W. Kamau Bell: Attacking Jon Stewart from the center

FX comedian W. Kamau Bell is happy to go after Obama, even if he "loses my spot at the black people meeting"

Published September 10, 2012 1:00AM (EDT)

W. Kamau Bell
W. Kamau Bell

FX's "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell" is a new spin on the late night, left-leaning satirical news program. Like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," W. Kamau Bell and his writers riff on the week's news, taking aim at the outrageous and absurd, but from a more racially aware perspective than either of the Comedy Central series. (See, for example, Bell's riff on Obama being the president of black America.)

Bell made a name for himself doing politically and socially conscious stand up in the Bay Area, where he came to the attention of Chris Rock, who is one of "Totally Biased's" executive producers. FX ordered up six episodes of the series, which tapes just a few hours before it airs on Thursday nights at 11. With just two episodes left in its initial run, W. Kamau Bell spoke about starting a TV show, appealing to those he doesn't agree with and Rock's involvement.

So how is it going? Do you feel like you're on a steep learning curve?

When I think about this show, I think about the beginnings of a lot of shows. Not to compare myself to any of these people, but you look at the first season of “Seinfeld” and that's not the Seinfeld we talk about. You look at the first season of Conan O'Brien and that’s not Conan O’Brien. I'm not alone in my steep learning curve. I just hope I'm allowed to finish learning.

Has there been anything about making the show that has been particularly surprising to you?

There are so many aspects of it that are surprising. To pick on one, overwhelmingly the response that we have gotten has been good. And I guess I was prepared for the worst. So I think that's been pleasantly surprising. But I'm constantly surprised, I'm surprised you're talking to me right now. Sometimes I'll turn to my friends or my wife and I'll be like, "this is crazy."

In the second episode you did a whole riff on Biden using the word "unchained." Were you trying to tip off audiences that you are an equal opportunity skewerer -- that you'll go after Democrats if need be?

I don't think I was conscious of that. People who know me as a performer know it's never my thing to attack one side. I've written way more jokes about Obama than I ever wrote about any other president. Not to say that those jokes were attacking him. They were more satirical and like, “Hey, I noticed this. This is weird.” And I think Biden saying “unchained” in front of a bunch of black people, that's ripe for comment. It's not even about like, “Am I gonna vote for Obama?” Absolutely. But I can't let that [Biden comment] go.

Do you worry about appealing to people who don’t necessarily agree with you?

Last week, our opening line was that joke about Todd Akin. [“Hey! Rep. Todd Akin, if women can’t get pregnant from legitimate rape, then how come there are so many light-skinned black people walking around Alabama?"] I have family in Alabama, and part of me went, “Hmm, I would've probably liked to go back to Alabama again.” Part of me also knows that joke is great. So that joke potentially lost me friends of mine. But did I believe in the joke? Yes. Did I think it was a great way to open the show -- because we're all just looking for ways to open the show that sort of demand people make a decision in that first moment to watch us? Yes.

But a lot of the jokes we do on the show are ways to pick on people who might even like us. Certainly, as a black man going on TV and saying anything that even appears to be critical of Obama, I'm potentially losing my spot at the black people meeting. So I think it's embedded in a lot of the stuff we do. I've actually heard from people who have said, "I'm conservative and I like the show.” I'm not writing for them not to like it, but it's confusing that they do like it.

Well, people can recognize absurdity when they see it.

I think so. I think I'm only partisan to logic, not partisan to a party. So I'm not voting for a Republican, but what I don't like about the Republican Party is it’s not logical, not the fact that there is a Republican Party.

I read in your AV Club interview that you said you wish Romney had picked a socially liberal, fiscally conservative running mate to really push Obama. It sounded to me like that was an ideological position you could respect.

Yes. Absolutely. I sort of feel like the future of the Republican Party is very scary to the Democrats, and I feel like they have to know that. There are all these 25-year-old Republicans who are like, “I don't care who you have sex with, who you marry, and what you do with your body, just don’t mess with my money.” And I think that's a policy a lot of Americans can get behind, except those people who run the party right now.

How does the writing for the show work?

We do the show on Thursday. We come in on Friday and start talking about the next week. Sometimes, something has already happened by Friday that we are already looking to for the following week, although that is kind of rare. Or something will happen over the weekend ... The Akin story broke on a weekend, and an e-mail went out and it was like, “Everybody, I think we’re doing this.” But by Thursday that story had taken some turns. So we wrote drafts of the story on Monday, and by Wednesday we were like "We need to rewrite this draft," because the story had already changed, and we want the people who watch tonight to understand that we have seen all the news that they have seen. Thursday, so far, has been the day of the least writing. But if something really major were to happen on a Thursday, we would address it. We certainly leave ourselves open to that, which is why Chris [Rock] insisted that we tape on Thursday. FX has never really done a show like this before, as far as it being so topical. I think from their standpoint if we could give it to them a month before, like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” it would be easier for them to figure out how to do it.

How much has Chris been involved?

He’s really been here. He's really been here a lot. During the writing of the show, he isn't always here because he's busy. He is one of the busiest people I have ever seen. But he comes in. He’ll usually come in on Monday for a couple hours and see where we’re at. Or he’ll call in; he calls in a lot, calls at random times. And then Thursday has been a day that he’ll come in. And we rehearse the show three or four times and he’s right there directing, giving notes and adding pieces to it. He takes the role of executive producer very seriously.

When he calls you, has that gotten normal for you, or is it still sort of scary?

It’s cool, but it’s also Chris Rock calling. It’s like not even my boss calling, it’s Chris Rock calling. So it’s like, “What? That’s crazy." I certainly take the phone call when I can. It’s weird not to take the phone call from your hero.

Do you feel like there’s almost too much potential material out there?

I’ve been doing this type of comedy for a while now. I always wrote very quickly -- not this quickly, but I was always aware that there was more stuff than I could get to. And now it’s great because I can get to the stuff that I might not have. I don’t know if in my act I would have written that Biden joke because I would’ve been like, “that’s only going to last for a week.” But thanks to the show, a week is plenty of time. A lot of the feedback we’ve gotten from Twitter is like, “It’s too short!” And we’re like “Perfect!” I feel like that’s good. Every week we have stuff we toss out and there’s some stuff we don’t cover. We don’t really cover pop culture at all, and there are definitely interesting things I find about pop culture. But it just seems like since we only have twenty-one minutes and fifteen seconds, we will let other people cover the pop culture.

How are you selecting interview subjects? It’s been a lot of media people thus far.

I thought about who would answer the phone call and be interested. So that’s the first part of it. We’re a new show, even though we have Chris. I mean, we’ve had three guests, 33 percent of them were Chris Rock. But I don’t want it to be only media critic people; there are other people I’d love to talk to. But no matter who those people are, we want to be talking about the world. I don’t necessarily just want to, like, talk about your project. I would love to talk to a politician, but I would also love to talk to Denzel Washington. I would love to get lots of different kinds of people in that chair. I’d love to talk to Jon Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champion.

Why do you want to talk to him?

He’s black, and there’s not a lot of black people in the UFC. He’s really hated. And for me, as a black person, when your surrounded by a lot of people who aren’t black and you’re hated, I feel like there’s a racial component there. So I’d like to talk to him about that. I don’t know if he would like to talk about that. But there’s something interesting there. It’s like Cassius Clay part two, or something.

You’ve done these man-on-the-street segments during the show. One of them in particular, on gay marriage, was really great, but it almost worked much better than it had any right to, just because the people that participated were so game.

That was one thing I really hadn’t done a lot of, and Chris was really insistent that you want to go out and get the people talking. "There’s a lot of comedy out there." And I was like "OK, sir." So we tape right by Madison Square Garden, and there are a lot of different sorts of people out there, and we went out there with a camera crew and just started filming and talking to people. I think I’ve gotten more comfortable doing it, so I’m better at it than I was initially. Certainly there are some people who are harder to get to than others, but, for the most part, once you sort of built the structure of what you are asking them — like "I’m not asking you to be gay” — people enjoy the game. And that game -- basically, can you put yourself in that mind frame of what your gay self would be like? -- that kind of piece is what I want the show to do.

Have you been paying attention to the reaction?

I want to know what everybody is saying. And then at some point I have to turn it off, because people love to hate you. Facebook, I figure, is always people who sort of like you. So I feel pretty safe on there, although some people “friend” you just to talk shit about you, which is hilarious. It’s not that I’m afraid of the hate, it’s just that there is no time for it. As a comedian, what are you going to do when someone hates on you? Be like “Alright, I’m going to spend a day and destroy you.” It’s too tempting, and it’s distracting from the job. So one day when I’m old I’ll search my name on Twitter and spend a day contacting all these people. And every negative thing people say about me, if it’s true, I’ve already thought about it about myself. So it’s like, “Yeah, I know, I need to be more comfortable on camera, yes.”

Do you have a segment you liked best?

It’s funny, somebody asked me the other day what’s my favorite thing from the show, and I said my interview with Rachel Maddow. That’s probably a more personal thing. I’m really proud of the show as a whole. I certainly feel like the gay marriage segment was something I was super-excited about because I feel like it’s kind of a statement to just have a straight black man on TV talking about gay marriage in a positive way. You know, it’s funny. I've lived in the Bay Area for fifteen years, so that's my world. In such a way that if I'm having a conversation with my friends and someone would say, “Yeaaah, I would like to see some hot women” it would be natural for me to go “Or some hot guys.” It's just a part of the way that me and my crew and people talk in the Bay Area. Now certainly I knew I was on cable television, but I started thinking about people in the Bay Area watching me, and I knew I couldn’t not do it here, if I do it there. It’s like a shout out to the people who raised me, basically. And I mean intellectually raised me.

So when do you hear from FX if you get more episodes?

They decide when they want to decide. But they certainly have expressed they are happy with the show, and like what we are doing. They know I’m not famous, so they know we have to build it. I think they just want to make sure this is a repeatable experiment, that next week we’re not just like, “Ahh, I don’t know everybody.” They are doing great by us, but we don’t know yet. We haven’t been told, “this will happen and this will happen.” I feel great about the chances for it, but if I only get six episodes, I just want to make these the best that I can.

Are they going to make you famous? Is that something you want to be?

Everybody that goes into comedy, fame is a part of the thing that they want. For me it’s not the overriding thing, but it’s a part of it. Like one day I’ll be rich and famous. But then, as I’ve been doing this longer, I’ve sort of realized there are different levels of fame, different types of fame. If I become famous because of this show, to quote an ex-president, "mission accomplished." That would be the greatest thing because it’s actually a thing that is close to me, and it really feels like it’s a part of my voice and people would be able to stand up and be like, “Yeah that’s the same guy.”

But I don’t know what that looks like or how that smells and tastes. And I don’t even think about it that much because it’s like thinking about something that isn’t happening. It’s like Chris said, “You’re more famous today than you were yesterday." So when each episode airs, I become a little more famous, and I feel really good about my career now, and the future of my career, no matter what happens. But I certainly hope the future of my career is this show.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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