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Larry Wilmore On Being Nerdy, Breaking Taboos And 'The Nightly Show'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to continue our end of summer series featuring some of our favorite recent interviews. Today's show is a tribute to Larry Wilmore, whose comedy central satirical news show "The Nightly Show" was canceled earlier this month. We miss him. So we're going to feature excerpts of three interviews with him, one from this year and two from last year. "The Nightly Show" launched in January 2015, filling the 11:30 spot where the "Colbert Report" used to be following "The Daily Show." Wilmore had formally been "The Daily Show's" senior black correspondent. "The Nightly Show" usually focused on issues relating to race, and most of the correspondents and panelists were people of color. Wilmore addressed the cancellation during his final week of shows.


LARRY WILMORE: Now, when we started the show, we wanted to have a conversation on some very tough subjects. And we've had a lot of fun doing just that. I mean, really, our show was at its best when the news was at its worst. And I'm just so proud that we were able to take on real issues and, I don't know, hopefully say something powerful while making people laugh and on some very, very dark days. My only regret is that we won't be around to cover this truly insane election season. Although, on the plus side - on the plus side, I must say, our show going off the air has to only mean one thing - racism is solved.


WILMORE: We did it. We did it.

GROSS: Wilmore has worked on TV a long time. He wrote for "In Living Color," created "The Bernie Mac Show" and worked on "The PJ's," "The Office," "Blackish" and the upcoming HBO series "Insecure." The first interview we're going to hear was broadcast August 19 last year, the day of the 100th episode of "The Nightly Show." Here's a clip from a show that was broadcast a few weeks earlier, when Wilmore was commenting on the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Nine people were killed.


WILMORE: Now, I have to tell you guys, we weren't going to talk much about this at all. I mean, seriously, we're a comedy show, right? I mean, what we built here isn't really designed to handle this kind of tragedy. And let me just say, I know we talk about race a lot on this show, but I think we can all agree this time that this is a racially motivated attack, you know? I think it's a...


WILMORE: But also, it couldn't be clearer when it comes out of the killer's mouth, right? But even with all of that evidence and on a day like today, Fox News just makes my [expletive] head explode.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Last night's deadly attack taking place at a historic church in South Carolina, the gunman's horrifying attack on faith.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The question is, was it a crime out of race or religion?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They could be calling it a hate crime because it happened in a religious institution.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So if we're not safe in our own churches, then where are we safe?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Although it's being investigated as a hate crime, there's still some pieces we have to put together.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Some look at it as, well, it's because it was a white guy, apparently, in a black church. But you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility toward Christians. So - and it was a church.



WILMORE: All right. I know you guys don't want to admit that racial stuff is going - that racial stuff isn't going on. But how can there be any doubt when it came out of the gunman's mouth? Let me remind you what he said.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I want to shoot black people.

WILMORE: He told his victims, I want to shoot black people. I think when he says black people, he means black people...


WILMORE: ...And not Christians.


GROSS: Larry Wilmore, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on what you've been doing on your show. So...

WILMORE: Thank you.

GROSS: ...Can you describe what went on in the writer's room that day figuring out what to do about the Charleston massacre?

WILMORE: That was a very difficult day. I remember Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," they decided not to do anything at all. It was such a difficult day, they'd - I don't think they did any produced comedy in his first act. And we were really wondering about it. And I think I was just so outraged by the coverage of it as a faith incident because I take those things seriously. If someone is attacking someone because of faith, that is a serious issue. But this was clearly because of race.

GROSS: Did Fox News make it easier for you to find where the joke was because they became the joke in a way?

WILMORE: Yes, in that sense, absolutely and part of you kind of feels a little guilty for even having laughs on that day. But then the other part of you feels like sometimes you need to laugh just to express some kind of emotion, just to be able to deal with those types of tragedies. You know, there are tragedies that happen all the time in America, but there are certain types of tragedies that kind of pull us together and make us pause and give us a chance to reflect about where we are, where we're going and that sort of thing. And it's incidents like this that I think give us that type of opportunity. So, you know, getting laughs out of it - we're a comedy show - that's kind of our job, unfortunately. It is the biggest irony of ironies I think I've ever faced in my entire career, Terry, I'll be honest with you, that I would be mining this type of territory on a daily basis and getting laughs out of it.

GROSS: So I want to give another example of how you've been dealing with issues in the news. So this was after Sandra Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation and a police dash cam recorded what happened. You played the video and showed how the police officer keeps escalating things like she's in a bad mood and isn't - you know, isn't being, like, totally compliant about it. But he keeps escalating things in ways you keep pointing out until he finally, like, demands that she put out her cigarette, that she gets out of the car. He threatens to remove her from the car. And I should mention in this clip that we're going to hear we're also going to hear a clip within the clip of Don Lemon on CNN.


WILMORE: I saw a woman who was very irritated, probably having a bad day - most likely because she was pulled over - right? - smoking a cigarette to calm down, complied with everything the officer asked for. Then it got confusing because he told her to put out her cigarette but then offered to light her up by pointing a Taser at her head. Now, to me and most reasonable people, it's very clear that this officer was wrong.

DON LEMON: If you are being stopped by a police officer, whether that police officer is right or wrong, don't you do what he says until afterwards? Then you can sue him. Then you're still alive.

WILMORE: OK, first of all, I don't know who you're yelling at. And secondly, should one be on one's best behavior when the cop pulls one over? Ideally, yes, but most importantly, the cop is a professional.


WILMORE: I mean, should he not have been on such a power trip? OK, now I'm yelling, Don Lemon, thanks.


WILMORE: Sorry, let me calm down for a second. I mean, it's easy to say, black people, why aren't you acting like the Dowager Countess when a cop pulls you over, right?


WILMORE: Oh, hello, officer. I'm so pleased you...


WILMORE: ...Unexpectedly dropped in on me. Would you like some tea I brewed in my glove compartment here...


WILMORE: ...Right next to my stash of weed you're suspecting that I have? God. I mean, yes, that would make sense. But on the other hand, the fact that we live in a world where black people have to strategize so they're not brutalized by police is insane.


GROSS: OK, that last line (laughter) that's not even a comedy line. That's just like a this-is-insane line.


GROSS: Can you talk about writing that, and again, like, coming up in the writer's room with how you wanted to handle this particular story?

WILMORE: Right, well, that's our thesis point. That's the line that I'll say, look, here's what I feel is going on here at this moment. I remember when we were tackling that particular part of it. I had just reread Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" the month before where he talks about those moments of escalation that police officers can go through. And he uses the incident, I think that happened - I think it was in Harlem? I'm not sure - where he carefully plots out - it's fascinating, Terry - of how each second there was a certain type of escalation that didn't necessarily need to happen, you know, and how much of it is the officer's responsibility to be in control of that.

And that's why training is so important in police work, to make sure your body doesn't take over what you're supposed to do because your heart starts racing and you just get into this mode. A lot of this I didn't even know about. You know, it's almost like you go into dinosaur brain mode, where that just takes over and you just act instinctively. And when you're acting instinctively on this kind of primal level, a lot of things happen - things like when we talk about systemic bias or those type of things. You act out in certain ways. And it's very worrisome to me - something that we don't talk about in police behavior towards certain individuals.

And that's what I was thinking about when we were doing that piece, was Gladwell and how, yeah, this woman had a bit of an attitude. She was a bit upset that day. I don't know what was going on through her. But I feel like, still, regardless of that, the police officer, it's his responsibility not to escalate that. You acknowledge that, yeah, she's having a bad day. Let's just finish this and let's be done with it. But to escalate it to pointing a Taser at her and dragging out of that car was so unnecessary. And also the fact that as a black person in America, when you're pulled over by the police, you have to strategize in a way so you - bad things don't happen to you. It's just terrible.

GROSS: Are you feeling that personally?

WILMORE: Well, I have an interesting relationship with this. My father was in law enforcement growing up. He was a probation officer. And I've always understood the point of view of the peace officer, you know, because of my dad. And so what's interesting is that because I have that understanding, I think I'm little bit harder (laughter) on police because I feel it's their job to be better than us in that situation, not to be on our level, you know? And I have buddies back in Pasadena who are on the force, you know, and we talk. I understand how difficult their job is and the things they have to face. It's very difficult. Police have to have one of the most difficult jobs in society today. But at the same time, I think, a person in that position - their responsibility has to be high as well.

GROSS: So one of your real issues is Bill Cosby. You do not miss an opportunity (laughter)...


GROSS: ...To go after Cosby. And to exemplify that, we're going to play a piece that you did on the Voting Rights Act...


GROSS: ...And on voting restrictions in which you still manage (laughter) to try to drive to Cosby. So here's Larry Wilmore.


WILMORE: Let me just remind you of why we have the Voting Rights Act. Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson, who I've got to say is definitely one of my top five Lyndons...


WILMORE: ...Passed the VRA which prohibited any and all discriminatory voting policies. So no more literacy tests, no more poll tax, right? So what's changed? Well, in this case, they're not so much trying to revise history, as they are trying to revive history.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The new rules reduced early voting to 10 days from 17, eliminated same-day registration, ended a program to preregister high school students and banned out-of-precinct voting.

WILMORE: They're making voting harder than Bill Cosby at a sleep clinic.


WILMORE: That's right [expletive], I haven't forgotten about you. I have not forgotten about you.


WILMORE: Think I forgot - by the way, three more women came out against you yesterday, you sick bastard, all right? I got a Google alert on this [expletive], all right? In fact, the only reason I did this whole piece - the only reason I talked about Jeb and Hillary and the Voting Rights Act, the only reason why I woke up this morning, showered, put my deodorant on, tied my tie, spent an hour doing my hair, the only reason - the only reason I'm here tonight was so I could get to that joke and call you out. And let me just say, worth it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: Oh, my god (laughter).

GROSS: Larry Wilmore.

WILMORE: Oh, man (laughter).

GROSS: So I - you're hardly alone in being angry at Cosby.


GROSS: But you seem to have, like, a special anger. And it made me wonder, like, do you know him from TV circles 'cause he used to...


GROSS: You know, you've written sitcoms. It wouldn't have surprised me if you worked with Cosby…

WILMORE: No, never did.

GROSS: ...Or if you heard stories about Cosby.

WILMORE: Yep, that I have.

GROSS: You have? You'd heard about that in the past?

WILMORE: Yep, yep, yep. I think the thing that makes me the most - well, there's certain - several things about that that make me angry - the period of time that these things have happened over, the fact that these women have these allegations but people could care less. It was like, who cares about what women have to say, you know? You know, the whole idea of a powerful man being able to shut up all these women is so abhorrent to me. That issue was what really drove me at first is the idea that a powerful man can just shut women up, you know? That's what started this whole thing. It had nothing even to do with the fact of liking Cosby or not liking Cosby. It was that simple issue. But yep - so that's the part of it that really drove me on it.

And it's funny because, you know, I've never thought of myself as any advocate for anything. But I remember about 10 or 11 years ago, I joined the - I was on the board of directors for the Writers Guild of America. And it was fascinating to me, I realized how passionate I was about so many issues and I didn't even know it because the issues presented themselves to me and I had to declare where I stood, right? So I ended up fighting a lot for writers in certain situations - under-represented writers, women in certain situations. And I didn't even know how much of a feminist I was. And I realized oh, my god, I was raised by a single mom who had to raise six kids. I have three sisters. Larry, you've been a feminist your whole life, you really didn't know it until you've been presented with these issues. And it was the Cosby issue that made me realize how much I really cared about women's issues and how much I realize it's important for me to be an advocate for issues that aren't necessarily my own - to be an ally for issues.

You know, and I feel the same way about the gay issue now. I'm not a homosexual, but if I can be an ally for that issue, I think it's fantastic. But I think the women's issue was one that I really didn't know about and I had to examine my whole life. You know, even - I looked at my relationship with my daughter and all my talks with her, and I realized how I was involved in this journey even talking with my daughter about her role in the world and that sort of thing. So if I don't do anything else - look, if the race stuff - all that stuff is funny. Even if that went away, I think me being an ally for women's issues is probably the most important thing that I feel I'm doing on the show.

GROSS: Do you feel that what you said about once you showed up, you realized how...


GROSS: ...Committed you were.

WILMORE: I had no idea.

GROSS: Does that apply to a lot of issues that you're covering now? Now that you're in...

WILMORE: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...The anchor seat and it's...

WILMORE: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...Your responsibility to take a stand. And you're just...

WILMORE: Completely.

GROSS: ...Consuming all of this news that you're...


GROSS: ...Becoming committed in a way you'd never been before?

WILMORE: That's exactly what happens because as I said, I never considered myself an advocate. I was just a silly guy who wrote jokes, right? (Laughter) You know, that's what I considered myself. And my passions came out when I'm presented with the situation because, you know, as Sean Connery said in "The Untouchables," (imitating Sean Connery) what are you prepared to do? You know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: Right? (Imitating Sean Connery) What are you prepared to do?

What are you going to do? Where are you going to stand on this? You know, Larry, you're in front of people, where are you standing? You can't be in the middle. You cannot afford to be without an opinion on this. You have to take a stand, so where are you going to stand? And once you declare where you're going to stand, you're owning that. And you don't know many times until it's presented itself. And that's why I've always called myself a passionate centrist. It's not a political point of view. It's more of a point of view point of view (laughter). Like, I always say half the time I disagree with myself, that's what passionate centrist means. And I will always change my opinion based on facts. Facts will always change my opinion. If I'm presented with facts that screw up the way I thought about something, sorry, I got to go with the facts.

GROSS: Larry Wilmore recorded last year in August. We have excerpts of two more interviews with him - one about his life, one about hosting the White House Correspondents' Dinner - after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Today, as part of our end of summer series, we're paying tribute to Larry Wilmore, whose Comedy Central late-night satirical news show "The Nightly Show" was canceled earlier this month. This next interview was recorded in February 2015, just about a month after the show's premiere. I asked him about the segment that, at the time, ended the show each night.


GROSS: You end the show with a segment called Keeping It 100. I will confess, I didn't know the expression until your show (laughter).

WILMORE: I am shocked, Terry, that you would know - that you would not know such an expression.

GROSS: (Laughter). So explain the expression and what the segment of the show is.

WILMORE: OK, so keeping it 100 means keeping it 100 percent real, and it comes from the expression called keeping it real, which means you are being completely honest. But it's kind of a fun term that's been around for a while. I've used it in comedy for a little bit. And, you know, it's funny. I thought it would be an interesting way to ask a question, and that's pretty much how it came about. What was interesting, the actual etymology of it was, we didn't have that - we had, like, two test shows in front of an audience and two not in front of an audience, so we had very little time to figure out what our show was. Because Colbert left, they had to break down that set. And then we moved in, and they were building our set, right? So we had very little time. And we were trying to figure out what that third act was and how we were going to comically finish our conversation. And I had, like, a - I was up till, like, 4:30 in the morning the night before our last show just trying to think of it, and that just kind of came to me. I was thinking about, well, what is our show? And I thought, at the heart, our show is about keeping it real, keeping it 100 percent real, and that's where I came up with the idea.

GROSS: I love the segment because you get to ask questions that are maybe a little bit indiscreet, maybe go, like, a little bit further...


GROSS: ...Than most people would be comfortable going. And then, if the person answers in an honest way, you give them a little keeping-it-100 button or...

WILMORE: Sticker, yes, for our hands.

GROSS: If they don't, you throw teabags at them because the answer is weak tea. So let's hear an example of this. And you are comparing what you'd use to being, like, the Comedy Central version - your version - of, say, the Sunday morning shows, like "Meet The Press." This is a question asked of Cory Booker, who's now a senator from New Jersey, former mayor of Newark. This question is asked to, like, all the politicians. And let's see how you handle it (laughter).


WILMORE: OK, you ready? Got to keep it 100.

CORY BOOKER: Bring it.

WILMORE: Do you want to be president?


WILMORE: Audience?


WILMORE: I've got some weak tea for you.


BOOKER: Let me just say this. We all - and especially in politics, we are far more too concerned with position than purpose.

WILMORE: You get all the weak tea.


BOOKER: I'm just trying to keep it real.

WILMORE: Yes - the answer is yes.


GROSS: I love that because it makes me think, like, in - there are so many times I wish I could throw teabags (laughter), I guess.

WILMORE: Sure. Yes, exactly. It's our own kind of tea party, I guess. Well...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. It must be so gratifying, when somebody gives you an answer that you really think isn't honest or that is totally evasive, to actually throw teabags at them (laughter).

WILMORE: Yes, it's fun because people are used to speaking in a very guarded way, you know?

GROSS: Especially politicians.

WILMORE: Exactly. Politicians always say what they mean, but they never mean what they say, you know? So their words are always chosen so carefully, so it's fun to break that down, you know? When he started to go into that flowery explanation, it's like, no, no, no, no, no. We're not that type of show. You don't get a flowery explanation of why you don't want to answer the question because that's what it is. The flowery explanation is you're explaining why you don't want to answer the question.

GROSS: Larry Wilmore recorded last year in February. We'll hear more of that interview and listen back to the interview I recorded with him in May after his controversial performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, as part of our end of summer series, we're paying tribute to Larry Wilmore. His Comedy Central late-night satirical news show "The Nightly Show" was canceled earlier this month. Wilmore has worked in TV a long time. He wrote for "In Living Color," created "The Bernie Mac Show" and worked on "The PJ's," "The Office," "Blackish" and the upcoming HBO series "Insecure." Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in February 2015 about a month after "The Nightly Show" premiered.


GROSS: You've done a lot of TV. Let's talk a little bit about your life in TV, which started with Rick Dees' show. And Rick Dees was like a countdown, Top 40 DJ - right? - who also had the hit "Disco Duck" in the mid-'70s (laughter).

WILMORE: That's right. Thanks for bringing that up.

GROSS: You're welcome. So what was the show, and what was your contribution?

WILMORE: That was my first foray into television writing. I was mainly a stand-up comic and an actor at the time. That's how I started my career as a performer. I found it very challenging to - you know, to go on auditions and, for the type of act that I had, to get seen in Hollywood at the time. I felt a little frustrated. And I felt going into writing and producing might give me, you know, a better chance to control my own career rather than be at the whims of Hollywood finding me and that sort of thing. And Rick Dees was the first - was my first TV writing job. I just wanted to break into, you know, that side of the business. A friend of mine was writing on the show, and they had a spot open. And, you know, it's one of those entry-level type jobs. You don't know what you're doing yet. Most of your time is spent writing jokes for the hosts and writing sketches. But I only did that for about six months. And then I got hired on "In Living Color." And that one really - that really was my boot camp of comedy writing, was working on "In Living Color."

GROSS: So you've written for a couple of shows where the premise was an African-American kid from the city gets sent or ends up in the home of wealthy people. Would you explain the premises of those shows?

WILMORE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Well, there's "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air," in which Will Smith comes from West Philly, ends up with his aunt and uncle in this mansion in Bel-Air, Calif.


GROSS: And there was another one.

WILMORE: Well, that show I was a writer on for a short amount of time. Of course, I had nothing to do with that premise. That's your basic fish-out-of-water thing. The one that I created was "The Bernie Mac Show," where his sister's kids from Chicago came to live with him in California. And he was a successful comedian. And that one wasn't as much as - like, "Fresh Prince" really was about going from the projects and living in Bel-Air, you know, and your life changing in that way. "The Bernie Mac Show" was more about Bernie's life changing because kids are now in his life. So it was more from that perspective.

GROSS: And he was very resentful as a father. (Laughter).

WILMORE: Absolutely.

GROSS: He worked hard at it, but he didn't want to be in that position - or as a surrogate father, yeah.

WILMORE: Yes. Yes, and the theme of that show is that kids are terrorists, and I do not negotiate with terrorists.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: So that's what the theme of that show is. So it was very much from his point of view, not from the kids' point of view.

GROSS: And you created that show.


GROSS: So I'm just interested in hearing about you creating the show. Were you thinking a lot about fatherhood when you came up with that idea? Or were you just looking for a vehicle for Bernie Mac?

WILMORE: When I came up with "The Bernie Mac Show?"

GROSS: Yeah - which, by the way, won a Peabody Award. Yeah.

WILMORE: Yes, thank you. At the time I came up with "The Bernie Mac Show" idea, it was a combination of things. Bernie had done a bit in his act about taking his sister's kids in. And that - so that premise was there from Bernie's act. I wanted to do a show about kind of what I call the heartache of parenting, as opposed to the difficulties of parenting. And just from having seen my mom, who was a single parent raising six kids - and at the time my wife was going through some struggles - and just observing all of this and seeing it in the culture and wanting to make that into a TV show, I was very much interested in that at the time. And the other part of it was how kids were emancipating themselves and doing these things where they were becoming in charge. And I thought - that's something in the culture that I also wanted to dramatize at the time. So it was a combination of things.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your life. Where did you grow up?

WILMORE: I grew up in Pomona, Calif., suburb of Los Angeles - 30 miles east of Los Angeles.

GROSS: I remember you telling me, the last time we spoke, that you went to a Catholic school where I think you were one of, like, two black students. Was that a high school or...

WILMORE: That was my high school. I went to public school up until about the fourth grade, and I think starting in fifth grade, I went to the Catholic school through high school. Sacred Heart School in Pomona in grade school and then Damien High School in La Verne, Calif., and Damien was an all-boys school. In that school, me and my friend Rick, we were the only blacks in our class. And, of course, we both played on the basketball team, of course.

GROSS: What was it like for you to be one of only two black students in your high school class?

WILMORE: Well, it's funny because I never went to a predominantly black school, so I always felt like - my phrase is, I feel like I'm at a family reunion and I'm not in the family, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: I was always - I always compartmentalized so many different things. I mean, I was an athlete, so I hung out with the jocks. I was smart, so I hung out with the nerdy kids. But I was also into theater, so I hung out with the misfits is what I call it, you know? So I was always in different groups and those groups never quite overlapped, so the racial part of it was just another one of those groups, you know? - in one sense.

GROSS: So being Catholic, did that remove you from a part of the black experience that so many people have of coming up in the black church?

WILMORE: Yeah, like that style - yeah, I don't have that kind of Southern experience, let's say, of the fire-and-brimstone preacher type of thing. Certainly not in my comedy - yeah, I come from more of the guilt-ridden, neurotic type of...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: Like I said, I have more in common with the Jewish brand of comedy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILMORE: And I've always related to that. Like, Groucho was always my comic hero, you know, and that sort of thing. So I've always related to that just because, you know, Catholic and Jew, I mean, it's very, very closely related - a lot of holidays, a lot of guilt.

GROSS: So let's talk more about your coming of age. When you were growing up, your father was a probation officer.


GROSS: Did he tell you stories about the job and the people on parole that he was working with?

WILMORE: Not specifically, but my father is a real law-and-order type guy. Like, he believes that most people who come into the system probably are criminals (laughter). He doesn't have the other belief that they probably have been done wrong, you know? And so he's a very law-and-order type of guy. He has a very wry sense of humor about it. So it's funny that that's what I got growing up was that point of view about law and order.

GROSS: Your parents divorced when you were in high school or junior high school?

WILMORE: No, I was a lot younger. I was about 8 or 9, I think.

GROSS: Oh, OK. And your father after the divorce left his career as a parole officer, he went to med school and I assume he actually became a doctor.

WILMORE: Yeah, that was years later. That was - he did that when I was in college - later in high school and college. But my parents split when I was a lot younger.

GROSS: What message did it send to you that your father could change careers in his 40s?

WILMORE: It was very inspirational actually because I was trying to struggle with what to do in my life at that point. You know, I had always been a good student in coming up - although my last two years in high school were very difficult for me emotionally - there was just a lot going on. And I kind of - I think I kind of abandoned my academic career and I always - I kind of regretted that because I was a very good student. But I think it was too much for me emotionally to handle in my life at that time. And I kind of escaped into, I think, theater and performing, also when you talked about speech - those types of things. And I did a lot of escaping in those last two years in high school.

And by the time I got into college, I was very concerned about what I was going to do. And when I saw my father do that, it gave me the confidence to just pursue what I wanted to do because I thought, look, at 40 I can still turn around and go back to school if my father's doing that. So ironically, he gave me confidence to do it. But I think one of the big turning points - one summer I sold books door to door. And I went into all these people's houses - this was when I was still in college - and I met so many people who were unhappy in their lives. I could just see it, you know? With their kids and everything and I thought, Larry, do something that's going to make you happy at the end of the day. It was actually a very inspirational thing for me to do that. That was a big turning point.

GROSS: What kind of books were you selling door to door, encyclopedias?

WILMORE: It was like those - this was back in the days, once again, pre-internet like those big - this was like a big encyclopedia thing - it was called "The Volume Library," I remember. And then there were some kids' books, too. And you go to a different part of the country to sell books. So you spend a whole summer - I spent a whole summer in New England just going door to door selling books.

GROSS: So you would just knock on doors uninvited? Or people...

WILMORE: Yes, you do.


WILMORE: I remember - I'll tell you a story. This one guy - I knocked on the door - this one guy came to the - opened the door with a shotgun...

GROSS: Nice.

WILMORE: ...And said get the blank off of my porch right now. I literally jumped out of my shoes - I've never done that. My shoes were left on his porch. And I got out of there.

On another time, I was riding a bike, and I got hit by a car in an intersection - flew off the bike.

GROSS: Oh, God.

WILMORE: There was some other times where I used to hitchhike to where I was going sometimes. Those were the days when you can actually hitchhike. And I remember coming up with a trick where if I saw a car that was stuck on the side of the road, I would pretend like my car was broken down and I would get picked up right away. So I - it was such an adventurous summer. It was - it had a lot of adventures in it.

The thing I'll never forget, though, was I went into this house - they were, I think, Portuguese immigrants these people. Their English wasn't very good and they had these kids and I was showing them the kids' books. And the kids loved it, you know? And then when I got to the price, I could tell that these people had no money - nothing. And then I looked around, Terry, and I saw there was not one book in the house. I just realized what was going on here. And I was very fortunate - both of my parents were - had come from a family of educators, and books were very important. My mom was a teacher and a substitute teacher in her spare time, and we always had books in the home. And so I remember I came back later that summer because they take the order and then you deliver the books. The father - of course he couldn't buy the books - but I remember I left a whole set of books for them on their porch at the end of that summer and just left it there for the kids. I'll never forget those kids.

GROSS: How did you figure out you wanted to go into comedy?

WILMORE: You know what? There were two parts to that. One, I always liked making people laugh. My brother and I did that growing up. But I didn't know if I could do that as - for a living. And so the decision to do that came out of me realizing I may as well just do it. That was when I was in college. I remember sneaking into The Comedy Store when I was underage, and I remember seeing, like, Richard Pryor trying out material on stage, seeing David Letterman emceeing in there and just thinking, man, there's no way I could do this. These people are just too good. And just dreaming about it back in those days and wanting to do it but not knowing if it was something that I could do.

GROSS: Larry Wilmore recorded last year in February. We'll hear the interview we recorded in May after his controversial performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Today, as part of our end of summer series, we're paying tribute to Larry Wilmore, whose Comedy Central late-night satirical news show was canceled earlier this month. The third interview we're going to hear with him was recorded last May just after he hosted the White House Correspondents' Dinner, which means he got to do standup right after President Obama's comic performance. And Obama is a tough act to follow. Here's how Wilmore opened that night.


WILMORE: Welcome to Negro night here at Washington - or as Fox News will report, two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in D.C.


WILMORE: That's how they do it. Nice to be here, though, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, or as you know they're going to call it next year, Donald Trump presents a luxurious evening paid for by Mexico.


GROSS: The White House Correspondents' Dinners have become like political roasts. Wilmore ended his performance with a controversial shout-out to the president.


GROSS: You were in the position of being an African-American comic at a dinner honoring the first African-American president in his final year in office. So it's really - it's kind of, like, quite an occasion.


GROSS: And you had to figure out, like, how are you going to address that? So we're now going to cut to the dramatic ending (laughter)...

WILMORE: Yes - dun, dun, dun...

GROSS: ...Of your presentation. So we're going to hear the lead up to that and then the very end and talk then about how controversial this was and why...


GROSS: ...You said what you said. So here we go - this is Larry Wilmore Saturday night at the White House Correspondents' Dinner following President Obama.


WILMORE: And this is your last year in office, right? So now your legacy begins. So I want to talk about what you're leaving behind - and I don't mean the black Jesus in the Lincoln bedroom.


WILMORE: No, I'm just saying make sure you take all of your culturally specific items with you so you can get your security deposit back, Mr. President. Quick impression of the next president moving in - what's cocoa butter?


WILMORE: That is - I've never heard of such a thing. (Laughter) But I have to say when it's all said and done, Mr. President, after eight years in the White House, we are really going to miss Michelle. We really are.


WILMORE: Thank you for being a good sport, Mr. President. But all jokes aside, let me just say how much it means for me to be here tonight. I've always joked that I voted for the president because he's black. And people say well, do you agree with his policies? And I always said I agree with the policy that he's black.


WILMORE: I say as long as he keeps being black, I'm good. They say what about Iraq? Is he still black? But behind that joke is a humble appreciation for the historical implications for what your presidency means. When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn't accept a black quarterback. Now, think about that - a black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team. And now to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world...


WILMORE: ...Words alone do me no justice. So Mr. President, I'm going to keep it a hundred - yo Barry, you did it, my nigga. You did it.


WILMORE: Thank you very much. Good night.


GROSS: So why did you decide to end that way? You know, you were about how when you were growing up there - just having a black quarterback was usually controversial.

WILMORE: Sure, absolutely.

GROSS: And you got such a big round for that and what you were saying was so heartfelt. And then you lost so many people with the N-word at the end. And can you talk about why you decided to refer to Obama that way?

WILMORE: Well, it definitely was an artistic choice that I thought of early on. And it's really hard to put into words - you know, one of the reasons why I set that up the way I did because what Obama means to me as a black person and to any black person really is hard to quantify in words. And the words that have been used against us over so long have been so charged and so horrible, and I wanted to take the opportunity to turn that upside down and to use it in the way that we've used it inside the community - not outside the community but inside the community - and not by everybody - as that show of affection that only we can understand.

And by putting that display public, I guess you could say, hopefully disarms the other attack of it. So I guess that was the underneath the artist approach to it. It definitely was a risk. It may not have been the smartest thing. I acknowledge that. It was definitely risky, but I thought it was a thing that I was willing to at least do.

GROSS: I think some of the African-Americans who were offended by it were offended for the reason that you just mentioned. You're only allowed to say that inside the...


GROSS: ...Black community, not outside of it. And you violated that rule, I think, in a lot of people's...


GROSS: ...Minds.

WILMORE: Well, you know, breaking taboos is a very dangerous thing to do. Making things public that aren't always public, you know, shining a light on something - you know, I've been called that word in my lifetime. You know, it's very - the E-R version. And I made a distinction between the use of nigger against us and the use of nigga that we've used with each other. On the show last night, I said, you know, we conjugate the slur is what you have to do, you know? And...

GROSS: What do you see as the difference...

WILMORE: But beyond...

GROSS: ...Between the word ending in E-R and the word ending in A?

WILMORE: Well, the one in E-R is unmistakable, is an attempt by, you know, white people to dehumanize and denigrate and demean black people, to make them less than human. And when we turned it around, it was our way of having camaraderie with each other, of taking the power out of that word, you know, sapping it of its ability to dehumanize.

And it isn't always the easiest thing to translate to people who aren't in that experience. But people who have done that - and not all blacks agree with that, and I acknowledge that - view it in that way. So that's, I guess, the best way to explain it, hopefully.

GROSS: Do you think it's partly a generational thing, too...

WILMORE: Definitely - it definitely is...

GROSS: ...Within the African-American community?

WILMORE: Absolutely, completely. And I acknowledge that. And by the way, I understand why people would be upset about it. I have no quarrel or criticism with that. I get it. You know, it is controversial. It is charged and all those things, you know? But part of it is a generational thing, and it is possibly a different way of just viewing who has the power to say what, you know, who has the right to be in charge of the narrative? You know, who gets to control what's being said about us or how we get say it, you know?

GROSS: Did you ask yourself beforehand how's the president going to be with this? And...

WILMORE: Absolutely.

GROSS: And what's it going to be like for him when everybody asks him what his reaction was as they asked his press secretary the following day?

WILMORE: The president was very kind and very gracious in his remarks because yes, I did run the risk of offending him. You know, and I wanted to make sure especially with the preamble that I made it clear what my whole point of saying that is. And as I said, it's something that not everybody can understand, but I feel that the president understood it and got it.

GROSS: Yeah, his press secretary Josh Earnest said to reporters that the president appreciated the spirit of Mr. Wilmore's expressions. (Reading) I'm confident Mr. Wilmore used the word by design. He was seeking to be provocative, but I think any reading of his comments makes clear he was not using the president as the butt of a joke.

WILMORE: Absolutely. I completely agree with that.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded in May with Larry Wilmore. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last May with Larry Wilmore.


GROSS: One of the things I think you do on your show is that you don't try to make it seem like as an African-American, you're the other and you have to, you know, speak to the normative audience of white people.


GROSS: You know, you are who you are. You have a lot of African-Americans who are correspondents for the show and panelists on the show - you know, as well as...


GROSS: ...White people and Latino people...


GROSS: ...And gay and straight people and so on.

WILMORE: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: But I thought you were doing that Saturday night, too, that you weren't doing, like - well, this is a normative white audience, so I will adjust my material for the normative audience because I'm not part of the - do you know what I'm saying?

WILMORE: Code switching, if you will.

GROSS: Yeah, that you weren't code switching, that you were just...


GROSS: ...I'm not going to do that.

WILMORE: Correct. Yes. That is (laughter) very much right. One of the things that I am proud of on the show is, as you pointed out, we have many different people of color on the show and Grace Parra, too, who's Mexican-American. And I've worked in television a long time, Terry. We've talked before, and...

GROSS: Yeah.

WILMORE: ...Many times, black people are reduced to one role on a show and people get to see just one shade, you know? And I like the fact that because they're - you know, we're all so different, we're put forth as individuals with different points of view. I know Mike Yard, who's one of the comics on our show - it's great when we get into a discussion about politics because we can have such different points of view.

And people don't have to think that we're a monolith and we all have to think the same or have the same speed - or even the way that we do humor can be different, you know? As you know, I'm very deadpan. You know, I can be self-deprecating, I can be sharp. And other comics who are black can be maybe broader or bigger or more in your face, and it's all good. We can be different. You know, we have different ways of doing it. It doesn't have to be reduced to one particular thing.

GROSS: So I don't know you well. I've interviewed you four times, which is a lot on our show (laughter).

WILMORE: And thank you very much.

GROSS: Oh, no, no, you're always so wonderful. I love having you on our show. But the impression I get from watching you on your show and watching you before that on "The Daily Show" and from talking with you, is that you're a really good soul.

WILMORE: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: And that you're also in the position of having to be very critical, satirically, of people, and I wonder if that's ever hard for you, particularly...


GROSS: ...On nights like Saturday night where you're lampooning people who are in the audience. It's your job to do that.

WILMORE: I know. It actually is very difficult for me. It's a very good question. I don't particularly always enjoy it 'cause it's not my normal mode of communicating, you know? But it's kind of become, I guess, my comic way. So you're right, I'm always in conflict with that. You're absolutely right. You know, I was very conflicted about some of those jokes, tone-wise, I guess I should say, but not content-wise. I believed in the content of them. It's - you are correct is all I can say (laughter).

GROSS: So what do you mean by tone-wise?

WILMORE: I was trying to find the right balance between what a roast feels like and doing jokes that I thought were the right type of jokes that I could be doing. You know, like when you're calling people out for something, having fun with that in a good-natured way and still being as truthful in the jokes as possible, you know, and finding that tone, you know, where it's not like I'm going up, I hate everybody. That wasn't what I was saying. You know, I was just pointing out the truths in what was going on.

GROSS: It's been great to talk with you again. I thank you so much for coming back to the show.

WILMORE: It's always an honor to talk to you, Terry.

GROSS: Larry Wilmore recorded in May after he hosted the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Larry, we miss you and your show and hope to see you again on TV soon. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our series of favorite recent interviews continues with Sarah Paulson. She's nominated for an Emmy for her performance as prosecutor Marcia Clark in the FX series "The People V. O.J. Simpson."


SARAH PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) The O.J. Simpson you've never met, the face of a batterer, the abuser, the murderer.

GROSS: The O.J. series is nominated for 22 Emmys. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.