photo credits: Matthias Clamer
Tonight will mark the third of six episodes of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely tune into your local FX station. We actually caught up with Kamau right before the initial episode, right as he was on his way to an airport. In our conversation, he talked about how the show came to be, what it’s like working with Chris Rock, how both his mom and San Francisco shaped his perspective as a comedian, among other things.
So Chris just happened to come to one of your shows?
The executive producer, Chuck Sklar, tried to hire me and Kevin Avery (another writer on the show) to work on the DL Hughley’s CNN show, but the show got cancelled before we were able to get to NY. And that’s when Chuck found out about me and my solo show, The W. Kamau Bell Show: Ending Racism In About An Hour. I did my show in LA and Chuck came and saw it. He was impressed and said, “You’re gonna have a TV show!” I’m like, Whatever, LA Guy.
Chris Rock: “If in six months Kamau still needs me to do a lot of things, then I hired the wrong guy.”
But he actually stayed in touch. There were a couple of meetings. He told Chris about me. Chris checked me out online and thought I was funny. Then I was doing a festival in New York and Jocelyn Cooper from Afropunk saw it and asked if had Chris seen it. He hadn’t. She said: “I’m going to make sure he does.” Apparently she grew up with him. So, between Chuck and Jocelyn—he’d heard about my show from several people, but those were the two he really trusted—I was on his radar. He finally came to see a performance of mine when I was in NYC in 2010.
Several months later he called me and said he wanted to do a show with me.
Did you believe it when you got that call?
No! I thought it was one of my friends playing a prank. But then, he was like, “Don’t be the guy who doesn’t believe it’s me. One day I’ll be sittin’ up on Leno talking about how you didn’t believe it was me.”
So, last summer, we put together two nights in SF with a bunch of comedians. Sort of what a show could look like. Chris liked it enough to fund another pilot in Santa Monica, which was what he took to the networks. I didn’t do anything. Chuck and Chris set up meetings and they keep me updated. Me, I was sitting at home trying not to freak out.
Then Chris tells me he’s going to meet with John Landgras, the president of FX, and that I’ll probably have to come down to LA to meet with him. I hear this and I’m like, “How do you know he’s even gonna be interested?” But Chris is in the business of making things happen.
By the time I flew down to meet with all these FX executives, it was basically a done deal. They just wanted to make sure I was who Chris said I was, that I had come as advertised. That was the biggest meeting of my career and it was really relaxed.
How has Chris helped shaped the show?
Chris is like a foul-mouthed Yoda. He comes through, looks at what we’re doing, and gives a piece of advice that helps us not go down the wrong path. He’s very busy, but he’s always available. He believes the thing about being a TV producer is that you should be hiring your boss and he thinks I can do this. He’s basically said, “If in six months Kamau still needs me to do a lot of things, then I hired the wrong guy.” He’s trying to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes he made AND he wants to make sure we don’t do things he’s already done on the Chris Rock Show.
We’re still finding the format of the show. Still figuring out how we do what we do. We might do one sketch per show. My strength is as the guy in front of the camera doing analysis of the day’s current news. We’re also bringing in the writers of the show, like Janine Brito. We’re also soliciting pieces from other comedians. And we’re doing man-on-the-street interviews about current issues.
We shoot the day we air. In that way, it’s more like the old Chris Rock Show than the Chappelle Show, which was sketch comedy. And you don’t want to wade into those waters unless you’re really good at it.
Where did you POV come from?
One, I always wanted to be a comedian, but I didn’t know exactly how to get on that. Honestly, I wanted to be either a comedian or a superhero, and probably not in that order.
And thanks to my mom, there were all these conversations in our house. She was always talking about the movement, the state of black people in America, etc. And my mom was the mom—we moved a lot—who would meet with people at the school to find out if they taught black history. If they didn’t, she’d be like, “Okay, I’m coming in on these days to teach that.” Yeah, she was that mom.
I guess you were really popular.
Yeah. She’d bring slides of Africa, so that kids knew that Africa wasn’t just a jungle, stuff like that. I was like, “Mom, can’t you just make brownies?”
You’ve lived in SF for a long time. How has living there shaped your views on race, class, etc?
I’ve lived there for 15 years and The Bell Curve was, in some ways, written in response to living in San Francisco and feeling a little bit invisible. And also feeling like when you brought up the discussion of race outside of a few good friends, a lot of people would try to dismiss it. Aren’t we supposed to be the liberal city where we talk about all this? And also, San Francisco is made up of a whole bunch of different areas: You cross the bridge and go to Oakland and you get a whole different experience. And there’s a whole other different experience in Berkeley. And they’re not very far apart. Yeah, the Bay Area shaped my comedic perspective a lot. I was from Chicago and I think I had one friend who was gay. Looking back, I was like, I think I was a homophobe!
Then you go to SF and get immersed in a little bit of everything. Lots of lifestyles and cultures surround you. I feel like I got steeped in it like a teabag, so that it totally affected by comedic persona. When I step onstage now, I carry all of that with me, and I’m happy to. I feel like it’s given me a much wider perspective.
What do you hope people take away from your show?
As a comic, I like the idea of being the campfire for the revolution. At the campfire, you sing songs, you tell stories, but the real work of the revolution doesn’t happen at the campfire. You can’t get caught up thinking, “I’m changing minds up here! I’m the guy!” No, the people who do that, do that all day, everyday. As a comic you’re the one who helps give fuel for the fire.
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell airs Thursdays at 11PM on FX Networks.