This year’s Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics was delivered by comedian, producer and writer Larry Wilmore. The David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism was also awarded to Nancy Kaffer of the Detroit Free Press. Larry Wilmore’s talk starts at 15:09.
The Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics commemorates the life of the reporter and historian who set the standard for contemporary political journalism and campaign coverage. Past lecturers include Rachel Maddow, Alan K. Simpson, Ben Bradlee, Judy Woodruff, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nicco Mele: Good evening. It was one of my first political campaigns. It was a cold, clear morning in November in New Hampshire, and the election was just days away. A whole bunch of the field organizers gathered in a room for breakfast and a little rah-rah speech before we went out to canvas for the candidate in question, and it had basically been a brutal ten days, and it looked like we were going to lose. Michael Ford, who is a legendary Democratic field organizer, came in and gave us a speech. He said, “What are you doing here? You are here to win. And not just to win this election, but to change the world. That’s what you’re doing, little bit by little bit. I don’t want you just to be involved in this change; I want you to be really committed to it.” And he pointed, and in the corner was one of those card tables, and it had the tinfoil trays of scrambled eggs and bacon and French toast. And he said, “Look at that breakfast over there. The chickens were really involved, but the pig committed to it.” (Laughter)
Real change takes real commitment. After spending most of President Barack Obama’s presidency trying to delegitimize him by pushing a lie that Obama was not born in the United States, Donald Trump is now our president-elect. And I want to ask you: What are you doing here at the Kennedy School? Why are you at Harvard? Republican or Democrat or international, independent, you are here to build a better world, and you had better be committed to it like the pig, because that is what is required. Being committed to justice, to change, is hard, and it can be doubly so in the face of sudden, unexpected, and narrow defeat.
And then, my heart was broken yesterday to hear that Gwen Ifill had died. It was only a few years ago that on this very stage my predecessor, Alex Jones, gave Gwen Ifill the Goldsmith [Career] Award, to recognize her commitment to excellence in journalism. In 1999 she took over the PBS show Washington Week. It was quite literally the establishment, it almost exclusively featured white guys from newspapers, and Gwen Ifill took it and crafted [it into] something very different. As Alex said, “Gwen Ifill has done something many would have said was as unlikely as an African American being elected president. She has made diversity—genuine diversity—normal, not something to point at or make a big deal about, but she has made it normal for all kinds of people who are smart and speak with authority to appear on the longest running primetime news and public affairs program on television.” Gwen Ifill had that kind of serious, no-nonsense commitment.
On the other end of the spectrum was David Nyhan, who had a fiery, relentless commitment. Tonight we’re here to present the twelfth David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism. The hallmark of David’s brand of journalism was the courage to champion unpopular causes, and to challenge the powerful, and tonight’s Nyhan Prize goes to Nancy Kaffer of the Detroit Free Press. I’m going to read to you—hold the applause, we’ll get there. I want to read to you first the closing paragraphs of her column from October 3, 2015. The title of the column was “Avoiding tap water has become a way of life in Flint.”
“The night I got back from Flint, I ran a bath for my five-year-old son. I thought about how Mays filled her tub to show me the greenish color of her water. The water running from my bathtub faucet was clear. You might even—not to get too melodramatic—call it sparkling. I don’t think I’d ever properly appreciated that before. My son splashed around with his toys, plunging his face in to show me how he can hold his nose underwater. He likes to sneak sips of bathwater, even though I tell him not to, because I’m not sure he should drink water that has soap in it, or whether or not he’s peed since he got into the tub. (Laughter) But I don’t get too crazy about it, because whatever is in there probably won’t hurt him.”
And Kaffer’s work is not just about the Flint water crisis. She’s also written some intense columns, for example, about the 11,219 untested rape kits in Wayne County, or the tens of thousands of foreclosures that have affected Detroit’s citizens and changed the shape of the city. She tells powerful stories about the powerless, and she’s an inspiration to me and to many others. And for all of her efforts, this summer she was targeted by James O’Keefe, one of Breitbart’s champions on the alt-right.
One of the lessons of this election for me is how we’ve hollowed out the middle of the country. We’ve hollowed out the middle class, and we’ve hollowed out our journalists. In 2004, one in eight journalists in the United States was in New York, D.C., or Los Angeles. Ten years later, by 2014, those three cities accounted for one in five. The collapse of journalism in the country has disproportionately affected the middle of the country, and Nancy’s work reminds us of the importance of local voices to hold power accountable and tell important stories. It is my honor to introduce this year’s winner of the Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism, Nancy Kaffer. (Applause)
In journalism, we have this responsibility to listen to people’s stories and use the platform that we have to share them with the world, so that bad things can’t be allowed to continue.
Nancy Kaffer: Thank you. Thank you all very much, and I have to say I am humbled and grateful to receive this award, to be honored as doing journalism in the tradition of David Nyhan, and the other amazing award winners who’ve stood here before me. In journalism, we have this responsibility to listen to people’s stories and use the platform that we have to share them with the world, so that bad things can’t be allowed to continue, so that a city where the water has been poisoned with lead because of government inaction, because of bean counting, because of all kinds of things that should never go into determining your water supply can’t happen. So that the rape kits of poor women living in an African American city can’t be shoved to the side to prioritize police budgets, and so that families who are being pushed out of their homes by tax policy that was never intended to deal with the kind of foreclosure crisis we have in Detroit, that their stories don’t get untold, that we can try to make change. This is really important. It’s going to be more important now than ever to ensure that these vulnerable communities, that their voices are heard. That is the platform that I am privileged, lucky, and grateful every day to have to be able to do the work that I do, and I am so, again, honored and humble to get this award. Thank you very much. (Applause)
Nicco Mele: We’re here tonight for the Theodore H. White Lecture. Theodore H. White was a journalist interested in political campaigns, but what he really wanted was some deeper insight into who our politicians are. Who are these people? What shapes them? After a lot of work, he wrote The Making of the President, 1960, which told the story of John F. Kennedy becoming elected president of the United States. And it was this gripping, moving book. It’s impossible today to imagine the impact of that book. He took something that was very serious, which was politics and governing the country, and he made it human and accessible and personal. But along the way he also kind of unwittingly, accidentally helped usher in a kind of political coverage that over time has begun to look more and more like entertainment.
White’s writing style in his Making of the President series—he wrote four of them—is frequently referred to as “cinematic.” Reading his books, you can almost imagine the camera angles, the background music. Just as one example, this is him writing about John F. Kennedy waiting on the election eve to find out if he’d won the presidency: “Caroline, a scratch on her nose, was waiting to say goodnight to her father, and he bounced her on his knees several times and then sent her upstairs to bed, and settled down to his first drink of the day: a daiquiri.”
Even as T. H. White reinvented political coverage to be more about personalities and the stories of politicians, he came to distrust this very style of storytelling. He turned on it. And after writing four—1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972—he couldn’t do it in 1976. He couldn’t bring himself to do it, and instead he wrote his memoir, and he describes in the third person why he couldn’t do it. This America he was now reporting on was swelling with strange, vague forms, which his thinking could no longer shape into clean stories. No piling up of reportorial facts, no teasing anecdote, no embracing concept could hide from him what was wrong. His old ideas no longer stretched over the real world as he saw and sensed it to be. White came to really resist an approach to journalism that would value style and personality over substance, and now we live in a world where a reality television show star is the president-elect of the United States.
Theodore H. White came to really resist an approach to journalism that would value style and personality over substance, and now we live in a world where a reality television show star is the president-elect of the United States.
In thinking about this, I want to tell you why I invited Larry Wilmore here to give this lecture tonight. I’m just a consummately digital person, right? I have never in my life read a print newspaper. But my beloved wife insists on getting The New York Times delivered to our driveway (laughs) every day. (Applause) It’s occasionally been a point of contention. And every morning I go to the gym, and as I’m getting out of the car after I get back from the gym, I pick up The New York Times, and I go in, and I put it on the dining room table, the dining room table where our three children come down and eat breakfast. And July 8—I guess it was the second Friday in July—the first time in my life I picked up that New York Times and I did not want to put it on the table to show my children. The front page carried four photos taken from Diamond Reynolds’ Facebook live video showing the police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, while her four-year-old daughter was in the backseat. I hid The New York Times, in part because I didn’t want my children to see that vivid violence, but also because I was ashamed that would happen in the United States.
It was a week where the country felt completely senseless, and I didn’t know where to turn to make sense of this, and I turned to “The Nightly Show,” to Larry Wilmore. How do we be strong, hopeful, resolute, but also clear-eyed? Larry Wilmore has used his humor to help us plot this course. Political satire has a long and rich history throughout humankind as an important vehicle for commenting on craziness, for commenting on our times, for puncturing the narratives woven by the powerful. Wilmore’s show was full of serious discussion of the challenges of our time, and I think it represents the best of the strange world we live in where entertainment and news are mushed together. And remember, Larry Wilmore could end up president four years from now. (Laughter) Please join me in welcoming Larry Wilmore for the T. H. White Lecture. (Applause)
Political satire has a long and rich history throughout humankind as an important vehicle for commenting on craziness, for commenting on our times, for puncturing the narratives woven by the powerful.
Larry Wilmore: Too kind, too kind. Thank you very much. Thanks, guys, I appreciate it.
Thank you for having me here, Harvard, and I do find it ironic—you’re absolutely right—that we elect a reality show star as president, and you decide to invite a fake journalist to give the Theodore H. White Lecture. (Laughter) I appreciate the irony in that, I just want you to know.
But I am honored to be here. Thank you so much. And this has been an interesting week. It’s been a very interesting week. Yes, we are all having this talk in what’s essentially a mess hall, and it’s been quite a mess of a week, too, right? So what I thought I’d do is try to have some fun, and rather than give a speech, I kind of miss my show—and thanks for reminding me that my show got canceled. I appreciate that. (Laughter) “Larry Wilmore had this great show that’s not on anymore.” No, but I really appreciate it. Such, such kind words about it. But I miss interviewing, so I thought, why don’t I just interview myself? What would I ask about? I want to know what I’m thinking about all this. Don’t you want to know? (Laughter) So let’s have some fun. Let’s lighten the mood a little bit, and I’ll ask myself a few questions (Laughter) about this past week. So if you will indulge me, I appreciate that. So, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Larry Wilmore. (Applause)
Q: Larry, thanks for coming here. So how was your election night?
A: Oh, God. (Laughter) It was truly surreal. I have never experienced anything like that.
Q: Where were you watching? Were you at home?
A: Yes, I was at home. I was by myself. You know, I was expecting—I was actually working on a piece. I was supposed to write a piece for The New Yorker, and I was going to write about Hillary. I thought she was going to win, right? Guys, I tell you: I’ve been watching elections since I was a kid. I just love ’em. There’s something about it. It’s real theater to me. You know, I was a theater major in school. I studied acting, all that. But politics is a real interesting theater to me, so I love the drama of it all. I did not see this drama happening, so it was fascinating to me, and you could tell something was about to happen early on. You could just sense it. And I like to go around all the networks and check out and see how people are reporting on it, ’cause it’s kind of what I do, talk about that kind of stuff. And you could see the smug—I don’t know if “smug” is the right word, but the kind of acceptance, like, “Yeah, we kind of know what’s going on. One more time, we’re going to anoint Hillary.” And I go to Fox. Fox is kind of sad and grumpy, which was hilarious. (Laughter) They were, like, thinking this wasn’t going to happen. And then when it started turning, I was like, no way. I think Florida was the first time that I thought that.
Q: At that point, did you think that Trump had a chance?
By the end of the night, I’m looking online. I’m checking Twitter to see how people are reacting. And it’s almost like the air even went out of Twitter. People almost couldn’t even tweet.
A: I thought, no fucking way. (Laughter) This cannot be happening. But you could see, you know, like John King—I make fun of CNN all the time, call it CEN—Cable Entertainment News—is what I call it, because they love their magic walls and all this stuff. They do actual projections on a wall of their projections. Whatever, CNN, right? (Laughter) Right? You don’t have to entertain me, just give me the damn news, right? But sometimes it’s very cool. Like, John King, I love his magic wall, and as he’s showing in real time those numbers coming from the red areas, you could just sense there was something else going on. And, you know, I’m getting texts from people all around the country saying, “Oh my God, Larry, what’s happening?” You could almost hear heads exploding all around the country. You could sense it. Didn’t it feel like that? It was so bizarre. (Laughter) And then, by the end of the night, I’m looking online. I’m checking Twitter to see how people are reacting. And it’s almost like the air even went out of Twitter. People almost couldn’t even tweet. And to Hillary supporters, and the Democrats, it was kind of like when someone is about to open their brand new, shiny Samsung Galaxy Note 7, right? (Laughter) Right? Yeah, they’re happy, they’re so happy, you know, and they’re a little bit smug, ’cause they know it’s the smartest phone out there, right? Even though it’s probably borrowed some of its more interesting ideas from some of the more progressive phones, but that’s OK. (Laughter) That’s all right. They don’t care, right? So they plug it into the charger, they’re waiting for that phone, and the most that’s going through their mind at that point is, “I wonder what time this phone is going to be charged so I can start using it,” right? Not, “Man, am I even going to have a fucking phone at the end of tonight?” (Laughter) Right? That is not what they’re thinking, and that’s exactly what happened. Like, when Wisconsin went, that phone basically burst into flames. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Q: Samsung Galaxy Note reference. That’s very good, Larry. (Laughter)
A: Don’t have a show, so I’m trying to keep up.
Q: Were you surprised by the results?
A: I was shocked but not surprised, I think. Does that make sense? Yeah, I actually kind of predicted it, unfortunately, on “The Nightly Show,” in August of 2015, when Trump—after that first debate—I don’t think anyone even thought he would get out of August at that point, right? He had already insulted John McCain. If you’re a Republican running for president and you call a consensus hero—everyone thinks John McCain is a hero—you call him a loser, and you’re a Republican running for office? I don’t even know how he got invited to the Republican debate, the first one, right? So after that—and then the whole Mexican rapists thing was a whole ’nother thing, but I thought, whatever, he’s still going to the Republican debate, right? (Laughter) That may have gotten him into the Republican debate, I’m not sure. It’s just a joke, Republicans, calm down. So when Megyn Kelly confronts him about what he said about women, and how he had degraded women in his comments and called them disgusting and a pig, and he said, “No, no, no, only Rosie O’Donnell,” right? It got a huge applause. I was like, he’s gonna be president. I don’t know what it was, I just had a feeling. Everybody made fun of me. I didn’t want it to be true, but something kind of told me it was true.
So when Megyn Kelly confronts him about what he said about women…and he said, “No, no, no, only Rosie O’Donnell,” right? It got a huge applause. I was like, he’s gonna be president. I don’t know what it was, I just had a feeling.
Q: Now, were you continually surprised by the things that were going on?
A: Continually, because I didn’t think he could keep it up. I thought at any moment it was going to implode. That’s what it felt like. That was the horror show that was this past year. Everything Donald Trump did should have disqualified any other candidate, right? We forget about a lot of it, too. I mean, he came out of the box with the Mexican rapists and then the women comment, right, and then I think he mocked the disabled reporter. His numbers went up, right? Ban Muslims, numbers went up. Made fun of all the candidates, numbers kept going up. Even insinuated that Ted Cruz’s father killed the president, (Laughter) wins the Republican nomination. Makes fun of a Gold Star father, numbers go down. We think he may be done, right? And then the worst thing of all, you know, we hear him on that tape, I mean, saying things that no candidate could ever recover from, and we think he’s dead, and he wins. I mean, I have never…Trump is like one of those super viruses that’s immune to antibiotics at this point, and no matter how many antibiotics you pump into it, it just gets stronger and stronger. (Laughter) He’s worse than the Terminator. At least the Terminator was entertaining. (Laughter)
Trump is like one of those super viruses that’s immune to antibiotics at this point, and no matter how many antibiotics you pump into it, it just gets stronger and stronger.
Q: Do you think it was a Trump win or a Hillary loss?
A: Wow. (Pause) (Laughter) Wow. It’s a little bit of both. It’s a little bit of both. I mean, there’s no denying…let’s just look at it in the broadest sense, OK? When you look at what America likes to do—America’s very superficial, by the way. We like new stuff. We like shiny stuff. Trump’s kind of the new candidate. OK, that kind of makes sense. OK, now let’s look at their messaging. I was not crazy about Hillary’s messaging. I understood Trump’s. I didn’t agree with Trump’s, “Make America Great Again,” but people understood that. That connected. If you asked somebody, “Why are you voting for Trump?” he’d say, “Well, he’s going to make America great again.” OK. When you ask them, “Why are you voting for Hillary?” “I’m with her.” “Yeah, but what is she going to do?” “Stronger together? I don’t know.” (Laughter) To me, the message—I don’t think it connected the same way as “Make America Great Again.” And also it felt like, look, Hillary had a lot of passionate people following her, but it felt like the passion behind Donald Trump was more intense. Did it seem that way to you? Trump, he got white people to the polls like they were voting for the first white president. (Laughter) Right? (Applause) I mean, that’s what it seemed like to me. They weren’t kidding around.
If you asked somebody, “Why are you voting for Trump?” he’d say, “Well, he’s going to make America great again.” OK. When you ask them, “Why are you voting for Hillary?” “I’m with her.” “Yeah, but what is she going to do?” “Stronger together? I don’t know.”
Q: Well, let me ask you that: Is America ready for a white president? (Laughter)
A: You know, we just want the best, Larry. We just want the best president. (Laughter) I always hate when people give you that bull. I love it when people do this: “Larry, I don’t care if you’re green or if you’re…” They do every color except black. “I don’t care if you’re green or if you’re orange. (Laughter) No, Larry, you could be purple.” “What about black?” “Larry, you’re not listening to me. You could be blue. You could be burnt sienna. It really doesn’t matter.” “What about black?” “You could be cinnamon. Larry, I don’t care! I don’t care!” (Laughter)
Trump, he got white people to the polls like they were voting for the first white president.
Q: Well, why do you think the historical nature of this candidacy didn’t quite resonate with people, having the first woman president?
A: I think it did with a lot of people. A lot of people compare that to the black vote, but it is very different, because the black electorate, you know, we are 95 percent, 99 percent Democratic. It’s like Omarosa and Don King are the Republicans, right? (Laughter) Ben Carson doesn’t know half of what’s going on at any given point. Well, he’s sleeping most of the time, right? I don’t know how he gets any surgery done, I don’t know how it works. (Laughter) I’m going off on a Ben Carson tangent. I love it. I always thought his trick was he puts you to sleep when he talks, and it comes in handy when he’s about to do surgery… But, having said that, I think the gender electorate, if you will, to use a clumsy term, is a little more complex. I think people vote more ideologically than they do on those lines, whether we believe that or not. I think people really do. People say, “But people voted for Obama because he was black.” Yeah, but he was also a Democrat. If Obama was a Republican, or if it was Colin Powell, there would be a lot of cognitive dissonance at the barbershops around the country. (Laughter) It wouldn’t be on such clean lines. I think he’d still get a lot of support, but I don’t know if it would be as clean. People have been in a relationship with Hillary for a long time, too, and I think that played into it too. It’s not like people were just getting to know her. So it wasn’t as clean a bloc as just saying, “Women are just going to go out and vote for her.” But it’s interesting, because she may end up having two million more votes than Donald Trump once it’s said and done. Go figure.
Q: Do you think Trump ran a racist campaign?
People say, “But people voted for Obama because he was black.” Yeah, but he was also a Democrat. If Obama was a Republican, or if it was Colin Powell, there would be a lot of cognitive dissonance at the barbershops around the country.
A: Um, yes? (Laughter) I agree with what you’re saying. For me, it started before he ran for office with the whole birther campaign. I was very offended about that. I wrote a little bit about this in a New Yorker piece—I ended up switching it to Donald Trump—called “The Birther of a Nation.” (Laughter) Oh, thank you very much. But to me, I didn’t appreciate that whole movement. I didn’t appreciate the energy that was behind it. The whole de-legitimization of the first African-American president I took personally, and in my article, I link it back to the movie, Birth of a Nation, where President Wilson actually had the movie screened in the White House and said, “This movie was like history was written with lightning.” That’s my Woodrow Wilson impression. It sounds a little like Bob Schieffer. I apologize for that, Bob. (Laughter) “History written with lightning,” you know. “My only regret is that it’s absolutely true.” In the movie Birth of a Nation, it portrays that stereotypical view of the black sexual predator who’s coming to rape the white women and creating this mongrel race, and the KKK had to stop that, when we all know back then it was the cream being poured in the coffee, not the other way around. (Laughter) Take your time with that one. Some of this stuff you’ll get on the way home, it’s OK. “Oh, the cream and the coffee, oh…What?! That’s disgusting.” I’m just keeping it 100, you guys, keeping it 100.
So that was an official de-legitimization of the black man in America, right? Confirmation bias, for all you psychologists. Now, what Trump is doing is the same thing to me. There’s a direct line to that. He is making an argument to un-Americanize the president of the United States, the first black president. Now, it’s not just Trump doing it. Here’s my problem with it: If he’s just an idiot, he’s doing it, fine, but there was energy behind that movement. That was not just him; that was a movement. And that was the energy I felt when he was running for office. When he made the comment about Mexicans coming over being rapists, that’s the energy that I felt, and that’s why we dubbed the election of 2016 “Blacklash: The Unblackening,” is what we called it right from the beginning, because it was clear to us exactly what was going on. So there you go.
Obviously, if you’re saying “take our country back,” you’re implying that somebody stole your country, right? And to me, the chief suspect is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Obama was PWB, presidenting while black, apparently.
Q: What about when people say “take our country back”? What do you think about that?
A: That’s another thing: what does that even mean, “take our country…”? Obviously, if you’re saying “take our country back,” you’re implying that somebody stole your country, right? And to me, the chief suspect is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Obama was PWB, presidenting while black, apparently. But yeah, that was also very offensive. Those types of terms I find very offensive, as well.
Q: Well, do you think Trump is a racist?
A: Whatever, you know. (Laughter) You know what? Trump is like a lazy racist. (Laughter) I mean, he’s so interested in himself, I don’t even think he has enough wherewithal to be an actual really good racist, you know? (Laughter) I don’t even think he has the attention span to be the kind of racist we should really be afraid of. (Laughter) He’s so interested in himself, you know? I mean, that’s the thing he believes in the most, and I think he believes in anything that can promote his brand. I don’t even think he believes in the speeches. I think when he’s reading those speeches in the teleprompter, I believe he’s reading them for the first time. Like, you ever see him when he’s agreeing with the speech as he’s reading it? (Laughter) Right? Who does that, right? (Applause) It’s so weird. He’s like, “And we need to do something about our trade with China. So true. So true.” (Laughter) Are you just reading this? What are you talking about? “We’re going to really have to do something about NATO. I agree. I agree. It’s like this speech is reading my mind. It thinks everything that I do. How is this working out? Magic teleprompter, tell me how you work, how Trump’s words get on screen.”
Trump is like a lazy racist. (Laughter) I mean, he’s so interested in himself, I don’t even think he has enough wherewithal to be an actual really good racist, you know? (Laughter) I don’t even think he has the attention span to be the kind of racist we should really be afraid of. (Laughter)
Q: Do you think Hillary should have called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables”?
A: You’re asking the wrong person that question, first of all. Well, let me put it like this: for campaign strategy, I don’t think it was wise of her to do it. My belief is, let other people do it—somebody like James Carville should’ve done something like that, right? “Donald Trump’s basket of deplorables!” (Laughter) And then you’re like, oh my God, James Carville—well, it is kind of true what he’s spitting out. “A basket of deplorables!” (Laughter) Here’s the other thing, guys: I try to be a very optimistic person. I try to look at the bright side. I don’t want to think bad of these people, the people that don’t want to do these things. Trump—his candidacy’s almost like Munchausen by proxy. Is that what it’s called? Like, deplorable by proxy, you know? Like, to me, Trump awakens a lot of fears in people, and then they just get on that deplorable train, I think, and are happy to ride it, with him as the conductor. “Muslims are coming over to kill you. Minorities and gays have taken your country. Mexicans are going to rape your women.” “What? Well, what are we going to do?” “I’ll make America great again.” “OK, thank you.” It feels like he stokes a lot of those fears. But I think we should be more concerned not about a basket of deplorables, but a cabinet of deplorables. (Applause) Steve Bannon? The guy from Breitbart? I can’t believe this at all. I mean, even the KKK is going, “Whoa, really? (Laughter) Wow. I don’t know.” I mean, how do you do that? What kind of a message are you supposed to be telling America? What kind of a message does that send? Imagine if Obama for his White House advisor had picked, like, Louis Farrakhan, right? (Laughter) You know white people would be very nervous about that appointment. You know! Even Obama’s speeches would completely change. “That’s what we need to do about the economy. Now let’s talk about that white devil.” (Laughter) Whoa, Obama! Hmm, what happened? What happened to no drama Obama? “You know he’s a devil! Come on!”
I think we should be more concerned not about a basket of deplorables, but a cabinet of deplorables.
Q: Did Bernie Sanders help or hurt the Clinton campaign, do you think?
A: First of all, I wish people would leave Bernie alone. (Laughter) Bernie Sanders did more to energize and, I think, clarify some of the positions that I think were very important positions to probably the future of the Democratic Party. I’m one of those people who believes these parties may splinter and fracture. Democratic Party might become two parties. There may become the progressive party and the liberal party, maybe. [Republican] Party may become the conservative party and the centrist party or something like that, and Gary Johnson will still be out there by himself somewhere. (Laughter) But the issues that Bernie Sanders brought up I thought were very important issues, and it exposed a lot of the fissures in the Democratic Party, and I think it exposed a lot of the blind spots, more than anything else, and it’s interesting that some of those blind spots I think Trump took advantage of, especially in the area of the lost middle class and people feeling like the government wasn’t there for them at all. There was a lot of overlap in some of the Bernie, Trump areas, ironically. So I don’t think he hurt the Clinton run. I think, if anything, he energized a lot of people who probably weren’t even excited. And I thought he did the right thing when he supported the Clinton campaign. It wasn’t like Ted Cruz—it’s like he was on Molly or something when he was at the convention, right? (Laughter) — when he made that speech. So it was different. But I think what Bernie Sanders did is good for the future of the Democratic Party more than anything else, in my opinion.
I’m one of those people who believes these parties may splinter and fracture. Democratic Party might become two parties. There may become the progressive party and the liberal party, maybe. [Republican] Party may become the conservative party and the centrist party or something like that, and Gary Johnson will still be out there by himself somewhere.
Q: Do you think Bernie would’ve beaten Trump?
A: God… I don’t think so. I don’t think that would’ve happened, you know? That basket of deplorables is pretty strong, you guys. I don’t think so. I don’t think he would’ve done it.
Q: Some say the liberal elite have been in a bubble, which is why they feel so shattered right now, that bubble’s been shattered. What are your thoughts on that?
A: Well, both sides have their own bubbles, right? I don’t know if it’s the liberal elite, but I really think it is a party problem. The Republicans went through this, people forget, just a few years ago. They didn’t know what was going on when Romney lost, and even when McCain lost, and I think it’s just part of the natural forensics of losing a campaign, when you feel that way. What happened? The thing that’s been going on in the country, let’s make no mistake, you guys: it’s not the fault of one president, and it’s not the fault of one party. This has been going on for a long time. You can trace this back to the early ’60s, probably, the loss of our manufacturing jobs, and the loss of that sector of society, us feeling that we have to replace something rather than create something, I think is one of the biggest problems. I call it acting out of survival when you do this type of thing. Like, I’ll give you an example: We think those jobs that went away, manufacturing jobs, blue collar jobs, we think we have to put something like it in its place, replace something that was there. To me, that’s operating out of survival, rather than creating a new space, creating a new definition, making it so people can get better education, so they can be prepared for the world that they’re going to be facing. They’re not facing a pre-industrial world, a pre-technology world, a world where your hands are the most important. It is your brain right now, whether we like it or not, your brain and your fingers, not even your hands. It’s your fingertips, for goodness sakes, right? That’s the world. So I think we need to focus more on being creative in figuring these things out, more than looking backwards.
Q: Some say the media helped normalize Trump. Do you agree with that?
A: Wow. Do we have media people here. Oh, sorry, Bob, (Laughter) Well, I’m not sure about “normalize,” but certainly there was a lot of sensationalizing of Trump. A lot of that concerned me in the beginning, but, you know what? So much of this type of stuff is so superficial anyway, I really don’t know what to think about it. (Laughter) It probably got more people interested in the election. I don’t like a lot of it. I didn’t like Jimmy Fallon tussling his hair. I was not a fan of that. You know, I’m not going to spend time talking about that that much, but (laughs) I remember I did not like that at all. And for me, it goes back to those things that he said. I take him at his word for those things. I think they’re very powerful. Look, the media did not elect Donald Trump. Let’s be clear about that. We should not be blaming the media for what just happened. What just happened was not, in my mind, a primarily negative thing. What happened was people were doing something they thought was positive. The negative votes did help some—what I mean by “negative” and “positive,” I mean some people voted against the other candidate. But I don’t think the negative vote voted Donald Trump in, like votes against Hillary. I really do think it was positive votes for Donald Trump that voted him in.
Look, the media did not elect Donald Trump. Let’s be clear about that. We should not be blaming the media for what just happened.
Q: All right, I think we have time for one more question. Are you on the side —
A: Really? Boy, the time went fast. What happened? (Laughter)
Q: That’s how we do it here, man, in Harvard. (Laughter) Larry, are you on the side of those that are hopeful, giving Donald Trump a chance, or are you on the side of the protestors, people that are marching in the streets?
It’s not people making it up out of whole cloth. [Trump’s] the one who said he wanted to ban all Muslims. If you’re a Muslim, you feel like you’re being attacked. If you’re one of those people who he said he wants to deport, you feel like there’s a target on you. If you’re a woman who had to make the tough choice in reproductive rights, and he said he wants to put you in jail, you don’t take that kind of information lightly.
A: Well, let me put it like this: I understand why people are angry right now, who feel not just that they lost but that something is put in there that is unacceptable, and I think that’s a different emotion than something that is lost, and it was because of the things that I mentioned before. It was Donald Trump’s own words that did that. It’s not people making it up out of whole cloth. He’s the one who said he wanted to ban all Muslims. If you’re a Muslim, you feel like you’re being attacked. If you’re one of those people who he said he wants to deport, you feel like there’s a target on you. If you’re a woman who had to make the tough choice in reproductive rights, and he said he wants to put you in jail, you don’t take that kind of information lightly. So I understand that anger that comes out. And I have no problem with letting feelings get out and letting anger express itself. Anybody that’s been in marriage counseling knows that that’s important. (Laughter) I know I’m speaking to students; you don’t understand what I’m talking about, but trust me. So I think that it’s very important. I feel that a lot of the people are expecting that Trump is supposed to have that “Men in Black” wand or something and just (makes “fthoom” sound), and we’re just supposed to forget all the things that he said, but you can’t forget those things. He was running for president, you know? He wasn’t running for something else. He was running to be the leader of the free world. Your words are important. The things that you say are important. They’re important before you run, and they’re important when you’re in office, and I think they do have consequences. And I would just like to say that I don’t think it’s on the people who are upset to wish the president well. Let me just say this: Look, I want the country to do well and everything, but I remember when Obama was first in office and Rush Limbaugh came right out, and some other people, said they wanted him to fail. And people [who] were excusing him, said, “Well, they want his policies to fail because they disagree with him.” Fine. I want Trump’s policies to fail. I want the United States to win. That’s how I feel about it. To me, it’s not up to people who are angry about the things that he said to give him a chance. It’s up to him to prove that they’re wrong, and that he will do the right thing, because he’s the president. It’s his job. Thank you very much. (Applause) Thank you.
Nicco Mele: OK, folks, we have time for questions. We have four microphones. As usual, three rules apply: One, introduce yourself—and please, we’re going to privilege students in the question asking; two, keep it brief; and three, make sure it is a question. (Laughter)
From the audience: Hi, my name’s Charlotte. I’m a student in the College and I’m a huge fan of yours. I was wondering if you could speak to political correctness in comedy. A lot of things we saw Eddie Murphy doing previously we would not see now.
I want Trump’s policies to fail. I want the United States to win…To me, it’s not up to people who are angry about the things that he said to give him a chance. It’s up to him to prove that they’re wrong, and that he will do the right thing, because he’s the president. It’s his job.
Larry Wilmore: You know, society changes, too. People laugh at different things. Society moves on, they decide what they feel like they want to laugh at. A lot of that is just cultural things. But there’s always been an inclination for the society to say, “Sorry, that’s unacceptable.” It just used to be on the right, and then it shifted to the left for a little bit. Lenny Bruce, that was his whole fight—fighting for the right to say onstage what he wanted to say, you know? It’s hard to say. I think people who are funny break through that most of the time. It’s hard for me to relate to it, because I always feel like, well, my job is to make you laugh; if I didn’t, it’s kind of on me (laughs). But sometimes the society just feels different at different times, and they’re just going to laugh at different things, so it’s a tough one.
From the audience: First, I want to thank you. It’s hilarious, and at this time we do need to laugh,
Larry Wilmore: Oh, thank you.
From the audience: I’m Ming from China. So, to be honest, I didn’t know you until last night. (Laughter)
Larry Wilmore: Thank you very much. I call that keeping it 100; I don’t know what they call it in China. (Laughter)
From the audience: And last night I watched, like, roughly ten of your episodes —
Larry Wilmore: Wow.
From the audience: — and I laughed a lot. (Laughter)
Larry Wilmore: That’s my girl right there! Right there! (Applause) Thank you! Oh, that’s so kind.
From the audience: But it’s kind of sad to me —
Larry Wilmore: Are we still on in China? Maybe I’m not canceled in China.
From the audience: That’s possibility, yeah. But it’s kind of sad for me, because when you just start to love something, you realize it’s already off the air.
Larry Wilmore: Thanks again for reminding me once again. I know. (Laughter) This is, like, the saddest night ever!
Nicco Mele: Well, last Tuesday.
Larry Wilmore: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true. Yes, but go ahead, I’m sorry.
From the audience: I noticed that in your last show, Jon Stewart said something very true, very beautiful and inspiring to you, and he said, “Don’t confuse cancellation with failure,” and I think that’s great. In my perspective, this election, Hillary is also like a cancellation of her show to be a president. (Laughter)
Larry Wilmore: I love that analogy.
From the audience: So if you had a chance to say something to her, what would you say?
Larry Wilmore: I would say, Hillary, there’s pay cable, there’s premium cable, (Applause; Laughter) There’s the internet. You could have your own YouTube presidency. And I’ll say, oh, sorry, you’re right, this analogy doesn’t quite work for you, I’m sorry.
From the audience: And also maybe she can come to Harvard.
Larry Wilmore: Well, look, the reality of it is Hillary Clinton has been an honorable public servant for a very long time. We don’t require more from her. It’s what she wanted to do, to give more. When you look at it in the purest sense of it. She’s had a very successful run. It’s no doubt that she’ll continue to do things that she’s passionate about and cares about. You don’t have to be president to do important things, as a lot of people in this room are doing.
From the audience: Hi, thank you for coming. I am a sophomore at the College. I watched your show semi-religiously.
Larry Wilmore: Oh, thank you. I am Catholic, so that means a lot. I appreciate that.
From the audience: So I’m entirely skeptical of Trump’s presidency, being that it’s only been a week and he’s already walked back half of his campaign promises, right? He said, “Oh, maybe we’ll build a fence,” and so on and so forth. So I guess my question is, do you think it’s possible that Trump supporters are going to turn on him? And if so, how long does it take? What will be the turning point? Which of the policies do you think matter most in terms of people being like, OK, once he said…
Larry Wilmore: I don’t think that’s going to happen. I understand your question. I don’t think his supporters are going to have an ultimatum with him. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think they will give him a long leash to accomplish things in a certain amount of time. I think he wants to go after Obamacare first. I mean, they’ll have an Obamacare orgasm for about four years just on that alone, you know? I mean, they’ve had the foreplay, like, for the last eight years of it. (Laughter) You know, they can’t wait for that one. So I don’t think there’ll be any ultimatums in terms of he has to do this or that, especially if he comes out of the box with that. Thank you.
From the audience: Hi, my name is Nick. I’m a sophomore in the College.
Larry Wilmore: What’s up, Nick?
From the audience: Hey. (Laughter) As a comedian, what do you find is the difference between making viewers, audience members not just sort of laugh and then feel better about issues going on, but then also turning that into action?
Larry Wilmore: Well, I’m not an activist comic, and our show wasn’t really an activist show. We didn’t require action from the audience, except to keep it on our channel (Laughter). Some people have looked at John Oliver’s show and have seen it as more of an activist show, where he would actually tell people to do something, and get them to call the FCC or do some other thing. And there was an interesting article about the John Oliver effect. I don’t know if you guys saw that. And some people were wondering whether comedy really has any effect on people’s political actions. Some people say none, and some people, well, it’s possible. But our particular show was not built as a show to promote activism; it was more for information. Yeah, infotainment.
From the audience: Hi, I’m Jack. I’m also a sophomore at the College. Big fan of your show.
Larry Wilmore: Oh, thanks, Jack.
From the audience: I was just wondering: what do you think about how Obama’s legacy might be perceived when a lot of his policies are removed under a President Trump?
I honestly believe that the legacy of [Obama’s] just being in the White House will be more significant than any policy he could ever do, because of the history of African Americans in this country.
Larry Wilmore: Well, I’ve always said from the beginning—look, one of my jokes—I even said this at the White House Correspondents Dinner—I said, I voted for Obama because he was black. As long as he kept being black, I was happy, you know? (Laughter) Right? “What do you think about Obamacare?” “Is he still black?” (Laughter) “But should we have invaded Iraq?” “Is he still black?” As long as he keeps being black. Now, it was a joke, but underneath that joke, I honestly believe that the legacy of his just being in the White House will be more significant than any policy he could ever do, because of the history of African Americans in this country. When I was a kid, and I said this at the dinner, a black man couldn’t even be a quarterback for a football team, pro football team. We weren’t looked at as someone that white people should be led by. That was verboten—why would you follow a black man? Doesn’t make sense. There was harsher language for “black man” that was used, of course. Now, Obama—so that’s in my lifetime, and I’m the same age as the president… I just got a show. He got to be president. (Laughter) For him to be the leader of the free world, that is so powerful—where a child doesn’t even question the fact that a black man can lead. I feel that way about when we finally have the first female president, that girls would be empowered to think, yeah, people are taking orders from us, and it’s not a different type of thing, you know? We don’t have to put modifiers on it of saying that she’s so bossy or whatever. It’s like, no, she’s just the boss, you know? (Laughter) She doesn’t have to be “bossy,” right? So I think those types of things are important for those particular reasons. I think the legacy of his election, of his being there, is more important than anything else, is my opinion on it.
From the audience: Thanks for talking to us tonight.
Larry Wilmore: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.
From the audience: My name is Malcolm. I’m a first-year MPP student here at the Kennedy School, and my question is do you think the media is partially responsible for Donald Trump’s win, considering the amount of attention he was given, and how do you see his surprising win changing news reporting on elections?
Larry Wilmore: Well, I talked about this a little bit. We should be very clear about how things work in this country, guys. The vote is very powerful in this country. It’s how we change things. It’s how we get things done. Let’s not underestimate the fact that if people believe in the person that they’re voting for, that can be a very powerful thing. If people didn’t vote for Trump, it’s hard to understand how that could happen, and it’s easy to wonder, maybe some goblins came and stuffed the ballot boxes. But a lot of people wanted to vote for Donald Trump, and they did. They went out and they voted, and that’s what happened. He had a message that a lot of people believed in, and he had more of that in the right places—Hillary overall had more of that, but he had more in the right places with the system that we have—that won him the presidency. Everything else to me is bonus land, at the end of the day.
Let’s not underestimate the fact that if people believe in the person that they’re voting for, that can be a very powerful thing.
Nicco Mele: Why do you think the public let him lie? I mean, in the debates he would say something that was demonstrably not true, they have him on tape saying something else.
Larry Wilmore: It’s a very interesting question. I just watched “The Circus” with Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon.
Nicco Mele: Who gave the T. H. White Lecture two years ago.
Larry Wilmore: Great. By the way, guys, if you’re interested in politics, this is great. In many ways, it’s similar to the film about the JFK primary. It was called “Primary,” I think.
Nicco Mele: That’s right.
Look, they threw out the Republicans first. That was the Republican establishment that was thrown out. Trump is an independent candidate. He’s not a Republican or a Democrat. He’s a Trumpian, right?
Larry Wilmore: Yeah. So that’s where cinéma vérité comes from, actually. But what’s very fascinating is when you see people talking about why they are voting for Trump, and they firmly believed in that. All those other things just didn’t matter. The reasons why they wanted to vote for him had nothing to do with the other things. They’re disqualifiers for everyone else, but not for the people who wanted change and thought he was the agent of the change that they wanted. And the biggest change that most of the people wanted was to throw everybody out, including the Republicans. Look, they threw out the Republicans first. That was the Republican establishment that was thrown out. Trump is an independent candidate. He’s not a Republican or a Democrat. He’s a Trumpian, right?
Nicco Mele: But do you think there’s something about him as a reality TV star, as a television presence in people’s homes for a decade or more—that people don’t think he’s lying if he’s performing?
I think people don’t care, which is different than not thinking that he’s lying. Not caring is a much bigger issue, in my mind… I think it was a transactional election. They wanted something, and he was giving it to them. He was selling it to them, basically.
Larry Wilmore: No, it’s not so much that. I think people don’t care, which is different than not thinking that he’s lying. Not caring is a much bigger issue, in my mind. Being fooled—look, I’m an amateur magician. I know how to fool people, you know? Right? Being fooled takes on a completely different characteristic than not caring, you know? Like I always say, the thing that will kill love is indifference, more than hate. Hate’s still got a lot of love in there; indifference kills it. Indifference about all those things kills all those issues, kills it. Not important. Because think about it: There is no way, with all the things that I mentioned, including that tape, that any candidate could have survived that, any candidate that didn’t have what Trump had [which] was something that they wanted. It was a transaction. I think it was a transactional election. They wanted something, and he was giving it to them. He was selling it to them, basically.
From the audience: My name is Teddy. I’m a freshman at the College.
Larry Wilmore: Hey, Teddy. There’s going to be a urine test right after this, Teddy, just so you know. (Laughter)
Nicco Mele: Hey, it’s been legalized in Massachusetts.
Larry Wilmore: Oh, there you go. Go on, man, knock yourself out, Teddy. (Laughter)
From the audience: Anyway, so I was wondering…
Larry Wilmore: I think I hit a nerve here with his hesitation. “Dude, how did he know?” (Laughter)
From the audience: I was wondering if you wanted to come back to my dorm after this…
Larry Wilmore: There you go. (Applause)
From the audience: I was wondering if you could reflect a little bit about what it was like to speak at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and how preparing for that sort of gig is different than other gigs.
Larry Wilmore: It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. (Laughter) No. It was fantastic. Look, it was very surreal in many ways. The thing I remember the most is getting to have dinner with the First Lady. I’m sitting there having dinner with the First Lady, and we’re talking about our kids, and the world, and all this stuff, and let me tell you something: the First Lady keeps it 100. She’s not kidding around, right? She was real, you know? I can’t even say some of the stuff, but she keeps it 100, right? (Laughter) And I was happy to pull that stuff out, right? So by the time I got up to speak to the President, a lot of my nervousness had gone away, and it was kind of a surreal thing. And he’s so funny, he’s so good. You know you’re going to struggle after him, but I really didn’t care at that point. I thought, Larry, just go up and have fun. And I could tell—I was trying to do a roast of the people there, but they didn’t want to be roasted at that point. (Laughter)
Nicco Mele: Which you talked to Donald Trump about.
Larry Wilmore: Oh, I know. It was so funny. I remember the MSNBC joke—oh, God—and it was a Donald Trump joke. I just felt they were fawning over Donald Trump too much. I said, “Morning Joe,” their head is so far up Donald Trump’s ass, they bumped into Chris Christie. (Laughter) Yeah, thank you! I thought it was funny, too! Right? The head of MSNBC going…(crosses arms) What? And then I had to keep going. Oh, MSNBC, Missing a Significant Number of Black Correspondents. Then I doubled down. (Laughter) Said, “Who’s running that network, Boko Haram?” And he’s really upset now. So I’m like, whatever, you know? I just had to let it go and just have fun, and just be honored that I even had the chance to do that. I always feel honored in those situations more than anything else. Gratitude is a thing that always leads the way. So thank you very much.
Nicco Mele: Bob Schieffer had said earlier to me that it’s one of the only times that the president does not speak last, and that makes it very challenging.
Larry Wilmore: Well, he used to, though, right? I think George H.W. Bush changed it, because he invited—Garry Shandling, I think, told this story. He was a big fan of us, and Garry was like, “What am I…? I don’t…” And it was a last-minute thing. And Garry went and killed, supposedly, and H. W. had to follow him. It’s like, this is not a good thing. (Laughter) And so I think the following year he made sure that he went up before the comic, I think was how the order switched.
From the audience: My name’s Jesse. I’m a junior at the College. And my question is: what are your reflections on the election purely from a comedic perspective —purely from the perspective of a comedian, not an American citizen? Were you—are you at all scared of—
Larry Wilmore: Wait, you’re separating comedian from American citizen? (Laughter)
From the audience: Yeah, so as purely from the perspective of comedy, are you at all scared that Trump is just going to sue everyone who says bad things about him? Are you more excited about the insane amount of material you’re going to have to make jokes?
What’s bad for America is good for comedy, unfortunately. It’s kind of just the nature of the business. I’d rather it be good for America and bad for comedy and me have to work harder.
Larry Wilmore: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Well, I’ve always said, many times, what’s bad for America is good for comedy, unfortunately. It’s kind of just the nature of the business. I’d rather it be good for America and bad for comedy and me have to work harder.
From the audience: Good evening, sir. I am a joint degree student between the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Kennedy School.
Larry Wilmore: Wow.
From the audience: Thank you. (Laughter)
Larry Wilmore: Wow. Why don’t you drop a few more school names?
From the audience: But more importantly, I’m talking to Larry Wilmore live in person.
Larry Wilmore: Hey, there you go!
From the audience: That’s my greatest accomplishment. I want to ask you a question about how you think about the balance between personal authenticity and self-censorship in public space. I’m asking more specifically about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and most specifically about the very last moment of your speech, your salutation to President Obama.
Larry Wilmore: So give me a direct question. Why did I say he’s my nigga?
From the audience: No, no, no. (Laughter)
Larry Wilmore: Oh, did I just do it again?
From the audience: I was wondering if you can offer me, as a future person who hopefully will have a public platform, some advice on how you went about thinking about censoring yourself and living your —
Larry Wilmore: I would say if you’re a doctor speaking at medical conventions, you might not want to use my material. (Laughter)
From the audience: Well, maybe not to that degree, but there is a degree to which you feel, at least as a black person, I sometimes have to tone down my blackness in public space —
Larry Wilmore: I understand.
From the audience:— and I want to know how you think about that personally.
Larry Wilmore: Well, I think context is everything. I don’t know how much your blackness is out of control in public spaces. (Laughter) You might want to do a checklist on the blackness one day. “You know, blackness, I think we can lose this acting out part that’s going on here. It’s just me, but I think we can lose it.” As a comedian, as a satirist, I have a specific thing that I want to turn upside down or deconstruct or get inside of and throw it out somewhere, so that’s what I’m trying to do. So I did that on purpose, not by accident. It was intentional, the thing that I was trying to do. So I don’t know how I can relate it to a different space that’s not intended for that, but if you’re talking about authenticity, I think you should always be authentic. You should always be your authentic self. Now, your authentic self can take on different forms. You can tailor it to different, you know, types of speaking or whatever. Look, I thought that Hillary Clinton was her most authentic self twice that I’ve seen when she was running for president: When she had the moment in New Hampshire in 2008 when she kind of cried, and everybody was like, “Oh my God, Hillary, oh, oh, we just want to hug you, oh my God.” But it wasn’t so much that she cried; she was having a real, authentic moment where it seemed like we got to know her for a while. And her concession speech a week ago—I think she wrote every word of that concession speech. I don’t think it was written by anyone else. But what was interesting about that concession speech is she connected directly to the audience, and I didn’t feel she did enough of that. And people that have met Hillary know that she is a very engaging person. I got the chance to meet her a year and a half ago, and I agree with that. But she connected in that speech. Arguably, when you’re not selling something, maybe your guard goes down. But it was very interesting to see that. And I think if you’re always being your authentic self, but just being smart about how you’re tailoring it, I think is the way to go.
From the audience: Thank you.
Larry Wilmore: Always keep it 100. Yes. Well, keep it 70 sometimes.
From the audience: Hi, I’m a second-year MPP student at the Kennedy School. For the past week I’ve been stuck between feeling fear and optimism, and I think after listening to you speak—thank you for coming here, we do need that comedic relief —I’m on this optimistic bounce, so I’m really excited. (Applause)
Larry Wilmore: All right, I like that. Yes.
From the audience: The motto of this school is “Ask what you can do.” Given that we are now in this new reality where Trump is our president, what do you think public service means, and what do you think public service looks like in this new administration?
I think the Democratic Party doesn’t have enough young stars on deck, where I feel the Republican Party has a lot of young stars coming up through the system.
Larry Wilmore: Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t even know if I’m qualified for that, but look, I admire you guys who are going into public service at such a young age. God bless you, man. You’re choosing purpose over paycheck, at such a young age in your life. “But how can I get paycheck on my purpose, Larry? How can I do this?” (Laughter) There are ways to do that, as well. They both can happen. But God bless you for choosing that. And look, it’s important. I think Obama mentioned this the other day. It is very important for young people to get involved in the process, in the system. I think the Democratic Party doesn’t have enough young stars on deck, where I feel the Republican Party has a lot of young stars coming up through the system. Young people, get involved. There’s so many things that you can do, and so many things happen at the local levels. I’m very much not an expert on it but I’m very much for it, so thank you very much.
From the audience: Hi, Larry. My name’s Maddie. I’m a freshman at the College. I’m a huge fan.
Larry Wilmore: Hey, Maddie. Do you know Teddy? (Laughter)
From the audience: I do not. (Laughter) But my question was, as a woman in the country, it was definitely disappointing to see the outcome of this election, but from your opinion —
Larry Wilmore: As a man, it was disappointing to me, too. (Laughter)
From the audience: Do you think that we are going to be able to see a female president sometime soon, and who do you think that it might be?
Larry Wilmore: Well, I hope so. I’m sure, yeah. I mean, look, President Palin, if you think about it. (Laughter) Whoa, what just happened? What just happened? What just happened? Everybody went, “Larry, no!” Yeah, well, we all laughed at “President Trump” a little while ago. Of course, it has to happen. Stop it, America. Stop it. Why has this not happened yet? It’s embarrassing almost now, you know? But I think it may happen on the Republican side before the Democratic side. It’ll be interesting. It’ll be interesting to see that vote turnout.
From the audience: Hi there. Thanks for joining us tonight. My name is Sam. I’m a junior at the College. I’ve spent the last few years watching you, Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and mostly, that I can think of, liberal comedians. And we’ve been laughing. Up until last week, we’ve been laughing a lot. And I can’t really think of any conservative comedians. And I’m wondering, has that hurt us? That we’ve been laughing at the other side for a while, and they’ve been getting angry? What has that done, do you think, to the dynamic politically?
Larry Wilmore: Thanks, Sam. There’s a lot of broad terms that you’re using. I just want to clarify. You say “us,” and you said “them,” so…
From the audience: “Us,” as in me as a liberal.
I think any time one particular side is in power, there’s an opportunity to be smug about being in power, whether it’s coming from a TV show or a place that says it’s fair and balanced.
Larry Wilmore: Because if you’re suggesting that 59 million people watch, like, “The Daily Show” and my show, I’d still be on the air, you know? (Laughter) That’s a lot of “us” and “them.” Look, I think any time one particular side is in power, there’s an opportunity to be smug about being in power, whether it’s coming from a TV show or a place that says it’s fair and balanced. So, that opportunity exists in different ways. Even though you talk about that on the left, on the right, you have something called talk radio, which is a very big voice on the right that does kind of the same thing but in a different way, and had its big movement in the ’90s and is still going. It’s still going pretty strong. The left really doesn’t have it the way the right does, and the influence it had on society. So I think there’s influence, just in slightly different ways. But from a comedian’s point of view, I would love to see more conservative comics out there, because I love people who come in with different points of view and just sling it. I love to see that personally. There’s nothing I’d love to see more than somebody who’s really funny just turn things upside down. I think it would be great. Maybe it’s you, Sam. (Laughter) I don’t know. I think that was a cry for help. “I voted for Trump, Larry, and I gotta talk about it!”
From the audience: This election cycle we’ve seen an unprecedented number of threats against journalists, and also this weekend, watching Wanda Sykes get booed off a stage for a cancer benefit during a set about Donald Trump was pretty jarring, so what obligation do we have to prop up our journalists and our comedians, and what would that look like?
Larry Wilmore: Even though I appreciate the connection, I still would disassociate those two. I think journalists and comedians are two different things. Donald Trump threatening journalists I think is very dangerous. If he threatened Kevin Hart, I’m like, whatever. (Laughter) But it is very dangerous for anybody in that office to threaten journalists in any way, so I think that is a big issue, and is much more important. Comedians, we’re used to getting booed. Whatever, we move on. We know how to answer hecklers. We don’t care.
Donald Trump threatening journalists I think is very dangerous. If he threatened Kevin Hart, I’m like, whatever. (Laughter) But it is very dangerous for anybody in that office to threaten journalists in any way.
Nicco Mele: I want to ask you about that as a closing question—that relationship between journalism and comedy, because part of what I enjoyed about your show was it was really substantial on really significant issues around racial violence, around voting rights laws.
Larry Wilmore: We had Tampon Tuesday. We did.
Nicco Mele: You had a panel of black Trump voters that was one of the more insightful things I saw on TV about the election. And so you want to draw this distinction between journalism and comedy, and yet in many ways your show felt more like journalism than some of the shows on cable TV.
Larry Wilmore: Yeah, we appreciate all that, but the material that we want to do requires a certain amount of investigation and fact checking, because we want to make sure we’re presenting the proper information. We have to go through that process. We’re telling the audience this story, so we have to investigate it and do our work, like a journalist would, but we’re doing it to tell a comedic story about it, or look at something in a certain way. So I guess you could say we’re using some of those tools, but our purpose isn’t to be the journalist.
The material that we want to do requires a certain amount of investigation and fact checking, because we want to make sure we’re presenting the proper information…So I guess you could say we’re using some of those tools, but our purpose isn’t to be the journalist.
Nicco Mele: If we lived in a different news media environment, do you think your show would have been different, would have been less substantive?
Larry Wilmore: I don’t know. Well, a lot of this is Jon Stewart’s thing, where a lot of people said they looked to Jon for the news because they didn’t trust the other outlets, and I think a lot of that is because a lot of the news just isn’t honest, more than they’re not good. Like, if Fox just said, “Instead of fair and balanced, we’re on the right,” people would go, oh, OK, you’re on the right. OK, I get it. And if MSNBC, instead of “Lean forward,” said “Lean left,” you’d go, OK, lean left. Thanks for telling me. And, like I said, if CEN, instead of CNN, then we’d go, thank you. Thank you, CNN. You’re here to entertain. I mean, people would appreciate the honesty of it. A lot of young people looked to Jon Stewart because they felt like Jon didn’t have an agenda, other than to make them laugh and tell the truth, and that was it. So they appreciated that. And so I think a lot of people watched Jon because of that.
Nicco Mele: Well, thank you tonight for helping us laugh and telling the truth. (Applause)
Larry Wilmore: Thank you so much. So much fun. Thanks, everybody. Listen to Kendrick Lamar: We gonna be alright. (Laughter)