On Monday, Comedy Central canceled The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, and I suspect my reaction was common: This is wrong! I like Larry Wilmore! He’s smart, incisive, and an actual adult amid a late-night field overpopulated with man-children. When I watched him, I always found Wilmore insightful. But here’s the thing: I didn’t watch him all that often. To be honest, I sometimes forgot that The Nightly Show was even on. This, apparently, was also depressingly common.
The cancellation news is the most publicity that The Nightly Show received — outside of Wilmore’s polarizing appearance as host of the White House Correspondents dinner in May — since the program’s debut in January 2015. People knew that The Nightly Show was born, and they knew that The Nightly Show died. What happened in the middle is where things get hazy.
No matter Wilmore’s attributes, The Nightly Show simply did not have much of an impact on culture at large. That the show’s cancellation occurred during the strangest election season in many generations underscores this sad fact — the public had already canceled The Nightly Show from their consciousness, turning instead to a myriad of other options.
In that respect, The Nightly Show is indicative of the overall state of Comedy Central’s current programming. Once a destination for zeitgeist-y shows — from South Park to Chappelle’s Show to the network-defining franchises, The Daily Show and Colbert Report — it feels like the network’s cultural impact has declined a bit.
While the ratings for The Nightly Show appear to justify its cancellation — viewership was down nearly 1 million from Wilmore’s predecessor, Stephen Colbert — Comedy Central president Kent Alterman used the language of social media in an interview with the New York Times to describe the show’s shortcomings, claiming that it “hasn’t resonated.” It’s difficult to argue with that assessment — Wilmore’s profile as a TV satirist has clearly been overshadowed by his former Daily Show colleagues John Oliver and Samantha Bee, not to mention all of his competitors in the daily scrum of late-night television, where Internet buzz seems to matter, if not as much as ratings, then certainly on a level that Wilmore was unable to manage.
But, again, the failure of The Nightly Show feels bigger than just Larry Wilmore. Comedy Central in general is in a slump, with declining ratings across the board and a talent drain that has stripped the network of its biggest stars and (at least temporarily) some of its stature. This is not to say that Comedy Central doesn’t still produce excellent shows — the network can claim two of TV’s funniest comedies, Nathan for You and Broad City, while Review (which was not renewed) and Another Period have been cult and critical favorites. Then there’s Tosh.0, which continues to thrive in its own self-contained bro-lar system, and the deathless South Park, which returns for its 20th season next month. But none of those shows are breakout cultural phenomena on the level of Comedy Central’s signature programs. And now that Key and Peele is no more, and the future of Inside Amy Schumer is uncertain beyond 2017, Comedy Central is struggling through a transitional period where, at times, the network has seemed less visible in an over-crowded media landscape populated with scores of fast-moving rivals.
Comedy Central’s woes in late night have garnered the most attention, though Alterman insisted in the New York Times that Trevor Noah is doing well with younger viewers. Nevertheless, The Daily Show‘s ratings are down 800,000 viewers (from 2.1 million to 1.3 million) from Stewart’s average during his final year as host in 2015, even though Noah is competing in the heart of a (truly insane) presidential election season, when interest in political comedy should be peaking.