Larry Wilmore entertains Newhouse

The Daily Show's "Senior Black Correspondent" discusses diversity, humor and his experiences in comedy and entertainment media.

Larry Wilmore, the speaker at the Newhouse School’s 13th Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media, has gone through his life and career taking risks.

Speaking to a nearly full house at the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium, the comedian, writer and actor rambled into stories of how, as a child growing up in suburban Los Angeles, he would sneak into Universal Studios' lot and watch films being edited. As a writer on the sketch comedy show In Living Color, he and his writing mates broke into a producer's office and stole gifts she was hoarding. But his biggest risk of all, he admitted, was leaving school to pursue his dream in the first place.

“He doesn't advise you all follow in his footsteps,” Newhouse dean Lorraine Branham told the crowd in her introduction.

Wilmore studied theatre at California State Polytechnic University before dropping out to become a stand-up comedian, or “joining the circus,” as he called it. He worked in clubs and on shows, part by part, until he began making a name for himself as a writer and producer on shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Jamie Foxx Show and The PJs. Before giving the floor over to her guest, Branham proclaimed that Wilmore was “America's Senior Black Correspondent,” referencing his most prominent position at The Daily Show, one he has held since 2006.

Communications assistant professor Charisse L'Pree opened the discussion by simply asking, “what do you do?”

“From my point of view, I'm in the business of making people laugh,” Wilmore said. “Some of things I'm interested in is simply telling good stories.”

From there, L'Pree and Wilmore covered a lot of ground, from his first paid role as a recurring character on The Facts of Life to his more personal opinions on race relations and portrayals in show business.

The most challenging part of his career was transitioning from theatre to stand-up to writer and then back to performing, he said. He realized, though, that writing would be a constant as he watched his first sketch on In Living Color materialize on set.

“In my mind I was like, 'wow, this thing came out of my head and now all these jobs just appeared!” Wilmore said. “I realized [then] how much power there was in being able to write.”

When asked how he avoided being pigeonholed as a 'black satire comedian', he responded by saying he thought of it less as a box to be put in, but as a niche that he, as a veteran of the topic, had the special opportunity to speak about candidly.

“I think humor has always been used to disarm people and help us laugh at ourselves,” he said.

L'Pree also asked Wilmore his opinions on current events in comedy, the first being Jerry Seinfeld's comment that his web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, didn't have to “represent the actual pie chart of America.”

“Well, the coffee is black, no one mentions that!” Wilmore joked. He added that comedians like Seinfeld don't intentionally “challenge us” with provocations on race and the status quo. To him, humor isn't about social impact as much as it is silliness.

Race begins to truly play a card when minorities are underrepresented in the wider reach of network comedies.

“All kinds of people do stand-up. But when you get into who is actually producing television shows and what are they choosing to do,” Wilmore said. “That’s when you get into issues that are more important.”

Saturday Night Live, a show that has lacked racial diversity since its 1975 debut, became another major talking point. The recent addition of a black female cast member caused waves that Wilmore dismissed as the show “making a spectacle” of itself, saying it “should have been hiring black performers a long time ago.”

Near the end of the talk, L’Pree asked Wilmore what diversity meant to him. Wilmore said he didn't use the word 'diversity' much when describing his desire for equal representation on the air.

“I’m not outward about this so much, but part of it is my 'secret mission'. And not just blacks, I like to see a lot of different voices,” he said. “Diversity to me is diversity of thought, more than anything else.”

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