The first of six episodes of FX’s newest talk show, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, premieres tonight. Some of the promotional clips have executive producer Chris Rock and others asking, “Who is W. Kamau Bell?”
To answer that question, The Comic’s Comic asked those people who know Bell’s comedic sensibility the best: Bell himself and the friends and comedic colleagues he hand-picked to write for his show. Please note: These are comedians. Some of their answers may be truly sincere, while at the same time going for the joke within said sincerity.
I want to know from each of you guys, be “totally biased.” You know better than anybody who’s going to be watching the show.
Bell: Are you implying that my mom isn’t going to be watching the show? (Laughter)
I’m implying that these guys actually know more about you, at least in recent memory.
Bell: Fair enough. Fair enough.
Janine Brito: She called me. She’s not watching the show.
She may know more about your childhood. But you now.
Bell: Alright. Alright.
So, what do you want viewers to know about Kamau?
Brito: Kamau loves the movie The Devil Wears Prada.
Bell: That’s true.
Brito: And he has several copies of it in his apartment.
Bell: I have one copy of it.
Brito: You have two. I took a picture of it on my cell phone. And you have two copies of another girly chick flick.
Bell: That’s because when you marry, you have multiple copies.
Nato Green: Is it Step Up? It’s one of those dance movies!
Bell: No. I will claim The Devil Wears Prada. But I’m not claiming any dance movies. That’s Melissa.
Brito: He loves Meryl Streep.
Bell: Yeah. That’s a great movie. And Meryl Streep is a great actress. What’s crazy about that?
Green: No, it’s not crazy. It’s just something people should be aware of.
Brito: It’s something people should know.
So if viewers love Meryl Streep, they should love Kamau.
Nato, you’ve been writing for Kamau. What are you going to try to push through him, to the audience?
Green: I’ll let Kamau answer that question? Well, one of the things that people may not know about Kamau is how much Kamau talks about people’s dicks as a metaphor. Like, Kamau has supported a number of other comics, including me and Janine, our growth and development as artists. And he talks a lot about the importance of swinging your big comedy dick around. Pull out your big comedy dick slowly. Parade it around for the audience to see. (group laughs) That’s been the most thoroughly worked metaphor in Kamau’s directing style.
Dwayne Kennedy: What, do you just bring them off to the side, and whisper to them?
Green: So that’s one thing. And the other thing is that Kamau is always trying to combine this righteous indignation about the state of the world and the foolishness, with a real sense of hope and optimism. I’ve always thought, he called his show “Ending Racism in About an Hour” and not “Wallowing in Racism for About an Hour.” You know, Kamau actually thinks on some level that it might be possible to end racism if you can get people to stop being stupid for long enough. That an hour is what it would take if enough of us got together. So the show is really a call to arms.
Hari Kondabolu: He’s a leader.
So you were last hired?
Kondabolu: But at the same time, Kamau likes to send me clips of the New York Knicks losing to the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, just to remind me what my place is, as a Knicks fan, and as a member of the staff. He is the ’90s Bulls, and I am the hard-working New York team that has to lose, because that is what I have to do. Rebound and get blocked. Over and over again. Four blocks in a row, Charles Smith!
Bell: Yes. That’s your role.
Do you think that Kamau, being that ’90s Bulls guy, that that kind of leadership and strength is going to help him in a six-week trial period on TV?
Kondabolu: I can’t comment on that as a Knicks fan. (group laughter)
What about you guys, Kevin and Dwayne?
Kennedy: Go ahead, man. You suck up first. (group laughter)
Kevin Avery: I lived with Kamau for a brief moment in time. What, two, three years? He keeps a clean apartment. Pays the rent on time. Also, I like to think that I actually got to see the show — the conception of this show — because I was with Kamau when we did some shows in Okinawa, Japan. A little bit of a back-breaking experience.
Bell: Okinawa being Bane, and me being Batman.
Avery: I was thinking that! Yeah, exactly! Kamau got his back broken.
Green: To be clear, Okinawa, the troops being Bane. Not the citizens of Okinawa. They were totally innocent in this story.
Avery: Yeah, yeah. The shows being Bane. And he went off the grid, back broken and all, and he came back. When people see the show, they’re seeing him, because he’s been doing comedy for a long time. I mean like, a long time. (laughter) I’m glad he’s getting his shit together. So, you’re not seeing a guy at the end of his run. You’re seeing a dude on his climb. Because he was broken. Three or four days, same jeans, crying.
Bell: Whereas now, I’m wearing the same jeans, but not crying!
Kennedy: Well, first of all, I find it terribly ironic that I wind up working for him. (laughter) You can imagine how depressed I am. I’ve known him since — how long had you been doing comedy when I met you? Like three hours?
Bell: Yeah, a few hours, at an open mic in Chicago.
Kennedy: So I’ve known him a long time, and it’s interesting to see how he has grown…You know what, here’s the thing. I didn’t plan. And here I am. You know what I mean? But he’s a good cat. I’ve seen him grow, and how his comedy has become more, well, he’s always been socially conscious, but more like, political. I remember I saw him a few years ago. And I hadn’t seen him prior to that in a few years. And just the growth and the change. This cat has really come into his own voice. That good thing about Kamau, and the bad thing, is that he’s such a decent person that sometimes — you know how people will do comedy at the expense of others — he has a decency, that sometimes he will sacrifice a joke for the sake of decency. And I’ll say, ‘Kamau, sometimes you just need to smack the…'”
Bell: Let the recording show that Sean just flinched as if he were about to get smacked. (laughter)
Ed. note: False to the first part. True to the group laughter part.
Well, it is cable. Now, “Laughter Against the Machine” (stand-up shows featuring Bell, Green and Brito) is more of a traditional stand-up show. But the tour itself has been a lot more than that, right? Interacting with people?
Brito: Yeah. The tour, we went on the road and went on the front lines. Talked to people, a bunch of activists, people who are actually dealing with the topics that we wanted to learn about and often discussed onstage, firsthand.
How has that experience informed your writing and pitches for the TV show?
Green: I feel like, doing a TV comedy show, talking about poltical and social issues, one of the things that we learned, which became important to all three of us on the tour, was that our comedy had to be grounded in actual relationships with people, and the firsthand experiences that we had. So, if we were going to talk about immigration, we know illegal immigrants, and we know people who have been impacted by the laws. So when we talk about these things, it’s not just that we’ve been watching the news and writing funny jokes about things we see on television. But it’s all about, it’s something that we have a personal stake in, because we have some firsthand experience of witnessing it. And, there’s an emotional honesty about our approach to comedy. And it got really sharpened on tour.
Brito: I think also we learned, because there were a few parts of the tour, that we got sad, and comedy was broken for a couple of days. We couldn’t laugh or make each other laugh. Eventually we got back and learned, that’s OK for comedy to be broken and be sad, but eventually you will kind of pull yourself up and get something out of that.
Kamau, has this experience changed what your view of what the show is. As it gets closer to the premiere, has it changed what your view of what the show is going to be, versus what you thought?
Bell: You mean being on tour? I think it’s great that we got to go out on tour, and that I feel as a person who is leading the show. That has my name in it. I’m glad that I did that. That wasn’t connected to this show. That was just my career, the weird direction that my career has taken, and that was just a part of it, but the tour certainly informs how I deliver material, passionate material about the state of the world. And I think Dwayne is right. I’m not that decent. I’ll say that. But I do feel the responsibility to, like, if I’m going to step on toes, I’m going to step on the right toes. You know. The show’s not going to be ‘Up With People’ every night, we sing “Kumbaya” and hug. Well, maybe it is a little bit. But it is..it’s not going to be that…it is about making sure that, when it’s time to call people out, we call the right people out. A lot of times. I love all forms of comedy and all types of different comedy. All of the comedy I listen to isn’t the kind I do. But I feel like the kind that has become most natural to me is to be very specific. It’s targeted…it’s making sure that I step on the right kind of toes. Like, a lot of times, I feel that comedy can step on the whole foot. I feel a responsibility to be more direct than that.
Now how close is that to the actual pitch you made to FX?
Bell: Luckily, Chris Rock pitched it to FX. I didn’t have to do anything. I mean, and that’s actually the truth.
Did you have to be in the room?
Bell: I, no. By the time I got into the room with FX, they had already — I was really there just so they could poke at me and make sure I wasn’t crazy. I think they were like, ‘We can work with only one crazy person at a time.’ No names! But that guy in the dog costume is nuts. (laughter) I don’t know him. Just kidding. But they had seen video. They wanted to work with Chris. They trusted Chris. By the time I met with them, the show was already basically sold. It was only mine to fuck up. And clearly, I haven’t fucked up yet.
How did Chris Rock decide he wanted to pitch FX a show starring you?
Bell: Chris had heard about me through the comedy grapevine, and I heard through the comedy grapevine that he thought I was funny. But it was one of those things where you’re like, ‘Yayyyy!’ There was nothing to do with that. I was happy about it, but it’s like, at the time, it’s like hearing that Spider-Man thinks you’re funny. It doesn’t seem like it’s a real guy. And, so, but then, eventually, Chuck Sklar, who’s one of the executive producers and the head writer on the show, and Jocelyn Cooper, who runs Afro-Punk, who were two good friends of his, basically told him ‘you need to see his show next time you’re around it.’ And I did the show in October 2010 at UCB here in New York, and I didn’t know he was there, but he was there. After the show he came backstage and told me that he thought I was funny. He did it like, ‘Yeah, you’re funny!’ I felt it was like Michael Jordan telling you you have a good jump shot. Yeah, you’ve got a good jump shot, but are you going to do anything with it? And so he asked me where I lived. I said ‘San Francisco.’ He said ‘Move.’ And then a couple of months later I got a phone call from a blocked number. I answered it. And it was Chris. And I didn’t believe it was him. And that led to a hilarious sequence of back-and-forth and then he said, ‘I want to help you get a show.’ You see, the whole thing for me was, I was just sort of doing my thing. I was prepared to tour my act and the show, and Laughter Against the Machine, and go around the country to the 12 places that liked me and sort of make my career that way. I based it on the Ani DiFranco model. You have to build it yourself. And I wasn’t necessarily looking for a show. I mean, every comic wants a TV show. But he said that I want to help you get a show, and at that point, what’s your show? I had to figure out what my show was. Through thinking about it and working on it, we and Chuck and a bunch of comics from San Francisco, me, Nato and Janine made a loose pilot. It was at a theater that we knew. We showed that to Chris. And he said, ‘OK, I see a show here.’ And he funded a more professional pilot. And that’s what he showed to FX. Yeah, I’d get calls from him, like ‘I talked to HBO, we’ll see what happens.’ For me, it was, try not to think about the fact that Chris Rock is out trying to sell a TV show with your name on it. And so I was just trying to live my regular life, and every once in a while I’d get a phone call. But it was like, HBO, maybe a couple of other networks, we’ll figure it out. Then he calls me and says, ‘Yeah, I’m going to meet with the head of FX. After I meet with him, you’ll probably have to fly down here,’ and then he gave me advice on how to handle a pitch meeting. He has been very generous with his advice on here’s what I did with my career, and here’s what I recommend. And he’s generally dead-on. I call him “foul-mouthed Yoda” because I can’t tell my wife any of the advice he has given me, because it’s usually an analogy or a metaphor, and I’m like, “Oh, OK!” But he has been super generous and has he checked in on the writing and I talk to him pretty regularly about what we’re doing.
Now for this first season, what model are you using for the show? Is it all topical each week? Or, are some of you writing “evergreen” pieces that can go in any week?
Bell: We’re shooting pieces now (late July). There’s hyper-topical, and then there’s topical in the sense of what the culture is talking about now. So, we shot a piece about “stop and frisk” that I would imagine in a month would still be good, unless something crazy happens. I mean, it would be great if something crazy did happen — there’s no more “stop and frisk”! It would be great if fairness broke out. But probably not. We’re shooting pieces that are more general but are still going to be topical. Just bank some things. We shot a thing about gay marriage. These things aren’t going away. That’s generally how my act has worked. I’ve never been the comic who ripped through the headlines every morning, and sort of said, I need to talk about these things on the page. I only talk about things that I care about. But then we’re going to shoot the day we air, so we can be as topical as the news of that day. So the same way that (Bill) Maher shoots live, or The Daily Show or Colbert, so yeah, we want to be topical, but we’re also shooting things in advance.
Lastly, for the very casual viewer. The one who might put on FX and just watch Anger Management, Wilfred, Louie and then whatever comes on after that. For that casual viewer, who one week goes from Louie to Brand X with Russell Brand, and then the next week goes from Louie and says, ‘Hey, that’s not Russell Brand!’
Bell: Why do they got to be upset about it, Sean?
No, I’m not saying they’re upset, but is there any message you want to send to them?
Bell: If you’re the kind of person who watches FX all evening, then what you’re saying is you like to see comedy pushing into new areas. Or just. Comedy where the creator gets to make the decisions in the comedy. So this is just another example of that. I think if you like the brand that FX puts forward, then I’m just another example of that brand. And so, I don’t see me. When I went to FX. If you go to the CBS lot, on the posters on the lot look like, all the same people but in different poses. And you know, I’m not putting those shows down, but if you go to FX, it’s all the shows are very different. So I feel like in that sense, I feel like I’m on the Island of Misfit Toys, and I’m just the black toy.
Kennedy: Why do you have to say it like that?
Bell: I didn’t expect you to be that tense!…No, no, I feel like we are going to come out of the gate a little different. I’m not going to be compared to Brand X, because for one thing, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m not Russell Brand. I’m also, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m also not famous. So I have to prove, this show really needs to stand on its own in a way that other things don’t have to. I feel like I have to hit this as hard as “The Bell Curve,” when in San Francisco, I had to prove that the concept worked. It’s going to get better as it goes along. The first show is going to be one thing. As we get more into it, it’s going to get better and better. We have six episodes. If we air once, we’re ahead of the game. So I think, we’re going to air six times. We’re going to try to make the best thing we can six times in a row, and see what happens. I’m already in the bonus round! Chris said to me one time, ‘Even if you don’t ever go on TV, you’re more famous now than you were yesterday.’ That’s totally true. And so, it’s just about capitalizing on the opportunities that I have. I’m glad to have my friends and comedy cohorts — people that I find are the funniest people in comedy — to work on this show. So I’m glad to do this with my friends. It makes the show that much more fun.
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell debuts at 11 p.m. Eastern/Pacific tonight on FX.
Further viewing: Here, Bell’s writing staff talks about their own biases, for laughs. Roll the clip.