Submitted by Glenn McDonald — Correspondent
In 2010, W. Kamau Bell was a successful working comic in San Francisco and then his career made a hard left turn. His critically acclaimed one-man show, The Bell Curve, caught the attention of comedy superstar Chris Rock and within a few months, Bell was developing his own late-night show for the FX network.
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell ran for two seasons and carved out an interesting space in the crowded arena of late-night TV. Bells style a deft blend of observational, topical and personal comedy often addresses racial issues, but from odd angles designed to provoke frank conversation. Bell performs tonight at DSI Comedy Theater in Carrboro. He spoke to the N&O about Mort Sahl, Michael Jordan and ending racism in about an hour.
Q: How did you first get into comedy?
A: It was in high school, in Chicago. Me and my friends, we were all funny, but I was the only one who didnt end up getting job skills. It wasnt until I moved to San Francisco that I figured it out. I moved there in 1997 and in the early 2000s, comedy started to boom again.
Q: Why San Francisco?
A: I knew I wanted to pursue comedy. Im a super nerd when I get interested in something, and I had read all these books about the history of stand-up comedy. San Francisco comes up a lot. You can make the case that Mort Sahl invented modern stand-up comedy there. I think it was the first city that actually arrested Lenny Bruce for obscenity.
Q: And thats where you launched your one-man show, The Bell Curve?
A: The complete and super-long title was, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.
Q: Oh, nice. Thats ambitious!
A: Yeah, I went for it! No, I wasnt really known at the time and Id gotten frustrated sort of pounding my head against the wall of the comedy club scene. I wanted to talk about race and racism, but after about five minutes the audiences would tune out.
Q: How did you get hooked up with Chris Rock?
A: We took the show to L.A. and different festivals, and finally I took it to New York. After the show, Chris Rock walked backstage. He was just like, That was funny! When I tell this story, Im always pointing out he didnt say I have found The One! He just thought the show was funny. Its like if Michael Jordan said, You have a good jump shot. What are you going to do with it?
Several months later, I got a call and it was Chris. He said he wanted to help me get a TV show if I was interested. Chris basically went and hand-sold it to FX. For me, the easiest thing in my career was getting Totally Biased. Keeping it was the hardest thing.
Q: FX announced it was canceling Totally Biased last fall so its definitely done?
A: Yeah, its totally done. Someone told me it had historically low ratings. It was a hard battle. When we were on FX once a week, we were building momentum and people were digging it. But then we got moved to (digital cable channel) FXX and we couldnt get a toehold. It was a lot of pressure to put on a baby show.
Q: Your new tour is called Oh, Everything! Whats that all about?
A: Its pronounced (sing-songy) Oh, Everything. Like when someone asks you whats wrong, and you say, Oh, nothing. When really its, Oh, everything. Like, Oh, the GOP leadership. Oh, George Zimmerman. Oh, everything ... If you liked Totally Biased, its the same guy, the same thing, but without the screen. Its a more personal, more intimate thing. I talk about my mixed-race family. Its more focused, and for me, more freeing.
Q: You dig into race issues a lot, but always from these surprising and often really personal places.
A: I feel like jokes make it easier to start an awkward conversation. Jokes are great little communication devices. Laughter doesnt mean people agree with you, but it does at least mean they understand what youre saying. You cant laugh at something and not be paying attention.