Launching a new topical late night talk show is no easy prospect in a market dominated by the still-brilliant likes of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," not to mention Conan, Fallon, Leno, Letterman and the rest of the regulars. But comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of FX's weekly series "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," has managed to find a niche and a voice for himself in a crowded TV landscape. His show, which is executive produced by Chris Rock and is currently in the middle of its second 13-episode order since its premiere in August, delves boldly into politics and race, maintaining a sharp edge while never seeming fueled by empty rage.
When the openly liberal Bell made a crack about Obama's drone policy, confetti fell from the ceiling while a sign flashed in the background: "BLACK COMEDIAN CRITICIZES BLACK PRESIDENT." Elsewhere, he deemed VW's ad involving white guys with Jamaican accents only "diet racist," and turned the spotlight over to Guy Branum, one of the show's writers, for a response to certain San Francisco 49ers' comments about gay players. "I'm here to call you out, Chris Culliver, not for being a homophobe, but for being bad at football," declared Branum, who's both gay and knows his football, a combination allowing for a witheringly funny monologue. Indiewire spoke with Bell on the phone about finding the show's groove and black hipsterdom.
You have a fair amount of episodes under your belt now, do you feel the show has changed since you first started?
It’s like learning a new language. You know what you want to say but you have a problem figuring out how to say it. I don’t think I’m fully conversant in late-night talk show host yet. I’m better than when we started and I’m proud of a lot of the stuff we did, considering that I had never done anything like that before. But certainly the big change is just that with the first six episodes I thought “we may not get any more than this.” When they renewed us and gave us seven more, I thought “well, we may not get any more than this.” So now they gave us 13, it was like “okay, well we’ll at least be around for several months in the public consciousness.” It’s only recently that doing the show every week wasn’t killing us. We’ve gotten a rhythm to it, and I would imagine that in the next seven, we’ll get it even more down.
Has there been a particular segment or moment where you've really felt like, "yes, this is a good summation of what I want the show’s voice to be"?
Yeah, in the first episodes we did a piece called “Sikhs vs. Sheiks” about the shooting in Wisconsin. I would’ve loved to do that in my act. It was such a fun piece, and had the right tone. The problem was after it's done, you’re like “how do we do that every week?” You’re chasing the dragon, you know? You also want to build consistency. We did a show a couple weeks ago where I was like “from stem to stern, that was a good show.” That’s what you want it to be; not just one piece in a show but the whole show.
Tell me about choosing your guests. You’ve had am interesting mix of journalists like Matt Taibbi, comedians like Lewis Black and people like "Awkward Black Girl" creator Issa Rae, who's more of a web celebrity.
It’s a little bit of who you want and some of who will come. I just want to have a good conversation with somebody. I’ve pitched people that I respect and think are cool and some of those people have come through. Its definitely not the typical late night mix of people. The people who have a movie to promote know where they want to go. But then you can bring on Neill DeGrasse Tyson every week and he’s going to have a different interesting thing to say. We had David Alen Grier come, and we were like “Hey man, let’s talk about ‘In Living Color’!” Who else is going to want to have that conversation?
In general in the show, it does seem like you’re pretty happy to be there. It’s edged in terms of its humor, but it doesn’t seem to foremost motivated by the anger that sometimes overwhelms political comedy.
I certainly feel angry about all of the issues, but I’ve felt like over my career that if I always come off angry, then everyone’s going to stop paying attention. Some of this comes from that I’m a 6’4”, 250 pound black guy who people expect to get angry. It’s the vessel you’re in -- Bill Maher seems angry all of the time, but no one's afraid of him. Maybe you should be. Maybe he’s a black belt or something. I’ve often had a way of going through life like “okay, everything’s cool. I have a problem, I’d like to explain it to you.” That’s just who I am. There’s nothing wrong with being happy to be there. I’m not very good at ironic detachment.
You moved to New York from San Francisco. What’s that been like, particularly in terms of incorporating New York into the show, like that recent segment where you went to Bay Ridge to ask people outside a movie theater about “Django Unchained”?
That is one of the things I like about the show. I’m learning about the city of New York and showing what I’m learning to the people who are watching it. So for me sometimes I’ll be like “I want to go to a place that’s kind of like...” and the producer will be like “Bay Ridge,” and I’ll be like “okay!” People will be like “you went to Bay Ridge and talked about the word ‘nigger’?” And I’m like “yeah, is that bad?” And people will tell me “you couldn’t have been standing here 20 years ago." I’m willing to talk to anyone willing to talk to me, and if they're willing to talk to me, I want to give them their due.