LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This interview contains language some readers may find offensive.
The reviews are mixed for Larry Wilmore’s performance Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. The comic, who hosts Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, landed jokes about President Obama, the presidential candidates and the press. But a few of his bits — including his reference to the president as “my n****” — were greeted with some discomfort.
Reflecting on his performance, the comic tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that “breaking taboos is a very dangerous thing to do.” And while he acknowledges that using the N-word might upset some people, he says that his intention was to recognize and honor Obama’s significance as the first black president.
“What Obama means to me as a black person, and to many black [people], really is hard to quantify,” he says. “… I wanted to take the opportunity to turn that [word] upside down and to use it in the way that we’ve used it inside the community … as that show of affection that only we can understand.”
Wilmore says that while some people were upset by his performance, at least one person in attendance seemed happy. “[President Obama] was so gracious and just very kind throughout the whole evening and just made me feel very comfortable and very welcome before and after.”
On using the N-word to refer to President Obama
It definitely was an artistic choice that I thought of early on, and it’s really hard to put into words. …
I’ve been called that word in my lifetime — the “-er” version — and I made a distinction between the use of “nigger” against us and the use of “nigga” that we’ve used with each other. On [The Nightly Show Monday] night, I said we conjugate the slur. …
The one in “-er” is unmistakable — it’s an attempt by white people to dehumanize and denigrate and demean black people, to make them less than human.
When we turned it around, it was our way of having camaraderie with each other, of taking the power out of that word, stamping [out its] ability to dehumanize. It isn’t always the easiest thing to translate to people who aren’t in that experience. … And not all blacks agree with that, and I acknowledge that. … I understand why people would be upset about it. I have no quarrel or criticism of that. … But part of it is a generational thing, and it is possibly a different way of just viewing who has the power to say what. Who has the right to be in charge of the narrative? Who gets to control what’s being said about us or how we get to say it?
On trying to be even-handed in his performance
Going through the material I just thought, “I’m just going to try to tell the truth with these jokes and hit both sides.” I wanted to really hit both sides fairly. It would’ve been unfair just to make fun of, like, Fox News or one side or whatever. I thought, “No, you got to be fair in this. You got to spread it around. If I’m going to say something about Fox, I got to say something about CNN, or I got to say something about MSNBC. If I’m going to make fun of Trump then I’ve got to make fun of Bernie and Hillary and make fun of Ted Cruz.”
So I was trying to be even-handed with everything — and as well as the president too. The president is the ultimate guest of honor, but, you know, I have to do some barbs at the president. But you’re trying to be careful with that, too, because he’s the president.
On his conflicted feelings about roasting someone
It is actually very difficult for me. I don’t particularly always enjoy it because it’s not my normal mode of communicating. But it’s kind of become my comic way. … I was very conflicted about some of those jokes, tone-wise, I guess I should say, but not content-wise. … I was trying to find the right balance between what a roast feels like and doing jokes that I thought were the right type of jokes that I could be doing — like when you’re calling people out for something, having fun with that in a good-natured way and still being as truthful in the jokes as possible and finding that tone.