The Nightly Show Episode 2: Larry Wilmore and Rape Culture
The second episode of The Nightly Show is hard to watch, and for that precise reason is a resounding success. Wilmore tackles the hot-button issue of Bill Cosby’s serial rapes with candor and clarity and without potentially alienating academic jargon. Though it is worth noting the phrase “rape culture” is not uttered a single time in the episode, the discussion is no less rich for its omission. Wilmore establishes the terms of the debate immediately, “that fucker did it,” never for a moment allowing for doubt. A prudent move on Wilmore’s part, as potential rape apologist Keith Robinson does his best in the panel discussion to derail the conversation and defend Cosby. While I would like to heap praises on the episode, it is not without its serious missteps. Those missteps deserve attention first — if only because they’re at the beginning of the episode and don’t effectively set the tone for what comes next.
Though Wilmore’s monologue begins with a strong start, establishing Cosby’s guilt convincingly and arguing that if you care about the difference between 34 and 35 allegations you should “go fuck yourself.” However, Wilmore’s fierce criticism gives way quickly to a questionable line of jokes which, at their most charitable, tread dangerously close to offensive barbs which make light of rape. Wilmore compares the number of women who are accusing Cosby to a list of U.S. presidents from Washington to Lincoln. However, Wilmore’s cracks about Grover Cleveland potentially asking for it, and the odd choice of quickly narrating a repeated assault due to President Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms, cross the line. With the Cleveland jokes, Wilmore is surely trying to point to the absurdity of victim blaming, but he misses the mark by a mile. Things go from bad to worse as Wilmore and one of his correspondents, Mike Yard, criticizes Cosby for his ability to handle hecklers, distracting from the issue at large. Though I understand it might be difficult to sell to a network like Comedy Central on an episode that spends the entirety of its 21 minutes discussing rape, the distraction was unwelcome. However, as the panel discussion begins, my criticism comes to a grinding halt.
Wilmore’s panel in this episode consisted of Jamilah Lemieux, Kathleen Madigan, Baratunde Thurston, and the aforementioned Keith Robinson, Lemieux easily stealing the show as the most brilliant and convincing of the four. Lemieux ponders why society as a whole cannot believe women and suggests that, while Bill Cosby’s legacy is a powerful opiate, Lemieux herself had been disabused of her positive feelings toward Cosby through his reliance on respectability politics. Lemieux’s affecting musings leave no stone unturned, attacking Cosby for his elitism and his serial rapes. Madigan and Thurston add some much needed levity to the conversation, Thurston making particularly productive comments on the ridiculousness of believing a woman would lie about being raped, especially by someone as powerful as Cosby. Thurston, Lemieux, and Wilmore lay bare that there are no reality TV deals or sneaker endorsements for rape accusers. Instead, there is derision and continued abuse. These points are brought up to dispute Robinson’s claim that he believes with certainty that some of the women accusing Cosby are lying.
Though Robinson’s claims are cringe-inducing, the quality of discussion is far better for his involvement. Viewers would benefit greatly from paying close attention to Madigan’s face every time Robinson puts his foot in his mouth. Beyond the discussion Robinson’s claims elicit, Robinson himself is worthy of a case study. In the “Keep It 100” segment, Robinson proudly responds in the affirmative to the question “if Cosby called you tomorrow and asked you to get some drinks with some women that night, would you go?” A bit later in the segment, Robinson and Thurston get into a disagreement where Robinson’s disbelief of the victims is drawn out in earnest. As Madigan recoils in disgust and Wilmore throws “weak tea” — literal tea bags — at Robinson, he turns in his seat toward the audience and holds the tea up with pride. Such behavior is one of the most demonstrative examples of the thought process of the misogynist. Robinson believes his viewpoint, one in defense of Cosby, is underrepresented in the discourse and that Robinson defends truth by taking what he wrongly perceives as an unpopular position. Robinson fancies himself a martyr in the name of fairness, unable to recognize the societal currents which make apathy toward or disbelief of the Cosby accusations so prevalent. Instead, Robinson takes issue with the fundamental assumption that “people don’t believe women.” Robinson cites the cheering of the audience and the agreement of the other panel members as evidence — how is it that people don’t believe women if everyone here believes them? Here, Robinson falls victim to the hasty generalization fallacy. Lemieux seizes on Robinson’s mistake, arguing that the member’s of Wilmore’s audience are a poor ideological representation of the average person.
The most painful moment of the panel, though no less valuable for its difficulty, is the aforementioned exchange between Robinson and Thurston. Thurston, when asked if he would continue to accuse Cosby even if it would cause him to be called an “Uncle Tom” for the rest of his life, gives an enthusiastic yes. Robinson challenges Thurston, saying he doesn’t believe him, and Thurston fires back with “so first he doesn’t believe the women, now he doesn’t believe me.” The moment is tense, but the tension is quickly resolved with a laugh and a fist bump between Robinson and Thurston. A serious disagreement between two passionate people resolved in this way provides some important fodder for conversation about the context of conversations about women’s assault within a structure of gender based privilege. For men, predators raping women can become academic or dissociated from the actual survivors of the assault. Indeed, if the episode as a whole suffers from one underlying fault, it is the dissociation of Cosby’s rapes from the real, human survivors of his crimes.
This episode is rich with fantastic quotations from Lemieux, Wilmore, and Thurston about the nature of rape accusations in society and what contributes to how the criminal justice system mishandles rape. These musings are applicable to the epidemic of sexual violence as a whole.
I question the wisdom of Wilmore, during the “Keep It 100” segment, asking Madigan if she’s “ever lied to get a man in trouble?” Though she said no, her answer is beside the point. Perhaps Wilmore might have addressed the irrelevance of the question more succinctly had she responded with a benign anecdote.
If anyone had any questions about the value of The Nightly Show and if Wilmore would tackle substantive issues in a way that stimulated discussion, they should be answered.
I really hope Nielsen and Comedy Central are keeping track of the online views for The Nightly Show, because I watch it at work every day.