It’s no surprise that it is still repeating on us after a few days. That second course at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner was pretty hard to digest. The first had been delivered by a President who clearly knew his way around a cleverly written line. He was light, witty, playful. The jokes were at his expense as much as they were about others. The second course, however, saw Larry Wilmore set out a row of dishes that few could enjoy. The almost peptic groans on the night revealed the degree to which the chef had misjudged the appetites of his audience.
On Tuesday, in the aftermath of the gastric upset, the President’s spokesman defended Wilmore who had ended his set by referring to the President using this age’s least acceptable word. ‘The President’, said his spokesman, ‘appreciated the spirit of the sentiments that Mr Wilmore expressed.’
The President’s appreciation for the spirit of the sentiments aside, it doesn’t mean that we (or he) should appreciate the aftertaste. Wilmore’s routine was rude, abrasive, and confrontational: qualities that should make comedy great if only that comedy could address some essential truth. In 2007, Stephen Colbert did just that, producing sixteen minutes that roasted a sitting President. He attacked George W. Bush on every conceivable front and attacked a media grown too compliant in the wake of 9/11. ‘No matter what happens to America, she will always rebound,’ he boasted before adding, ‘with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world!’
Such spryness was never in Wilmore’s range. He made a few jokes at Obama’s expense but his targets were always below the podium. He repeated stale and trite redundancies that simply perpetuate stereotypes that have outlived their usefulness.
‘Welcome to Negro night,’ he began. ‘Or as Fox News will report: two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in DC’.
There are two jokes here and it’s easy to overlook the frank one in order to concentrate on the one that’s actually funny. The funny joke refers to Fox News who notoriously reported on the troubles of Ferguson by thinking it was all about law and order. It isn’t a bad joke in that it contains a kernel of truth. The first joke, however, weakened it. ‘Welcome to Negro night’ is too aggressive. It forces the issue of race to the fore on an evening that was meant to mark a victory for progressive America. Wilmore threw a difficult word at the audience knowing that only he could say it, and, by saying it, he would make the audience confront their own prejudices. It was the very same technique that Richard Prior used to reject the compromises that Bill Cosby had made to fashion his very safe style of comedy.
The problem of using this trick now is that times have changed since the 1970s. Prior is dead, Cosby disgraced, and audience rightly challenge any comedian that accuses them of holding racist views. Do we really see Obama as a ‘black President’ or do we simply see him as ‘the president’? Our answer exposes our degree of prejudice but it’s hard to believe that many in that room would have thought the former. The second black American president will not be as notable as the first. For example, those that already look on Cory Booker as the next Obama make characterisations that peddle a reductive, insulting, and jaundiced politic. They simply ignores the fact that he is one of the more impressive and articulate junior Senators in the Democratic party.
What we saw at the podium was a style of comedy that has barely evolved despite America’s racial debate become more sophisticated. Compare, for example, Wilmore’s staid formulas with Hamilton, the Broadway musical which has just been nominated for 16 Tony awards. Through the blend of hip-hop lyricism and American history, Lin-Manuel Miranda draw us into the immigrant experience. He doesn’t simply set up a stark polar opposition. Obama himself was born of a black father and white mother and that, surely, deserves better commentary than Wilmore’s stereotypes. Compare Wilmore’s comedy with that of W. Kamau Bell whose new show started recently on CNN. United Shades of America‘s format is familiar to anybody who has followed Louis Theroux’s career. Bell attempts to find ‘humor in the parts of American I don’t understand’. The result, in the first episode, was Bell meeting a member of the KKK. It was clever, intriguing, and brought the viewer into the process.
If Hamilton is about an emergent America and Bell’s comedy is about an inclusive America, then Wilmore’s comedy about a world of static colour. Wilmore’s comedy forces us onto the outside of the issue. It is about his own blindness to the evolving shades of modern America that leaves it insulting and irrelevant. ‘I agree with the policy that he’s black’ he said of Obama at one point as if Obama’s race has really been an issue since he was first elected eight years ago. None of it felt too clever.
This kind of dated pandering has shaped Wilmore’s career thus far and, perhaps, his career going forward. Wilmore was the former ‘senior black correspondent’ on The Daily Show before he moved on to produce the series Blackish that charts the troubles of a black family retaining their cultural identity in a white upper-middle-class neighbourhood. Wilmore then took over from Stephen Colbert in the late slot on Comedy Channel and The Larry Wilmore Show has cut a slight niche for itself by aggressively pursuing subjects as diverse as the Black Lives Matter movement and what he calls the ‘Unblackening’ of the White House. You would be right to notice a pattern. Wilmore sees everything through the prism of race in America.
Addressing the President, said Wilmore: ‘Your hair is so white it tried to punch me at a Trump rally.’
Is that perceptive or provocative? Penetrating or pandering? Trump’s rallies are mainly white but not entirely so. Republican voters tend overwhelmingly to be white but to paint Trump as though he’s some backwoods proponent of old Southern ultra-orthodox bigotry is taking it too far. Wilmore sees race where race is not always a factor and the accusation of bigotry can end up rebounding.
The signs are that his Washington audience are not alone in questioning his style of comedy. His show on Comedy Central has already lost half of the audience that Stephen Colbert attracted towards the end of its run. Colbert has since moved on to take over from David Letterman on CBS and continues his habit of poking every cultural, political and social sensitivity as he did in that famous White House Correspondents Dinner of 2007. Wilmore has remained steadfast, stuck pressing the single issue.
The result in Washington the other night was a oddly split evening; revealing the dolorous state of Larry Wilmore’s comedy but the genuine qualities of the outgoing President. Obama divides opinions on matters of policy but it is remarkable to reflect on how little race has featured in those policies. Perhaps it’s as we always suspected about Obama. Even before he became President, he had often been challenged as to his racial identity. Back in 2007, Steve Kroft interviewed the then Senator Obama for 60 Minutes and questioned if ‘at some point, you decided that you were black’. Little of the subsequent eight years has changed the general opinion that Obama does not himself pander to lazy stereotypes. Whatever you think of Obama, his presidency has been distinctly low key. Depending on your politics, Obamacare has been one of the great achievements of modern Democratic politics or the worst imposition of government into the lives of the individual. He has pursued a foreign policy that has lacked ambition, preferring subtle interventions over large scale troop deployments. Domestically, much of his time has been spent fighting with Congress and he will leave office with some of his great hopes left unfulfilled. His administration has made no significant impact on gun crime and Guantanamo remains open.
In that sense, Obama might be remembered like many presidents before him: having disappointed those that had the greatest hopes. Wilmore barely touched on these disappointments and instead tried to remind us that the old prejudices have not left us. Perhaps they haven’t but Obama, at least, is an obvious rejoinder to his argument. America has moved on and will continue to progress. Obama should be the last president we’ll consider notable simply because of the colour of his skin and that is one hell of a big achievement for a relatively young nation.