Over the years, TV writer and comedian Larry Wilmore has been at the helm of countless television programs that have widely impacted the TV sphere. He’s created shows including The Bernie Mac Show for which he won an Emmy, and co-created the animated sitcom The PJs. Most recently, he’s co-created series such as Insecure with Issa Rae, and Grown-ish with Kenya Barris. Throughout his career, in addition to being a performer and a producer, he’s also written on shows such as In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Sister Sister, The Office, and Black-ish.
As a comedian with a great interest in politics, he appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as the “Senior Black Correspondent,” and in 2015 through 2016 hosted his own late night political-comedy show The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central.
Currently, he hosts a podcast on the Ringer network titled “Black on the Air” through which he discusses current events and has various guests on to talk about a wide range of relevant topics pertaining to politics, pop-culture, sports, and society.
As the winner of this year’s Austin Film Festival Outstanding Television Writer Award, we sat down with Wilmore at the conference to chat about his beginnings as a comedian and his perspective on the TV writing business today.
To start, going back to the beginning of your career, how and when did you know you wanted to be a writer and a comedian?
Well, a comedian I thought about doing since I was young, but a writer I never thought about until I needed an act. So I always kind of wrote for practical reasons, and I never really considered myself a writer until I was actually really writing for television and I thought “oh okay, I guess I’m a writer.” Because I always kind of did it practically, you know. Even when I was looking for writing jobs in television, it was so I could create a space for myself as a performer. I felt like, I didn’t know if Hollywood was going to hire me. I was kind of a unique type of thing at the time, so I looked at writing as a practical way to do something.
And throughout your entire career what do you personally see as like a defining moment for yourself within it?
My entire career!
Your entire career. I mean, it’s been a pretty great career.
Thank you. It’s had its ups and downs, but you never put the downs in the resume though.
No, but you know, amongst it all when was it that you really thought “I love this. I want to do this work forever?”
I knew when I started doing it that that’s what I wanted to do. There was no doubt in my mind. Whether or not the audience would allow me to do it was another question. So early on I knew it’s what I wanted to do and enjoyed it. But I think throughout my career there have been different times when I went “oh, okay, I guess I’m capable of that maybe.” Because I’ve always had imposter syndrome. You always think you’re going to be found out at some point. So I think that’s something that always continues to happen.
Who would you say have been your biggest influences?
Oh, I’ve had so many influences, but many of them were from when I was a kid, when I was growing up. Many comedians. Everybody from the Marx Brothers to Buster Keaton, Flip Wilson, Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor. A lot of my contemporaries weren’t really influences but kind of, inspired me to keep going.
Right now we’re in this sort of new age of television, with all of these new platforms and services. In your opinion, what would you say is the biggest challenge for TV writers today and the biggest benefit?
I think one of the biggest benefits is that there are so many opportunities. So somebody looking for a gig, there’s never been a better time to find something. I’d say the biggest challenge though is you might not get to work with someone who can pass down things. Because everything is so spread out. And also the type of living you can make is different than when it was more concentrated. I mean, if you’re interested in being rich, there were more opportunities for that. But there’s a big plus on the creative side. There are way more opportunities for individual creative expression which is nice.
On Netflix, HBO, network TV, everywhere.
And they’re looking for talent too.
Because they have to keep getting stuff out there.
Yeah, producing content. And some of those places, they don’t care as much about how experienced you are. Like, I pair with young talent all the time. It’s like, I think about when I was coming up, where were those people pairing with me? It just didn’t happen, but now it happens a lot because they just want that content.
And in this current time, you know you talk a lot about politics. You had an entire show devoted to political commentary, political comedy. What do you think maybe, I don’t want to say a TV writer’s job, but what do you think a TV writer’s role can be in addressing the climate or producing stories that focus on more diverse perspectives and what’s going on?
It’s a tough one because sometimes the audience wants the writer to fix things. You know, “Please convince people to…” It’s like no, our job is to entertain. That’s what an activists job is really for, or political people or that type of thing. But I think our job is to entertain and maybe enlighten through entertainment. Activism isn’t necessarily our job, but sometimes that can happen. And I think people really look to comedians and storytellers to kind of give relief to whatever problems they’re going through whether its the big ones in the world or the smaller ones in their lives.
What lessons have you learned throughout your career that you would like to share with aspiring comedians, aspiring writers?
I would say keep at it. Don’t give up at the beginning when it feels like “oh I’m never going to get this” or “no one is ever going to hire me.” Because many times, it’s right around the corner, and you just don’t know. Think about it for the long term. Have some ideas on what you want to be doing in the next five or ten, even fifteen years, and then you can set your goals for the next sixth months to a year. Break it up into sections. But if you look at what you’re doing in the long term, I think you can calm down a little bit about what’s happening. Even though you’re always gonna be like “Ahhh!” But it’s all good.