Satire is a sharp instrument, sometimes a knife without a handle. It can cut both ways. Just ask W. Kamau Bell, who plays The Sinclair Wednesday. Bell’s penchant for satire is what landed him on “Real Time With Bill Maher” recently, but he walked into a trap. Maher read a quote from US Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) about a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular,” because men aren’t interested in the value of work. Bell said he believed Ryan was talking to minorities, and explained why he thought the premise was wrong. Then Maher read a second quote, which he also attributed to Ryan, about how young people “can’t be bothered” to get an education and pursue good jobs. Before the panel could respond, he revealed that quote was actually from first lady Michelle Obama. Maher’s point was to see whether the panelists could detect racism in both quotes, and the aftermath left Bell dealing with a backlash on blogs and Twitter.
At the same time, “The Colbert Report” host Stephen Colbert was dealing with a Twitter campaign, “#CancelColbert,” over his satirizing of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation” with Colbert’s own “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Bell wound up stepping into that debate, too, on Twitter, trying to mediate the invective directed at the Asian woman who created the hashtag.
We spoke with Bell, who lived in Boston for some of his boyhood but is now a New Yorker, about satire and stand-up, and his political comedy show, “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” which was canceled by FXX in November.
W. KAMAU BELL
Q. Do you describe yourself as a satirist?
A. I describe myself as a stand-up comedian, and certainly one of the techniques I like to use is satire. Satire is a way to “punch up,” as people say. It’s a great tool. I also feel like I’m a little bit of an absurdist. When people see me live doing stand-up comedy versus seeing me in the show “Totally Biased,” people notice how much more physical I am as a stand-up comedian than they realized I was. If the joke wants me to fall to the floor, I’ll fall to the floor.
Q. Are you still battling the response to the Paul Ryan-Michelle Obama question on Bill Maher?
A. I posted a thing on my website for anybody who cares to hear my perspective of what went down. Certainly, people love to give their perspective, i.e., maybe Bill’s perspective. And I feel like I had a very different take on that whole thing. I feel like last week, Friday, I was on Bill Maher, Monday I was on “@Midnight” with Chris Hardwick. I didn’t know this at the beginning of the week, but by the end of the week, I realized I’d been on two game shows.
Q. With the “Colbert Report” situation, there’s been a lot of talk of “punching up” versus “punching down.” What does that mean to you as a comedian?
A. This is the whole thing about satire. And Colbert, certainly he’s operating in the strictest sense of satire. The whole thing is a put-on. And you’re supposed to know that everything means the opposite of what it means. The thing that generally people who aren’t experiencing oppression on a daily basis don’t get — and everybody experiences some oppression in life, but I mean people who experience it on a daily basis, which is minorities, women, all the different genders that aren’t men, different sexualities that aren’t straight — that if you’re not experiencing oppression every day, you don’t understand that even if Colbert says “Ching-Chong” in an allegedly ironic way, if you’re a person who’s had that thrown at them in hate in their life, it still hits you. It’s like, somebody can’t stab you ironically.
Q. Is it satire’s job to offend on occasion?
A. Satire’s a tool of comedy, so it’s satire’s job to be funny. Because satire is taking a side, it inevitably is going to offend somebody. For me, I enjoy offending people who I think are wrong.
I get a visceral thrill. “That’s right, you didn’t like it! [Laughs] That was the point, sir!”
Q. Was there something different about that second season of “Totally Biased” when you moved to FXX?
A. Yes. On FX, we were once a week. On FXX, we were five days a week. So the workload ratcheted up. Most people on the show hadn’t worked on a daily show before, me included. I think we could have gotten our sea legs, but I think we were definitely still in the process of figuring it out.
It happened quickly, as well: It was canceled one day and the final episode was aired the next day. I’ve never worked at a job where they said, “You’re fired, and security is going to follow you out the door.” [Laughs] They were very nice about it. As I’ve said many times, I’m not mad at them. They could have not given me a TV show in the first place. Now when I go to Boston or Cambridge to play, there’s people there who knew me from the show. And that’s going to be a great base to build the rest of my career.