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"I've had a strange career," W. Kamau Bell says a few moments after hauling himself onto the stage at Caroline's Comedy Club in late April. "I had to get a TV show to break into comedy clubs."
That stirs a warm laugh from his people, a 150-strong New York crowd of races so well and truly mixed it could be on the cover of a college admissions packet.
As with almost everything Bell says, there's truth in it: Despite 15 years of stand-up, often for theater audiences rather than the two-drinks-and-dick-jokes set, the folks catching his first New York City headlining gig mostly know him from Totally Biased, his fledgling talk/comedy cable show, which last week made the jump from a half-hour weekly broadcast to four nights a week, just like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.
They know him as the smiling lug with the electric 'fro and the Muppet monster laugh. As the friendly black guy on TV who jokes about race and politics with what can only be called an inclusive indignation, inviting the like-minded to laugh along rather than to slip into the progressive rage-stupor that's MSNBC's stock in trade. As the Bay Area liberal whose bio in the program at Caroline's lists "community activist" before "late night TV host." As a guy fans just come to feel like they're down with. They're not just seeing a hot comic or a star-to-be in the weeks before he combusts. They're seeing a friend.
And tonight that friend is killing it.
Bell, a youngish 40, seems looser in person than on Totally Biased, one thought leading to the next as if they're just coming to him. He scores with some new material—the differences between San Francisco and New York, a richer vein than stand-up's old L.A./NYC standard—before tearing into American race, the core of his act, the punch lines and insights honed over years of performing his one-man show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. He talks about living in a San Francisco neighborhood where the only other black resident was homeless. About how after a couple of bad Brooklyn sublets he's ready to admit he likes a little gentrification. How one time, at a diner, a white waitress seemed to recognize him—but, long story short, turns out she mistook him for Questlove and has never heard of W. Kamau Bell. "There can be more than one guy with a nappy 'fro at a time!" Bell laughs. "We don't even look alike!"
That's when things get strange. A woman interrupts from a table just in front of the stage. "But you do," she says.
"Yes, you do." She holds up her iPhone—she has pulled up a photo.
Bell squints at it: Questlove, haloed with afro, beaming in his horn-rims.
"See?" the woman says. She's white, in her 20s, a little meek even as she keeps pushing it. The fellow sitting next to her, also white, looks like he wants to bolt.
"Just because we both have glasses?" Bell asks. "Imagine you in New York in the '70s. Everywhere you looked, you'd be: 'Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson! Angela Davis!'"
She laughs, a little. Everyone else does, a lot.
He goes on: "Every black person you see is not the only black person you know!"
Which points to one of the many curious talents of W. Kamau Bell: He's cutting. He's quick. And he's so inviting a presence that even white people are comfortable saying shit to him they ought to know they shouldn't.
Here's why that happens.
"I'm a 6-foot-4, 250-pound black dude," Bell tells the Village Voice in an interview this spring. "I know how to make sure people know that I'm not the guy that they think I'm going to be. It's sad that I've had to learn to do that, but it's always been about how to get through the world as easily as possible."
In conversation, his words galumph along as happily as they do on stage, even when he's discussing topics that tend to make Americans squeamish. "I'm used to moving around between the lines of cultures," he says, "and I know when to shut the fuck up and listen. My act started to reflect that. Coming from the Bay Area, where I lived for 15 years, I would be sitting with my feminist lesbian East Bay friends with the adopted black kids while they all explained that I'm sexist. You learn to listen around people like that."
Superficially, of course, in a head shot, he does share a fashion sense with Questlove: those glasses, a boho afro that looks friendly and funky rather than a Panther's Declaration of Blackness. It's a look that, lately, bank commercials and iPod ads have been selling as representative of the kind of black guy everyone likes.
"That's become a type," Bell acknowledges. "I maybe have a little to do with it, but Cornell West has done his part, too. It's like the black guy who's totally black but also not threatening. But it's not just the look. If I carried myself differently, I might get a different response from people."
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."
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.)
Brito tells the Voice, "Getting different voices in the writers' room brings value because we all bring perspectives and voices you rarely see in media. And all of it presented by a 6-foot-4 black man from San Francisco. I mean, c'mon, you can't get more diverse and progressive than that."
Some of the pitches resemble the ones a newspaper editor might receive from muckraking reporters: real-world injustices and outrages, all quickly run through. One writer reads from a conservative pamphlet detailing how Republicans should not talk about immigration. Another proposes that the show parody the loyalty oaths an Arizona high school was forcing upon students: "We could have a Totally Biased disloyalty oath, the thing you make everyone say before every show. Like, we have to question everything—"
The idea is met with silence—it's a little too Democracy NOW!.
"Of course, we'd make it funny," the writer adds before dropping it.
Obama's push for gun reform is in the news. Someone says, "Maybe we could send Kamau out for a man-on-the-street with an assault rifle around his neck."
"Is that legal?" Bell asks.
"We'd find out in a hurry."
Nancherla asks if anyone saw the joint interview Obama and Hillary Clinton gave on 60 Minutes. "That just reminded me of the old couples that got interviewed in When Harry Met Sally," Bell says. "They were like, 'Oh, no, dear, you tell that part.'"
That gets laughs.
"'When Barry Met Hilly,'" a writer suggests.
"That's a classic movie, right?" Bell asks. "People have seen that? How do we make that into a thing?"
He gets many answers: "You could just show the clip and go into a run." "We could work in 'I'll have what she's having.'" "Make it 'I'll have what Bill's having."
A couple of pitches break through: "The Lighter Side of the Darker Side," a possible recurring segment finding reason for hope in news items, inspired by the fact that Chris Brown's fistfight with Frank Ocean apparently had nothing to do with Frank Ocean's gayness.
Or Kennedy's proposal for "A History of Black Names."
"Black people make up names, like they've always had to make things up," Kennedy says, in the same commanding tones that distinguish his stand-up—he sounds like the world's most stentorian African-American studies professor gone utterly mad. "We made up jazz. And blues. And rock. And when you make a lot of things up, sometimes you're going to miss."
"You know: Kwabanjanee."
A white writer asks, "When did black people start making up names?"
"That started with 'Get on the boat,'" Kennedy says.
The room explodes.
"It started with 'free trip to America.'"
Kennedy did the bit on the air a few days later. It was beefed up: "Not only is Shiraz a fine dinner wine, she's also a very nice lady who works at the Shop 'n Save near my crib." It was also impassioned, even touching, a celebration of inventiveness and self-definition, of the way African-Americans had to create their own culture—as with "Sheiks vs. Sikhs," Totally Biased dared to be enlightening. It's purposeful comedy unlike most of TV, some tricky alchemy of outrage into laughter and then maybe into something more profound. These folks are making it up as they go along. They've got 26 weeks' worth of episodes to figure it out.
Bell seems upbeat despite the pressure. "Sometimes I think, if this doesn't go on, at least we'll be written up in some grad school papers."
'Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell' airs Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m. on Fox's new FXX channel. A highlights roundup runs each Sunday.
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