W. Kamau Bell is taking the formula that's worked so well for comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher and ushering it into the 21st century with style. Equal parts comedian, social commentator, and activist, Bell knows there's greater power in asking questions than giving answers.
His new show on FX, "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," produced by Chris Rock, gives Bell the platform to ask those questions. Bell's material often walks the line between challenging and offensive; he doesn't shy away from race, sexuality, politics, or class, and that's exactly what a social commentator needs to be.
Your show, "Totally Biased," is a testament to this golden era of political satire, but you're not only writing jokes about politics, you're writing jokes about race and racism. Why is it important for comics to delve into that kind of territory?
I think it's important for comics to choose stuff they're interested in. The exciting part is, based on what "The Daily Show" has done, Bill Maher and Colbert, political comedy or comedy that's about the world is now something that people think is kind of cool. That hasn't always been the case. Some of the best comics of all time have been political, like Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks or Richard Pryor. I think it's great to have the opportunity to do that on TV because sometimes TV likes to shy away from those things, but FX is a network that likes to take chances. They've taken a chance on me and I appreciate it.
What can you do as a comic to bring to the table the issues people would rather sweep under the rug? What can comics do that journalists can't?
A comic can engage the issues in a way that isn't as careful or political as journalism does. I think journalists are important; they can write a story on gay marriage, but I can go out on the street and ask people who they would gay marry if they had to pick somebody. That's a place a comic can go that a journalist can't.
Do you think because you're a comic, people let their guard down?
Yes. I think a lot of people wouldn't even know I was a comic. They're just like, 'This black dude is asking me questions.' I think people enjoy having an opportunity to put their voice out there. The night of the election, we went to the Young Republicans club in Brooklyn, not exactly where you'd think to spend the election, but I want to show that you can have fun with lots of different types of people and not just preach to the converted. Comedy is a good tool to get people moving and thinking about things they wouldn't normally think about.
Why have you chosen race and political satire as your torch to bear?
As a kid, I wanted to be a comic. When I started doing comedy I was just trying to think of funny things to say. My mom was very racially conscious and we talked about it at home and at some point I just floated in that direction. I didn't start off thinking I wanted to talk about race and politics, but then I realized the thing I really found funny was race. I lived in San Francisco for fifteen years, so I'm very used to talking about gay issues and race issues. When I'm onstage, I want to continue that talk. It wasn't until Barack was elected four years ago that people started labeling me as political, because the President was black.
What's it like being one of the only twenty black people in one of the most liberal cities in the country?
That's what I wrote my solo show about, "W. Kamau Bell: Ending Racism in about an Hour." I was like, "Wait, if we're such a liberal city, how come we don't have black people?" Coming out of a place like San Francisco and realizing it's supposed to be the "most perfect place on earth" and the most liberal place on earth. Really, it's not even as liberal as places in the south that people are afraid to go to, as far as race. You know, there are a lot more black people in places I'm supposed to be afraid of.
Have you had deal with any anti-black sentiment during your standup?
I feel like when you do the kind of comedy I do, if you're not getting hate e-mails and letters, then you're probably not doing a great job. Now, thanks to Twitter, hate is as close as my phone. The thing about humor is everybody draws their line on what's funny and not funny in a different place. It's fine to be offended. It's one of our rights and privileges as Americans, the freedom to be offended. I like to provoke discussion. I like to make people laugh, but I also want them to talk about something once they leave.
What kind of discussions are you hoping to provoke?
In America, we keep getting caught up on the same sorts of things. With gay marriage, you can't help but connect with the fact that, just a couple decades ago, people of different races couldn't get married. With comedy, you can make those connections for people. My jokes can't make the changes, but my jokes can make the people who are making the changes feel better about what they're doing.
So what's the difference between a racist and an asshole?
As a black person, I think about my race every day. Sometimes I'm in situations where something doesn't go my way, and because America has taught me that race is such an important thing, I don't know if I'm being treated poorly because this person is not a nice person or because they have something against an aspect of me. There's a lot of homework you have to do if you're an "other" in this country, and that's true if you're openly gay or disabled or not white.
Were you openly discriminated against growing up?
My worst day of racism is probably better than the best day of being a slave. I would never want to sit down and trade racism stories with any black person over the age of 70. Race is always a sort of thing you carrying around with you. White people sometimes say, "Why are you playing the race card?" It's because you dealt me a deck full of race cards! A lot of my stories are personal and subjective. I'm not sure where the line is.
W. Kamau Bell will perform at The Grog Shop Thursday, December 13 at 8 p.m.