W. Kamau Bell is an outspoken and celebrated fixture in the San Francisco comedy scene, but for his own TV show, which begins this week, even the promos are asking, “Who is he?”
Well, he is now the mentee of Chris Rock, who discovered the comic when attending Bell’s one-man show, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.”
While that show didn’t annihilate racism in the large scheme of things, it did impress critics and audiences — and even had a run last year as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and it helped get Bell his own TV gig.
“Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” kicks off at 11 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 9 on FX and will feature Bell taking on the social issues of the day—and during a time when people are still tweeting about homophobic chicken restaurants and the London Olympics, he and his writers will have plenty of fodder.
I caught up with Kamau on August 2 — exactly one week before his first show was to air.
Corey Andrew: Is it safe to assume you and the crew didn’t go to Chic-fil-A for lunch yesterday?
W.Kamau Bell: (laughs) We did not go to Chic-fil-A for lunch. Although, we do have a Chipotle across the street, and we’ve had a lot of discussion whether or not it’s OK to go there.
Corey: Right. What a hot topic if the show was starting today!
Kamau: We’ve got a couple test shows before the first show, and we’ve got some Chic-fil-A stuff written. So if it’s still good, we’ll use it.
Corey: It could be. I don’t think the bigger story is going away any time soon.
Kamau: My act has always been based in the big, cultural decisions that plague the day and not necessarily in the minutiae of politics. I was never the person who followed politics the way people follow fantasy baseball, you know? Is Chic-fil-A a political thing? Is gay marriage a political thing? Only in the sense that we have created a society where politicians can back those laws if need be, but it’s more about society as a whole.
Corey: It’s a societal issue, sure. I think it’s an easy way for people to designate type of comedians. Things affecting us, you fall into that political arena.
Kamau: I didn’t start out to be a political comedian. I just talked about things I cared about. I started ending up on shows with other political comedians. ‘Really? Do I do this? Is that what I am?’ Not in a bad way, but I’m not the guy ripping apart the headlines every day.
Corey: Whatever happens in the world will dictate content for what happens on Thursday’s show?
Kamau: Yeah, it will, but we also know there will be things like the Olympics still going on. I don’t think the George Zimmerman situation will resolve itself before next Thursday. We have takes on them that are timely, but they don’t have to be topical to the day. We’ll see what happens.
Corey: I watched the pilot, but can you give a breakdown to the format?
Kamau: As it is now—but it can all change before next Thursday—the first segment is the PowerPoint segment, the technique of me standing in front of a screen talking about the what’s wrong and what’s right in the world using video clips and pictures. The second segment, we’ve taped some man-on-the-street pieces where we talk to people in New York about issues of the day. We talked to people about stop-and-frisk. We talked to people about gay marriage. We talked to people about street harassment and cat calling. Then, the third segment will be an interview, where we’ll bring in some tastemaker or policymaker and talk to them about what’s going on in the world. That’s a loose version.
Corey: Do you have an opinion on cat calling?
Kamau: I certainly understand that women get cat called all over the world, even in San Francisco, but when we went to New York, I see it way more than I ever saw it in San Francisco. I didn’t know we were still doing that as a male culture.
Corey: Is it like we see on TV and the movies, construction workers hollering?
Kamau: Absolutely. Construction guys or guys who just yell at women down the block. What’s the best-case scenario here? When I was doing my show, I would be curious about stuff and do research and be like, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea!’ There’s a series of movements women have started against street harassment, because street harassment covers cat calling and groping and whipping out your penis on the subway. We talked to a bunch of women on the street, and all of them had been cat called at some point in their life.
That’s what I like about my act in general and the show; a lot of this is me learning about the world with the audience. At first the audiences were in the theatres and comedy clubs, but, hopefully, there will be a decent enough percentage of America that I can get a college fund for my baby daughter.
Kamau: We talked to men about cat calling and some said, ‘I don’t do it and don’t know anybody who does.’ Others were like, ‘I have friends who do it.’ ‘Really? Friends? You mean the guy you see in the mirror every morning?’ I’m against cat calling. As a man with a daughter, I pretty much have to be.
Corey: I can appreciate that. You’re known and well-respected in the comedy community, but there are gonna be people flipping around the dial in a week’s time and stopping on you. How would you like to explain to the rest of American who you are?
Kamau: No one’s more aware of the fact that I’m not famous than me. FX’s ad campaign proves that: ‘Who is W. Kamau Bell?’ Luckily, we have Chris Rock on our side to explain who W. Kamau Bell is. If you are interested in a left-leaning, politically-progressive voice in comedy, then tune in. If you hate that, then tune in (laughs). I will give you a lot to fill up your Twitter stream in hatred. If you love that, I will give you a lot to fill up your Twitter stream.
Corey: When I saw the marketing campaign, it reminded me of that movie, ‘Darkman,’ that came out 20 or so years ago.
Kamau: That’s funny. Was that Liam Neeson?
Corey: Yeah, that was Liam Neeson. Since it was a new character, they did posters with the ‘Who is Darkman’ thing and a silhouette.
Kamau: I hope my TV show does better than ‘Darkman’ did ’cause I think they had a whole idea for more movies.
Corey: Liam Neeson made it out OK.
Kamau: Liam’s doing OK. I hope my TV career parallels Liam Neeson’s movie career. That means I’m waiting for George Lucas to call me, and we can make those last three movies of ‘Star Wars.’
Corey: What was that first conversation about a show with Rock like?
Kamau: He had come to see my show at UCB Theatre in New York and didn’t tell me he was there. After, he appeared backstage, dressed in black, like he was [in] The Matrix. He was like, ‘Yeah, you’re funny,’ but he said it in a way that was like, ‘Yeah, whatever. I know a lot of funny people’ (laughs).
He asked where I live, and I said San Francisco, and he said, ‘Move! You gotta go to New York or L.A. That’s where the stuff is. I was just talkin’ to Seinfeld and he said, “Where are you goin’?” “I’m goin’ to this show about racism.”’ That is a hilarious thing for me to imagine.
That was it. A couple months later, I got a call from an unlisted number, and a voice said, ‘Kamau Bell?’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ ‘It’s Chris Rock.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not.’ He said, ‘Don’t be the guy who says it’s not me when I call him. I want to do a show with you.’ What did that mean? Tonight? ‘A TV show. Un-famous black guys never get TV shows. Un-famous white guys get TV shows all the time. If I come in with you, I can help you get a TV show—unless you don’t want to do a show with me.’ ‘Woah, woah, woah, slow down, of course I want to do a show with you!’ Chris Rock has been one of my comedic idols since ‘Bring the Pain.’
It was surreal, and it’s slightly less surreal as each day goes by. I’m so busy with the show, there’s no time for that surrealism to be in there. I don’t know how you have a better shot at something like this than to be mentored by someone like Chris Rock and on a network like FX, which is the most exciting comedy network right now. And to be following the Louis C.K. show, I couldn’t have asked for that. If someone said, ‘Imagine your biggest dreams,’ I wouldn’t have asked for all that stuff. I’m honored to be in that position. Ultimately, I’ve got to not think about it and just make a good show.
Corey: How much freedom have you gotten putting the show together? I know you’ve brought some Bay Area guys out to help write it.
Kamau: We have been given the freedom to make a TV show, which is maybe more than we deserve (laughs). Luckily, we have Chuck Sklar, who has worked with Chris Rock since ‘The Chris Rock Show’ as an executive producer. He’s helping us figure out the format and how things can work on TV. Someone can be funny, but it’s got to fit the format of what works on TV. Those are our biggest concerns, how we figure out the TV format. If we are lucky enough to get multiple seasons of this, we will become better at that. It will become second nature. Right now, we have this funny bit, but how is this funny on TV?
Corey: There are different mentalities of East Coast living and West Coast living. Do you feel like New York is changing you at all?
Kamau: I’m still a San Franciscan at heart. I’ve traveled a lot in my career. I was just in L.A. doing the Television Critics Association for FX, and after it was over, I was like, ‘I should fly to San Francisco and breathe some San Francisco air before I fly back to New York.’ if I had thought of it sooner, I would have figured out a way to get to San Francisco for two hours or something. Yeah, I’m totally homesick for the Bay Area.
No matter what happens with this show, if this show is a huge hit or if the show is the biggest disaster in the history of television, the Bay Area’s gonna welcome me back with open arms. I’m excited to get back and report on my progress, no matter what happens.
The Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission St. in SF, is hosting a premiere bash for “Totally Biased,” beginning at 10 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 9, with performances by Chris Garcia (leaving for L.A. soon, so catch him now!), Sean Keane and Caitlin Gil, followed by the show on the big screen. Tickets are $5. Visit www.fxnetworks.com/totallybiased/ for more information on “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family a few years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.