Larry Wilmore on his first drama ‘Reasonable Doubt,’ work on iconic TV shows

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

(L-R) Pilar Savone, Shawn Holley, Raamla Mohamed and Larry Wilmore attend the premiere Of Hulu's "Reasonable Doubt" in Los Angeles, on September 22, 2022. Photo by Billy Bennight/REUTERS.

Larry Wilmore has had an impressive career with a sprawling resume as an actor, comedian, writer, and producer over four decades. He has also collaborated in dozens of iconic TV shows, including “In Living Color,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “The Office,” and “Black-ish,” to name a few.  He also created “The Bernie Mac Show,” and was a co-creator with Issa Rae on HBO’s “Insecure.” 

In his most recent project, Wilmore along with Kerry Washington serve as executive producers of “Reasonable Doubt.” This is his first time working outside of comedy and with Washington. They started collaborating with the series creator Raamla Mohamed, who was a writer on “Scandal.” 

The show is a legal drama series following Jax Stewart (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a Los Angeles defense attorney with questionable ethics and wild interpretations of the law until she gets in trouble. The show is loosely based on real-life lawyer Shawn Holley, who has represented celebrity clients and serves as executive producer on the show, which also stars Michael Ealy, McKinley Freeman, TJ Mixson, Aderinsola Olabode, Tim Jo and Angela Grovey.

Wilmore says the show was initially being developed for ABC, but the network put it on hold, told them to redevelop it for streaming. “And we said, ‘Yeah, let's do it. We still want to do this,’” he says. “Raamla reimagined it for streaming, we all chipped in on that, and it became what it is now.”

Now, Wilmore discusses how his career evolved on TV, headlining the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2016, co-creating “Insecure” with Issa Rae, and having his own talk-show and podcast.  

“In Living Color” “was the worst of times”

After finding the stand-up comedy world constraining, Wilmore found work writing for “In Living Color.” The sketch comedy TV series created by producer and actor Keenen Ivory Wayans in the early 1990s became a cultural phenomenon, but Wilmore felt left out. 

“As a writer, you never really got the benefit of that,” he says. “You were in the trenches doing all of [the work], but everybody else seemed to be getting the rewards of it.”

As one of Wilmore’s earlier jobs, he tells Vulture, “It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.” He explains that the job was very demanding. He had to pitch 40 to 60 new ideas a week, plus write some original skits. “We were under the gun so much,” he notes. 

Despite that, he claims he had some great times and is proud of working on the show.

A hard move to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”

Wilmore says “In Living Color” “over-prepared” him for his next jobs, including the sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” He co-produced 24 and wrote one of the 148 episodes of the popular show, which launched Oscar-winning actor Will Smith’s career. But he says he became a consultant to the show’s white writers.

“Many times all they required from a Black writer was cultural touches, making sure something sounded authentic,” in what he calls a condescending approach to collaboration and writing. “People don’t realize, if you're a Black writer, you did not get to work on what I'll call white shows. A white writer could work in any show.” 

He says that happened because Hollywood had a low opinion of Black writers for a long time. 

“Part of my mission was to help change that because I felt like the material that we did, with some exceptions, was always dismissed as subpar, and was put in a certain category: They were called Black shows, and that was not a compliment.”

Over the years, however, he has seen the industry become more inclusive, a definite improvement, in his view.

“There are more people in different areas of the business now, and it's not just controlled by one aspect of it,” he says. “We've seen more executives that are more diverse. There's more people of color, women in different areas of influence in the business, whether they're directors of photography, producers, directors, line producers – all those types of positions are very important. It's not just writers, it's not just actors.”

At the same time, Wilmore says the industry can be vicious in other ways. After his writer colleague Felicia Henderson left the show for feeling “dismissed as not important” and insulted, he decided to quit as well. 

“Show biz is very comfortable with treating people in abusive ways and has been very comfortable with it,” he remarks. “I always felt there's no reason why you have to take that. People don't have the right to just assume you should be treated in an abusive manner.” 

Creating “The Bernie Mac Show”

Following “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” Wilmore worked on several other sitcoms, but his next big project was “The Bernie Mac Show,” which he created. On the show, its main character, played by ​​Bernie “Mac” McCullough, talks to the camera, an idea Wimore says was inspired by a PBS show called “The 1900 House.” 

In 2002, Wilmore won an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series. He became the first Black writer to win such a category. Despite that, after producing the first three seasons of “The Bernie Mac Show,” he was fired from the series. 

“The network and I never saw eye to eye on what the show was because it was so different,” he says. “In fact, after I was fired, I said in the press that we had creative differences: I was creative, and they were different.” 

He adds, “I was never given the benefit of the doubt that I was doing something different. They always assumed I was incompetent and didn't know what I was doing, even though we are winning every award, so how those two things would happen is beyond me.” 

His career continued, with several acting, producing and writing jobs in shows like “The Office,” and “The Daily Show.” 

Hosting The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner

In 2016, Wilmore was invited to headline the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. At the end of his speech, he uses the “n-word” to affectionately refer to President Barack Obama. 

“That last statement [was] meant not as a joke, but as a way to communicate something that was very important to me,” he says. “[The president and I] grew up in a world where Black men couldn't even be the quarterback of a football team, [so] it was this public private moment of connecting in just acknowledging that, ‘Hey, man, I see you. I see you, my brother.’ What that really meant [was] thank you so much.”

Though he was highly criticized, Wimore says he has no regrets. As a comedian, he acknowledges that he says things that shocks people, but he felt that enough people understood and appreciated his intent, including the president. And though it may have been uncomfortable, he also feels he may have shattered some taboos. 

Co-creating “Insecure,” getting his own talk show and podcast

That same year, Issa Ray, who had done “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” on YouTube, was now pitching a new show to HBO. Since that wasn’t working, Wilmore’s managers introduced him to her.

“[I] met with Issa and loved her even more and said, ‘Hey, do you want to just write this together?’” he recalls. “It was so much fun.” He says they wrote six different pilot drafts of “Insecure” for the streaming service. 

While waiting to find out if the show would be picked up, ABC contacted him to help launch “Black-ish” because “they were having some problems with the script.” 

After helping on the pilot of “Black-ish,” Jon Stewart contacted him and said David Letterman was quitting his late show, so he thought Wilmore should do it. 

“I had the opportunity to do my own show, and so, before we even knew if ‘Insecure’ [was] going to be picked up, I [did] that,” he says. “So, I wasn't able to stick with ‘Insecure.’ I kind of consulted for the first season, from afar, but I never had the chance to be there day to day during the series.” 

“The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” debuted on January 19, 2015 as a late-night panel talk show on Comedy Central. But it was short-lived, and was canceled in 2016. 

In May 2017, Wilmore started hosting “Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air” as part of The Ringer podcast network, which Time ranked in the top five of its list of 10 Best podcast of that year. Simultaneously he created “Grown-ish,” which is set to end in January 2023.

Wimore’s latest project “Reasonable Doubt,” which debuted in September, is now streaming on Hulu, and his podcast “Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air'' is available on all podcast services.




Kim Masters


Joshua Farnham