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​Larry Wilmore: Relishing the role of underdog

"Look who's talking" to us about his scheduled performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington next Saturday night. His name is Larry Wilmore, a late-night TV comic with a very personal take on our times, as Jim Axelrod will now show us:

Hosting the White House Correspondents' Dinner is one of the highest-profile, highest-risk gigs in stand-up.

Seth Myers to President Obama in 2011: "When you were sworn in, you looked like the guy in the Old Spice commercial. Now you look like Louis Gossett Sr."
Jimmy Kimmel, in 2012: "It's kind of hard to be funny with the President of the United States sitting right next to you, looking at you. Yet somehow, day in and day out, Joe Biden manages to do it."

The comedian-in-chief they'll be hailing this year: Larry Wilmore.

"That can be a scary night," said Axelrod.

"Oh, it absolutely is a scary night," said Wilmore. "Not can be, it definitely WILL be a scary night. Because no matter how you slice it, the president is sitting right next to you."

It's been 15 months since Wilmore premiered "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central. He's applied a unique topspin to cut through.

When asked what his part was in the crowded turf of late-night, Wilmore said, "Well, the thing that we felt we had the permission to talk about more than anybody when we started was all the racial problems that were going on in the country. In fact we joked when we first came on the air that, 'Ugh, all the 'good' bad racial stuff has already happened. There's nothing left to cover.' It's like, 'Oh, surprise! Something happened!'

"And people always say, 'Well, why you gotta talk about race? And bah, bah, bah.' Well, why not? I mean, it IS one of the biggest issues of our day and of our times."

"I'll stop talking about race when people stop being racist."

It's certainly familiar turf for this 54-year-old native of southern California. After breaking into television in the '80s with small parts in front of the camera, his behind-the-camera work as writer and co-creator of "The Bernie Mac Show" and the hit sitcom "Blackish" gave him wide berth to comment on race in America.

Add in his work as "senior black correspondent" on "The Daily Show," and the formula all came together.

Wilmore said, "People would always say, 'Larry, how do you think Obama's doing?' 'Is he still black?' 'Yes.' 'Then he's doin' okay.'"

"Do white people get that?" Axelrod asked.

"I don't think so. Because it's funny when people try to throw back. 'Well, how dare you? I vote for their issues.' Yeah, but you've been voting for white men -- that's been the choice all the time, you know? Finally, when a brother comes in, I can't vote for the brother?"

Wilmore lampoons what he sees as a not-so-hidden agenda of this year's election ("The Unblackening of the White House").

Axelrod asked, "You do talk on your program, though, the 'unblackening, ' the race to 'de-negrofy' the White House."

"Yes, I'm glad you said it. That felt good, didn't it?"

"It was intimidating," Axelrod said.

Wilmore laughed: "Admit it, it was kinda fun!"

A self-described "blerd" (his term for a black nerd), Wilmore grew up loving science fiction and magic.

Which explains why whenever he's in Los Angeles he tries to swing by the Magic Castle -- a somewhat eccentric hangout for magicians.

Larry Wilmore shows his sleight of hand to correspondent Jim Axelrod. CBS News

Actually, as Axelrod found out, even when he's taking a break from his nightly job, Wilmore's mind never wanders too far from "the race card."

Showing a card to Axelrod, he asked,"Okay, what is the color of this ace?"


"Wrong. African-American!"

But race is just part of what captivates Wilmore, who's fascinated by the imbalances of power.

"I have this rule, it's called 'Top Dog-Underdog': Underdog gets to make fun of Top Dog, but Top Dog can't make fun of Underdog," he said. "But you know what? You get Top Dog, you get to be Top Dog. Congratulations! And that dynamic happens not just in race but in many different ways. It's like the male-female dynamic.

"But then Top Dog is always whining, 'How come I can't make fun of Underdog?' 'Because you're Top Dog, so stop it!'"

When we sat in on an early-morning writers meeting, the Top Dog up for discussion was a rock star -- Bono. He had just shared with the Senate his unusual strategy for the War on Terror:

"It's like, you speak violence, you speak their language. But you laugh at them when they are goose-stepping down the street, and it takes away their power. So I am suggesting that the Senate send in Amy Schumer and Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen."

To send up the idea, Wilmore's staff imagined the unique voice of comedian Gilbert Gottfried:

"Hey ISIS, you're mama's so fat she could destroy hundreds of ancient artifacts just by sitting down!"

As he carves out his talk show identity, he's trying something a little different -- winning praise from critics for not always chasing laughs if there's a serious point to be made. "I didn't get into comedy to talk about violent death all the time," he protested.

As The New York Times commented, "Mr.Wilmore is less preoccupied with humor than anyone else who has ever occupied a mock-news chair."

Why? "Oh, my God. Is that a way of saying, 'Mr. Wilmore's not very funny'?" Wilmore laughed. "So the thing that's worked for me is having as much of a connection to the material as possible. And sometimes the material requires a more straightforward approach, and sometimes it requires a little more silliness, you know?"

This coming Saturday night he won't have a choice; Washington's movers-and-shakers want to laugh. And from what we've seen, Larry Wilmore will have something up his sleeve.

"The president means a lot to you on a personal level -- so much that you're not gonna zing?" Axelrod asked.

"Oh, no, no, no. One has nothing to do with the other," Wilmore responded. "I'll make fun of my parents, and they mean a lot to me on a personal level. I've been making fun of them for years, are you kidding me? Don't get close to me, Jim, the jokes will start flying!"

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