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You can see that in a man-on-the-street segment he recorded for Totally Biased last winter, back when the show was still weekly, renewed by FX in short batches of episodes. Bell stands outside the Alpine Cinema in Brooklyn, chatting with happy white folks fresh from watching Django Unchained, which Bell calls "the feel-good buddy-slave comedy of the year." Totally Biased is the rare non-conservative media outlet to express any qualms about the movie; in that episode, Bell dubs Quentin Tarantino "American's wigger laureate."
In front of the theater, Bell asks a central-casting Brooklyn type about the film's depiction of slavery.
"History isn't always black or white ," the dude offers. "There's a gray area to it."
Bell laughs warmly. "I think slavery was pretty black and white."
He tells another white guy that the word "nigger" is spoken 109 times in the movie. The man seems surprised. Bell asks, "What's the perfect number of niggers?"
"Seventy," the guy says. "Seventy niggers would have been fine."
Then they both laugh their heads off.
He has spoken elsewhere—on Marc Maron's WTF podcast, for one—about the key reason he spent years performing his stand-up in theaters rather than comedy clubs. "I wanted to have an adult conversation," he told Maron—"adult" meaning "grown-up," as opposed to "filthy." "I'm not interested in starting an argument about race or racism," Bell tells the Voice. "Remember, I'm Bay Area: That means I'm conflict-avoidant."
But he does pick fights. "FX's W. Kamau Bell Calls George Zimmerman 'A Racist, Right-Wing, Trigger-Happy, Child-Killing Coward," screamed a headline at conservative wingnut magnet breitbart.com in June. That was in response to a scorching segment from one of the last weekly Totally Biased episodes that aired just before the show's summer hiatus. In it, Bell laid out his dream team of who should serve on the jury of the then-upcoming Zimmerman trial—Chuck D., Angela Davis, the ghost of Malcolm X, "fat Al Sharpton," "angry Bill Cosby," "Before-Are We There Yet? Ice Cube," and multiple Samuel L. Jacksons—before listing all the cruel things he'd do to Zimmerman's testicles. The bit then cut to the control room, where Totally Biased producer and patron saint Chris Rock laughs appreciatively, says somebody should give Bell a nightly show, and then proclaims, "George Zimmerman can eat a dick."
"I've taken one picture ever with a legitimate angry face," Bell says. "And that's the one they've used twice on Breitbart."
Unlike much of Bell's comedy, that segment seemed engineered to engender outrage rather than ponder the outrageous. "It was cathartic," he says. "Some things need to be said, and I've been given the chance to say them."
The commenters on Breitbart declared that Bell and Rock were the racists. (The more middle-of-the-road report on Mediaite, meanwhile, revealed the limits of Bell's fame, referring to him in the headline as "Talk Show Host.")
The blowback was no surprise for Bell. "When the right wing says that old-fashioned racism doesn't happen any more, they mean lynching. They think if there's no lynching, there's no racism! My job is to ask them to broaden their definition."
By the time the Zimmerman trial played out, Totally Biased was on hiatus and Bell was on tour. "I was actually onstage in Chicago when the verdict came in," he says. "I got a text from my mom that just said, 'not guilty.' I thought, if I'm not including this in my act, I'm not the comic I'm trying to be. So I told them. And then other people with black moms confirmed it—I got Independent Black Verification. I said, 'We need to talk about this. It's going to get weird for a while, and then we'll talk about my daughter'"—the subject he usually closes with—"'like everything's OK.'"
He acknowledges that it was "rough" not being on the air during the trial and its aftermath. But a mentor had some wisdom for him: "Chris told me, 'More news will happen.'"
He says it twice, more pained than expectant: "'More news will happen.'"
In 2007, the desire to talk about race and the news spurred Bell to create The W. Kamau Bell Curve, a weekly San Francisco stage show he says was indebted from the start to The Daily Show and Chris Rock's long-gone HBO talk show. Bell Curve featured news clips, PowerPoint slides, and surprising opinions: He would assail that fig leaf "the n-word" in favor of "nigger." "Country music," he would say, "equals the blues minus slavery." White people, he would argue, would do everyone a favor if they actually thought of their whiteness as an ethnicity worth taking pride in rather than as some sort of American neutral.
Bell took the show around the country and even to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he riffed off clips from Scottish newscasts. "Their thing," he says, meaning U.K. audiences, "is they think racism doesn't exist there—it's only in America. Then the next thing they say is, 'Arabs are horrible.'"
He talked about his own life, including his marriage to a white woman. ("We're going to try to make some Obamas.") He explained, in that inviting way of his, the two questions no one should ever ask about a black person's hair, and the difference between the "100 percent pure African black" of Barack Obama's father and Bell's own "American black," which has "been cut up more than trailer-park meth."
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