When you walk onto the set of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show, which debuts tonight, you can tell that it’s the same space The Colbert Report occupied just weeks ago. Where Colbert’s desk sat, there’s a Meet the Press-style table with five seats, instead of Stephen Colbert’s one-person desk, but that’s about the only major change (even though the set was built from the ground up, as seen in the time-lapse video below).
If you’re looking for differences, though, you’ve got a wealth of options. There’s the format, which host Larry Wilmore describes as a love child of The Daily Show (where he served as “Senior Black Correspondent” for eight years) and the lion’s den that was Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect. And then, of course, there’s the host. While Colbert featured a self-aggrandizing caricature basking in his own cluelessness, Nightly ditches the fake TV pundits for real debates among real people.
“We’re just keeping it a hundred,” host Larry Wilmore says. “That’s ‘keeping it one hundred percent real,’ for people who don’t know. Rory didn’t know what it meant for months.” “I’m like, ‘Great idea, Larry!'” says Wilmore’s co-creator Rory Albanese, air-Googling into an imaginary keyboard. That realness is reflected in the on-set clocks, which eschew the usual global capitals for locations more fraught: East St. Louis, Shenzhen, and “Obama’s Birthplace.”
And indeed, those clocks are just one part of a sensibility—confronting issues head-on, with less of the satirical bobbing and weaving that The Colbert Report so excelled at—that has been the show’s mission since before there was even a host. When Jon Stewart first pitched the idea (a show originally titled The Minority Report, a title ultimately scrapped to avoid confusion with the movie of the same name), he wanted a vehicle to showcase voices that aren’t normally showcased. And he wanted Wilmore to host. So to fill the rest of the seats at that table, the show’s looking for people who might be, in Wilmore’s words, a little “dangerous”—especially comedians “who aren’t on networks’ radar, but are respected in comedy circles.”
So far, confirmed guests include John Leguizamo, Obama speechwriter-turned-TV writer Jon Lovett, How to Be Black author Baratunde Thurston, and rapper Talib Kweli, who was also on the front lines of protests in Ferguson earlier this year. Those bookings aren’t accidental; Wilmore says that since his new show’s premiere date coincides with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, much of early episodes’ discussion will likely focus on the racial issues that consumed the United States in 2014. “[King] is the patron saint of the nonviolent protest,” Wilmore says. “Protests, in particular, will I think be our first topic.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom; Wilmore insists he’s looking to create a mood that straddles “provocative” and “light.” “This is my barber shop,” he says. “No matter how heated it gets, we’re all in the barber shop—we’re having fun. Nobody is ever threatened in the barber shop. But your point of view is going to get challenged. And we’re going to call you on your shit.”