'Totally Biased' Comic On Race, Politics And Audience
This interview was originally broadcast on Sept. 13, 2012.
Before comic W. Kamau Bell became host of the political humor show Totally Biased, which mixes standup, sketches and interviews, he had a one-man show called The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.
"If you bring a friend of a different race, you get in 2 for 1," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Bell is not joking. He wants people of all races at his one-man show.
"I knew if I did a show about race, I wanted to make sure I didn't just get a theater audience, because otherwise, generally, a theater audience is a more white audience," he says. "And I knew that if a black guy was on stage doing a show about race and racism and he was doing it in front of all white people, then it becomes like court testimony. And I really wanted to make sure that there was people in the audience who could either affirm what I was saying or disagree with what I was saying in front of other people."
Bell's current late-night show has a bit of his own biography, he says.
"I don't look the same as the people who are on late-night TV, which means I don't have the same life experience, which means when I look to sit down and create these pieces with the writers, I'm trying to find an angle in it that's more personal to me," he says.
And that means addressing race. Bell says he didn't set out to be a political comedian — it just turned out that way because he has always been interested in race issues.
"Nobody considered my act political until America got a black president," he says. "I talked about race a lot. It just became that, once Barack started running for president, I started to care a lot about the presidency in a way that I hadn't cared before. Because everyday on TV, I saw this black guy who was under a microscope, and I felt like there was some percentage of me in that guy that I didn't see in, say, George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton ... and so my act — really, I got labeled a political comedian; that wasn't the thing I was trying to do."
Bell says he approaches political events a little differently than other late-night comedians.
"A lot of times people think comedy is making fun of things, and I feel like, no, it can also just be making fun out of things," he says. "That, to me, is the kind of comedy I always like to do, where you can make jokes about the thing without making fun of the thing."
Totally Biased, which is produced by Chris Rock, returns to TV this month. It'll be airing on FX's new sister operation, FXX.
Bell, based in San Francisco, is the founding member of the comedy collective Laughter Against the Machine. He co-hosts the podcast The Field Negro Guide to Arts & Culture with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid.
On being called out on prejudices he didn't realize he had
"When I started doing my solo show, one of my good friends, Martha, said to me, she's like, 'Kamau, you can't end racism and make sexism worse.' And I was like, 'What do you mean by that?' And she went through my solo show and pointed out all the different parts of it that she felt were sexist. And that's a good friend, a friend who will tell you that in a way that you can hear. And that was a real revelation for me, is that you can't sort of pick your issue over other people's issue — that if you want to end the ignorance of something, you have to end all the ignorances or at least not make some of the ignorances worse."
On being open about his dislike of actor Tyler Perry
"There's this thing with black people that we, sometimes we feel like we have to have a unified front, and we have to protect things even if we don't like them, because we know that at any point, one of us can get snatched up and be accused of something we didn't do. And I sort of felt, under the protection of a black president, maybe we could have some more independent opinions. Unfortunately, that hasn't changed as much as I thought it would."
On being in an interracial marriage
"Sometimes people will say if you are in an interracial relationship that you're somehow a sellout or you're taking the easy route, or something like that. And, literally, if you want to talk about race a lot in your life, marry a person who is a different race than you — because that will become a topic in ways that it probably wouldn't if you marry a person of the same race."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our first guest today is W. Kamau Bell, a standup cominc who got his big TV break because of Chris Rock. Rock liked Bell's sharp and smart brand of political humor enough to offer himself as executive producer of a proposed TV show starring the African-American comic.
That program, called "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," premiered last year as a weekly show on the FX cable network. Each installment featured standup comedy, brief sketches and an interview and focused on both politics and race. Beginning this month, the series returned on a new network, FX' brand new sister operation, the FXX Network, where Bell now hosts "Totally Biased" five nights a week and live. Terry Gross spoke to W. Kamau Bell last September, near the end of his FX show's original six-week launch.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
W. Kamau Bell , welcome to FRESH AIR. So how would describe your show for somebody who's never seen it?
W. KAMAU BELL: It'd say it's a very left-leaning, liberal, politically charged, social politically charged comedy show from a 6'4", 250-pound black man who is steeped in the Bay Area.
GROSS: I love hearing people's early bad material. Would you grace us with a really bad joke from your early act?
BELL: Oh my God, it makes me - it literally makes my stomach hurt to think about that. I was - my palms are literally sweating.
GROSS: You're welcome.
BELL: Yes, only because you're Terry Gross, and I'm honored to be here will I actually tell a joke from my early act. Otherwise I would never do this. I think it was a joke that went somewhere along the lines of - I haven't told this joke in forever.
I met a woman last night, and she said I want you to take me home, and I want you to make love to me all night long. That's not my fantasy. My fantasy is that a woman says I want you to take me home and just do your best, just try real hard.
BELL: If it doesn't work out tonight, come back tomorrow. That was - that was sadly my closer.
GROSS: Compare that to how you recently opened your act. And I'm not talking about your TV show, I'm talking about the act that you did, "The Bell Curve: Ending Racism" in one hour. You'd open with Tyler Perry jokes.
BELL: Yeah, I think at the point that I was doing the Tyler Perry material, I cared a lot about the Tyler Perry material and I never really cared about that joke I just told you. That was a joke that was written because the audience thought it was funny at that time, whereas the Tyler Perry joke that I did that's on my last CD, "Face Full of Flour," was a joke that literally the first time I stepped onstage to do it, I was afraid that the audience might turn on me because I was in front of a lot of black people.
But what happened is that it was a sort of a release. Like they were like, you're saying the thing that some - that many of us think. And to me that's the kind of material I always want to be going for.
GROSS: What was the thing? What were you saying about Tyler Perry?
BELL: I mean, it was - it's probably explicit for NPR.
GROSS: That's why I'm not playing the record. So yeah, you can clean it up for us.
BELL: I mean, it was really just the idea that, like - and this two years ago. And that's the thing about my act is that it's really - what I cared about two years ago is not necessarily the same thing I care about now in the same way. So it's like a little snapshot. And at that point, Obama had just won the presidency, and I said that, well, now that Obama's won the presidency, there's something I've wanted to say for a long time that I feel really passionate about, and now I feel like that we have a black president I can get this off my chest.
And it was basically (beep) Tyler Perry.
BELL: Because at the time, I felt like you couldn't really - there's this thing with black people that we - sometimes we feel like we have to have a unified front, and we have to protect tings that even if we don't like them because it's - we know that at any point one of us can get snatched and be accused of something we didn't do.
And I sort of felt like under the protection of a black president, maybe we could have some more independent opinions. Now unfortunately that hasn't changed as much as I thought it would. So, you know, I wouldn't do that joke again today.
GROSS: So in talking about how you look for your angle on a joke, after Congressman Todd Akin talked about how if a woman is the victim of legitimate rape, her body has a mechanism to shut down and prevent pregnancy. I mean, there's comic gold there, but everybody had done their jokes by the time your night came around, which is Thursday night. So how did you decide what you were going to do with that?
BELL: Well, I think one of the things I have on my side is because I'm, you know - you know, even just looking at me, I don't look the same as the people who are on late-night TV doing those jokes. And I don't - which means I don't have the same life experience, which means when I look to sit down and create these pieces with the writers, I'm trying to find an angle in it that's more personal to me.
And my solo show and my comedy is always a little bit personal about my life. So for me, when Akin says, you know, that the body has a way to shut that down in legitimate rape, my brain goes to slavery, you know. And so - and then through that, like, that's like, you know, that's clearly not true because - and so from that is where we had the opening line of the show.
GROSS: Which was?
BELL: Which was: Todd Akin, if there's no such thing as legitimate rape, then how come there's so many light-skinned people walking around Alabama?
GROSS: I thought that was really funny.
BELL: Yeah, we - I mean, we really - you know, and that was a line that, you know, we have this writing staff, and we come up with these things, and sometimes we write these things in the room, and somebody goes: Can we say that? And we go: I think we can.
BELL: Like, and part of it is really FX allowing us to sort of do what we want to do. All the feedback they've given us about the show has sort of been do the show you want to do. And when they do give us critical feedback, generally I agree with them.
GROSS: Being an African-American comic during the period when America has its first African-American president, have you noticed racial things and thing about how he's treated that have made you think about race in ways you hadn't thought about it before?
BELL: Well, yes, I think that's why my act has gone in such a political direction because I see the ways in which Obama's treated, you know, across the spectrum, as things that are connected to his race for me, that I can't help but separate them. And sometimes those things are good things, and sometimes those things are bad things.
Like very recently, you know, Obama's in Florida, and he meets the owner of that pizza restaurant, and the guy picks him up and gives him a bear hug. And there's a part of me that goes that guy likes him, and he's excited to see Obama, and he loves Obama, so he picks him up.
But the other part of me is like I've never seen that happen to a president before.
GROSS: I know. I thought, like, really that seems very kind of, you know, adorable on one hand, but it's crazy. You're not supposed to touch a president unless he extends his hand to shake hands with you.
BELL: It's adorable, and it's also frightening to me. I mean, there's a side of it that, like - you know, and there's an interesting part because Obama gets picked up, and you see his arms go out, and he looks to his right, and I feel like he's looking at the Secret Service, going like hey guys, uh, still the president over here.
BELL: For at least the next few months. And then when he comes down, he looks at the guy in the face, and Obama looks ashen. And nobody's really talked about that. He looks like a guy who's like - for a minute I thought maybe this was over. And, you know, I'm sure he's away of the responsibility and how, you know, nobody's ever picked him up like that. And then - you know, and yet I connect that in some way...
And I'm not mad at that guy. I think he had no bad intentions. But again, I've never seen anybody do that to a president before. And then you look at Jan Brewer, you sticks her finger in the president's face a few years ago, and that's another thing. That doesn't happen to presidents, where a governor would stick their finger in a president's face. And to me that's very much connected to race.
GROSS: Now what kind of race consciousness did you brought with, because from what I've read your mother was really into like African-American studies and, you know, talking about equality.
BELL: Yeah. My mom was actually working on her PhD at Stanford in African-American literature, but they wouldn't let her finish it because at that time in the '70s Stanford did not believe African-American literature was a valid field of study.
So from that point forward, my mom just sort of said I'm not going to do this and she went her own way, and she worked in the textbook industry, and she self-published her own books of famous black quotations because in the '80s there were no compendiums of books of African-American quotations. There are now because of her example.
And she sold like 50,000 copies from our car, you know, basically, because this was before the Internet when you had to just sort of go hat in hand to places and sell your product. And so she was always a self-starter. And because we moved a lot, every time we went to a new city and she would always try to put me in private schools, she'd go to the school and be like, do you teach African-American studies here? And they'd be like, no. And she'd be like, well, you do now.
BELL: And she would come in one, you know, one week or a couple of days and go - and teach about African-Americans studies, and she would show slides of Africa because she knew that people at that point, kids thought Africa was just a jungle and Tarzan. And she would go here's Africa, here's buildings, here's people doing regular things that you do here. And so my mom always showed me that - be the change you want to see and be the example.
GROSS: So when you were going to private schools, were they racially mixed or predominantly white?
BELL: I mean at that point the private schools I went to, they were predominantly white. There were always other black kids there but it would be that weird thing, sometimes you'd go to a private school, and there'd be one other black kid in your grade, and I always got the feeling from that kid that they were like, I can't be friends with you because that's going to remind everybody else that I'm black, so I'm going to have to let you go your own way...
BELL: ...which I understand in theory, but yeah, so there was always, there was usually some weirdness around that. And I sort of struggled with my own black identity for a lot of times because I was like, you know, I sort of got that message that maybe black isn't a great thing to be.
And then through growing up and doing my solo show and reading a lot - "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" changed my life and that was the point in which I was like I can define my own blackness.
GROSS: Was there ever a point when you were one of the very few black people in your school where you felt like you had to play the role of the black guy? Do you know what I mean, that you had to stand in for all black people and be, I don't know, whatever it is that the white friends that you had wanted you to be as the black person in the group?
BELL: First of all, I love the way you said the black guy.
BELL: I like the bass in your voice, Terry.
GROSS: Thank you.
BELL: There are times when, you know - you know, and every black person I think has this, where you'll feel put in a position to either speak up for the race or have opinions about things that you haven't actually expressed knowing about.
I'm a fan of music. I don't have the biggest knowledge of hip-hop, and regularly people, especially when I was younger, would start conversations with me about hip, hop and I would have to sort of choose to fake my way through it or else feel like I was going to look uncool.
And so, I mean and that's not the worst position to be in, but also I had times where I had friends where would say something to me like - a friend of mine says to me Kamau, you're black but you're not black black.
BELL: And I immediately knew he was like, you're black but I still have my wallet and I appreciate that.
BELL: Like he was associating blackness with the kind of thing, a negativity that he doesn't see in me and he thinks he's complimenting me, you know. And if I - and I have to choose to take it as a compliment, or else I lose a friend.
BIANCULLI: W. Kamau Bell, speaking to Terry Gross last September. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2012 interview with W. Kamau Bell. His new season of "Totally Biased," which now appears on the new FXX network, is presented every weeknight and is performed live.
GROSS: You're wife is white, and you've talked a little bit in your act about what it's like to be a couple with a white woman.
GROSS: Reactions that you get from strangers and the reactions that you get from African-American women. So can you talk a little bit about that?
BELL: Yeah. I mean it was funny. The first time me and my wife went out together, it wasn't even officially a date. We were in a taqueria in San Francisco, and a black woman and a black man came into the taqueria. And the black woman looked visibly shaken and kept looking and was really sort of like just agitated.
And my then friend, who became my wife, was like, what's wrong with her? And I was like - and she had never experienced that. I was like I think she's mad that we are together.
And my wife was like, really? Like she just couldn't - and she's a cosmopolitan person, but she's never seen anything like that, whereas I sort of had smelled that before. And the woman just got really mad and really like agitated, so much to the fact that after they got their tacos, her, the guy she was with literally escorted her out of the place and put her in the car the way a cop puts somebody in the back of a car...
BELL: ...like sort of put his hand on the back of her head and sort of like gently guided her down into the car because she was so agitated. And, you know, and that's in San Francisco, you know what I mean? That's not in the backwoods of someplace. That's in San Francisco.
GROSS: Did she say anything to you?
BELL: On her way out she said, hmm, you dating a white girl 'cause you can't handle a black woman. And I very - looked at her and said, maybe.
BELL: Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm a trifling Negro. Thank God there's white women to take this trifling Negro off your hands. And that's...
GROSS: Did you really say that to her?
BELL: I said - I didn't say that to her. I said that at another time.
GROSS: Yeah. OK. I was sort of wondering like how quick are you and how willing are you...
BELL: How willing am I too entered the fray?
BELL: Well, no, generally as a comic, the reason why I think I'm a comic because I think of the good things later.
GROSS: Yeah. Sure.
BELL: If I thought of the good things at the time, I would then be a, you know, I don't know, less popular with people.
BELL: A lot of the thing that makes me a comic is the thing that makes me go home and go, what, I should've said something different. Oh, I know what I should've said. I'll go say that on stage.
GROSS: So you have a daughter. I assume she's lighter skinned than you are. What reaction do you get to that?
BELL: Well, the funny thing about my daughter is that when she was born she came out white, like very pale white, so much so that like when we brought my wife's family around, like I remember my brother-in-law - my wife's brother - literally looked at her and looked at me and I felt like he was going like, dude, I got to tell you something.
BELL: But I know, because black people sort of know this because we have more, probably more experience with this, that the color that a kid is when they're born changes. It's even true of white kids, that their color, 'cause they come out one color.
The funny thing was is that - so my daughter immediately started getting darker, but I always said that we didn't know where her color would start, and so I always said I would track her color every day to see where her color would start by using the cover of Michael Jackson's CDs...
BELL: ...in reverse chronological order.
BELL: You know, I would just be like, oh, today it's "Bad," yesterday was "Dangerous," maybe we can make it to 'Thriller." It's never going to be "Off the Wall," who am I kidding?
GROSS: So has having an interracial marriage affected your views about race and what it means, like what race means?
BELL: Well, yeah. I mean I think it has affected my views about race. Sometimes people will say if you are in an interracial relationship that you're somehow a sellout, or you're taking the easy route, or something like that. And literally, if you want to talk about race a lot in your life, marry a person who is a different race than you because that will become a topic in ways that it didn't, that it probably wouldn't if you marry a person of the same race because I mean we've had a lot of things, you know, just in, you know, I'm aware that when I'm hanging out with my wife's family that I'm the only black person around.
And I'm aware that if my wife's, her cousins start talking about Obama, and they're very conservative, they start talking about Obama in ways that makes me want to like - ah, you know.
BELL: But I also want to make sure I can come back for Thanksgiving. And I get very - and so I just spend a lot of time being quiet and mentally jotting down notes to use in my act. But, yeah, so it certainly becomes a bigger part of your discussion. But I also feel like that it's not the biggest part. The biggest thing that separates me and my wife is the fact that my wife is Catholic and I like to say I'm sane. You know what I mean? So that's way bigger for us than race.
GROSS: So what have you learned by being married to a white woman about race that you didn't know before - about how white people perceive African-Americans or some white people perceive African-Americans, about your own preconceptions about white people?
BELL: Well, I mean - let me say this - I, you know it's funny how I feel like I have to say I've grown up around white people.
GROSS: That's right. Right.
BELL: Some of my best whites are friends.
BELL: I've spent a lot of time, you know, it wasn't really like such a "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" scenario with my wife's family. But it was this thing where, you know, like I always felt like my wife's family, it sort of took them a while to warm up to me. But I don't think it was because I was black, I think it was because I was a comedian.
BELL: I think my un-famous comedian trumped black with her family.
BELL: But I also feel like that, you know, the real change is that since we've had a daughter, my wife told me that her mom was like, uh, so does that mean that Sammy's(ph) black? Because she just never thought about that, you know, and in her life, I'm sure when she grew up and got married and had kids and thought about her kid's kids, she didn't picture a black granddaughter.
Now, she's a great grandmother and I don't feel like she's ever done anything to Sammy - I don't think she's treated Sammy worse because she's black, she loves Sammy, but I think it's somehow altering her perception of the world in a way that I think is awesome.
Now, for me, the other thing is that when Sammy was first born, Sammy was very light, and I would walk around in the world with this baby who looked to be white and we got a lot of weird stares because, you know, a black guy with a white baby is not the most popular color combination, you know.
BELL: We're all very used to the white guy with the black baby because you're like, oh, that's very nice of you to adopt that child from that place. But with me it was a whole different thing. We got a lot of stares and a lot of questions that I had to deal with while at the same time knowing that I didn't care what people thought because this was my daughter.
And this is a true story. When my daughter was born, you know, it's a very emotional moment, your kid is born, they hand you the kid, they wipe the kid off, and you're just sitting there with your kid. And I actually realized when I looked in my daughter's eyes that it was the first time in my life that I was looking at somebody and they didn't think of me as black, that I knew for sure that she didn't think of me as black. She just thought of me as dad. Well, at that point she probably thought of me as ah.
BELL: She thought of me as the one that didn't have milk. But that was a very important moment for me to realize that this is actually, that that's how embedded race is in me, which I think it's kind of sad but also that how exciting a moment that was for me that I know for sure this person doesn't think of me as black.
GROSS: Now, so much comedy club material is about sex and about being great at it or being terrible at it or getting it or not getting it or - anyway. So you've actually worked at a condom store and at a video store that sold adult videos. So I'm thinking you must have material galore, even though you're not the kind of comical who talks a lot about sex. What were those experiences like?
BELL: I mean, you know, I think the reason that I don't talk about those experiences a lot of stage is because I know comics who do incredible sex material, and I feel like that's not my strength. So I would, you know, I would gladly give those stories to those comedians if they wanted them.
But the - working at the video store, I mean it was one of those video stores that you walked in and it was like this is the worst video store I've ever seen. They only had like "Jurassic Park III..."
BELL: ...and like "Home Alone 4" and you're like how does this video stores survive? And then there's a door in the back that leads to stairs that go up and it's all the porno that's ever been created in the history of the world, and that was the video store I worked at.
BELL: All the videos downstairs were dusty. And I didn't know that I was going to work at that store. I thought that I was working at a really bad video store until they sat me down and explained to me what was happening upstairs. And you get a real window into male humanity in that way because it was also a video store, again, it was in Chicago on the edge of the gay area so we had probably twice as much gay porn as we had straight porn.
And I think that's actually where I started to learn about the fluidity of human sexuality because I would regularly see guys who were renting from the straight side of the porn section - over time they rented so much straight porn that they would start to leak over to the gay side of the porn section.
BELL: Just because I think they were like, I've seen everything this combination of people can do and so let me go look over to this combination. And it really was an eye-opener to, like, oh, I guess human sexuality is on a spectrum.
And you know, it was a very funny time. I also had a guy say to me one time, like, man, I see you here all the time. And I remember thinking, no, I see you here all the time.
BELL: I get paid to be here.
GROSS: Well, W. Kamau Bell, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
BELL: Thank you for having me. This is an extreme honor.
BIANCULLI: Comedian W. Kamau Bell, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His TV series "Totally Biased" now appears each weeknight on the FXX cable network. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.