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Eventually the right people saw it: writer and producer Chuck Sklar, who had worked on Chris Rock's show, and then Rock himself, at the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy club. Rock met with Sklar and Bell about adapting the show for TV. The result is a program that shares much of the Bell Curve's DNA but feels somehow more radical—what works for a San Francisco theater audience isn't what you would expect to catch on TV.
Since its debut last August in its weekly incarnation, Totally Biased has proven to be more than "the black late-night show," as critics initially dubbed it. (That's Arsenio's responsibility now.) Writer and performer Hari Kondabolu has taken to the air to celebrate Indian-Americans' dominance in national spelling bees and issue this challenge: "Hey, white people—learn the language." Comedian and staffer Janine Brito memorably freaked out over just how much she wanted to fuck Kate Middleton. Guests have included Reggie Watts, Vernon Reid (now leading Totally Biased's one-man band), Matt Taibbi, and drag star Sherry Vine, who was invited on to celebrate the spirit of Stonewall. Lindy West, the Jezebel blogger and comedian who routinely demonstrates that the Internet is home to as much compelling writing as print magazines ever were, came on to debate comedian Jim Norton the about the propriety of rape jokes. This being Totally Biased, there was more thoughtful agreeing and defining of terms than cable-news–style fighting.
Bell cites that segment as the realization of what the show could be. "We're giving voice to people who don't normally have a voice on television," he says. He's also proud of "Sheiks vs. Sikhs," an explanatory piece from the first episode, a Bell Curve–like guide for perplexed newscasters who kept assuming that the targets of the Glen Cove, Wisconsin, Sikh temple massacre were Muslims. "Nobody else is doing this," Bell says. "It's silly, it's pointed, it's got heart, and it's not reductive of anyone else's show."
At times Totally Biased can seem like TV from the future, a broadcast from the America that young progressives hope is coming, where nobody's judged for what they're born as—or how they identify. The only people not invited: racists and assholes.
Bell says, "When I look at my audience, I want to see all the cool people, and they come in all ages and sizes and sexualities and races—and when I say 'cool' I don't mean hip. I mean the people who are cool with whatever you want to do. They're why Obama won last year. All the cool people got together and voted."
That doesn't sound like a talk-show host on a sister channel of Fox News.
"Look," he says, "that argument was explained to me by Rage Against the Machine in the '90s. If you want your music out there and you want to get to the widest group possible, you have to go through the corporations. Most of the world is owned by three dudes. I don't know if Rupert Murdoch knows that I exist. But the one thing I do know is that whatever Fox News is, or whatever Rupert Murdoch is, none of those people are calling us with notes."
Of course, good intentions don't make a Brooklyn/Bay Area pan-global potluck of a talk show funny. The promise and peril Totally Biased faces as it begins its 26-week daily run is succinctly laid bare in a segment cut from one early episode but made available online. In it, Bell, schlubbed into black jeans and an untucked button-down, stands before the brick-wall set and PowerPoint screen, his hands jabbed into his pockets in a manner that sometimes looks casual and sometimes like he's still not sure what else to do with them.
He launches into a news item: An Arizona state police officer was convicted of felony sexual abuse for groping a woman in a bar. "Now, amazingly," he says, "the judge, Jacqueline Hatch, blamed the victim, telling her, 'If you hadn't been there that night, none of this would have happened to you.'"
Some disgusted laughter. Once that settles, Bell asks, "Now, by 'there' did she mean Arizona? Because I would agree: Nobody should go to Arizona."
Then: "They tried to put a good face on the incident by saying that the police were there instantly. Yeah! Because the guy who groped her was the police!"
The lines are good, but the delivery is killer—it's his likable outrage, a man mocking the world's cluelessness about rape, rather than despairing. Then he assails the state's immigration law, calls Governor Jan Brewer a racist for pointing at Obama, and for a jokeless minute or two could be one of those graceless MSNBC guys, Lawrence O'Donnell maybe, barreling through talking points.
"I feel good that we've been under the radar because that's given us time to get better," Bell says. "If the jokes don't work, we've just got a poorly written essay."
Early this year, the Village Voice dropped into the Totally Biased writers' room to see how segments come together (and improve upon that one). At a long conference table high up in the New Yorker Hotel, Bell, Sklar, and head writer Kevin Avery hear pitches from the rest of the staff, including Kondabolu, Brito, and writer-performers Guy Branum, Aparna Nancherla, and Dwayne Kennedy, the world-class stand-up who once won serious applause on David Letterman's show for singing, "Tonight at 8:30 gonna get some shovels and bash white folk in the head." (The Breitbart commentariat might be relieved to hear a few white guys have seats at the table.)
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