It’s not easy putting on a late-night show.
That’s what Comedy Central seems to be finding in the post-Stewart and -Colbert era. On Monday, the news broke that the cable network is pulling the plug on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” the show that replaced “The Colbert Report” weekday evenings at 11:30 (except Friday).
The show’s last day is Thursday. “Wilmore” premiered on Jan. 19, 2015 -- which happened to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day, something Wilmore himself noted on Day One as he launched into a discussion of race, a frequent topic on the show.
The show took the title of “The Nightly Show” probably as a counterpoint to “The Daily Show” which came before it, but the “Wilmore” show was originally titled “The Minority Report.” That title was dropped shortly before the show’s debut.
Whatever the name or the preponderance of racial topics, “Wilmore” couldn’t cut it in the ratings so it got canned. Comedy Central has been quite candid on this point in the interviews given to the trade press by Kent Alterman, the network’s president.
Such are the difficulties of launching a new late-night personality in a time period in which his predecessor became a cable comedy phenomenon -- something almost impossible to repeat. Where once Comedy Central had a show at 11:30 that everybody talked about, now there was one nobody talked about.
Interestingly, Stephen Colbert himself finds himself in a position where he is not talked about nearly as much as he was then. Now the host of “The Late Show” on CBS -- replacing David Letterman -- Colbert is now “just” another late-night host, even though CBS has given him a bigger platform -- and, it should be noted, a bigger audience than he had at Comedy Central too. Paradoxically, though, he is not making the kind of splash he used to make.
With Wilmore being given his walking papers this week, one wonders if a similar fate awaits Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show.” Here too, you have a guy following in the footsteps of someone -- Jon Stewart -- who owned his time period, won armloads of Emmy Awards (shared with his writing staff) and became a latter-day Will Rogers. For the record, Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show” has no nominations this summer.
In his interviews, the Comedy Central president talks in terms of Wilmore failing to gain traction with the younger demos the network requires for its shows. Trevor Noah doesn’t seem to be doing that much better, but Comedy Central has no apparent comment on him, or more to the point, his status at the moment.
Generally speaking, the 11-midnight hour on Comedy Central -- which not so long ago generated so much heat for the network -- is now drawing none at all. The situation illustrates how difficult it can be to “gain traction” in today’s multimedia environment.
Both Wilmore and Noah have been well-publicized since they started. Noah has been on the cover of Esquire, GQ and Rolling Stone. Wilmore hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner last April, a top job in the comedy world. He caused a controversy with his monologue in which he referred to President Obama as “my nigga.” It was supposed to be comedic, but by some accounts, his act bombed. Still, he made headlines.
Which is to say: Both of these guys are very famous, but they can’t seem to measure up to Colbert and Stewart. There’s no shame in that, of course -- just a realization that talent, the kind that really connects with audiences, is a rare commodity.