The comedian prepares to go from weekly to daily when his show returns this fall.
"From its heavenly beaches to its scenic natural wonders, there are plenty of reasons why Maui has been voted 'Best Island' by readers of Conde Nast Traveler for nineteen years," says GoHawaii.com. Unless you're comedian W. Kamau Bell. What use is sky blue water when Big Brother contestants are making slant-eyed Asian jokes and the George Zimmerman jury determined that white people get to defend themselves but black people don't? On Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, he has spent the last year examining American culture once a week through the lenses of race, racism, "and a lot of other -isms too," he says. Starting in September, the show will go daily Monday to Thursday on the new FXX Network, so he recently vacationed in Hawaii to recharge his batteries.
It would seem like being off the air for stories like these would frustrate Bell, but he's been through it before. Totally Biased was a month from its premiere when Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, and at the time Bell was frustrated because he had a lot he wanted to say and a platform that was achingly close but not available yet. By the time Totally Biased debuted, he knew the bits had aged out, but "it was the same week Gabby Douglas got called out on Twitter for having her hair wrong even if she just won a gold medal," he says. "I've got to a point where I realize the world's going to keep happening. The news will still be happening. People will still be racist." He's currently on the Totally Biased tour and returns to stand-up Thursday night at The Howlin' Wolf Thursday night, and he'll get his say there.
Bell has been a Bay Area stand-up comic since 2000s, and he made his name with his 2007 one-man show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About An Hour. Last year he debuted Totally Biased, a comedy program that critiques race issues much the same way that The Daily Show critiques the media. The Daily Show has been a model for Bell at times, particularly when it comes to interview segments. Riffing is something he has done all his career, but conducting interviews was new. The show's interview segment is six minutes long, but it would run 10 or more minutes when the show started. [Jon] Stewart's where I really learned, Oh, here's the four things I'm going to ask that are going to cut to the meat of this," Bell says. He admits his interviewing is a work in progress, but he takes pride in his interview with Tony Award-winner Billy Porter, star of the play Kinky Boots. Since Porter is out, Bell asked, "What's harder - being black or gay?" and elicited a thoughtful response as Porter worked through his thoughts on the fly.
"I felt like the interview got to some places he probably wasn't going to get to on other late night shows. Whether it was the best interview, I don't know, but it felt like the Totally Biased interview, the kind of conversation that only happens on this show."
For Bell, that sort of individuality has become central to his thinking about the show. "The most important thing is that when I step away from each episode, that there's things that, Whether that was perfect or not, it's not happening anywhere else on television," Bell says. It's a lesson he learned doing stand-up. At open mics, he would have jokes that only the friend who accompanied him laughed at. His first impulse was to drop those jokes, but along the way he realized that his best material was his most specific, jokes that could only come from him. "The things that make [my friend] Jason and my mom laugh are the things we need to focus on because they know me better than anybody else.
"The more we play into that specificity, the better the show is going to be in the long run," he says. "The ultimate lesson of the first 26 episodes is getting as specific as possible." That extends to his treatment of his core subject matter - race. Comedian and executive producer Chris Rock told Bell that the show can't simply call people racists all the time. It's a comedic dead-end, and it oversimplifies the conversation. When Volkswagen aired a Super Bowl commercial with a white man speaking in a Jamaican accent touched almost all the stereotypical bases, accusations of racism lit up the Twitterverse. In the writers room, Bell found that he wasn't alone in having a hard time working up a lot of outrage. That inspired him to create a list of all-time racist things. "It ended up a great place to talk about types of racism, and that's what Totally Biased does. We're not coming out every week to call everybody racist; we're coming out to continue the discussion of race and racism in America."
He similarly addressed television cook Paula Deen on the last show of the first season. "Do we need to fire her? Do we always need to go there?" Bell asks. "I would come with other reasons to be mad at Paula Deen before the N-Bomb." He contends that racism exists on a continuum, not as a simple binary. There are levels of racism. "It's like a Richter Scale; the more you go up, the more exponentially damaging it can be. If my choice was to have Paula Deen call me every day and drop the N-bomb on me and no black kid was ever fearful for his life or shot again, I'd let Paula Deen call me. I'd take that call happily and enthusiastically. These things are not the same."
Bell recognizes that Totally Biased serves a niche market, but he hopes it's a niche that grows. For an example of a similar success story, he points to fellow Bay Area residents, Metallica, who charted their own course until they became huge. "And like Metallica, I hope one day to be told I've sold out," Bell says. "That means my daughter has a college fund."
My Spilt Milk has two pairs of tickets to give away to see W. Kamau Bell at The Howlin' Wolf Thursday. Register here to enter the drawing. Winners will be announced Thursday at noon.