Talking to W. Kamau Bell About Standup, ‘Totally Biased’, and Diversity in Late Night
Long established on the San Francisco comedy scene, W. Kamau Bell was relatively unknown nationally when he began hosting Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell on FX in 2012. But following the internet outrage over the show’s cancellation this past November, Bell and Totally Biased received more critical attention, posthumously praising the show for its unique blend of humor and socio-political commentary.
Now, Bell is full steam ahead with his “Oh Everything!” tour, which will include doing standup at the Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival July 25-28, a comedy cruise put on by Jesse Thorn’s podcast and radio organization Maximum Fun. Before that, he’ll be in New York at The Bell House on 4/15 and The Sinclair on 4/16. I got the chance to talk to Bell about his current standup tour, Totally Biased, and how Letterman’s retirement will affect the late night lineup.
How’s the “Oh Everything!” Tour going?
It’s going well. It’s doing good. I’m in North Carolina right now, and I’m doing a show at the DSI Comedy Theater, and it’s sold out, so that’s good.
When did you start writing the material for this tour? During Totally Biased or in the downtime after?
Well, my last album was in 2010, and I’ve been doing standup on and off, so I guess equally a lot’s from Totally Biased. There’s a little bit of material that’s like, “I really never got to use this material. I never really got to showcase this material.” Definitely I’d say it’s like 30% stuff that existed on the shelf before getting dusty and 70% stuff that is just me trying to keep up with the world around me and my life.
Does the title “Oh Everything!” indicate you branching out to more topics than your typical socio-political comedy or is it your trademark style still?
My trademark style. [Laughs] I appreciate that, and I will take it as a compliment.
But you’ve got to admit, all your bios refer to you as a “socio-political” comedian.
I take responsibility for a lot of that. I haven’t written all my bios, but I have written a lot of them. I own that. You know, I think that a little bit some people are strictly associated with race and racism, but this is sort of like, “No, no, it’s everything.” There is still race and racism material because that’s what I like to talk about. So I would say it’s heavily socio-political, but there’s also marriage equality stuff and transgender stuff and there’s also just stuff about having a kid, because I have one of those kids. And then it becomes socio-political, you know. So “Oh Everything!” is the thought that it’s not just one thing, and it’s also not going to do the same thing because I’m always working on stuff and I’m always writing it.
How’d you get involved with the Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival coming up in July?
I’ve known Jesse Thorn since he was probably 12. Not really, but it feels that way. I knew him when he was still at UC Santa Cruz and I was a new comedian. He would bring me on his radio show and book comedy shows I was on. And lucky for me, I was always nice to him. [Laughs] And now he’s “Jesse Thorn, mogul.” So when Jesse calls me and asks me to do things, I just say yes before he stops talking.
Can we expect a third album from this tour? Is that in the near future?
Yeah, the whole goal of the tour, and that’s why we’re really trying to make it as big and long as we can, is to do the tour and at the end of the year to put out a comedy special and an album.
Awesome. Do you have any other upcoming projects going on?
No, I mean, right now I’m working on working on a lot of things. I have a lot of irons in the fire and am just sort of working on what I want to take out.
So it’s been four months now since Totally Biased was canceled. What’s the fan reaction to the cancelation been like from your point of view?
The funny thing about the fan reaction to the cancelation is last night I did a show in Miami, and I talked about the show being canceled on stage. And after the show a guy came up to me. His wife said, “He’s your biggest fan.” And he said, “I had no idea the show was canceled until you just said something.” [Laughs] And I sort of felt like, ‘Then you’re probably not my biggest fan.’
I would say still, once or twice a week, somebody on Twitter or Facebook will be like, “When is your show coming back?” and I have to break the news it was canceled and they’re like, “What? I just thought it was on hiatus.” I don’t know how long that is going to go, but it certainly has lasted longer than I expected it to. You think the people who like you are always paying attention to you. So I sort of thought after all the internet attention about it and blogs written about it being canceled — It was great because when it was canceled, there was this huge rush to be like, “No!!” I feel like it’s like Woodstock where more people are claiming they were there than were actually there.
What are you taking away from Totally Biased? Do you think the experience of doing a late night show has affected your standup?
Yeah, I’ve always loved standup comedy. It certainly made me appreciate standup comedy a lot more. It’s a much more intimate and direct experience. It’s really fun to not to have to hit my mark in the same place every night. It’s also fun to work on jokes: that’s a really fun part of being a comedian, getting to raise a joke from infancy to adulthood. You don’t really see that on TV. I think it has changed my standup. It’s made me appreciate standup a lot more, it’s made me a lot more excited about standup. This is my first real proper comedy tour. Well, it’s kind of my second, but it’s way more cities than I’ve done in the past. It’s really fun to be able to every night of the show, just perform for people in different parts of the country.
Looking back on it, do you have a favorite segment from Totally Biased?
It’s hard, there’s so many I really like, and I wish I could give you a baker’s dozen of my favorite things. I would say probably my sentimental favorite is the thing me and Ethan Berlin did — he was the head writer and executive producer of Totally Biased — called “Anything to Say to a White Guy?” where we walked around Harlem and Washington Heights. The thing about it that I like so much, it’s only like four, five minutes long, but people had very appreciative things to say to white guys and very ridiculous things to say to white guys and they end by just hugging. I felt like I’d never seen anything like this on TV before, where it actually made a serious point, but it also followed all the way through.
You mention walking around in New York. Are you based in New York still or are you back in San Francisco?
No, it’s funny, I’m still in New York. Chris Rock says you talk about the city you’re from like rappers talk about the city they’re from. I think people thought that when the show was canceled I’d walk off-stage like, “Take me to SF!” But we’re still in New York. I like being in New York and I want to sort of explore my options there, but I’m ready to move back to the Bay Area at anytime.
Are you still in touch with a lot of the writers and producers from Totally Biased?
Yeah. There’s a little bit where it’s like the end of a war movie where everyone scatters afterwards. I just did a pop-in surprise appearance at Hari Kondabulu’s album release party in San Francisco where nobody knew I was going to be there, and I showed up to introduce him. We talk regularly. Dwayne Kennedy writes for Arsenio Hall now. And Kevin Avery, who was the head writer of Totally Biased, we were roommates in San Francisco and we will always be connected. He’s now writing on John Oliver’s show. And I just got to hang out with Eliza Skinner on @midnight.
Could you talk a little bit about the transition from a weekly show on FX to a nightly show on FXX?
Ultimately, the failure of Totally Biased lands on me. If I had been better, the show would have had a better chance, but we didn’t have a lot of people on the show who had a lot of daily talk show experience. Everybody was really learning on the job, and that’s a big challenge to try to learn on the job. And combined with the fact that — I loved all the people at FX, but when they moved us to FXX, we were sort of hard to find. I regularly heard from people like, “I can’t get it,” or “I don’t know how to find it,” or “I don’t want to pay 30 extra dollars for the channel.” There were a lot of extra challenges on top of the fact of making a comedy show. But I’m not trying to hide from it, believe me. I’m my own worst critic.
And a lot of people, myself included, will watch clips online but not necessarily nightly. How do you think that has an impact?
Yeah, of course. We were still a new show, and it’s easier to say, “There’s this new show on once a week and you gather around it once a week.” It’s hard to say, “Now it’s on five nights a week!” and it’s like, “Wait a minute, there’s a lot of stuff on TV I want to watch.” There’s a different relationship to that versus a relationship to watching Breaking Bad or something like that. You don’t feel like you have to see every moment. And there’s a little bit of a sense like, I’ll just wait until the next day. The bigger issue here is how we measure how TV is watched and how we count watching TV.
Would you want to host another talk show or late night show again?
Yeah, if that offer was put in front of me, I certainly would like to think about it. I think the challenge of Totally Biased was that I was still learning how to do it. Luckily, I’ve acquired a lot of those skills, and I think it’s like riding a bike where they don’t go away. Doing Totally Biased weekly was one thing, and doing it daily was a totally different thing. I never thought of myself as a late night talk show host. I though of myself as a guy with a lot of opinions who wrote jokes about those opinions. And according to the internet, according to several different internet sources, I’m up for David Letterman’s spot. According to Variety, I’m in the top 13 choices.
Thank you. [Laughs] I never in a million years… If you had asked me a week ago would I think I would be mentioned with that, even in a humorous sense, I would’ve said no.
Do you think it will open up the possibility for more diversity in late night? A lot of people are talking about how CBS is the most conservative network.
I think CBS is going to choose the person that they think can best take the ball from NCIS and CSI. I can’t imagine they’re looking at this as an opportunity to get more diverse. When you talk about it as an opportunity for late night to get more diverse, you’re sort of acting like there’s not a network called CBS that’s a very white conservative network.
But if someone with a different show took over Late Show and then left their position open, that could lead to some shifting in late night.
There could be some sort of weird domino effect. I think we’re all still a little shocked that Conan O’Brien had The Tonight Show and then didn’t have The Tonight Show like we’re living in an alternate universe. I’m not saying CBS isn’t going to hire a person of color. I think they have to hire the person that best takes the ball from NCIS and CSI and How I Met Your Dad and bring it across the finish line for whoever’s after that, whether it’s Craig Ferguson or the next person. CBS of all the networks probably has the most established brand. They’re going to do whatever works for that brand, and here’s the thing, that person could be Wayne Brady. And that doesn’t mean anything about Wayne Brady other than people like Wayne Brady a lot. Or even it could be Arsenio. He never got his proper late night show. I think if there’s some sort of weird domino effect, who knows what could happen? I was reading some interesting fan fiction online where Jimmy Fallon’s taking Arsenio’s job and suddenly I’m hosting NBC Nightly News. [Laughs]. So, who knows?
Okay, well that’s all my questions. Anything else going on you’d like to talk about?
No, I just look forward to meeting with CBS.
Check out W. Kamau Bell at Jesse Thorn’s Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival July 25-28 performing along with Kyle Kinane, Natasha Leggero, and more.
Emma Soren is a writer from Chicago living in Philadelphia.