Talking to W. Kamau Bell About Becoming the Host of a Daily Show, ‘The Daily Show’, and Forgettable Meals
After a year airing once a week, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell will make its debut tomorrow night as the brand new FXX network’s nightly news commentary/comedy program. Kamau and I talked about how he and his staff are preparing for the drastic change in workload, how he feels he is doing as a television host, and if there will be more Lindy West/Jim Norton debates in the future.
Well, first of all, congrats on the 130-episode order.
How did you hear that news?
(Laughs.) It’s funny actually — me and Chris Rock, the other executive producer…I mean the Chris Rock who’s one of the greatest comedians of all-time, just to be clear—- were invited out to dinner with John Landgraf and one of the other presidents of FX, Eric Schrier. We went out to dinner and they talked for awhile about the idea that they wanted a… they were hoping that Totally Biased could be like a daily show. Not The Daily Show, I mean they probably want that too but we can’t do that. They wanted a daily show and they also knew that I had never done this before and there was no staff in place for this kind of thing so that we’d have to grow into it. At that point we had done 20 episodes? I felt like that was the point where they felt like they had ‘seen enough.’ In a good way, not the bad way. ‘We’ve seen enough.’ I guess they wanted to be sure they could announce it in time to help launch FXX. I knew they were, but I thought we’d have to wait until the end of this (second) cycle but I think they had seen enough and they were able to do a whole launch of FXX.
So they told you over dinner with Chris Rock?
Yes. (Laughs.) Over a very expensive New York fancy dinner. I was like, ‘I don’t know what this is but I’ll eat it if there’s good news.’
Did you ever find out what you were eating?
I’m sure they told me at the time but there was a lot of stuff going through my head at that moment. But I don’t remember. (Laughs.)
Are you still nervous?
About the food I eat or the show?
I’m generally nervous about everything. (Laughs.) I mean, I’m still nervous about every time when we were doing the show on Thursdays. I think, a little bit though, that the engine that pushes me to try to be good is nerves, so I don’t consider nervousness to be a bad sign; I feel like it’s a sign of like, ‘We’re alive and we’re doing this! And we could very easily fuck this up so pay attention!’
What changes are gonna be made to the show, if any, other than that you’re gonna be on five nights a week?
We’re gonna find a female Asian co-host.
Just because that tests very well, among guys, Asian females.
No, I’m just kidding. (Laughs.)
Can you put that in the thing? And then they might be like, ‘That’s a good idea.’
No I mean, really the thing FX has done is they really pushed us to experiment with the format, so we’ve done shows that have no guests; we’ve done shows that have had a debate; we’ve done shows that had a little bit of music; a lot of different things have happened. So, I think everything we’ve done that’s worked we’ll still figure out a way to get in to the show.
I think that, of the big changes that it’s gonna affect, for the first, probably, two months… The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are great in that, you kind of know what each segment’s gonna be. There are a couple choices they can make but, sorta like they go ‘This is what we’re doing in the first segment’ and Jon Stewart does it, then the second segment is either a correspondent or more Jon Stewart. I think we’ll figure out some version of that for the first two months, sort of like lock-in and really do all that stuff really well so we’re not driving ourselves crazy coming up with a lot of new ideas. I think we’ve come up with enough segments that work that it should be pretty easy to swap things in and out.
You promised in your season finale to all the writers that they would be coming back. Is that true?
Yes they will be. (Laughs.) That would be the worst joke ever. And the best joke. (Laughs.) All those writers who were on stage will be coming back. I mean, that was basically our entire writing staff, except for the producers like Brian McCann and Chuck Sklar. But yeah, they will all be coming back. (Laughs.) Man, that would have been shitty. But yes, they are all coming back.
Right, and because you’re just went on a standup tour with the writers this summer, it would have been very awkward if you did that. Is there any concern that you’ll get tired of each other?
A bunch of these people have been here since the beginning and a lot of them, like Janine Brito, Hari Kondabolu, Dwayne Kennedy and Kevin Avery I was very good friends with before the show started. I’ve known Dwayne a long time, I’ve known him longer than anybody. So, we’ve all gone through our, “I like you/I hate you/I like you/I hate you” before this ever came along. Just the regular friend biorhythms. So when we go through that on the show, we don’t think it’s gonna break up our friendship. But then the other people, like Aparna [Nancherla] I knew through Hari. She was someone whom I very much admired as a standup. And then a lot of the other writers were people who were professional comedy writers like Ethan [T.] Berlin and [Ned] Goldreyer… Oh, and Kevin Kataoka I’ve known for a long time too, I forgot about him. I mean, we weren’t great friends but I’ve known him since…Well, it’s kinda funny, Kevin Kataoka I met when I first went to San Francisco but then he very quickly moved to L.A. So he’s a San Francisco colleague but we didn’t, like, “come up” together. He was way ahead of me.
Me and Kevin Avery were running buddies. (Laughs.) We spent a lot of time running in and out of places, doing things together. You know, it’s a weird thing you hear people say but it’s actually true and that is that there’s a sense of a “family vibe” on the show, amongst the whole staff, not just the writers, and when people get into that vibe basically it makes it easy to go, ‘Hey, my brother! You fucked up! Do a better job!’ (Laughs.) So we can ease into a sort of course correct.
Especially now that you’re going to be together more, it’ll be good to have that vibe.
Well it’s funny, we hope we won’t be together less because despite the fact that were only one day a week we still come in to work every day. We’re not that good at it. I’m sure if The Daily Show was on one day a week they would come in on Thursday (laughs) morning, leave Thursday night, and come back a week later.
They’ve been at it a long time.
But we’ve been here every day and I think ultimately a lot of those shows that are late-night shows like that, they really keep banking hours because you can’t do the work twelve hours a day, five days a week without people wanting to kill themselves. I think we’ll probably be here longer hours initially but hopefully by a couple months in…Brian McCann, who came to us from working for Conan O’Brien and various shows for seventeen years, was like, “The first two months, you’re gonna want to die. But then it’ll settle in. But it’s gonna be brutal.” (Laughs.)
How do you feel you did as a host and performer in your first season on the show?
Like a letter grade? (Laughs.)
Sure, a letter grade and an explanation for your letter grade, if you want.
You know um (long exhale) I’ve always felt like you have to be your own harshest critic so I certainly… I am proud of the show, overall. There are specific pieces I’m super proud of, like ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever been associated with my career.’ And there’s pieces that I think are like, ‘this type of thing’s never been on TV before’ so even if it’s not perfect, I still feel like it makes a bold statement. And there’s stuff where it’s like, yeah, we didn’t cover that as well as we could have. But, overall, my performance, I feel like the longer this show’s on the air, the more comfortable I’ll be at being that thing called a ‘TV host.’ There’s no school for TV hosts. There’s no way to become a TV host other than hosting a TV show, I think. All TV hosts have rocky beginnings but the longer they’re on it, the better they get at it; if they’re allowed to stay in it, that’s a measure of power.
I actually read both of Bill Carter’s Late Night books: The War for Late Night and The Late Shift. That was kind of my night school during the last seven episodes, reading the Carter books. Conan had a really rough start and had a really crazy situation where they gave him month-to-month contracts and at some point Conan became the gold standard of what to be and now people are trying to be like him. So, I think that I’ve grown into it, I still think that I have a lot of room to grow, and I think that four days a week is probably going to help to accelerate that growth. It takes a lot of pressure to make a diamond or a broken piece of coal but we’ll see which way I come out. I think I will be a diamond. I think that I will respond to the pressure because I really like the work. I’m really glad FX decided to do it once a week over the course of a calendar year which is basically what we did, versus saying, ‘You’re gonna be on four days a week and it starts tomorrow. Go!’ That would have been bad and I think they knew that. But certainly, I can look at every episode and be like, ‘Woah, what are ya doing there, guy? Hey!’ (Laughs.) ‘Why would you make that choice? And then be like, ‘But you’re doing it! Look at you!’
You said there were some segments that you thought were some of the best work you’ve ever done. What was an example of that? What was one of those?
From the very first cut of Anything You Want to Say to a White Guy? I was like, ‘This. Is. Awesome.’ That was a piece we did where me and the writer who had the idea for the piece, Ethan Berlin, went on the street and asked black and brown people if they had anything to say or anything to get off their chest to a white guy and Ethan was the candidate to be the white guy. It was a really great mix of people making good points and also people having fun with it and Ethan responding well to them, sort of moderating it, and we were like, this doesn’t have to do well. It’s certainly goofy but there is also a thread of seriousness through here that the comedy is actually supporting; the comedy isn’t tearing it down. There was a part at the end of the video where this black dude sort of lets go this long stream of, like, ‘Here’s what I need to say to a white guy’ and at the end I said, ‘You guys wanna hug it out?’ And they hugged and it was hilarious! (Laughs.)
That’s not how man-on-street pieces end, with everybody hugging, but that’s how that piece ended and I thought it was really just sort of gently subversive but nonetheless subversive. I get really excited when Totally Biased does things that I feel like aren’t happening anywhere else on television. I also think that the Jim Norton/Lindy West debate about rape jokes, while not a great example of how a debate is supposed to be run because that’s not what we were really trying to do and it was also my first time moderating anything like that, I knew that wouldn’t be done on television anywhere. I felt like this is a thing we’ve created that nobody else can say… because a lot of people when we first started would say, ‘Oh, it’s like the black Daily Show.’ Nobody can say that about that segment.
I was actually going to bring this up. You had a segment the next week about the aftermath of that debate, and you self-deprecatingly blamed yourself as not being the best moderator. Did you really believe that? That it was partially your fault?
Well no, the follow-up piece was mostly about the backlash that Lindy got to the segment. But I do feel like if there’s anything wrong with that segment it’s just that I had never done that before. Not that Lindy or Jim did something wrong or that they weren’t right, no, it was just the first time I did any interviews with them; my interviews on the show at the beginning I think were a little bit like, ‘I’m still figuring this out.’ And I’m still figuring it out, but I’m not figuring it out in the same broad terms I was initially, I think I’m trying to respond a little bit. What I think when there’s anything wrong with that segment when I watch it is like, ‘Yeah, that guy’s figuring it out.’ (Laughs.) And you can sort of see the wheels turning.
It’s not perfect, but I still think the segment stands up well for not being seen on television anywhere. But yeah, I think I’m my own worst critic. I just want to make sure that nobody… I would never come on TV and apologize for that segment or criticize Lindy or Jim; I thought they were both great. I was just making it clear that if there’s anything wrong with that, deal with me, but say so in a funny way. You know what I mean?
Sure, I understand.
And then the rest of it was about the backlash she got. The fact is we’re going to do more segments like that, we may even bring them back to do round two, that got us more attention than anything we have ever done maybe, as far as on the blogs and on the Internet. We’ll certainly do it again, something like that, because that was my idea and that, and to me feels like the kind of TV I would want to watch.
Who is your dream guest for the show? Who is somebody that is number one on your list, you would absolutely love to have on Totally Biased, whether it be in an interview or in a comedy segment?
My dream guest, as I’ve said from the beginning, is Denzel Washington. (Laughs.) Because Denzel Washington is like maybe the last, black folk hero. I mean, Dave Chappelle also is a black folk hero, but I feel like Denzel Washington, by definition, connects to an area of Hollywood, like you could have the leap to Sidney Poitier and also to Will Smith, but still also relevant in his own right. I feel like there’s conversations to be had on Denzel that I only see on DVD extras and talking to Spike Lee, but not on television talking to a black person. And so I’d love to try to invite him to have a conversation on Totally Biased. I think we’ve done a really good job, like we had Billy Porter on from Kinky Boots and we got into this conversation of what it is to have a father. Again, I felt like this conversation is not happening on the other networks. Two black men talking about fatherhood and not in a jokey… I mean, it was funny but we were doing it in a genuine way. It wasn’t about ‘black men don’t know how to blah blah blah.’ So, I would love to have Denzel on, absolutely he would be somebody that I would love to have on. Also, I’d love to talk to Joel Osteen. (Laughs.) Do you know Joel Osteen?
I know the name…
He’s a mega-church guy who preaches to like twenty thousand people every Sunday, selling, like,
fifteen books all about how you can live your life. The Prosperity Gospel, where it’s all about ‘you can praise Jesus and be rich because that’s what Jesus wanted, right?’ ‘Wait a minute, that’s actually not what he wanted…’ I would like to talk to one of those people, and he’s the key guy, about ‘How can you think God loves everybody except for gay people who want to commit themselves to each other?’
You’re going to be on FXX, and you don’t have to give your opinion on this, but, personally, I think FXX is a stupid name for a channel.
I feel like that was the first thing they thought of and they just went with it. If it were up to you,
what would you have named the new network?
FXWKB. I did suggest that, but they didn’t go with it.
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell premieres tomorrow night at 11 p.m. eastern on FXX.