The funniest comedians always are the smartest. Ergo, W. Kamau Bell is a very funny fellow.
Bell unveiled his new FX showcase, Totally Biased, last night (Thursday) on FX. It's an up-to-the-minute monologue/commentary format, taped the day of broadcast in front of a live studio audience.
The title, actually, is a bit misleading. Bell isn't biased at all, but smart and plugged in, with inventive ways of skewering his subjects. He might be totally liberal, and that might be why the show got its name – conservatives and middle America might indeed see him as totally biased.
Bell, a San Francisco bay area comic, known for his successful 2010 solo theater show, W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, is a virtual fresh face to TV audiences. He's getting his shot here with six episodes televised by FX, and with the backing of Chris Rock, the series' executive producer. That Rock put his name to the venture shows what faith he has in the young comic, and, for now, it seems to be well placed.
Totally Biased places Bell on a downbeat raw looking stage without a backdrop, and the rough brick of the exposed walls give off the feel of a cellar improv room. Bell uses his trademark visual aid of a back-lit projection screen behind him, displaying photos, statistics and captions to accompany his punch lines and observations. He's a sort of alt-comedy news anchor: a satiric power puncher with PowerPoint.
A lot of Bell's material is social observation about Twitter feeds, politics and, most often, race. In his premiere program, most of his bits were worthwhile, including one discussing the recent shootings by a reputed white supremacist at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. It was edgy to go there, but Bell turned it into a solid rant about bigots being unable to tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslim Sheiks.
Visual aids then went up with likewise similar things to distinguish, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (geeks) and Nile Rodgers, a musician from an R&B band (the '70s group named Chic.)
If this sounds a little like a longer version of Bill Maher's "New Rules" segment at the end of each Real Time with Bill Maher, it is, but that's not a bad thing. And it's more of an homage to Maher's success with the topical comic issues show that FX feels, with this program and the recently launched BrandX with Russell Brand, that there's something worth pursuing and emulating.
The inaugural Totally Biased also featured a pre-taped segment: a trip to Harlem for man-on-the-street interviews with men who had been searched by police in the controversial "Stop and Frisk" program, in which (usually) men are selected for a sidewalk search simply because of their appearance.
It was the strongest part of the show, spotlighting a tricky topic and showing off Bell's improvability. He asks interviewees if the program would be better if the police would hand out sodas afterwards and change the name of the campaign to "Pop and Frisk.", Or maybe, if they handed out coupons to Subway for a free sandwich, redeemable after every sixth frisk.
Executive producer Rock made an an-camera appearance on the premiere, during what seems to be a standard, short interview segment in the style of Chelsea Handler's Chelsea Lately. Rock looks fantastic, and does not seem to have aged a day since he left Saturday Night Live in 1993.
He joked with Bell about how "he used to have one of these," referring to his late-night HBO show which ended in 2000. Rock's rapid-fire style had both the audience and Bell really going.
And that was noteworthy, because the laughter was louder and longer than earlier in the show. Judging from earlier material available online, Bell's other gigs and jokes material seem punchier. This suggests the writers have some work to do, getting the jokes up to the level of his tested and proven stage material that's had longer to cook.
But if smart is funny, then Bell ought to easily up his game in the next five weeks and take his show from currently amusing, which it is, to cutting-edge funny.
Which he's done before.