A Brief, By No Means Complete List of Noteworthy Comedians Who Hosted a Talk Show For Less Than Two Years: Chevy Chase, Greg Behrendt, Norm Macdonald, D. L. Hughley, Whitney Cummings, Roseanne Barr, David Alan Grier, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Russell Brand, Mo'Nique, George Lopez, Wanda Sykes.
What exactly makes a talk show succeed is difficult to quantify, but it involves some alchemical combination of charm, talent, and ease. The ideal host has to be entertaining enough to catch your interest, but not so desperate for approval that they become off-putting. They need to seem comfortable with themselves, but not like they're taking your attention for granted. (Unless they're David Letterman and they've earned that right.) There's no real way to predict what will work (at one point, every name listed above seemed like a good idea to someone
), which doesn't mean that networks won't try. Usually by copying what went on before.
Earlier this year, NBC decided that after more than two decades and an embarrassing false alarm, Jay Leno would finally retire from the Tonight Show
. After fewer than five years hosting Late Night
, Jimmy Fallon would take over his seat and Conan O'Brien would (presumably) order a Scotch and sigh deeply. There was much speculation in the press about who would take over. Perhaps, some wishful thinkers offered, it was time for a major network to consider someone other than a heterosexual white man? (No offense to Seth Meyers, who was eventually awarded the gig and should not be held personally accountable for a much larger set of issues.)
"There's no question to me that Maya Rudolph wouldn't kick the shit out of a late-night talk show," says Bell, "but people are so used to laying on their bed with their remote in their hand flipping past white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, that it would take an act of bravery for a network. You're never going to find out how good a different type of person could be until you try that person."
's deep bench includes Brito, Asian-American Kevin Kataoka, and proudly cranky African-American social commentator Dwayne Kennedy. Should Totally Biased
find its footing, the second banana most likely to first achieve Carell/Colbert-style breakout success is probably 30-year-old Queens-born writer Hari Kondabolu, a Wesleyan grad with a master's degree in human rights from the London School of Economics, who Bell met at a 2008 Obama election event.
"When you're actually trying to be thoughtful about what you're saying and not wanting to pit oppressions against each other," Kondabolu says, "there aren't too many of us who choose that tact. So when you actually see somebody else who happens to be a person of color, it's an incredible, thrilling moment of like, I'm not alone
." One of the central tenets of Bell and his writers' room is that everyone's struggle is worthy of respect, and we're all in this together. "You have a black heterosexual comic talking about gay rights issues and women's rights issues, and is funny about it," Kondabolu continues. "I haven't seen anything like what we do, which is exciting, but it also means there's no clear blueprint to follow, because who else has really done this?"
But how much of a market is there for it? Landgraf is a betting man, but he's not a foolish one, and one of the reasons he's all in on Totally Biased
is because he believes Bell is capable of saying things that other late-night figures can't or won't, and thus can reach an audience that other shows don't try for.
"He reaches a generation of viewers who don't pretend that race doesn't exist," says Landgraf. "They don't pretend it doesn't make a difference or that people with different sexual orientations aren't different. They are able to engage with, understand and talk about, the things that are different from us because they also perceive a commonality of human experience that is different than the generation that preceded them. I think Kamau and his confederate speak to that really well, and differently than others in the late-night space have ever done."
This is, of course, great. Inspiring, even. But the cold fact of the matter is that for all of Landgraf's patience, this show will at least have to prove it's worth holding onto. The second season debuted with decent enough, if not great
, numbers, yet the show's audience has slowly but surely grown
over the year. The brass seems happy with that for now. No one expected Biased
to become an overnight juggernaut; it's probably enough that it wasn't a complete fiasco like the FX's original mate for Biased
, the widely panned ode to onanism Brand X with Russell Brand
. ("Every time they re-upped his show, I felt like, OK, there must be a good chance they're going to re-up ours
," Bell says. "From the first moment, they said, 'Don't worry, you're not competing with Russell Brand.' I was like, 'Of course not, 'cause if I were competing with Russell Brand, you would have picked him.'")
Though this will surely not always be the case, at the moment positive buzz is more important than hard numbers for the program. And to make sure they would be able to transition from writing one show of topical entertainment a week to five, the Biased
team spent about a month writing and then the week before the second season debut, shooting several practice episodes.
"We're testing everything," says Chuck Sklar. "There's been a lot of technical issues because we moved from another facility across town. We had an order for six episodes a year ago, and we thought we'd wait around for four months and see if they wanted to do more, but no, right away, another seven, then another 13. Now it's a big adjustment, because how do we maintain the quality that we established and the tone that Kamau feels he wants to work in, every day?"
Bell is proud of the show, but not blind to what needs to be improved. There are times when it gets a bit too broad, or a well-intentioned joke doesn't quite land, or he's not doing anything that Jon Stewart isn't doing. (He admits it was tough to find their own way of covering the 2012 election.) But he's come a long way from his first few interviews (an early talk with Tom Morello felt like an outtake from The Chris Farley Show
), and to his credit, Totally Biased
has never felt like an attempt to get the audience to take their medicine.
"I think as an interviewer I've had some good ones and I've had some ones that are not so good," he says. "And a lot of it is about being present, not thinking like, What's the next question?
Toward the end of the first season, Totally Biased
produced the first episode that Bell felt worked all the way through. Kondabolu did a piece on the National Spelling Bee aka the Indian Olympics; Bell visited with preteen thrash metal band Unlocking the Truth and then moderated a debate between comedian Jim Norton and Jezebel
writer Lindy West about rape jokes. (This segment went viral, giving the show what Bell jokes is their hit single.)
"If we don't put that out there, none of this exists anywhere on TV," Bell says. "And that's when Totally Biased
feels like it's doing what it's supposed to do. You look at the early episodes of The Daily Show
, the transition…is amazing. There's no question that Jon Stewart is one of the greats of all time. You have to grow into that. I feel like I definitely still have room to grow into that."