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How Larry Wilmore's 30 years in TV have shaped comedy and challenged traditional notions


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Your favorite TV comedies likely owe a lot to Larry Wilmore, as the creator or guiding force behind some of the most popular and most impactful sitcoms and comedy shows over the last 30 years, starting in the 1990s as a writer on hit shows like "In Living Color" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," to creating an executive producing "The Bernie Mac Show," which earned him an Emmy for writing, from there consulting on "The Office," before executive producing "Black-ish."

In 2015, Wilmore hosted his own late-night talk show, "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore," which ran for two seasons on Comedy Central. Now he's tapping into his experience in late night for a prime-time comedy that ABC recently announced.

I spoke with Larry Wilmore earlier about how his work has challenged traditional notions of politics, race and comedy, in the process, helping to shape the broader cultural conversation.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

It's great to speak with you.

Larry Wilmore, Comedian and Writer: Hey, great to speak to you too. Thanks for having me on.

Geoff Bennett: Well, let's start at the beginning, because before you were a writer and producer, you were a stand-up comic. What drew you to it?

Larry Wilmore: Stand-up comedy offered the opportunity to create something, because you have to write an act, right?

And even though it's scary at first, it was one of the best decisions I ever made, because you find out kind of who you are. You have to make strangers laugh all the time. Many times, they're drunk. And it was really just diving headfirst into that to really try to get kind of control of my career to a certain point in that time.

Geoff Bennett: Wilmore credits as his comedy influences Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Monty Python, and Flip Wilson.

Flip Wilson, Comedian: Don't touch me.

Larry Wilmore: He so funny to me.

Flip Wilson: Don't touch me. You don't know me that well.


Larry Wilmore: And I just wanted to be him. And I used to make my parents laugh. I would do Geraldine and I will do impressions, "You better watch it, fool!" doing stuff like that.


Geoff Bennett: Ultimately, though, you abandoned the stand-up comic route because you felt like you couldn't find a lane for yourself. Tell me more about that.

Larry Wilmore: That's true, Geoff.

So what happened was, I did a lot of what you might call a hodgepodge kind of stand-up act. I did political humor. I did impressions. I did social commentary. I did things like that. And, at that time, I thought Hollywood was only interested in one type of Black comedian. And Robert Townsend kind of lampooned that in "Hollywood Shuffle," where he said, we need somebody more urban. They would use those kind of terms, kind of somebody Murphonic, like Eddie Murphy, that type of thing.


Geoff Bennett: Murphonic.

Larry Wilmore: Sorry, you know? Very — yes.

And I felt like — I felt like, if I needed — if I wanted to have a space in Hollywood, I would have to create that space for myself. I was very influenced by what Spike Lee had done in film at the time, what Keenen Ivory Wayans had done with "In Living Color" and that kind of stuff.

And so I thought, if I start writing and producing, I can maybe create a space for my type of voice. And so that's what I did at that time.

Actor: Yo, yo, yo, all you bad bargain hunters out there. Welcome to the "Homeboy Shopping Network."

Geoff Bennett: You mentioned "In Living Color." You were a writer on that show.

It was really a seminal moment in culture. It launched the careers of people like Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, the Wayans brothers.

What was that experience like?

Larry Wilmore: The amount of talent that went through, it was really kind of surreal, because, in those days, if you worked on "In Living Color," people went crazy.

Like, they'd say, so what do you? I would go, oh, I'm a — I write for television. Oh, really? And they didn't seem that impressed, then go, what shows you write for? I write for "In Living Color." "In Living Color," oh, my God!

Like, people, the energy they had for that show, it was so interesting, and I think because we were pushing boundaries at that time that weren't — hadn't really been pushed before, especially in race and culture.

And people were so excited to see that on their television. So, I will forever be grateful for that experience.

Geoff Bennett: What was it about the '90s? Because I'm convinced that the '90s were sort of this high point in cultural creation, but Black cultural creation in particular, from TV, to fashion, to music, to movies, just across the board.

What was it about that time?

Larry Wilmore: I think a lot of Black culture was finding its voice during that time, after not having a voice for a long time, because many — like, if you talk about Black shows on television, many of them were created and run by white people.

And those were good shows, but they just had a different voice to them, a different gaze, as I like to call it. And when more Black creators had an opportunity to create things, so much creativity just poured out. And I think the audiences were grateful to see all these different voices on TV with all these things that they had to offer.

So, a lot of it, I think, Geoff was the energy that was coming out of that. It was kind of a joyous energy of hey, we get to be — we get to be on this show now, yes.

Quinta Brunson, Actress and Writer: I do want to thank Larry Wilmore for teaching me to write television as well as he did.

Geoff Bennett: Larry Wilmore has inspired and mentored the next generation of comedians and creators, including Quinta Brunson, star and creator of the hit award-winning sitcom "Abbott Elementary" on ABC.

Larry Wilmore: I had Quinta on "The Nightly Show" back in the day, back in 2015.

And I immediately said, oh, wow, she's got a toolbox. I saw in Quinta just this ability to keep expanding what her skill set is and to do it at such a high level, because she started off making, like, little videos, I think, for Facebook and that kind of stuff and was at BuzzFeed, and she kept increasing, like, her skill set of what she does.

And she does it so fast. I mean, she is like — she is, like, at the top of her game as a show runner, creator and actor. That's crazy, Geoff, when you think about it, in that short amount of time, and she's crushing it too. So I'm so proud of her. I was so surprised when she called me out.

I was like, what? Then I started — like, tears are really down. No. No. No. It was — it was a very cool moment.

Issa Rae, Actress: What the hell? What are you doing there?

Actor: I don't know. It's your fantasy. I have always been your what-if guy.

Actress: What are you doing?

Geoff Bennett: And he's worked with Issa Rae, co-creating her breakout show, "Insecure," for HBO.

What about Issa Rae in the early days signaled success to you?

Larry Wilmore: There was nothing in premium cable quite like that at that time, a show from a Black woman's point of view that was a little different. She was kind of the underdog.

And Issa had a very interesting quality, where you really wanted to be her friend. She was kind of like that girl next door type of thing, very empathetic. There's — she has all these kinds of — I call them quiet qualities, but they're very interesting.

You can't take your eyes off of her. There's something going on. And she's so nice. And she's so funny and really so smart. I saw so much potential in her at that time. So it was a joy figuring that show out.

Geoff Bennett: You seem to be really intentional about mentoring younger artists.

Larry Wilmore: Yes, I enjoy it a lot. I think I come from a family of teachers all around in my family.

And it kind of frees you up to take the attention off of yourself. And I learn a lot from mentoring too. It's, honestly, not just a one-way street. But it is important for me. And I think it's because of the time I came up in. If I can help somebody to get to that door also, then I like doing it.

I always used to joke. I said, if I get my foot in the door, I'm just going to keep that door open and say, come on, everybody. Come on through and fit as many people in as you can. So it's kind of that philosophy too, yes.

Geoff Bennett: Larry Wilmore, it's a real privilege to speak with you. Thanks for your time.

Larry Wilmore: The pleasure is all mine. Stick around for the whole hour, you guys. It's "PBS NewsHour," not half-hour, OK?


Geoff Bennett: We will be hard-pressed to find a better seal of approval than that one.

Amna Nawaz: The whole hour.


Amna Nawaz: You need to watch the whole hour.

What a great interview.

Geoff Bennett: Thank you.

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