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W. Kamau Bell's Return to Late Night
July 8, 2013  | By Eric Gould

BOSTON -- What you see is what you get with W. Kamau Bell. On his FX show Totally Biased he has energy, wit and seems genuinely amused, as we are, by the slant of his political commentary, often grinning and running to the punchline.

All of that spilled through the telephone loud and clear from his New York office late last month. Bell was boisterous and pleasant as he spoke about his show moving to FX's new FXX channel next fall, and his upcoming stand-up tour this month to promote Totally Biased being renewed for a new, full season of shows starting in September. He'll kick off the tour here in Boston, July 11, at the Paradise Rock Club.

Last year saw Totally Biased run three cycles, for a total of 26 shows. Next season will see him clock in with nightly shows Monday through Friday, to a total of more than 125. Is he worried about stretching for material, and suffer middling monologues like many late night hosts?

"Nah," he said confidently. "Not at all. I came out of stand-up comedy, so the monologue isn’t a big deal, where it might be for other guys who didn't start out that way. It's where I've lived. My show (2010's The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour) had me talking direct to the audience with slides and graphics behind me, so what we’re doing now isn’t a change from that."

Still, I asked, isn't it daunting, looking at a full late-night season ahead when you have no material yet, and when a similar TV job had done in such comedy-savvy stand-up comics as Joan Rivers and Dennis Miller?

 “We feel like we have a great team in place," Bell replied. "Like Chris always tells us [comedian Chris Rock, who saw Bell's Curve, and then pitched FX to produce Bell's nightly show], 'Write more than you need.' We've never had a problem filling shows. We always have to cut and throw things out. We always have too much.”

Bell's team now includes Brian McCann, an Emmy-winning former head writer for Conan O'Brien. McCann cracks in a press release: "I couldn't be more excited to round out the diverse and talented staff at Totally Biased by supplying the rare ‘Irish White guy’ voice so often ignored in late night."

McCann's ironic race reference is well-suited to Bell's brand of socio-political commentary. It's high on spotlighting racial blocks and breaking them down with laughter. Bell often stresses he wants an open discussion about race: "I want to have fun with people. Not make fun of them."

When you look back on the legacy of late-night talk hosts, the ones who were quick-witted but also were smart, satirical critics with their fingers firmly on the pulse of the American mindset, you probably think of Dick Cavett, and perhaps Miller (whose hip, syndicated show flopped after one season in 1993), and certainly Jon Stewart, who re-launched The Daily Show to a whole new level in 1999. And then there was Rock's own Emmy-award-winning, irreverent HBO late night series, which ran from 1997 to 2000.

It's not fair to judge Bell's brand of late-night against the high-octane racing machines of Stewart or Bill Maher... not just yet. Those shows, and those hosts, took time to find their form. But Bell deserves to be in the same conversation. He's got the timing, and the chops -- or, as he calls it, "the math of telling jokes."

Bell also cuts against the grain of the usual, current late-night type: a slender white guy in a suit. He's tall, weighs in at around 250 pounds, wears his shirts untucked, hipster-style, and wears heavy-rim glasses. It's almost as if FX and Chris Rock hoped that his alt-type look would help sell the alt-brand of the humor.

"No one would have looked at Jimmy Kimmel in the beginning and thought he would have been a lock as a host," Bell said. "It took time, he grew into it, and now he's looked at as one of the top guys out there."

Bell isn't oblivious to having been a bit of an odd fit for late night, and for FX. “It was always a little strange to me that FX wanted the show, since it seemed not to be something that exactly fit what they were doing, although I always loved their programming. But they wanted a nightly show, and they thought that Totally Biased was their answer to the other late-night cable shows.”

FX probably is right. Although Bell's show doesn't reinvent the late-night format – he does a monologue, prerecorded man-on-the-street interviews, presents stand-up comics, and does some sketch comedy – he brings a spin to it that makes it his own. He comments often how Rock prods him to get him to be as natural as possible on camera, and to be true to his own ideas.

During the last FX cycle before summer hiatus, Bell hosted a panel discussion between controversial comic Jim Norton and Lindy West of the website Jezebel, as to whether they was any case in which the subject of rape was "in bounds" as comedy material. (Daniel Tosh had taken harsh criticism – including here at TVWW – for his rape-comeback comment to a female heckler protesting his rape references during an LA comedy club performance in 2012.)

West won the day, observing that, of course, women who had been raped wouldn't find any joke about it funny (duh) and would be re-victimized by them all over again. Bell navigated the discussion well, keeping the discussion lively and quick enough not to kill the tone of the show -- but never dodged the debate. It showed he wants to enter Maher's topical range of real issues and real risk, and strives to find humor not only in jokes, but even in utterly polarized situations. That takes some courage.

“Yes, we are going to do more of that,” Bell noted. “Not like other panel shows where it’s a debate, and people are just shouting each other down. Not that we want to shy away from debates, but we want more of a back and forth discussion.”

Bell was an early Barack Obama supporter, joking early on Comedy Central in 2005 that Obama couldn't be elected President with that name. "It's too black. That dude's name might as well be 'Blackie Blackerson.'

“Like I have a bit in my act about how people rumored that Obama was a leftist, muslim liberal," Bell went on, adding, "I wish!"

Bell says in his act: "Just imagine if Obama was a combination of the young Malcolm X and the old Malcolm X. That would be amazing. All he would wear would be baby blue turtlenecks and dashikis, leather jackets with a beret tipped off to one side, one of those nappy Jackson Five afros... Now that would be a black president to be afraid of. Not the guy we got right now.”

So how does Bell feel now, with the once idealized and idolized President's image occasionally tarnsihed with accusations of being a drone-flying Facebook spy?

"I think all that, all of it, just proves that once you get in there, there’s just too many ways to do something wrong," Bell said. Then he added, "And he's never 'liked' us on Facebook."

Finally, what about the President's Justice Department busting all those medical marijuana pharmacies even though Obama admitted to being a pot smoker as a kid?

“Was Obama a real stoner?" Bell asked. "I don’t know. I think he was probably just the kid that took a few hits just to look cool, and not get noticed for not doing it.”

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