The former host of "Totally Biased" returns to stand-up comedy as a family man.
When I last spoke to comedian W. Kamau Bell, he was on vacation with his family in Hawaii, recharging his batteries. He was about to embark on the “Totally Biased” tour, which featured him as well as other Hari Kondobulu, Guy Branam, and other comedians that wrote for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, his show on FX. This time, he’s home in Berkeley, California with his wife and two daughters.
“No more Hawaii vacations because all the FXX money is gone!” he said, laughing. The tour was intended to draw attention to the show, which moved in September 2013 after little more than a year on the air to Fox’s new FXX channel, where Totally Biased went from weekly to five nights a week. Since few people knew the channel existed, much less that it had original programming, Totally Biased lost much of the audience it had and failed to find a new one. Because of that, it was cancelled that November.
Bell accepts that he and co-producer Chris Rock made a show that didn’t find the audience they hoped it would, though he has also asks, "Why did I have to be the experiment?" The ratings made it clear that Totally Biased was in trouble and wouldn't last, but its cancellation still hurt. “It affected me more inside my head,” Bell says. “Outside my head, it was nothing but good. It was hard for me personally, but it was better for my career.
“The whole process on that show was me learning on my feet, so my confidence was already shaken before the show got cancelled,” he adds, laughing.
When he returns to New Orleans to play Tipitina’s Tuesday night, it will be in the more comfortable role of stand-up comedian. It was his stand-up work that helped him get the show in the first place, but because Totally Biased was his introduction to much of America, when he performed in New Orleans in July 2013, it was hard not to see Bell as a point on the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert/John Oliver axis, as a commentator who made political points through humor. Tuesday, he comes to New Orleans as a family man.
“The reason I have these ‘political opinions’ is because things affect my personal life,” Bell says. “I start from the inside-out, not the outside-in most of the time. Here’s how I see it through my lens. That’s a much more natural place for me to come from. When I try to write a joke, particularly about a big thing, the first thing I think is How does this affect me? It doesn’t have to affect me directly, but how does it relate to my life? It’s like the gay marriage thing. The reason Americans are coming around on it are they realize, Oh, this doesn’t actually affect my life in any direct way, and it makes some of my friends and family happier.”
In his stand-up, Bell is very much a family man, so his jokes aren’t simply built on being an African-American male, but being one with kids, a wife, a mortgage, and responsibilities. There’s an element of domesticity in his comedy world, and perhaps because of that, his point of view is often that of the grown-up in the room. He can be as outraged as the next guy, but Bell’s jokes tend to work toward a better dialogue. Part of that is clearly rooted in who he is, but part of it comes from being adult enough to recognize that there are other perspectives that he didn’t have access to. Growing up in Chicago, he could live much of his life around other African Americans. When he moved to the Bay Area, he found himself at gatherings where he was the only Black, straight, or male in the room.
“At some point, someone let me know, Just shut up and listen,” Bell says, laughing.
Still, as someone who has addressed race in his comedy, he is now expected to have a take on controversies that impact African Americans. Sometimes, as in the case of the essay Bell wrote for Vanity Fair on the danger of being big and black, he has gone with it to add to the conversation, whether he’s overtly making jokes or not.
On Monday night, I went out for ice cream at 12:30 A.M. I walked a while because I live in a pretty sleepy neighborhood in Berkeley, California. I had my hoodie up, because it was cold and it made it easier to listen to the podcast in my headphones. By the time I found a late-night convenience store, I had passed a few—by my eye—unsavory characters of all races. So, as I walked in the store I had to take some precautionary action. For starters, I took the hood down. I took it down even though my afro had become a flat-fro from being squashed underneath. I didn’t touch anything that I wasn’t absolutely sure I was going to buy. (Just like my mom had taught me.) I kept my hands out of my pockets with palms clearly visible so the clerk behind the counter could easily see that I wasn’t shoving things in—or maybe more importantly about to pull something out of—my pockets. And as soon as I decided on an It’s It ice-cream sandwich, I went directly to the counter and gingerly placed my selection down, again keeping my palms visible and only making the movements I needed to get the money out of my wallet.
But he considers himself a comedian by trade and if he doesn’t have a comic take on an issue, he leaves it alone until he does. “I tend to like to marinate on something for a while,” Bell says. “Unfortunately, the Internet generation wants an instant response. Sometimes the joke is in how people respond to a thing. Some tributary off of it—Oh, that’s the part I’m interested in.” After the the grand jury decided not to indict Darryl Wilson for shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, Bell took a walk and wrote the Vanity Fair piece, which addressed not the rights or wrongs of the grand jury decision but the fear of large Black men that seemed to be a part of the story—a part that the 6’ 4” Bell could easily relate to.
“Ultimately, as much as people want to call me a pundit, I’m a comedian,” Bell says.
He’s a comedian who loves Denzel Washington, to be exact, and he now has a podcast, Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period. He co-hosts the podcast with writer Kevin Avery, who currently works on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and he was one of the writers on Totally Biased. The two are friends, and because families make the sort of demands on your time that make staying in touch with friends difficult, Bell likes the way the podcast makes it possible for him to put time to riff with Avery in his schedule. As for the talking about Washington part: “We would do it on the phone anyway; why not do it as a podcast?”
On Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, Bell and Avery ostensibly review of a Washington movie, but the review is really a jumping off point for a looser discussion, and since Washington’s career ranges from Shakespeare to B-movies, the conversation roams to address a lot of American culture, and “it can’t help but be about race sometimes,” Bell says. One of the high points of the podcast for Bell has been interviewing David Allen Grier about working on A Soldier’s Story—the movie—with Washington, and on the play with Washington and Samuel L. Jackson.
“Those stories would be lost to time because nobody’s talking about them,” Bell says.
Washington’s filmography is so extensive that there are still films he has made that Bell and Avery are seeing for the first time, and shortly before our conversation Bell rewatched Deja Vu, the Washington movie shot in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “They were talking about moving the film out of New Orleans, but Denzel wanted to keep it there to help bring jobs back to New Orleans,” he says. “Why isn’t there a Denzel Washington Day in New Orleans?”
If the podcast is only now getting to the D’s, it’s not going to end soon, but Bell’s ready when it does.
“The next podcast will be Why Bruce Lee is the Greatest Martial Artist Period. I’m going through all my childhood loves and turning them into podcasts.”