Larry Wilmore, a comedian and political commentator who worked on The Daily Show and hosted
The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore from 2015 to 2016, visited Pomona College on Nov. 9, the day after the 2016 presidential election.
During his visit, which was part of Pomona’s yearlong “Free Speech in a Dangerous World” series, Wilmore led a master class with Pomona chair and professor of anthropology Pardis Mahdavi, before giving a well-attended public talk in Pomona’s Bridges Auditorium that night.
During the first part of the talk, Wilmore “interviewed himself” about his reaction to the previous night’s election results, sharing his thoughts on the 2016 election and topics ranging from the two-party system to Black Lives Matter. In the second part, Wilmore answered questions from Pomona Chair and W.M. Keck Professor of English Kevin Dettmar as well as various students in the audience.
While Wilmore was clearly disappointed in the results of Tuesday’s election, referring to Trump as “an existential threat to America” and the election as a race between “a talented public servant and a narcissistic psychopath,” he also managed to find humor in the events of the election and draw big laughs from the audience.
In addition, Wilmore spoke about the racial dynamic of the election, describing Trump’s campaign as an effort to “take America back from Obama.”
Wilmore said that the fact that Trump led the “birther” movement, which questioned President Barack Obama’s birthplace, “hit home for him.”
“I know that the Black struggle in America was the struggle for legitimacy,” he said.
During the Question & Answer portion of the event, students asked about the future of the Green and Libertarian parties, the role of group discussions in the current political climate, how the entertainment value of politics might impact political engagement, and how journalistic standards apply to the comedic journalism genre.
Madhavi described the event as “bringing students together” in the wake of the election.
“One of the things Larry WIlmore does very well is laughing at things that are very hard to deal with, and helping folks laugh and process,” Kian Vesteinsson PO '17, who attended the talk, said. “His comedy didn’t make any attempt to lessen the impact of what is going to happen. He took it at face value and managed to make it understandable, but also brought some humor to the situation, and I think that as a processing tool is really really helpful.”
Dettmar wrote in a Nov. 8 email to TSL that he was excited to hear Wilmore reflect on the election, “which so often seemed like self-parody, out-SNL-ing SNL.”
“This is part of Professor Madhavi’s series on freedom of speech in a dangerous world, and I hope that we’re willing to consider the idea that we sometimes have to risk “risky” speech in order to challenge unstated and unconscious beliefs,” he wrote. “Irony and satire are powerful, if unreliable, tools.”
When Dettmar asked Wilmore about his thoughts on “safe spaces” during the public event, Wilmore responded that while he didn’t “relate” to the need for safe spaces, it should be up to current students and faculty to decide whether they are beneficial for their campuses.
During the master class, which 40 students and four faculty members participated in, Wilmore was asked about hate speech, free speech, racial politics, and the TV shows he has worked on, according to Madhavi.
“Students asked a lot of really great questions, and challenged him too which was really fantastic,” Mahdavi said. “Students were I think looking for more guidance and direction than he felt comfortable [giving]. He kept saying ‘remember, I’m a comedian,’ and students said, ‘what can we do now?’”
Elinor Aspegren and Paige Pepitone contributed reporting.