Totally Biased star W. Kamau Bell talks about comedy, politics, and telling the truth
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
- Noah Baumbach on how Frances Ha helped him see New York City with new eyes
- Amy Schumer had to be talked into making the show of her dreams
- Joe Hill on his new novel, Locke & Key’s end, and why ideas are just glue
- Kristin Scott Thomas has no time for nonsense
“Who is W. Kamau Bell?” That’s the central question in the promotions for FX’s Totally Biased, the new weekly political talk show featuring the San Francisco comedian. And it’s fair: Bell isn’t a familiar face. He didn’t come from another television show, or a guest spot on Louie, which precedes Totally Biased in FX’s programming. But within comedy circles, Bell’s politically charged comedy has been a stalwart since 2007, when he launched The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About An Hour, a one-man show that used slides and video footage to punch up Bell’s calm, collected outrage at the social and racial injustices he was noticing. His mini-Daily Show has toured steadily since then, and in 2010, it caught the attention of Chris Rock, who signed on as an executive producer of Totally Biased. The TV show, which debuted last week, is written day-of, and shakes out to be similar to what Bell was already doing with Bell Curve. So Bell is new to TV, but not to the format. He’s also released two albums, and last year, he worked on a documentary with his political comedy collective, Laughter Against The Machine, that finds the sweet spot between comedy and change. After attending a rehearsal taping of Totally Biased (which wound up being similar to last week’s debut episode), The A.V. Club called Bell to discuss his viewers’ racism, the comic stylings of Malcolm X, and who W. Kamau Bell is.
The A.V. Club: The taping of your rehearsal had one of the most racially diverse audiences I’ve ever seen at a comedy show. How often does that happen at your shows?
W. Kamau Bell: I sort of tailor-marketed it that way. When I started doing The W. Kamau Bell Curve, I put out that if you bring a friend of a different race, you get in two-for-one, as a way to ensure racial diversity. I felt like, “If I’m going to do a show about racism, I don’t want to just be talking to one group, you know, whether it’s white people or black people or Latino people or Chinese people.” [Laughs.] I feel like, if we’re going to end racism, the first thing we’ve got to do is all get in the room together. Now, I can’t always assure it’s a great racial mix, but it makes even the people who come to the room who don’t bring a friend from a different race think about things in a different way.
AVC: You had that promotion the whole time?
WKB: From the very first time I did the show in 2007, that was the thing that actually made me go, “Oh yeah, we can do this. This actually will work.” And so since then, whenever I do that show, I do that promotion. I always say I want to become the interracial-dating comedian. A lot of times, an interracial couple will go to a comedy show and they get made fun of, and I feel like, “No, you’re safe here.” You know, I talk about race a lot—and sometimes I’m critical of all sides—but I also feel like I’m not trying to indict somebody so much that they feel like they can’t stay in the room. Now, it does happen—sometimes people can’t stay in the room, but that’s on them.
AVC: When has that happened?
WKB: Early on in doing W. Kamau Bell Curve, I saw this couple leaving, and at the time, thought, “Oh, they need to go to the bathroom or something.” But then I heard later from my producer that it was a white guy and an Asian girlfriend, and he was like, [irritated voice] “I don’t have to take this.” A lot of times, people don’t walk out, but I certainly get my share of crazy emails after a show, that sort of explain to me that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
AVC: It doesn’t seem like your show is necessarily, “Here’s the problem with you, and here’s the problem with you, and here’s the problem with you.” It doesn’t feel like you’re going after people.
WKB: No, I mean, I think that I’m going after the problem, and sometimes people are part of the problem, right? [Laughs.] But also I don’t think I have it in me to be that guy who’s like—I mean, let me be clear: My favorite comedian of all time is Bill Hicks. But I don’t think anybody would ever confuse me with Bill Hicks, and that’s a compliment to Bill Hicks. I don’t have it in me to get in someone’s face and point at them and go, “You are the problem!” [Laughs.] Unless they actually reveal that. I’m not saying I’ve never done anything close to that, but I can’t do that every night, you know? I would rather you sit in the room and listen and walk out and go, “Huh, I hadn’t thought about that before,” as opposed to getting up and storming out. Having said that, like I said, I’m getting emails right now—based on the commercials, I’m getting called a racist.
WKB: Yeah, absolutely.
AVC: For what?
WKB: I don’t know. A lot of those emails aren’t really that well-written. [Laughs.] I’m trying to see if I can find one—I just got one not last night but the night before—you know what’s actually making people the most upset? The fact that I say [in the commercial] that they don’t let black people be Spider-Man. Because the Marvel universe now has the Ultimate Spider-Man series, [in which] Spider-Man is a black character named Miles Morales. And who’s worse to offend than the Klan? Comic-book nerds. So I’m getting a lot of apoplectic, like, anger about the fact that I said they don’t let black people be Spider-Man. [Laughs.] And the funny part about that is, that’s not a joke that’s in my act. The day we shot the promo shoot, they needed more footage, and we did a question-and-answer period, and somebody asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a comedian or Spider-Man. And I said at some point, “They don’t let black people be Spider-Man.”
And in my mind, I was thinking about Donald Glover and the thing he went through, literally the fact that they didn’t let him audition [to be Spider-Man]. It was totally just an answer to a question I threw away, having no idea that FX was going to use it as the centerpiece of the marketing campaign. [Laughs.] But I’m not mad at FX. I mean, it’s been great to get attention. But it’s also just like, on a very basic level, I said they don’t let black people be Spider-Man. Miles Morales is not a person. [Laughs.] He’s a drawing.
AVC: What was the email you were about to read?
WKB: Let’s see. This one is from Richard Farley, it says, “Racist!” And then the content says, “Racist jackass!” [Laughs.] And then this one says “Commercial…” in the subject line. And the body of the email is, “What can I say? You have to pick on a man over his religion? You’re a real piece of work.” And then I love this: “Sent from my HTC smartphone on the Now Network from Sprint.” [Laughs.] People send out these angry emails with their regular, standard email endings.
AVC: What kind of relationship do you have with people who get upset? Having done the show since 2007, are you comfortable with people who don’t like the things you say?
WKB: No, I’m actually not all that comfortable with it. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a comedian. I didn’t want to be an edgy comedian or whatever. I didn’t want to be a political comedian; I didn’t want to be a politicized comedian. I just wanted to be a comedian. And what does a comedian do? A comedian makes people laugh. As an adult, as I started to think about the world, I started to want to talk about things that I care about a lot. And, really, the election of Barack Obama is what really started to swing my act really firmly in this direction, because I saw people really being crazy about how they criticized Barack Obama, and it made me want to be like, as a fellow black man, “Hey, back off!” And through that process, it becomes this thing where, because you want to create a safe space for debate, people then suddenly get mad at you because they feel like you’re threatening their thing. There are comics out there who encourage the hate and want the hate, and, it’s funny, it still always surprises me. On Twitter, deep inside me—not even deep inside me—my feelings get hurt. [Laughs.] Sometimes it’s like, “This is not actually the type of comic I imagined myself being,” but it’s the type of comic I enjoy being onstage.
AVC: As somebody who wants to enact change, what do you think comedy brings to the equation?
WKB: I think in general—like, forget standup comedy—the best way to communicate is through humor. I think every public speaker says, “Open on a joke,” and the reason they say it is because if you can get people laughing, you know they’re paying attention. If you’re ever talking to someone and they laugh, you know they heard the last thing you said. One of my big heroes is Malcolm X; Malcolm X was hilarious. And that’s actually what set him apart from the other civil-rights leaders of the day. He was actually telling jokes. I don’t know if he thought of them as jokes, but he certainly was being provocative in a way that made people laugh. Now what gets confusing is, people say in comedy that if you laugh, it must be true. No, it just means if you laugh, you understood the message. It doesn’t mean it’s true. Comedy really is apolitical; it doesn’t take a side. Comedy can prove lies and prove truths.
AVC: Is there a point at which you have to connect the dots for people? Where it’s like, “Okay, you’re laughing, and now I’m going to slip in this other thing because you’re already open”?
WKB: No, if you have to be that didactic about it, you’re probably not doing a good job of it, you know? I mean, even Chris [Rock], just yesterday he was on the set talking about this, like “You have to put the medicine in the middle of everything.” You can’t just say, “Here’s some medicine!” [Laughs.] And ultimately, that’s not my interest anyway. I still just want to be a comedian. If I wanted to be a civil-rights leader, I’ve gone about it in a really horrible way. I want to be the campfire for the revolution; I can’t be the revolution.
I’m always trying to be clear that these are just my opinions, and there are certainly smarter people than me to talk about this. But I think it’s sort of indicative of the fact that we just don’t have these discussions that often, so we want our comedians to help us have these discussions. Chris Rock is an absolute example of, like—his opinions about race have become people’s opinions about race. One of my favorite Chris Rock jokes of all time is, “There’s a difference between rich and wealthy. Shaquille O’Neal is rich; the white man who signs Shaquille O’Neal’s checks is wealthy.” And for me, that’s a very clear way to be like, “Ooooh, there’s different striations of money, and capitalism is broken down in different ways.” That’s a complicated economic analysis in a joke. And you walk out and you go, “Oh, that’s how I’m going to explain it now.”
AVC: You mentioned in another interview that, in constructing the Bell Curve show, you wanted to write the kind of show you would write if you were famous. What do you mean by that?
WKB: At the point when I wrote that show, I’d been doing stand-up and was not making the kind of headway I wanted to make. I would go onstage and talk about race, and after a few minutes, the crowd would be like, “Talk about something else!” Whether they said that out loud or not depended on the crowd.
AVC: What kinds of things were you talking about, stand-up-wise, beforehand?
WKB: My stand-up was really a battle for the first few years of my career. I always wanted to talk about race, and sometimes I would talk about it exclusively, and crowds would get tired of it, and then I would just go back to observational humor. So you don’t have to dig that deep in my career to find me talking about [yuckity hack voice] “the difference between men’s and women’s magazines!” [Laughs.] You know, whatever random things—random sex jokes that don’t have any impact on me as a person, that are just sex jokes. And so I would sort of go back and forth between those two poles, and finally, in 2007, that was a point at which there were all these weird stories of celebrity racism—Michael Richards and Don Imus and Rosie O’Donnell and Dog The Bounty Hunter—and I was seeing all this racism that I wanted to talk about onstage.
But the problem was, as a stand-up, whenever you bring up anything, if people haven’t heard of it, they assume you’re making it up. So if you go, “Did you hear what Rosie O’Donnell did?” or you want to talk about, “Don said this thing,” people know about it, but on some level, they don’t know where the facts end and the lies begin. And I wanted to do a show where I can actually play the video clips and talk directly about them, and then people will know where the jokes begin, you know? But in my mind, you go, “Well, you can’t ask people to come out to see you do an hour of just you talking about race, unless you’re famous.” And I was like, “Wait a minute. I’m going to write the show as if I am famous.” [Laughs.] “I’m going to act as if,” as they say in sales. And so instead of waiting for the time when somebody would be like, “We’re going to give you a TV show where you can talk about the current events of the day,” I’m going to write that show now and just do it. And it became very successful in the Bay Area, and I started taking it around the country and to colleges, and ultimately I got a TV show that looks very similar to what my live show was.
AVC: So what was the process of that? Did Chris Rock see an iteration of it, or were you already in talks with FX? What was the timeline?
WKB: No, the process was, I met Chuck Sklar, who’s the executive producer and head writer. He tried to hire me and Kevin Avery, who’s also a writer on the show, for the D.L. Hughley CNN talk show. But the show didn’t last long enough for us to get hired. At that point, Chuck heard I had this solo show; I took it to L.A., and he came and saw it with Kevin Kataoka, who I knew from San Francisco, who’s also a writer on the show. Kevin’s like, “Yeah, come see Kamau’s show.” So they came and saw it. Chuck thought it was great and called me the next day and was like, “You’re going to have a TV show someday,” and I was like, [unconvinced voice] “Whatever, L.A. guy! That’s why I live in San Francisco, so I don’t hear this nonsense.” And he was very sure about that, and we talked about it. We would stay in touch. He came to all the shows the next time I took it to L.A., and then he told me that he told Chris about me, and Chris looked me up online and thought I was funny. And then this woman Jocelyn Cooper, who runs a site called AfroPunk.com, she came to my show when I did it in New York at the soloNOVA festival, and she was like, “I know Chris, I grew up with Chris, I’m going to make sure he comes and sees your show.” And again, I’m like, “Okay, whatever, people who are saying crazy things.” As a comic, you learn eventually you can’t buy into all that stuff, or you’ll go crazy. But then I did my show at the UCB Theatre in October 2010, and it was a great show, and when I walked backstage feeling really good about the show, all of a sudden I see my manager walk backstage with a weird look on her face. And right behind her is Chris Rock, dressed in black, floating like he’s in The Matrix. As a comic, if you’re around for a while—I know comedians who are famous or semi-famous, but this is an icon. It’s like Santa Claus just walked into the back.
AVC: Even yesterday, when he came out for 10 seconds to deliver a note and didn’t say anything to anybody, the audience was like, “Whoa!”
WKB: I know. That was a really funny moment for me, because he’s hyperaware of who he is, and also doesn’t give a shit. In a very balanced way. So he was like, “I need to tell Kamau something I think he messed up, so he doesn’t do it again,” and he just walked right out. It was funny, it took everybody a second to be like, “Wait, I think that’s…” And then he was gone before anybody could realize. And that’s when I was like, “Yes, everybody, that was Chris Rock.” [Laughs.] You have to acknowledge the fact that, yes, an 800-pound gorilla just walked in the room and left on his tippy-toes.
AVC: What happened between 2010 and 2012? The show seems to have gone through a long development process.
WKB: To me, it doesn’t feel like that long a process. I mean, it’s less than two years, and in the middle of that—like, when he met me in October 2010, my wife was just newly pregnant, and so there was months where we weren’t working on the show because I was trying to figure out how to be a dad. And he actually went to Broadway and did the show The Motherfucker With The Hat. So we weren’t actively working together for two years; there were months where there was nothing going on, just because we were living our lives and doing our thing. And then once I came through the haze of new-dadhood, I basically called Chuck and was like, “Hey, can we get this thing started again? Because I’ve got a baby, and apparently this baby wants to start to eat food soon.”
AVC: At what point did The Daily Show enter the conversation about the new show?
WKB: We’ve talked about The Daily Show, but there’s really been talk about a lot of different shows. You know, Chris Rock had a show on HBO. And I remember at the time, when that show was on, I was like, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” and then it was gone. [Laughs.] The shows we’ve talked about, like his show, [Jon] Stewart’s show, we’ve talked about [Bill] Maher’s show—a show where it’s all about one person’s point of view on the world. We’ve talked about that in that sense, but, ultimately, I think if we are going to be around and be a part of that—you know, The Daily Show and Bill Maher’s show exist together, and you can watch one or both or neither. It’s not like if you watch Maher, you can’t watch Stewart. So I think we have the potential to be another voice in there that’s just another voice that you can watch, you can add to your DVR list.
AVC: There really is so much insane news that there are enough stories to go around.
WKB: Well, yeah, and I feel like, because we’re not explicitly political, that’s a lot of room we get that they don’t have. Yesterday we did, you know, the show you saw—I don’t think there was any politics in there. But it still feels political, because I’m talking about things I care about a lot. But I don’t think we said the word “Obama” once, I don’t think we said the word “Romney” once, because right now at this point in what we’re working on, that’s not the most important stuff.
AVC: It’s more about media criticism.
WKB: Absolutely. And I think there’s room for more of this. I know on some level, it’s like—maybe I have more in common with Chelsea Lately than I have with Stewart. [Laughs.] I think there’s room for a lot of people in this pool.
AVC: You mentioned being from San Francisco, and actively choosing to live there. What is your feeling about suddenly being part of the industry, and moving to New York?
WKB: Well, the thing I’m proud of is that we accomplished this—and I say “we” because there’s a lot of writers, and a lot of these people are from San Francisco—without going through the traditional route. I’m happy to be in New York, but even here in New York, it’s not like I’m a part of the scene right now. A lot of the comics who work on the show are going up into clubs, and I’m like, “Man, what’s that like?” [Laughs.] Because I’m too busy working on the show and then going home and trying to sleep and be a dad and a husband. I much prefer being in New York to being in L.A., it’s just I think New York has a lot more in common with San Francisco than L.A. does, other than the oppressive heat. But I’m happy we’re doing it in New York. If could have chosen any place to do it that wasn’t San Francisco, New York would be the place. It’s also just because New York is a very fertile city. We go out in the street and talk to people a lot about issues, and it’s just a very fertile place for that to happen.
AVC: But your TV show sprung organically from the live show you had; it came from San Francisco.
WKB: If this becomes a success, a big part of the story is going to be about the 21st-century new-media landscape, and the fact that Chris Rock can see me on the Internet, get familiar with my stuff, go see my live show in New York, basically fund a pilot himself, then hand over that pilot to FX, a network all about giving original voices a shot at TV shows. This would not have happened when there were four channels, three major networks, and UHF.
AVC: Yesterday at the taping, you had your hands in your pockets for a while, which is supposedly one of those rules you’re not supposed to break. How did your stage presence evolve?
WKB: I think 99.9 percent of comedians, when they start, are horrible. Every now and again you get a Dave Chappelle, an Eddie Murphy, or a Bill Hicks who comes out fully formed. But yeah, it’s a journey to get to the place where you feel the most comfortable. And that’s been my thing too. It’s funny you say that about my hands in my pockets, because even when I put my hands in my pockets, my mind goes, “Should I be doing this?” [Laughs.] If I had my hands in my pockets the whole show, that would be weird. But I just felt like, “This is where my hands are going to go.” The thing is, the more comfortable I am onstage—and maybe FX will call us tomorrow and be like, “Stop putting your hands in your pockets”—but the more comfortable I am onstage, the better I’m going to be as a performer. Chris talked about that a lot yesterday, like, “Own the space. If you want to move, move.” And the director of the show said that yesterday, too, and the stage manager said, “If you want to move, move; the cameras will find you. Don’t feel like you have to be rooted in one space.”
AVC: The marketing for the show has been, basically, “Who is W. Kamau Bell?” Is that a strategy you wanted? Did they come up with that independently?
WKB: The funny thing was, when I met with FX—when we finally decided this was happening—they have a whole marketing department, and they presented probably 20 or 30 different directions of ad campaigns. These people work. [Laughs.] One thing they said: “We realize we’re introducing you to the world.” I don’t know if you know this, Steve: I’m not famous. And so initially, they were like, “I hope this doesn’t offend you, but we’re thinking about this,” and I was like, “No, I get it.”