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W. Kamau Bell Talks 'Totally Biased,' Learning to Speak Talk Show Host and the Best Places to Be a Black Hipster

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire February 20, 2013 at 12:26PM

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.
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What has the experience been like in terms of the comedy scene in New York versus San Francisco?

Because of the show and the hours we work, I feel like I’m not a member of the New York comedy scene. I'm more a member of the New York TV production scene. I’ve been out a couple times, but it’s always been very specific. I feel very much like walking into that is an extension of the show, like Wyatt Cenac’s crowd is my crowd, we have a lot of crossover. I love the San Francisco comedy scene, but the city didn’t feel very excited about stand-up. In New York, the city feels excited about stand-up comedy. It really promotes people getting better faster and there’s a lot more stage time, where in San Francisco you really had to scratch it out. If you wanted to start your own room, you really had to work to get people in there.

Wyatt Cenac made a movie set in San Francisco called “Medicine for Melancholy.” Did you see it?

I did see it, actually. I think legally as a black dude in San Francisco I had to see it.

"If you’re a black hipster in San Francisco you probably still have the ability to be lonely."

One of the recent "Totally Biased" episodes started with a segment featuring Reggie Watts about “Black Hipstery Month.” “Medicine for Melancholy” was released in 2008 and was about feeling isolated in a mostly white hipster scene -- I was wondering if you felt that in those last five years there has been a change, that even if that sketch was about "the first black woman to laugh out loud at 'Portlandia,'" that idea of black hipster is not so exotic as it feels in that movie.

Well, I think if you’re a black hipster in San Francisco you probably still have the ability to be lonely. If you’re a black hipster in Oakland, then you’re probably not going to feel lonely. There’s something endemic to San Francisco. I don’t know that I would describe myself as a black hipster. I get the title "blerd" more often than I get black hipster, but maybe that’s a subset of black hipster. I loved living in San Francisco, but I certainly felt lonely as a black person in San Francisco.

I do think that if you’re a black hipster and you don’t want to be lonely, there are places in this country you can go. Oakland is one of those places and Brooklyn is one of those places. But certainly being black in America, if you want to find your kind, sometimes you have to search them out, and I think the Internet has made that easier. So even in the five years since “Medicine for Melancholy,” it’s much easier to find your people than it was when I was in high school.

Brooklyn has a very similar feeling to Oakland, where you can be black and weird and nobody's going to be mad at you. The Brooklyn of today didn't exist when I was a teenager, but man, if I was a teenager now -- I look at black teenagers on skateboards in skinny jeans, like, "you have no idea how hard we had to fight to get you those."

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After that "Django Unchained" segment, I did really want to hear your thoughts on the movie.

I said something on the show this week that was about this -- "being black is complicated." [laughs] Tarantino's existence as a director only proves that. "Django" is, in my mind, one of his better films, as far as there being a story from beginning to end and he follows it through and it resolves. But about five n-bombs in, I was like, "slow down, dude. I get it, you're obsessed with the n-word, you've always been obsessed with it, and you're finally in a place where you can use it as many times as you want to."

I find him problematic, and yet I can still enjoy his movies. If I pay $15 to see a Tarantino flick, I'm probably going to get $15 worth of movie -- but I'm also going to have to come out and have a discussion with my friends about it. And there's nothing wrong with that -- my only problem with Tarantino is when he runs away from the fact that he's doing what he's doing. You can do that, you have freedom of speech and you're an artist, but don't act like people are crazy when they want to talk to you about it. Don't hide behind "historical accuracy" when the only way your movie was historically accurate was that America once had slavery.

Who's the ideal guest you'd like to have on the show?

Denzel Washington.

Okay. And why?

[laughs] The same way people can have conversations on our show that they can't have elsewhere, because of who I am and because of who the audience of the show is, I feel there's an entire conversation to be had with Denzel Washington. Not only are you one of Hollywood's A-list actors, but you're kind of carrying the baton for black people. He's maybe the last actor in Hollywood who really had to do that -- Will Smith can if he wants to, but he doesn't have to. But Denzel Washington -- basically it was Sidney Poitier to him, and there's a sense, watching his career, that he's aware of that. I want to talk to him about that, about being, basically, the King of Black America, and the pressure that you feel. He's a guy I've always been fascinated by, in terms of how you become an A-list actor in Hollywood and not ever do something where black America was like, "I can't believe he did that." That's a really hard tightrope to walk. He was in a movie with Julia Roberts, and they didn't kiss. I'm sure that must have come up at some point. [laughs] There's a conversation to be had with him that isn't had. He wouldn't want to have it with me, but I would like to try.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, FX, W. Kamau Bell, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell







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