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CHICAGO HUMANITIES FESTIVAL

Larry Wilmore takes shots, not sides

African-American stand-up comic gains reputation for destroying assumptions about politics and race

Christopher Borrelli

2:29 PM EDT, October 26, 2012

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Larry Wilmore occupies an unusual place for a comedian, an original place. He often seems to be neither here nor there, his vantage neither staunchly one way nor another, neither completely serious nor entirely kidding. Before he went in front of the camera in 2006 and became known as a correspondent on "The Daily Show," he stayed mostly behind the scenes, as a writer on "In Living Color," "The Jamie Foxx Show" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," as a producer on "The Office" and as creator of "The Bernie Mac Show," among other positions.

That said, he had been doing stand-up comedy for decades longer, and as a stand-up — as an African-American stand-up — Wilmore developed a reputation for demolishing assumptions about politics and race. For instance, that label, "African-American." He once said that he doesn't like it. Africa makes him think of heat, malaria and French-speaking black people, he explained, "and if I want to be around black people who talk different in an unbearably hot environment where my ancestors once roamed, I'll go to a check-cashing place."

Indeed, his watershed moment before the camera came in 2007, when, asked by "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart if Black History Month served its purpose, he replied, "Yes, the purpose of making up for centuries of oppression with 28 days of trivia." Which led to a 2009 book, "I'd Rather We Got Casinos: And Other Black Thoughts," which, more recently, has led to a pair of semi-serious Showtime specials combining traditional stand-up with interviews, taped segments and more.

The first was called "Larry Wilmore's Race, Religion & Sex in Utah." The second, which premieres Saturday, is "Larry Wilmore's Race, Religion & Sex in Florida." Wilmore, who turns 51 Tuesday and is lecturing Friday at the Chicago Humanities Festival, spoke by phone last week from Jacksonville, Fla., just before taping the new special. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Q: You're appearing here a few days before the presidential election. You've often referred to yourself as a "passionate centrist." What exactly do you mean by that?

A: It means I am very emotional about thinking I am right. Actually, it really means I don't have an agenda and don't have any need to prove anything. I don't care if what I believe falls on a certain side. I believe what I believe, and I'm not afraid to change my mind because I'm not beholden to ideology.

Q: That sounds reminiscent of your book, in which you wrote that if someone calls school lunches racist, by the time we get around to any concrete evidence, it doesn't matter, the idea is planted.

A: Exactly right. The way our political thinking goes, people on extremes use a lot of rhetoric, and what happens is there is an opinion, then time is spent collecting evidence to prove that opinion. For instance, if people on the right say the left is unpatriotic, they look for examples to prove an opinion they already hold. And on the left, if you think the right is racist, your evidence just proves what you have an opinion about. So no new points or ideas tend to be made in political discussions, just variations on same old accusations.

Q: Do people, audiences, ever take your approach personally?

A: Sometimes, yes. Because they want to say, "You don't think what I think? Why don't you think that too?" But I don't know what I think sometimes, and that's OK. I don't want to just win an argument. Sometimes you want to figure out what you feel about something. I don't support politicians with money, for instance, because, look, it's their job to convince me to vote for them. It's not the other way around!

Q: That's a tricky approach to comedy, though. Is it something you arrived at because of the divisiveness of the political climate, or is it something you have always felt?

A: It is something I have always felt, but comedy has also gotten a lot more partisan. I always loved the way Johnny Carson was able to make fun of both sides. Having said that, I don't mind partisan comedy. It's just not who I am.

Which means I can freely joke about voting for Obama because he's black. I have no shame about that. It was a proud moment in my life, but I can joke about it. So when someone attacks one of his positions, I don't have to defend that position. I just say, "Look, I voted for him because he's black!"

Q: A lot of your comedy works in an uncomfortable zone, where people are unsure about saying what they think because they don't want to come across as shallow or racist. You once said "African-American" was outdated and proposed everyone use "chocolate." How's that going?

A: The NAACP can't understand it. No, no, no — that's a joke. It was a point about how we name things, because I've always loved talking about words and how we feel the need to put things in a box or categorize.

Q: On "The Daily Show," you're "senior black correspondent." Did you come up with that?

A: Actually, it was the head writer at the time, DJ Javerbaum, who came up with that. We were talking about what would be my angle. I didn't want to be the typical "Black people think this way" guy. I didn't want it to be "Black people are liberal and never vote Republican." I wanted it to be my natural contrarian point of view.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

The Wilmore Report
When:
7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Francis W. Parker School, 2233 N. Clark St.
Tickets: $15, chicagohumanities.org