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Comedy Fri Dec 07 2012

Interview: W. Kamau Bell is Totally Biased

Typically, whenever a new comedian explodes on the scene, comparisons are inevitable--such was the case when I first saw W. Kamau Bell here this past summer for the TBS Just for Laughs Festival. His style and super-quick wit might give audiences a hint of Chris Rock, but really, that's where all the comparisons should end; Bell, host of FX's new late-night hit "Totally Biased," (executive-produced by Rock) chops up race, politics and media like no other. The unpretentious, sometimes irreverent, and uh, "totally biased" comedian, whose show kicks off for a second season on January 17, hits town next week for "The Kamau Mau Uprising Tour"; here, he talks about the show and why he's starting an "uprising" in Chicago.

W. Kamau Bell
W. Kamau Bell; Photo by Matthias Clamer Courtesy of FX

Your show was recently picked up for a second season--that's pretty damn cool...

It's very damn cool; but then again, I'm biased.

During the course of the first season, did you just have a feeling you were "knocking it out the park" or was it just a "you never know" kind of thing?

You just never know. I'm proud of the stuff we're doing, but you just never know; I mean, with TV, they can cancel you for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with anything, so I was happy and excited, but again, you just never know.

You got your footing out west in the Bay Area by creating your show and getting a following with "The Bell Curve," which led you to "Totally Biased." Tell us about this transition; also, did you dream of having your own show someday?

I mean it's a huge step up from where you last saw me. I knew "Totally Biased" was coming, but the last time you saw me, that was what I was normally used to doing -- my solo show and my stand up and really just being a hardcore independent artist on the road trying to make it happen and put food on the table for my family. Thankfully, Chris Rock came and saw my show and we met with the great people at F/X who were interested in taking a chance on me and we ended up with "Totally Biased." It's changed everything. It's overwhelming, but I'm really happy to do it. I'm excited to do it.

As far as hosts go, it's no secret that late-night TV has not always exactly been diverse; but right now, there's you and TJ Holmes with his show "Don't Sleep!" on BET--is it "return of the brothas" on late night TV? It's been long time since "Arsenio," you know...

Maybe it is -- who knows? But I kind of think all of us black dudes in late night owe a debt of gratitude to the black president. People are not used to seeing a black man on TV every day (and not too many people are excited about it) -- but the more you see a black man on TV, the more people can say, "You know, I'll take late night comedy from a black man." I think those things are connected.

Do you think diversity in late night can, or should, be shown in other ways?

We had Mo'Nique on as a late night host for a little while, but now she's gone. And then there's "Chelsea Lately." I just think there's room for a lot more on late night TV -- not just white men and black men. It can be a lot more diverse than it even is right now.

On "Totally Biased," the presidential campaign season and election were frequent topics, along with all the interesting things that happened along the way, like the events with Donald Trump, among others. Did anything actually surprise you?

I think the only thing that freaked out people with a black guy winning once was a black guy winning twice. That's what I think is funny; they were like, Well, they won one time, but we'll get it back!" And when they didn't get it back, they were like, "Noooo!" It's funny to see, like when you're watching FOX News, all the leaders of the Republican party are like, "OK, I guess we gotta be nicer to women!" -- not because they want to be but because they just they feel like, "How do we get the power back?"

I imagine a lot what happened before, during and after the election season was a gift from the "comedy gods." The woman who ran over her husband after the president was re-elected immediately comes to mind...

Oh yes. It's absolutely a thing where you just go, "Man, I feel bad for her husband, but I feel great for comedy!"

On "Totally Biased," when it comes to the guests, the show is very diverse; from their views to their lifestyles, there really is something for everyone. Talk about why you infuse so much diversity in your brand.

Well, I am from Chicago but I lived in the Bay Area for 15 years. I knew and hung out with a lot of different types of people in the Bay Area, so for me to do a show, it's going to naturally reflect that. I like to mix it up. I like people who constantly make me go, "Huh -- I never thought of that before." I don't want to be the expert on every subject and only have people that make me look smart. I don't mind looking dumb sometimes and the only way you do that is to hang out with lots of different types of people and get lots of different viewpoints.

Your "man on the street" conversations on the show are hilarious; the "everyday" people you interview really "keep it real." Tell us about those segments on the show.

It's funny; that was a thing I never even thought to do and Chris [Rock] said "You gotta get out there and talk to the people and mix it up." It was not something that I'd done before so I was kind of nervous about it before we did it the first time. But I'm glad people enjoy it because for me, it's not that hard or challenging; it's just talking to people, letting them talk, and they get to be the stars. I didn't know that I would have so much fun doing it but now it's become a real thing; a lot of people are saying it's their favorite part of the show. So next season, maybe it'll just be 30 minutes of me talking to people on the streets!

What can we expect in the new/coming season?

Everything that we've done this season has been the first time I've really done something and I'm really still learning on the go. But I'm looking forward to next season and being better at every aspect of it and then being able to sort of add more wrinkles to it. So, if you enjoyed the first season, you'll enjoy it even more when we come back. And I get about four weeks off so I can actually get some sleep. That'll help, too.

You were just in the Windy City over the summer for the TBS Just for Laughs Festival and now, you're returning this month for your tour, the "Kamau Mau Uprising" -- any reason you're rebelling?

I'm just trying to unite the people. There's one thing we saw in the election of Barack; last time, it was black people and people who like black people who voted for him, and this time, it was everybody who didn't want to be ruled by the Republicans. I'm just trying to continue that uprising.

With Chicago being so politically and culturally interesting, what can Chicago expect from this W. Kamau Bell show?

Well, that's how I keep it -- politically and culturally interesting. This show is gonna be a stand-up show; I won't have all the PowerPoint like before. I just wanna strip it down and keep it real for the people of Chicago -- and tell them like I think it is, and hopefully they'll laugh like they think it is, and we'll figure it all out over the course of the hour.


Catch W. Kamau Bell's The Kamau Mau Uprising tour, Friday, December 14, at 7pm, at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.; tickets are $20. For more information, call 773-525-2501.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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