Writer/comedian Larry Wilmore is the recipient of the Austin Film Festival’s 2018 Outstanding Television Writer award. On Oct. 26, the festival hosted a lively and hilarious conversation with him about his long career in television.
Wilmore was raised in Pomona, Calif., where he lived in a majority black neighborhood but attended a majority white Catholic school. “I always felt like I was attending a family reunion where I wasn’t part of the family,” he said.
He studied classical theater in college but also pursed stand-up comedy. Those dual interests led to a storied career in the television industry, where his first significant writing gig was for the sketch comedy “In Living Color.” He said the show’s rigorous writing and pitching schedule was like a “boot camp” that set him up for a relatively smooth transition into more traditional television writing situations. He went on to write for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The Jamie Foxx Show” before producing “The PJs” with Eddie Murphy and winning an Emmy for the pilot of “The Bernie Mac Show,” which the festival screened on Friday night.
We caught up with Wilmore to talk about his podcast, “Black on the Air,” collaborating with Issa Rae on “Insecure” and his new unscripted drama featuring Will Smith.
Deborah Sengupta Stith: You recently interviewed Nancy Pelosi at Texas Tribune Festival, and politics seem to come up often on your podcast. Have you always been a political junkie?
Larry Wilmore: I don’t think I’ve been a political junkie, but I think I was always a news junkie when I was a kid. I could remember being very young watching Walter Cronkite on CBS. I was a big space junkie if I was any kind of junkie. I’ve never been a drug junkie, by the way. I’ve never been a proper junkie. But because I was really into space and astronauts and Walter Cronkite kind of covered that, I would watch the news.
Obviously, when you did “The Nightly Show,” that was very political. How does the experience of doing a podcast compare to doing a late-night talk show?
So different. Because that late-night talk show, especially “The Nightly Show,” when we’re on every night ... you’re facing that show every day. And you’re focusing what is your point of view that day on the news that is coming in, and some of it in real time. Like, we would change shows in the middle of the day because something would happen. And that was before Trump was president. I mean, I’m just imagining what it would be like now. It could be a bit overwhelming.
Podcast is a breeze. It’s like I do that in my spare time, almost. It’s so much fun to do. And I get to talk long-form with people. Television, you have to talk in short spurts. Even when I had interviews on “The Nightly Show,” it was frustrating because I would only get about five questions. What’s great about podcasts is you have the time to really get into so many different things ... some people on the right and the left, too, where I can just get in there and see where they’re coming from. I had a great conversation with David Frum last year, who’s on the right, one of the never Trumpers, very disillusioned with him. It was such a fascinating conversation, and I love doing that kind of stuff, rather than just having joke, joke, joke.
I would imagine there’s a lot of pressure to constantly be funny when you’re doing late-night.
Exactly. I’d rather naturally be funny, because I’m a good counter-puncher. Because I’m active-listening. I’m not waiting to ask a question. So when someone’s saying something, I’m already deconstructing it. And that’s where I get a lot of my humor from. I love getting humor out of that rather than just having preset jokes that I’m hitting somebody with.
To shift gears, you’ve been doing stereotype-defying scripted television for decades now. How has the experience of pitching a show with a majority black cast evolved over the years?
It’s kind of gone in cycles, to be honest. In the ‘90s when “In Living Color” hit the scene, “Fresh Prince” was a big show at that time. Remember “Family Matters”? “Cosby Show” was the biggest show on TV. So there was a lot of capital behind trying to do black shows. Then it kind of thinned out by the end of that decade. I did interviews back then, in the press I would call it an "ethnic cleansing." I would make a lot of jokes.
I’ve always been motivated to try to make sure that I was at least doing my part to try to make that happen actively. It was one of the reasons why I started creating shows. I thought, "I can’t just get hired on other people’s shows. I have to be one of the people out there who’s fighting the fight." It kind of became my mission, especially when I saw it going away. Not only that, but to elevate (it) as well, like, “Hey, we have stories that are not only as valid as your stories, but our stories can win Emmys. Our stories can win awards. Our stories can be groundbreaking, too.”
When it thinned for a while, why do you think that was?
It’s hard to say. Kind of the cycles of television maybe? It was usually only white or black shows for a long time, too. Like, the thought that someone brown could have a TV show, it was crazy. Or an Asian person could lead a show. UPN and WB were channels, and a lot of black shows went to those channels and were kind of off the network for a while, which was really ridiculous. I think it took a while for it to come back and people to start embracing it again.
Do you think television as a medium is more progressive than film in that regard?
It can be in certain ways. I think television dramas have done a lot in that sense. Television is doing more than films these days, but that hasn’t always been the case. I think it goes back and forth.
I noticed you're not a huge social media guy.
I’m kind of a reluctant one, actually. I get in there and tweet sometimes. But you know what it is? I don’t want to bombard my opinion out there so much. I pick and choose when I want to have my opinion out there. Like, I had my own show. I thought, “Well, they’re getting my opinion from my show, I don’t really need to be on social media doing it.” I’m not interested in attention at all, so I wouldn’t do it for that. I have to do it when I have something to say.
Some of your shows, specifically “Insecure,” inspire a ton of social media conversation. People are very, very engaged in discussion about it.
That’s a whole different phenomenon. I think “Scandal” kind of started that type of thing where the social interaction discussing a show, which is kind of an interesting phenomena. “Insecure” is on that list of shows.
Do you pay attention to that chatter?
No, not really.
So Team Lawrence didn’t have anything to do with Lawrence getting his life together?
No. It makes me laugh, but I don’t pay that much attention to that. I find it funny. I think it’s great that people interact that way. It’s kind of like being in a living room watching something together and then talking (expletive) about it. That’s what it feels like. It’s a lot of fun.
You have a reputation as someone who’s helped a lot of people who weren’t necessarily TV people get into the television industry. Issa Rae, for example, came from an internet background. What is that process like?
It’s different for different situations. The Issa situation was, she didn’t really have the type of TV experience that would gain confidence from the executives at HBO. So that’s why she was brought to my attention, and when we met we really hit it off, and we decided to write ("Insecure") together and create it. Now, she produces the show. I was doing “The Nightly Show” when they were doing it, so during the first season I kind of gave notes from afar, but I haven’t really been involved in it.
Issa’s so talented, it didn’t take her long to know how to do that. There’s a difference between talent and skill. She always had the talent, she just needed to get confidence in that skill, and that didn’t take long at all.
Can you talk about your new show coming up?
There’s not much to talk about yet. I have one at CBS with Jermaine Fowler and Quinta Brunson.
She also comes from an Internet background, right?
She’s awesome. She was on "The Nightly Show.” She was on our last show, actually. They’re so talented. It’s about a couple of mid-20-year-olds who were best friends since they were kids. They wind up getting pregnant by accident because they just cross that line once, but decide that they want to stay friends. So it’s kind of a different relationship kind of thing.
We’re writing it together as a team. We’re all collaborating. So that’s exciting; it’s another collaboration.
So you’ve got the new show coming up, the podcast. What else is going on with you?
I’m working on a lot of things right now. Starting to do some unscripted things, which is kind of fun, too.
What are the unscripted things?
I’m doing a docu-series for Netflix with Will Smith, actually, which will be for next year, I think. It’s called “Amend.” It’s about the 14th Amendment.
I’m already intrigued. Putting it on my watch list.
That’s more my “Nightly Show” roots in that area.
Does having someone with the star power of Will Smith help get people to pay attention to an important issue?
It’s always a good thing. As you said, to get people to pay attention. At least for the first few minutes.
(This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
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