The New York-based stand-up in New Orleans for Hell Yes Fest remembers the boozy end of the Comedy Central show.
On Monday, August 15, Comedy Central canceled The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. The half-hour comedy news series wasn’t on a break when Comedy Central president Kent Alderman broke the news, though. The staff was working on upcoming shows including that day’s, so the stars and staff were in the rare position of having a final week to write and perform even though they knew they were done. The result was a rare series of shows that largely discarded the show’s format in favor of a series of woozy half-hours fueled by booze sent over by the sympathetic staffs of The Daily Show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and Last Week Tonight.
“On my last show, I was definitely drinking,” comedian Ricky Velez says. “I was definitely having a good time.”
Velez was one of the performers on The Nightly Show, and he’ll do stand-up comedy Saturday night at The Art Garage with Alice Westerlund, Aparna Nancherla, and Sabrina Jalees as part of the Hell Yes Fest. Although The Nightly Show introduced Velez to a wider audience, it was stand-up that got him the gig in the first place.
“Larry Wilmore saw me at Comics to Watch for Comedy Central, and after that he wanted to see me another time, so I did another five to seven minutes,” Velez says. “They were like, We’re going to test you. I didn’t know what that was, so I said, Great. Me and Larry met through that, and he was the best.”
The cast pitched ideas on the show, and if the ideas got love, writers worked to help shape them for the show. “It’s very quick-paced, and I really like that being my first TV job,” Velez says. “I like that I got to learn how to make TV in a day when some people take months to do one episode. I got a boot camp. The turnaround on those shows was so fast that it’s like, Oh, I fucked up last night! but it’s like, Okay, we got tomorrow. Let’s go.”
For Velez, the ability to let it go and move on that quickly took some adjusting because it has never come easily. “I’ve found myself beating myself up over something,” he says. “How am I mad about the first show I did tonight when I’ve done seven? I think it’s just human nature to want to be perfect.”
Because his background was in stand-up, Velez was really nervous on The Nightly Show early on. He wasn’t in front of familiar audiences selling ideas in familiar ways. He was new to television and on a new show. “You learn that it’s a lot easier than you’re making it out to be,” he says. He translated the confidence he had in stand-up to his show work and realized that in that atmosphere, everybody was making it up on the fly.
“That’s what Hollywood is,” Velez says. “A bunch of people walking around wondering how they got their jobs. This shit is not phasing me anymore.” That wasn’t his experience on The Nightly Show, though. “Rory Albanese—how many years did he put in at The Daily Show?”
The 24 year-old New Yorker was the youngest member of The Nightly Show staff, and New York shaped his comedy. “That’s all I really know,” he says. “Up until a few years ago, I’d never left the country.”
He started when he was 19 and quickly got on the road opening for people. Still, he plays The Comedy Cellar every weekend if he’s in New York, and he’s a regular at the New York Comedy Club. “I like staying in New York,” Velez says. “It’ll keep you real honest. You know exactly where you stand in New York when it comes to comedy, and you learn very fast if the crowd likes you or doesn’t.”
The Nightly Show helped to raise his profile and brought him additional road work. He also opened for Dave Chappelle and John Lequizamo, and Velez considers the latter “one of the cooler experiences of my career, him being from Queens and whatnot. And, he’s the nicest guy in the world.”
Because of road work, Velez wasn’t there for all of the last four Nightly Show shows. “Me and Mike Yard missed the final show,” he says. “I was heading Comedy on State, which is an incredible club [in Madison, Wisconsin]. At the beginning of the week, I already had it on contract that I was going to Comedy on State, I went in with the mindset that I was leaving on Thursday and learned that my last show was Thursday. I said, I’ve still got to go do a weekend. Peace!”
The cancelation of The Nightly Show wasn’t entirely a surprise, but its timing was. The ratings never materialized with young adults, and show segments never became social media staples in the way that clips from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight have. “We hold Larry [Wilmore] in the highest esteem, personally and professionally,” Comedy Central president Kent Alderman said. “He brought a strong voice and point of view to the late-night landscape. Unfortunately it hasn’t resonated with our audience.”
“I thought we’d make it through the election,” Velez says. For him, the cancellation was the culmination of a very hard year that included the unexpected death of his mother and an IRS audit. “Then out of nowhere, we got, Everybody, come in in the morning. All hands on deck. They were, like, You’re canceled, but you have to do four more shows.”
His first thought was, “I’ll be drinking! Fuck this! I’m not doing this no more,” but he did. “It was fun, and I’ve got love for all the people I worked with including Comedy Central,” Velez says. “Comedy Central was great to me. They helped me go from a feature to a headliner. The cancellation sucked, but I’m still eating. I’m living very comfortably. I’m not in Queens and I’m not selling drugs.”