CBC, Comedy Central Learn The Value Of A Good Second Act As Shad And Wilmore Crash
The showbiz maxim says you want to be the person who follows the person who succeeds a big star. We had a few examples this week that putting on big show-biz shoes can be a perilous fate.
Jian Ghomeshi was a sensation at CBC Radio in every way. A musician, a culture junkie and—for CBC the most important element— a man of colour, Ghomeshi raised the Radio branch to its long-desired moment of Zen. No longer was it Michael Enright playing Stan Getz or Stuart McLean ripping off Garrison Keillor. Or the geeks of Quirks & Quarks.
No, this was a genuine cultural rapprochement. Ghomeshi’s show Q reached peak Jian during his contentious interview with American actor Billy Bob Thornton. An acerbic Thornton tried to bully Ghomeshi about his questions. He defiantly pushed back and won national renown.
Married to the CBC’s increasing progressive news slant, Q was the perfect compliment to the cultural groupthink of the Corp. The silky voiced Siddhartha of Studio Q became a media colossus at CBC with his morning show drawing all the top artists and cultural figures. (He even had a sports panel that I was on for several years.)
With Leonard Cohen or David Bowie to interview, his murky sexuality enhanced the mystery. Q was simulcast on TV by CBC suits looking to move on from the folksy Peter Gzowski model of mid-morning radio.
And then he tore it all down with his notorious sexual scandal. Leaving CBC and Q with a huge conundrum: How to expunge Ghomeshi without damaging the brand he’d established for the show. The (lame) answer was to lower-case the name of the show from Q to q. And to hire a rapper unknown to mainstream Canada named Shad. Born in Kenya, raised in London, Ont., he was a personality with a very thin dossier as host of a current-affairs radio program.
The comparisons to Ghomeshi never favoured Shad. He was friendly and funny, but most days he seemed a slave to the greens (scripts) shoved under his nose by staff. (Ghomeshi’s reluctance to read these greens slavishly was one of the less credible abuse charges launched against him.) He needed about a decade of hosting to sound as smooth as he needed to be.
For all its attempts to get him up to speed, CBC management finally gave up the experiment, announcing Shad would be replaced by a veteran CBC host Tom Power. CBC suit Susan Marjetti explained the fans’ complaints with Shad and the show: “Be more Canadian, be more engaging, be more stimulating. Be more in the know.”
Translation: We have no fucking idea what we are doing. They’d better get an idea. While local CBC stations continue to thrive, the national wing of CBC Information Radio is a hot mess. Its comedy is irreverent, but the rest is thrashing about in the post-Ghomeshi fog.
The other man feeling the burn this week was Larry Wilmore who succeeded Stephen Colbert in the back end of Comedy Central’s one-two punch from 11 PM to midnight. Colbert’s manic spoofing of conservatives was perfect for urban progressives who wouldn’t know a conservative if they stumbled over one. As the compliment to Jon Stewart, Colbert parlayed his success into replacing the legendary David Letterman at CBS when he retired.
Wilmore, who was facetiously advertised as Stewart’s “senior black correspondent”, thus had a tough act to follow. He did himself no favours. Like the president he worshipped his show was obsessed by race. Here’s my column on Wilmore playing the “niggah” card with president Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner this year. (http://goo.gl/HegeG9)
Critics— even the progressives who’d loved him on Stewart’s program— found Wilmore unfunny for great lengths during his show. His anger was never far from the surface— a stark contrast to Colbert’s loony persona. After 16 months, the execs at Comedy Central decided that there was no buzz about Wilmore and that he’s done this week.
Yes, he had a contract to be addressed, but gassing Wilmore as the American presidential election heads into the final lap was a stinging rebuke for him, his producers and the Comedy Central suits who thought America’s late-night re-education camp would go for the Wilmore format.
The American producers face the same challenge as the CBC brass: How to reassure the hip prejudices of their urban elite audiences while still giving them the frisson of danger created by fellow travellers like Black Lives Matter. It was an equation Wilmore couldn’t manage. And one for which Shad was woefully unprepared. They’re the ones paying a price for this failure. But the real blame lies high above them in the executive food chain.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).