Comic Larry Wilmore says his "tone didn't fit the room" at his much talked-about White House Correspondents Association speech but believes his use of a provocative term to address President Barack Obama may open an important dialogue for the country.
The Comedy Central host said in an interview Tuesday that he's willing to take the heat for his performance over the weekend, which skewered media figures and politicians. The so-called nerd prom is a big Washington event in Washington, and Wilmore's roast, which followed Obama's final address at the event as president, was televised across the country.
"I may have underestimated the tone of how I was telling the jokes," the "Nightly Show" host said, although he said "all of these revelations you realize after the fact."
Still, he wasn't taking back the most-discussed moment of the speech, which came at the end. Wilmore, who is black and, at 54, the same age as Obama, said words didn't do justice to the idea that he could live at the same time a black man could be leader of the free world.
He concluded: "Yo Barry, you did it, my n----a. You did it."
Wilmore's use of the phrase shed light on a debate among many in the black community: those who feel it is an offensive slur and shouldn't be used in any context, and others — including Wilmore — who feel that using it as a term of endearment among blacks robs the word of its negative power.
"I knew that it would be provocative and yes, I was taking a big chance," Wilmore said. "But you know what, it was just a creative expression that I made at the time. I don't know if I would take it back."
He said that "at this point, I think it may open up a dialogue that at the end of the day is probably pretty good. And if I have to take the heat for it, that's OK. Part of my job is to take the heat. I certainly dished out a lot of stuff."
He recalled that as a child, the police broke into a neighbor's home and that he heard them shout, "freeze, n---er, dead." He was completely dehumanized by the phrase, and he and his friends would use it in humor to strip that pain away.
Wilmore said the president was "very kind and very warm" to him and the White House said Monday that Obama wasn't offended by use of the phrase. Others were, including civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who was at the dinner and criticized it later.
Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, who is black, wrote that he recognized that Wilmore was coming from a place of pride. But the White House Correspondents' dinner "was neither Wilmore's barbershop nor his momma's house. Obama is president of the United States and should have been accorded the respect that comes with the office."
Wilmore said that Capehart incorrectly wrote that he called the president "n---er" instead of "n---a," and said that was a crucial distinction. "I would never call the president that," he said.
For his full speech, Wilmore said he treated it like a roast. To a certain extent, so did Obama, but the professional comedian noted the president's tone was better.
He thinks he may have lost the room when he said, "Speaking of drones, how is Wolf Blitzer still on television? Hey, Wolf, I'm willing to project tonight's winner: anyone that isn't watching 'The Situation Room.'"
Blitzer sat in the audience, stone-faced.
"I feel bad about the Wolf thing," Wilmore said, "because that came out more negative than I intended."
At that point, the moment became surreal "because I knew I had a lot more material to go through, and it was going to be an unpredictable way ahead. I just decided to have fun and enjoy it the best I could."
Another CNN correspondent, Don Lemon, gave Wilmore the finger when the comic said: "Some of America's foremost black journalists are here tonight. Don Lemon is here, too." Lemon later tweeted that it was "all in good fun."
Wilmore said the one-fingered salute was the kind of response he appreciated as a comic.
Wilmore said he's not worried about accepting a similar speaking invitation in the future.
"I don't think you get invited to something like this after what I did," he said.