Larry Wilmore is happy he’s not living in the dark ages. While there was no way The Nightly Show host could pass up the opportunity to serve as this year’s host of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he’s certainly relieved that, in case things don’t go over well, the consequences aren’t as dire as in the bad old days.
“When the president calls, you have to do it,” Wilmore to C-SPAN’s Peter Slen in an interview ahead of Saturday’s dinner. “It makes me think of medieval times, like the court jester: If you don’t perform well you’re going to get your head chopped off or something like that, but luckily we’ve evolved past them.”
Fortunately, Wilmore was able to draw on the advice of hosts past. “They all said run, and run very quickly. Why are you doing this, Larry?”
But Wilmore is not completely untested on the telling-jokes-in-front-of-dining-politicos circuit; he performed at the 2011 Congressional Correspondents Dinner.
“It was interesting because Anthony Weiner, as you recall, went up that night, and he had a pretty good set, and it was like a week later that we learned the true meaning of Anthony Weiner, I think you know where I’m going on that one. That’s a blue joke for your C-Span audience there, Peter,” says Wilmore.
“We are cable, so that’s fine,” responds Slen.
“Regardless of the reaction that you get, you have to pretend as if you’re destroying, like you’re killing,” says Wilmore, who knows he can’t trust the audio feedback he’ll be hearing (or more likely, not hearing). The biggest thing—here’s what you want to do,” he continues. “You just want to check and see if the president is laughing. That’s the most important thing. If he’s laughing, you’re doing ok.”
One thing Wilmore isn’t sure he’ll be able to do is add new materiel at the very end, a habit of his. “I’ve been known to scribble jokes right before I go on,” he says. “It will be a little difficult because I’m sitting next to the First Lady and you want to engage in conversation. You never want to say, First Lady, ‘I’m trying to write a joke, could you please stop talking.'”
Wilmore, who has been working on his jokes for the past month, soliciting advice from a “small team,” is fully aware that the significance of the dinner—POTUS’ last as a sitting president—extends past how well his jokes land.
“Part of the history of this is a bit overwhelming,” he says. “When I think this is the first black president, we’re the same age for goodness sake. To see even where race has gone in our lifetime. When I was a kid the thought of a black man even leading a football team, being the quarterback, was a huge deal let alone to be president.”
And race will be a topic Wilmore covers, and in more than just fleeting fashion. When asked for a preview of his material, Wilmore says, “I’ll definitely bring up race, that’s going to be an issue in a lot of different ways. I will bring up the presidential election—lot of things to talk about there. We’ll talk about some people in the room, talk about Obama’s legacy a little bit.”
Wilmore sums up the tone his material will take with one word: roast. “It is a roast and people do expect to get ribbed a lot. You’re not really attacking them, you’re roasting them. You’re doing it in a good spirit.”
And C-SPAN, who’ll be airing the dinner live beginning at 6:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, gets a bit of the Wilmore roast treatment. “C-SPAN: it’s so big it doesn’t need HD. That’s how I like to think of C-SPAN,” he says.
Watch the full clip below.