LOS ANGELES – As Larry Wilmore sits down with a plate of pasta, a fan hands him a slip of paper with an idea to explore on Wilmore's new Comedy Central show premiering Monday. It's about international banking issues.
OK, that's a stretch. Even if Wilmore exudes more gravitas than the typical comic, he's unlikely to find the funny there.
Yet the encounter illustrates one of Wilmore's strengths as he prepares to replace Stephen Colbert in the time slot following "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. At 53, he's got a resume and maturity that a 28-year-old joke slinger can't match, and he's planning a show that's not afraid to mix the serious with the silly.
"Better to have an authentic, interesting conversation and have the show be a little quieter than just setting up jokes that at the end of the day nobody cares about," he said. "That, I'm not interested in. I'd rather be scared by something somebody says."
Wilmore played a role, the "senior black correspondent," on "The Daily Show." He's replacing a man who famously portrayed a cable blowhard on "The Colbert Report," but Wilmore plans to be himself.
Wilmore wrote for "In Living Color" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." He created "The Bernie Mac Show" and co-created the animated series "The PJs." He was set to be the executive producer of ABC's new sitcom "black-ish" before Stewart offered him this opportunity.
Creating the new show "doesn't intimidate me at all," Wilmore said. "It would have if I hadn't done that before. That's another reason I think Jon felt comfortable saying, you know, Larry's got this."
Originally called "The Minority Report," the program was designed to showcase underdogs, not simply racial minorities. Since Fox owns that title because of a movie of the same name and made clear it wasn't happy, a switch was made to "The Nightly Show."
"It fills a void," said Comedy Central President Michele Ganeless. "It's so simple at its very core, the idea that there are underrepresented voices out there."
Wilmore expects to anchor half the show, with comic observations and work from contributors Shenaz Treasury, Ricky Velez and Mike Yard. A panel inspired by the likes of "Politically Incorrect" and "Meet the Press" will toss around issues of the day. "The Daily Show" dissects how the media covers news; "The Nightly Show" will be about the news itself.
It requires a nimble approach, both in keeping the conversation moving and booking panelists knowledgeable about the issues on short notice. Wilmore hopes he and the viewers learn something.
"I don't always feel like I have to have a strong opinion about something," he said. "Sometimes I'm agnostic about an issue and my whole thing is to try and get more information. That's part of my comic persona, too. I call myself a passionate centrist, which means half the time I disagree with myself."
Don't be put off by the cerebral approach, though. It's comedy, not school.
"We'll change on the air, as well," he said. "A show like this has to adapt on the air. Because once you're on the air, the audience will tell you what your show is, what they like. You have to listen to that and keep evolving."
Ganeless and Wilmore both understand the pressure in replacing Colbert. The producer side of Wilmore is comfortable creating "The Nightly Show." The performer side acknowledges some apprehension, knowing most of the audience will be unfamiliar with him.
"Stephen was so funny and so unique," he said. "He had such a legion of fans and he's a special performer. The way I look at it is I have to be myself and do my own thing and do something different. Stephen is going to be off doing something new himself (on CBS). I'll be more in competition with myself than with Stephen. I'll be more in competition with the new Stephen, to be honest."
Wilmore is doing test shows this week, two without an audience, two with. Then it's go time.
"People say, 'Are you going to be ready?'" he said. "That's irrelevant. Monday night is premiere night. It's coming whether I like it or not."