It's on. The new late-night war starts tonight, and will ensue for months. In September, Stephen Colbert will take over David Letterman's slot on CBS. That's the big one. Before that, in March, Englishman James Corden will replace Scotsman Craig Ferguson in the CBS slot after Letterman. But tonight the first shot in the war will be fired when the replacement for The Colbert Report is launched – The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (Comedy Channel, 11:30 p.m.).
Wilmore came here to answer questions and talk up the show with TV critics. For a man about to fill Colbert's slot, he was astonishingly serene – as nonchalant as he has been in his dry-wit persona as the "senior black correspondent" on The Daily Show.
Today is the Martin Luther King federal holiday in the United States. When Wilmore was asked if the timing was deliberate, he grinned. "I had a dream that a brother needed to work on that day," he joked. Then he explained that the timing had to do with this thing called the calendar and the production schedule of Jon Stewart's show, the two being part of the same company.
The 53-year-old Wilmore is an oddity in the late-night racket. There's no sense of desperation about him – no nagging need to be liked, or to be seen as the funniest person in the room. He's been in the business for decades as a writer, actor and producer (among other things, he produced The Bernie Mac Show and won a writing Emmy for it), and you get the sense that if this show fails, Wilmore will shrug and move on.
While The Colbert Report was an excoriating, elaborate con, a guy in character as a self-aggrandizing right-wing loon, The Nightly Show will be more open-ended, less fussily structured and more about actual talk and debate on issues of the day. "It's a sort-of hybrid of The Daily Show and Politically Incorrect," Wilmore explained. "The first part of the show is the scripted part, where I'm weighing in, giving my take on the events of the day that we're going to be talking about. The second part of the show is more of a panel discussion, where we'll deconstruct the events a little bit and get more into it. That will have a lot of surprising elements. It may be comic. It may be provocative. Who knows? It'll go wherever it goes.
"I'm not interested in doing a show where I give my opinion and people react to my opinion. Our show is more about the discovery of things. I want people who will teach me something," he said.
An inevitable question was asked. Since The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Wilmore's own work amount to satire, he was asked for his thoughts on the massacre in Paris of staff members of satirical newspaper Charlie Hedbo. Wilmore smiled, first, and deadpanned, "They're starting to kill satirists just as a brother's launching his show. The timing of that is a bit scary." But he then stopped smiling and said: "I give those guys in France a lot of credit for the type of courage they have. Some of them had bodyguards for the last few years." And he added, about his own show: "Not every topic is going to be a laugh-generating topic."
Asked for specifics about issues he might tackle this week, he said, "We got nothing. Nothing."
Untrue, of course. Wilmore is as shrewd as he is serene. The comedic material to be mined from American politics and media is vastly rich, endlessly fruitful. He's ready for it. The format he's talking about is, obviously, deliberately vague: If it works, it works, and if it doesn't, then he and his producers will reshape it, tweak it until it clicks.
If it never clicks, Wilmore won't he heading to therapy. For him this isn't a war so much as a skirmish a brother shrugs his way through.
Also airing tonight
19-2 (Bravo, 10 p.m.) returns for a second season and, in the first episode, rises to the level of the very best of TV drama. It's an astonishing episode, one long, sustained dramatization of a horrific school shooting. In terms of technique it is dazzling – it opens with an unbroken scene of a bloodbath in a school as cops struggle to find the shooter and help the victims. The school looks like a war zone and, emotionally, the episode is heart-scalding.
This episode was created for the original French-language version of 19-2 and redone here by the same local director Daniel Grou (better known simply as "Podz"). After the first episode, 19-2 reverts to being a rather square police drama. Officers Nick Barron (Adrian Holmes) and Ben Chartier (Jared Keeso) continue their tortured personal and professional relationship, each suspicious of the other.