggressively than many previous performers in this venue, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his show.
In that vein, Wilmore started with a joke about how Fox News would cover the event — “Two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in D.C.” — but moved on to aim barbs at CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Don Lemon; MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and Brian Williams; CSPAN, with its ancient demographic profile; and the moribund fortunes of print journalism.
Yet while some of those jokes were funnier than the response in the room might have indicated, the silence and occasional groans seemed to knock the comic off his stride. “You guys are tough, man,” Wilmore muttered at one point, acknowledging the tepid response.
Notably, Colbert’s lacerating satire a decade ago was met in much the same way. Yet there was a level of nuance there that was largely absent here, and that completely disappeared in by far the worst section of the routine, which involved a series of one-liners about presidential candidate Ted Cruz being the zodiac killer. If once was mildly amusing in its sheer absurdity, the novelty quickly wore off through repetition.
Nor did it help that some of Wilmore’s better material, such as how much President Obama has aged during his two terms (a pair of “Your hair is so white” jokes), was already well covered — and usually done better — by the president himself.
Frankly, it would have been nice to hear a bit more of the tone Wilmore adopted at the very end. In the final year of Obama’s term, he spoke from the heart about what it meant to him as an African-American to see Obama become president, after a time not so long ago when it was assumed blacks weren’t equipped to play quarterback in the NFL.
Wilmore wasn’t wrong when he suggested the room was tough, reinforcing an impression that the assembled political and media elites don’t always have much sense of humor about themselves. Generally speaking, threading that needle between addressing the room and the audience beyond it isn’t easy, and the very format of this event isn’t particularly hospitable to edgy comedy.
Still, Wilmore likes to talk on his show about “keeping it 100,” meaning being 100 percent honest. And even grading charitably, on that scale, his set Saturday would rate about a 65.