BEVERLY HILLS — W. Kamau Bell says he is currently living “the bonus round” of his life. The San Francisco-based stand-up comic and community activist never expected to star in a TV show, but last week “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” executive produced by Chris Rock, premiered on FX.
“This was not supposed to happen,” says Bell, who worked the stand-up circuit over the years — drawing praise from folks like Robin Williams and Rock — and eventually evolved his act into an acclaimed one-man show, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.”
Bell, who also sits on the board of a racial justice think tank and writes a blog for SF Weekly, says that “Totally Biased” will cover race, politics, the media, and whatever other topical issues tickle his fancy or make him mad.
He recently met with reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour here alongside Rock — who appeared via satellite from Boston — to discuss the show. Rock praised Bell’s comedy and said, “I chose to work with Kamau because I figured in three weeks, a month, he probably won’t need me.” Bell affectionately referred to Rock as his “Foul Mouth Yoda.”
We chatted with Bell about comedy and politics. “Totally Biased” airs Thursday nights at 11 on FX.
Q. Who are your comedy heroes?
A. Chris Rock. (Laughs.) I’m legally obligated to say it but it’s absolutely true. I was a weird person who was deeply a fan of Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy. I found both of them to be very funny. I didn’t feel like I had to pick a team. I was also a big fan of Margaret Cho, and Bill Hicks is my favorite comic of all time. Not that I’m anything like Bill Hicks, but to me, that’s how to do this type of comedy: He only talked about things he cared about, he put himself totally into it, and let the chips fall where they may.
Q. Does the joke or observation come first for you or does the situation come first and then you try to find a way to make it funny?
A. I think Jerry Seinfeld said anytime you’re angry there’s comedy happening. For me that’s the thing, I walk around the world, things happen, I get frustrated and my brain naturally goes to comedy. I can only write jokes about things I care about, so I don’t sit down with a list of subjects and try to write jokes about them. I live in the world and the world happens and I watch a lot of media and news and things frustrate me and I come out on stage with punch lines.
Q. Are you ever so mad you can’t be funny?
A. Absolutely. There’s some times where you say, “I have to sit on this for a little while and see where it comes back around.” In my live stand-up act it can be pretty loose sometimes, and with the solo show the audiences I’ve built will let me talk for a little while to get to the joke. With TV we’ve got to get to the joke a little quicker.
Q. What’s wrong with the way we deal with or talk about race on TV?
A. One is we only talk about race and racism when we’re angry, so it’s already too late to have the discussion. And two, we think about it in a very linear way. Even as a black guy in America I feel like the racial discussion shouldn’t be centered around black and white. This country, more and more, is not going to be centered around black and white.
Q. So how will you do it differently?
A. Like “stop-and-frisk,” the New York law . . . mostly they are [stopping] black and Latino men so we went and talked to people about it. But not after something bad happened, just on the street, “What are your thoughts about it?” So you get people talking about it in a way that’s maybe not as strident, where they can actually be reflective.
Q. Does it help the show that it’s an election year?
A. I definitely am a comedian not during election years, but Chris, when we got the show, was like, “We have to get this on air before the election.” When you watch the cable news shows, they will say, “Here’s what happened on ‘The Daily Show’ last night. Here’s what happened on “[‘Real Time With Bill] Maher.’’ I’d like to hear “Here’s what happened on ‘Totally Biased.’ ” I want to be a part of that national discussion.
Q. Are you trying to influence opinion?
A. As a comic if you get caught up in trying to influence opinion you’re probably not as funny as you can be. I definitely like the idea of putting out my ideas and seeing where they fall. But if it’s not hilarious it’s not doing its job. I’m not smart enough to be Rachel Maddow.
Q. As a comedian do you have a preference who wins the election?
A. I’m not that guy. I’ve written more jokes about Barack Obama than I ever wrote about [George W.] Bush, so I’m not the guy who’s like “I hope what’s good for comedy [happens].” If peace reigns over the world and there’s no more ability to be funny. I’ll be OK. I’ll get a job. I’ll work at Starbucks.