In 2010, sociopolitical comedian and activist W. Kamau Bell was doing pretty well. He was performing his award-winning solo show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour to packed houses in San Francisco, and his second stand-up album, Face Full of Flour, was named one of the Top 10 Best Comedy Albums of the year by iTunes and Punchline magazine. But did you know who he was? Me neither. That's about to change.
That same year, comedian Chris Rock attended one of Kamau's performances. And he liked what he saw. Aug. 9 sees the premiere of Kamau's first TV show, executive produced by Rock. The half-hour weekly series, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell (again with the long names), will air six episodes on FX following Louie. The show will be filmed the day of the broadcast so that its commentary will be as up-to-date as possible on topical issues such as politics, pop culture, race, religion and the media.
We spoke to Bell about the origins of his show, his approach to comedy and how exec producer Chris Rock prepared him for failure or fame.
1. What is the Kamau Bell origin story?
Comedy was a big part of my upbringing. I grew up watching Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby and thinking, “I want to do what those guys do. Like a combination of what those two guys are doing.” I was born in California but grew up all over the country with my mom, mostly. I visited my dad in Alabama for the summers. When I was living in Chicago, I took classes at Second City and that's what really gave me the courage to do stand-up.
In 1997, I moved to San Francisco to get into the scene. I like to study things before I do them, and I knew that was where Richard Pryor found his voice and where Lenny Bruce was arrested. I knew I wasn't ready to go to New York or L.A. yet, and after going up at the Punchline, I thought San Francisco seemed like a place interested in finding and honing new talent.
2. Was your family supportive of your desire to get into comedy?
My mom's the one who signed me up for classes as Second City. She's that kind of mom. If I said I wanted to do something, she supported me. The biggest laugh I think I ever got from my dad was when I told him I wanted to go into stand-up. He's seen my show several times now and I think I could say he's a fan. He's a businessman, though, so for the first few years he was still really trying to get me into insurance.
3. Who are your biggest comedic influences?
I'm a huge fan of Bill Hicks. He's known by comics as the modern Lenny Bruce. He was a really powerful perfomer who helped politicize comedy, not just ripping from the headlines but actually talking about the issues. His approach was, if this is my last hour on Earth, this is what I want to get out there. That's the example I try to follow. Of course, Chris Rock was a big influence, too, as a black man talking about race in America.
4. Where did the format for the show come from?
The format for Totally Biased started with my one-man show, which Chris Rock saw in 2010. It was me in front of a screen talking about race and topical issues with historical perspective. I had been doing stand-up and it wasn't going that well. I'd try to talk about race, which was OK, but then people would be like, “Why are you still talking about this after 10 minutes?” So I decided to create a show where I could go deeper into the issues. I wrote the show I would do if I were already famous. That's pretty much what Totally Biased is, too: me in front of a screen talking about the issues of the day. It won't be as race-focused, but I'll still be a black guy, so I'm sure it will come up.
5. In the show's promo, some of your jokes elicited gasps of shock from the audience as well as laughter. How does this reflect your approach to comedy?
I want laughter to be the overriding principle of my shows, but not everything has to be funny in the same way to everybody. I like writing jokes that can divide an audience. I want to write a joke that one person thinks is horrible while another thinks it's hilarious. And sometimes I fail. Sometimes nobody's laughing and I say, “Oh, I went too far with everybody. At least I know where the line is.”
6. What's the best advice Chris Rock has given you?
I like to call Chris the foul-mouthed Yoda, because most of what he tells me, I can't actually repeat to other people. But regarding the show, one of the best things Chris told me was, if you have jokes you're writing now, don't save them up. Put everything you have into that show. You will write more funny things. I'm cannibalizing my entire career for this show right now. But whatever happens, I'll take a month off, I'll go write some new stuff and start over.
7. Who do you see as the audience for Totally Biased?
I think I have a comedian audience as well as an audience of the people who look like me and the people who hang out with people who look like me. I'm married to a white woman, so I'd also like to be the interracial-relationship comedian.
8. Do you have a comment on the Tosh rape joke controversy?
As a comic, I have to be against heckling 100 percent of the time. But I'm way more against rape than I am against heckling. Knowing people who have been victims of rape, I can understand why that woman would have had that visceral experience, and I know I wouldn't have handled the situation the way Tosh did.
At the same time, comedy is an art form about crossing lines. Tosh knows he uses subjects to cross people's lines. But if he's going to do that, he needs to be ready to face the consequences. If this had happened 20 years ago, she would have gone and told her friends and no one else would have known about it. But in the world we live in today, it's a national news story for a week. Comedians need to be prepared for that and understand that sometimes comedy has consequences.
9. If you could perform your show for any three famous leaders and get a beer afterwards with them, who would it be?
Uh, can they be dead? [Sure.] OK. Malcolm X, John Coltrane and Bill Hicks.
10. What would you be doing if you weren't a comedian?
I'd probably own a comic book shop, if I could get a bank loan in this economy.