Astrophysicist and sometime Nightly Show guest Neil deGrasse Tyson led a panel Saturday afternoon with host Larry Wilmore and top staff from the Comedy Central program, leading off the discussion by saying that Wilmore and company are “reaching for the most awkward, challenging social issues and somehow empowering people to laugh, and that is not easy to do. These are topics people don’t want to touch.”
But it wasn’t until an hour later, near the end of the event at the Paley Center for Media, that a link was made to the challenging subject that cast a dark shadow over the conversation and everything else going on in the city and around the world today.
“We’re here right now at New York Comedy Week, and I’m sure the events in Paris last night are on everybody’s mind,” an audience member noted during the Q&A following the frequently funny talk. “How, at a time like this, do you begin to reconcile these events with comedy — and specifically a comedy TV show?”
Wilmore said that the terrorist attack on Friday evening was only the latest horrific event to challenge his team, like those of other late-night comedy programs. He noted that, after the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in June, Jon Stewart didn’t even try to attempt comedy on the Daily Show. Wilmore, on the other hand, went after Fox News commentators that very night for convoluted thinking, to put it kindly, about the role of race in the murders.
“Many times, you’re reacting to events in real time, navigating as it goes along,” Wilmore said, adding that on Friday another Daily Show alumnus, Stephen Colbert, noted the events in Paris at the end of The Late Show and offered consolation and prayers for the victims and the citizens of France.
“What we always try to do is find the humanity in the story,” Wilmore said. “And if we can pull up the humanity through the humor, that’s what we are going to do. By Monday it’s going to feel a little different from today. At times like this, I think people do need to laugh. And what I really appreciate about our show is that we also have discussion. We can have some laughs about it and then we can have a conversation.”
The freewheeling conversation with Wilmore included executive producer Rory Albanese and writers Robin Thede, Grace Parra, Ricky Velez, Jordan Carlos, and Holly Walker. Tyson expressed gratitude for the role science is given on the show and questioned Wilmore about how he’d assembled his team and defined the show’s mission. The spirit of Jon Stewart was felt throughout the event.
“Everybody says they want to have a conversation about difficult things, and so that’s what we do on the show,” Wilmore said. “Jon Stewart pitched the idea of the show. He just felt there should be a show on TV that had voices that don’t always have a chance to be heard. It’s kind of our mission of the show….[People ask] So how is your team so diverse? Because that’s what I wanted.”
“Every time I see your show, I keep thinking it’s a hair’s width away from becoming ‘Angry Black Man’ show, but it’s not that,” Tyson said. “It’s actually ‘Perceptive Insightful Black Man’ show. Because it’s easy to take that other route, you could easily say, ‘I’m angry and here’s why and here’s how you can make that funny.’ But you, it’s like a tightrope. It’s like, ‘Let me point out something you have not considered yet.’ “
Wilmore rolled with that. “I would say that it would be possible to be both angry and insightful at the same time. Sometimes you have to be angry about something. Look, I worked for Jon Stewart for a long time and I remember, when I first started doing [The Nightly Show], Jon would get angry with me and say, ‘You’ve gotta stop being a host! You’ve gotta be yourself up there. Whatever it is you’re passionate about, just be passionate about it.’ ”