Larry Wilmore did just fine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last Saturday. He got many negative reviews, some groans during his comedy set and Don Lemon of CNN gave him the finger. So, mission accomplished. Wilmore lambasted everyone, from President Barack Obama to the various presidential candidates, to the assembled media powerful.
It was his job to mock and insult and he did it. Thing is, Wilmore was funnier, more scathing and sharp than he is on his own program, The Nightly Show. There are times when Wilmore is brilliant – angry and truculent while pointing to the truth beneath some absurdity in American politics or media shenanigans.
But often, it's the same old, same old. Some jokes about "the unblackening" of the White House and then some of his correspondents doing redundant bits of weak satire.
Their bits are redundant because the day-to-day reality of the presidential race is ridiculous, without any comedic embellishment. It is a truth known even to the dogs and kitty cats of the world that the current presidential cycle is the most bizarre, troubling and grotesque in history. And there is now universal acknowledgment that, given the real events unfolding, nobody is doing well in the post-Jon Stewart, post-Stephen Colbert era. Not even Colbert.
CBS recently appointed a new boss for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, freeing Colbert of overseeing the entirety of it and allowing him, hopefully, to get funny. Colbert has been an enormous disappointment in the eight months since he took over David Letterman's gig as the host of the 11:35 p.m. show. The show's insipid humour and convoluted approach is both baffling and irritating. Nobody ever talks about what Colbert said or did the night before.
Meanwhile, over at The Daily Show, Trevor Noah does comedy. Mild comedy. Not satire, just silly bits and variations on stating the bloody obvious. It's not that the show's satirical edge has been blunted; it's disappeared. Nobody talks about Trevor Noah either.
In fact, the entire dynamic of late night has shifted and not in a good way. What was fringe has become mainstream. The initial strength and zest of both The Daily Show under Stewart and then The Colbert Report came from the fact they aired on Comedy Central in the United States, a relatively small cable channel working with few resources and small budgets. Stewart and Colbert were outsiders and thus the perfect disruptors of late-night TV and ideal scolds of mainstream politics and the media.
Eventually, Stewart achieved iconic status, but both he and Colbert could rightly point to the truth that they were still on the fringe. Now Colbert on CBS is very mainstream and appears to be engaged in an elaborate and rather pointlessly twee send up of himself as superstar late-night TV host.
The vast coverage of Trevor Noah's appointment to The Daily Show made him very famous indeed. And from the start there was the underlying feeling that Noah wanted to stay famous. Not notorious, not celebrated as a satirist, but famous as a funny guy who could turn his tenure on The Daily Show into a very long career doing stand-up comedy. He's no satirist, nor it seems is he interested in being one.
Sometimes his take on the politics of the day is unspeakably uninspired. He stands beside a screen which quotes Donald Trump or Ted Cruz and says, basically, "That Donald Trump is ridiculous!" or "Boy, Ted Cruz sure looks weird." That's it, that's all you get.
Across the network shows, the opportunity presented by this presidential race seems to have spooked hosts and their writers. An occasional mocking jibe in a monologue and then on to the usual entertainment-racket humour. Ted Cruz's recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's show resulted mostly in softball questions and silliness. Jimmy Fallon mainly stays away from politics and he's the ratings champ in late night, so he's hardly going to tamper with the format.
Right now, it's not so much that Jon Stewart is sorely missed. That's obvious. It's so bad that one longs for David Letterman's weird but stinging contempt for all powerful politicians and blowhards.
If there's hope, it's with Larry Wilmore, who showed at the White House Correspondents' Dinner what he can do when he unleashes the necessary scolding of both politicians and media. If only he could make The Nightly Show as consistently scathing, nightly.