CUTTING ON THE BIAS
Socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell, who hosts “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” on the FX network, is using tough social issues to make people laugh and hopefully start a conversation that will initiate change.
“Comedy is a great way to communicate things that are hard to communicate or impossible to communicate otherwise,” Bell said.
Bell will take the stage at the Howlin’ Wolf on Thursday.
Even though Bell always wanted to be a comedian, he has admitted to tossing around a couple of other career choices.
“I wanted to be a comedian as soon as I realized that superhero was not a viable career option,” he said. “It was superhero or kung fu movie star and then comedian. I don’t know if that’s the exact order, but those are the three things I wanted.”
Bell attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and the University of Pennsylvania prior to pursuing a career as a stand-up comic. However, he believes that his childhood and the discussions in his household led to his particular brand of comedy.
“I didn’t mean to become this kind of comedian,” Bell said, “but I did grow up in a household where this was the type of conversation we had a lot. I used to joke in my act that I was 12 years old before I realized that a cracker was also a delicious snack. I lived and ate in a household where we talked about race and racism all the time.”
When Bell began his career as a stand-up comedian in San Francisco, he did jokes about everything. He eventually found himself gravitating to the more sophisticated and socially relevant jokes. In 2008, Bell founded a comedy collective called Laughter Against the Machine with fellow comedians Nato Green and Janine Brito. The goal of the collective was to make audiences laugh and think at the same time.
“I always did enjoy all types of comics,” Bell said, “but the ones I really responded the most to were the ones where it’s like you’re having an adult conversation about the world.”
Heralded as the most prominent new talent in political comedy, Bell’s list of accomplishments includes two stand-up albums, “One Night Only” (2007) and “Face Full of Flour” (2010), which iTunes named one of the Top 10 comedy albums of the year, as well as his critically acclaimed one-man show.
Bell eventually met comedian and producer Chuck Sklar, who had seen his solo show and had worked with actor and comedian Chris Rock for years.
“He told Chris he thought I was funny,” Bell said. “I did a show in New York and Chris walked backstage and said, ‘Yeah, you’re funny. I don’t think many people are funny.’ ”
Bell quickly clarified that this was not a moment when the comedy gods opened up their heaven and the comedy angels rained down blessings on him through Rock.
“I want to be clear. It wasn’t like he said, ‘I’ve finally found the one,’ ” Bell said. “He asked me where I lived. I said, ‘San Francisco.’ He said, ‘You gotta go to New York or L.A.,’ and then he disappeared like he was in ‘Harry Potter.’ He just sort of vanished.”
A few months later, Bell received a phone call from Rock with an idea that would change the landscape of his career.
“He said he wanted to help me get a TV show, unless I didn’t need his help,” Bell said. “I was like, ‘Stop talking, I need your help.’ ”
“Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” premiered on the FX network in August 2012 to positive reviews. Initially a weekly show, “Totally Biased,” will move to FX’s new FXX network in September and start its third season as a nightly show with 130 new episodes.
Bell is not slowing down just yet. He plans to work hard to give his show “a foothold in this very crowded media landscape.” Bell also has plans for the show’s other comics and for the nation.
“I want the show — once it’s on regularly — to build up a very dedicated audience and become a part of the national conversation,” Bell said. “I also want other comics on the show to become stars in their own right, creating this whole new brand of comedy out of ‘Totally Biased.’ ”
“If you’re on the side of good, you can use comedy to get those issues out there and approach them in a lighter way,” Bell said.
“Sometimes we need to get off the soapbox and approach things with a lighter touch, and the other person would be much more likely to hear you.”