Race + Comedy: W. Kamau Bell Rises Above The Curve With New Show

By Guest Contributor Caitlin M. Boston

Courtesy: W. Kamau Bell

W. Kamau Bell stands out. Tall, broad, and Black, with a coife au naturale, his physicality doesn’t exactly lend itself to anonymity; equipped with a booming base for a voice, he really doesn’t have a hope in hell of ever going unnoticed in an American crowd. But come this autumn, the impulses behind the diffident stares and sideways glances on the street will be a little bit more difficult for Bell to decipher, hoodie up or otherwise.

That’s because Bell, a comedian who could do a stand-up routine featuring nothing but heckler retorts at this point in his career, just inked a six-episode deal with the FX network (the “coolest of all the Fox’s,” as he calls them) executive-produced by Chris Rock.

In case that last part didn’t make your eyebrows shoot up, for Bell to garner Rock’s participation amounts to an endorsement from a comedy doyen: having established himself in the game as a headliner who can perform in any comedy club, anywhere, on his own terms, praise and a partnership from Rock is synonymous to a weighty nod of approval from Yoda (albeit, Bell says, a foul-mouthed, microphone-wielding version).

Bell officially announced last Thursday that his show would be called Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, debuting Aug. 9th at 11 pm. With the show set to follow Louie, created by and starring biracial comedian Louis C. K., the two programs together constitute a rarity in network television–a progressive comedy block not led by white people.

The show’s name is a departure from Bell’s usual stylings for titles, i.e. his love of inserting the word “negro” into things, the precedent having been established by his podcast, The Field Negro Guide to Arts and Culture w/ Vernon Reid.

When asked about this deviation, Bell starts laughing.

“I love calling myself a negro,” he says. “It seems like that was the last time Black people got sh-t done was when they were  ‘negros’ … I don’t think we want to tie it necessarily to [being] Black, because we’re not trying to get just a Black audience. Chris says all the time, “You’re Black–you’re going to get Black people, but you don’t need to be like, ‘It’s The Blackity Black Black Show!’”

This rise to primetime exposure was relatively unscripted, as Bell never had designs for a television take-over: up until a year ago he was only concentrating on performing and promoting a steady stream of projects such as his one-man comedy show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour and “Laughter Against the Machine,” a politically-pointed national comedy tour.

“I wanted to do this show, do some stand-up, and build it up slowly over time,” says Bell. “If I just find ten, twenty places in America that like me, that I can then go to every year and make a living, and do all these other things…I was in the middle of building towards that future.”

But Bell’s shows and his stand-up are political satire on steroids–it’s comedy too unconventionally good not to get noticed. At a time when jokes about oral sex are de rigueur for most American comedians, Bell’s material features a deft comedic handling of topics ranging from the ubiquity of racism in America to why country music is just the blues without slavery; an elucidation of otherwise convoluted subject matter usually aided by a PowerPoint presentation that you could only ever dream of being a part of your work’s “diversity training.”

“Comedy is like anything else in America–it’s dominated by a white, male, straight guy perspective” explains Bell. “As a result, comedy clubs are also dominated by white straight males, to the point that even the people who go there to perform have their perspective colored by straight white maleness. Even though [a comedian] may not want to do material about straight white male things, they still end up talking about things that straight white males will enjoy because there’s a sense that you’re in a playground for white maleness.”

Bell is nonplussed about the systemic social constraints to his style of comedy though, making him either the Horatio Alger of stand-up or yet another POC comedian to be calloused by reality. When asked about how he felt about his comedy in relation to the system, Bell says, “I don’t take issue with the comics and the clubs. Just like you can’t be mad at how McDonalds doesn’t have beet salads–it’s on me to do the self-promotion necessary to get the people who want to see my type of comedy.”

The choice to do comedic material outside the boundaries of the “playground” is just that, though: a choice, and one that Bell consciously made several years ago.

“Some comics do start out with an agenda, a very clear ‘voice,’” reflects Bell, “but I didn’t have a really clear voice when I first started out. For years I’d be going ‘What about this?’; ‘What about this?’ and sometimes I would talk about race and people would really back off and I’d think, ‘Well I guess I don’t want to talk about that,’ and then I’d talk about other things. But I would get really bored talking about things I didn’t care about, and somewhere around 2005-2007, I made a commitment to only talk about what I really cared about. For me, a good comic makes an audience make choices: ‘Am I with this, or am I against this’?”

For all the work it’s taken him to create such a niche audience for himself, it comes as a surprise to hear Bell say that his material isn’t intentionally educational; race and social systems just happen to be two topics that he’s particularly drawn to, with pratfalls and silliness worked into his sets in equal measure alongside his more nuanced material. That’s why in the spirit of identity politics, it does Bell a disservice to reduce his work to “Race and Blackness”–he’s just as interested in being goofy as he is in being insightful.

“I don’t think I’m much smarter than most other comedians,” begins Bell. “I just think that comedy clubs invite you to play from the lowest level of your intelligence. The thing that I love about stand-up comedy is that it’s like any other conversation between two adults–sometimes it’s really smart and sometimes it’s really stupid and I sort of like to go back and forth between the two poles instead of staying with really stupid.”

This tension between the silly and the serious is part of Bell’s appeal though. According to Dylan Gadino, editor-in-chief and founder of the comedy news site LaughSpin (formerly Punchline Magazine), “the thing about Kamau, besides that he’s funny, is that he can do social and political commentary and then just be goofy and joke about observational everyday things. What makes his comedy so appealing is that you can enjoy him on multiple levels. He’s a good comic who will make you laugh and if you care about social commentary he gives plenty of that as well.”

Built in part on the success of the “Curve” and his 2010 comedy album Face Full of Flour (winner of Punchline/LaughSpin and iTunes’ Top 10 Best Comedy Album of 2010 award), Bell’s work eventually pricked the tough and notoriously unyielding hide of comedic success just enough to get him noticed by Chris  Rock.  Following a surprise visit from after one of his shows, Rock asked Bell if he’d ever thought about doing a television show; Bell says he proceeded to shelve the idea under “Excellent Life Plan.”

The development of their conversation into a course of action had to take a hiatus though, as both Rock and Bell pursued other projects (e.g. Rock, Broadway; Bell, a baby), with Bell finally getting down to work this past autumn on an independently produced pilot, which Rock then pitched to several television network executives.

Bell admitted this deal was one of the easiest things he’s ever done, with Rock walking the pilot around town and subsequently letting him know who he’d been meeting with.

“By the time I met with FX it was basically already in place, they just wanted to make sure I didn’t have a horn coming out of my head, or that I wasn’t the type to go, ‘I need lots of cocaine!’ I never felt like I had to sell them the show; they had seen the footage [of the pilot], they wanted to work with Chris…it all came together quite quickly.”

With only three months until the first episode is shot in NYC this August, Bell still needs to finalize the actual structure of the show. Though the pilot episode was shot in a format vaguely reminiscent of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Bell insisted his show would only be “in the spirit” of the two reigning fake news shows, and not just a reiteration of either.

“We’re still working it all out,” offered Bell. “In the same way that The Daily Show is basically Jon Stewart’s perspective, or Bill Maher’s show is all Bill Maher’s perspective, I really wanted a show that’s from my perspective. There’s perspectives on popular events out there that I don’t see being broadcast, that I talk about with my friends that I don’t necessarily see reflected in mass media at the moment, and so this is an opportunity to push dialogues into different directions than people have.”

Given the precedent established by the three political comedy megaliths and the fact that his show will also be half an hour long, Bell was quick to add that he knows he’s not bringing about a revolution in terms of the shows format–he’s just doing his own interpretation of what’s out there. He’s also trying to be–and arguably needs to be–particularly considerate of what direction he goes in while developing his show.

“I just think that my friends and my version–because it’s not only my voice but the other comics that I bring in to it–will have a different perspective. [I do know that] my show’s not going to just feature the straight political headlines [of the day], it’s going to also have social commentary. It’s not going to be Chocolate News II.

Gadino says a lack of POC representation in late-night television already makes Bell’s new show significant; with Lopez Tonight off the air, Bell’s the only non-white person hosting a network show in that time slot. But even without knowing the final format for Totally Biased, Gadino says Bell’s body of work and current standing in the comedy world bodes well for his foray into the mainstream.

“I can’t imagine it’s not going to be good,” Gadino says. “He brings up good points, he’s political, he makes social commentary about important issues but I don’t find him divisive at all–he’s likable. I think he has a lot of potential because I think people need a voice like that.”

Though Bell refused to comment on the other comics he would officially be working with on his show, if his past collaborations are any sort of indicator, audiences can be sure to expect a diverse assortment of comics who skew left-of-center on the political spectrum (like maybe past allies clad primarily in old man sweaters and/or ties). Bell’s hardly a hobbyist when it comes to friendships though, he just enjoys different perspectives.

“I used to say in my solo show that if you’re the smartest person of your friends, you’re probably a racist,” he says. “I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room at all times because it just limits your perspective. When the comics I like perform together, there’s definitely a through line where it makes sense for all of them to hang out together and in that way we’re diverse without having to claim Diversity.”

Multi-tool kit of comedians aside, Bell just wants to make a show that is “good” and at least in part a reflection of the audience that has made him a success thus far.

“I’m really looking for ways for people to engage with the show that they feel like it’s a part of them; for me it’s all about staying grassroots,” says Bell, while thinking out loud. “Even how I got this show, it wasn’t necessarily through ‘the industry.’ It was through an artist who championed me to the industry–FX wouldn’t have found me otherwise so the whole thing feels very grassroots and I want to maintain that grassroots thing in the TV show.”

Bell knows he is toeing at the heels of comedic success, a place few other comedians ever reach. If the show resonates with viewers, he could join the ranks of nationally recognized black male comedians who speak truth to power (see: Foxx, Pryor, O’Neal, Rock, Chappelle). Having made his own way on the strength of being himself so far,  there’s no reason to believe that his show won’t feature the same comedic amalgam of high and lowbrow fare that has already endeared him to fans.

“I’m going to create my own project because I’ve always found more artistic fulfillment that way and I’ve also found commercial success I wasn’t looking for in that way–that’s how I got the TV show,” he says. “There’s no reason to stop now.”

Listen to Caitlin’s interview with Bell (NSFW-ish – cursing) here: