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Did Race Play a Role in Larry Wilmore’s Downfall?

AOL Build Presents Larry Wilmore Of "The Nightly Show"
Larry Wilmore attends AOL Build Presents Larry Wilmore Of "The Nightly Show" at AOL Studios In New York on September 25, 2015 in New York City. Laura Cavanaugh / WireImage

In the wake of the news that comedian Larry Wilmore's late night Comedy Central program "The Nightly Show" would be abruptly canceled this week, there was a lot of hand wringing and finger pointing about what might have gone wrong.

Was it really simply the poor ratings that Comedy Central cited? Some suggested the show suffered from a diminished lead-in (Trevor's Noah's edition of "The Daily Show" has also faltered in its time slot), while some have speculated that the show's inability to produce the kind of shareable, viral hits that competitors like Jimmy Fallon and James Corden do, undermined its potential.

Even Wilmore himself seems to be at a loss for why his two-year run in Stephen Colbert's former time slot didn't work out. "We have a lot of people that have responded to our show and really do like it a lot. But is it a mainstream show in the vein of Fallon or Kimmel? No, it's not. It's a niche show," he admitted in a recent NPR interview.

There is another elephant in the room, one that has lurked in the shadows of many late night shows helmed by African-American hosts—race. Wilmore (who became a breakout star as the "senior black correspondent" on "The Daily Show") is now the latest in a long line of black hosts who failed to have staying power in the white male-dominated world of late night comedy. Even Arsenio Hall, who had a brief but influential run as a host in the late '80s and early '90s, saw an attempt at a comeback two years ago fall flat after just one season.

While black comics like Dave Chappelle and Key & Peele have scored huge hits with more sketch-oriented variety programs, audiences don't seem to be as comfortable with African-Americans behind a desk in a more traditional late night format.

One huge obstacle may be demographics. The audience for these kinds or programs has skewed older in recent years, even though the current crop of hosts is decidedly younger and more fresh-faced (Wilmore had been the oldest of the bunch at 54).

Still, according to Elsa Waithe, a four-year veteran African-American stand-up comic, "The Nightly Show" was appointment television for her and plenty of her black peers, if for no other reason because it was one of the few comedy shows of its kind on air currently featuring a predominately black perspective.

"To be frank, I think when they say Larry Wilmore's show wasn't 'playing well with audiences' I think that's just coded language to say its wasn't playing well with white audiences," she told NBC News. "Maybe for white audiences that was too many black people at once."

"It's unfortunate that it was cancelled," added stand-up comic and former "Last Comic Standing" semifinalist Cyrus McQueen in a statement to NBC. "The few opportunities for black comedy writers just got reduced further."

For his part, Wilmore has ruled out the notion that race played a part in his show's demise. He's cited Noah (who is South African) as a counterpoint to that claim. But while Noah's show hasn't made race a predominant focal point of its humor, Wilmore's did.

Easily boasting one of the most diverse casts in late night, "The Nightly Show"'s fan base and often racially-charged story selection reflected a segment of the population which former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart called "under-served" during a cameo appearance on the series finale.

"You started a conversation that was not on television when you began," Stewart told Wilmore in an emotional farewell. "And you worked with a group of people who you invited to that conversation to collaborate with you, to sharpen that conversation and what you don't realize is, you walk out of this room and that conversation doesn't end."

Ironically, the original title of the show—"The Minority Report"—perhaps would have been more fitting and differentiated it more from its "Daily Show" lead-in, which Wilmore has publicly lamented never meshed well with his program. "To me, I didn't feel like there was enough synergy between our two shows, where we could have been, you know, promoting each other the way Jon and Stephen did," Wilmore told NPR.

Wilmore, who has admitted he doesn't watch the Noah version of "The Daily Show" much, told the New York Times this week: "I think the big obstacle over there is being in Jon Stewart's shadow, of course. That's tough for anybody. A young comic like Trevor is trying his best to forge his own voice in there. It's something Jon had to do when he took over the show as well. I think that's what they've been doing this past year. That sort of thing takes time so I give them a lot of credit for doing the best they can. Those are tough shoes to fill."

And yet he does fault Comedy Central for not taking more time to cultivate both programs, which broke ground by presenting an all-black block of late-night talk shows. And apparent tensions with his "Daily Show" colleagues bubbled up a little bit on the final episode of "The Nightly Show"—with a bit where he mocked them for sending him pastries as a parting gift, while other late night hosts like John Oliver and Samantha Bee sent alcohol.

"I get it, 'Last Week Tonight' has a whole week to decide what to send, so it's not really fair to compare," Wilmore joked.

Waite says she is much more of "Last Week Tonight" and "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" fan than she is of Noah's program. "I don't watch 'The Daily Show' remotely as much as I used to. For me 'The Nightly Show' kind of replaced that," she said.

She doesn't believe Wilmore was the perfect host or that the show had the buzziest format, but it was still refreshing for her and her black friends because it provided an outlet for the very cultural conversations they were having in private to get a public hearing.

"I know plenty of people who were watching and didn't even like it that much," she said. "It's not the best show but it's like, what else do you got? That's what was so important about ['The Nightly Show'], this was issues-about-minorities-from-minorities with a humorous spin."

On his final episode Thursday, Wilmore—who did make a splash, albeit a controversial one at this year's White House correspondents' dinner—promised this will not be his last act.

"As a culture, we've all agreed with the opinion that the world should be seen in a certain way, So at 'The Nightly Show,' our chief mission was to disagree with that premise," he said to rapturous applause from the studio audience. "And to see the world in a way that may not make everybody comfortable. And to present it with a cast of people who don't always get to have a voice on that."

"On that front I feel that we've been very successful, and I couldn't be prouder of what we've accomplished," he added, before saying that since it's the last episode and he wants to "keep it 100": "I'm not done yet."