A few years ago, sick of performing for San Francisco audiences who didn't want to hear about race or politics, he was ready to quit comedy completely. Now he's the host of TV's most diverse, boundary-pushing nightly talk show, which just happens to be the flagship of a new network. No pressure or anything.
On a drizzly Thursday morning in late August, a celebrated African-American truth teller, an Indian-American academic turned stand-up, an outspoken gay football fanatic, a hoodie-wearing white guy with a tattoo of the singing hamburger from Better Off Dead, and a dozen or so other Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell writers and staffers are watching a One Direction video on YouTube.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and apparently every celebrity alive felt compelled to mark the occasion by releasing a video describing their own dream. Some were lovely. (Terry Crews, such a sweetheart.) Most were agreeably bland. But a few were… special. For his part, Harry Styles has "a dream that one day hunger will not exist and peace will rule the earth and everyone will just get on."
Styles' oblivious delivery and haughty hand gestures earn a few chuckles, but Bell is worried. Making fun of boy bands is, after all, the lowest hanging fruit possible. "Maybe we should not pile on One Direction?" asks Bell, 40, clad in blue jeans and a black T-shirt. Though he's somewhere between tired and naturally low-key, Bell is an active listener, his eyes not on any of the multiple screens in the room or buried in a notebook, but pointed directly at the various writers pitching their wares.
His staff keeps looking. An earlier clip of Mitt Romney's MLK-inspired dreams was too generically uplifting to really dig into, so the search is on for something worthy of the group's ire.
Bell's Speakeasy Productions office is located on the 10th floor of a midtown Manhattan building. There are two TVs at the front of a long conference table, both connected to laptops. One of the screens shows a color-coded spreadsheet that includes segment titles "Black Batman," "Morgan Freeman Twerk Definition," and "Dear Black Jesus, Please Smite George Zimmerman." The other shows a Huffington Post article about former Illinois congressman and tea party favorite Joe Walsh's MLK-inspired dream. Walsh is an infamous crackpot, so expectations are high. A producer hits play on an audio clip from Walsh's radio show.
"I have a dream that black America will take responsibility for improving their own lives," Walsh spits. "I have a dream that one day black America will cease their dependency on the government plantation, which has enslaved them to lives of poverty, and instead depend on themselves, their families, their churches, and their communities."
The writer's room lights up like kids who get to open a few Christmas gifts early. "Blaaaaaacks," Bell brays, imitating Walsh's drawl. He pauses for a second. "It's hard to take responsibility if you take all the blame."
There's something in there, but they'll have to get back to finding just the right skewer for Walsh, because the morning meeting is almost over and they still haven't answered the most important question: Just how Say Anything are they going to go with Obama's speech, anyway?
The main gist of the joke is that President Obama's MLK-commemorating speech was in the uplifting vein of the 2008 Obama that made us forget all about, Bell says, "the boring candidate we were engaged to vote for." After a few frustrating years with little progress on the environment, drug law reform, and all the other lefty peeves, it seems that the inspiring Obama wants to woo us back. A Photoshop image depicting Barack going full Lloyd Dobler, boombox over the head, is already being worked on by the graphics department. But Bell is firm.
"Lose the rom-com stuff," he tells the rest of the writers. "Maybe a rom-com joke, but let's not do a whole rom-com thing."
Bell starts to riff. "I have a scheme. A meme. A Dream Team," and then starts in on the idea that people are covering MLK, and that the "I Have a Dream" speech is one of the songs that you just shouldn't cover. He asks everyone for their suggestions for songs that people shouldn't cover.
Minnie Riperton's "Lovin' You," known for its intimidatingly high notes, is mentioned. Not bad, but they keep going. Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" also comes up, but Bell points out that is a cover. (And yes, I thought of "Bohemian Rhapsody," but I'm merely auditing this class.)
It's almost 10 a.m. They'll have to figure this out later. Rehearsal is supposed to start at 4, so everybody needs to start writing. There's institutional racism to lampoon, jokes to be sharpened, and uncoverable songs to be decided upon. Though tonight's taping won't ever air, everyone is treating it like a regular episode. Because in less than a week, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell will return from summer break, literally bigger than ever, and everyone has to get into fighting shape.
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell debuted on the cable network FX on a Thursday night in August of last year and produced 26 episodes before taking most of this summer off. A mix of one-on-one interviews, man-on-the-street bits, and Bell or one of his writers' extended riffs on whatever inanity the day offered up, Biased was the only one of the many late-night comedy shows to air last year that featured a balloon drop and dance party while the phrase "Black Comedian Criticized Obama!" flashed across the screen.
Last week Biased returned for its second season. There've been a few changes: No longer confined to Thursday, it now airs at 11 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday. It has also been moved, along with the raunchy comedies The League and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, to FXX, the just launched, younger-skewing offshoot of FX. Though Biased has yet to achieve the pop-cultural traction of the other two shows, by airing on five nights a week it becomes, by default, the most prominent face of the new network. This is really not as stressful as it sounds, apparently.
"On one hand you could look at that as a lot of pressure, but I look at it from the other perspective — you put a fledgling show on a fledgling network and you give them the opportunity to grow together," says John Landgraf, president of FX. "I don't expect Kamau to come out of the gate and beat Jimmy Fallon and The Daily Show. They're both going to be works in progress for some time. And I like that."
There's a long story and a short story for how W. Kamau Bell found himself in this unique position. The long version involves hard work, self-discovery, and overcoming internalized, self-limiting beliefs — we'll get to that. The short version is that Landgraf and Chris Rock had lunch, Rock told Landgraf that W. Kamau Bell should have a show, and Landgraf agreed.
"He has a very distinct presence," Landgraf says. "He's very smart, very sharp, but I think there's kind of a warmth to him. His perspective is unlike anything I see on television, like nothing I've seen a late-night show built around."
Perhaps the even shorter story for how Bell found himself with a late-night show is that Landgraf is widely considered one of the most forward-thinking minds working in television. He nurtured the defiantly uncommercial, boldly experimental Louie into an Emmy-nominated, critically acclaimed hit, and has again and again shown a willingness to bet on raw talent and give it time to grow.
"That's kind of what's always been one of the hallmarks of our channel," he says. "No one had ever heard of Shawn Ryan when he created The Shield. The It's Always Sunny guys had literally no experience. It took years of patience. What is the challenge of betting on the guy who is the hottest thing in the world, coming off a massive success? The genius is trying to figure out who has the potential to grow into that over time."
As such, Landgraf has assured Bell that he will have the time and space he needs to make Biased as Biased as it could possibly be. "FX is actively not trying to get the biggest audience possible. They're going after the most intense audience possible," Bell says. "Our job is is to think about how we do this show as good as possible so it becomes a thing."
Growing up, W. Kamau Bell never felt black enough. "I grew up in the era of hip-hop, but that was never my main thing," he says. "I didn't come out of the ghetto like a lot of black people are supposed to. I wasn't athletic, and that frustrated people because I was always tall: 'Why can't you play basketball? If I was your height…'"
Sitting in his production office, which is filled with a few partly unpacked boxes and not much else, Bell seems relaxed for a person who will shortly have one of the more relentlessly time-consuming duties in entertainment. But upon closer observation, what seems like a calm demeanor begins to resemble a natural level of reserve, the mark of a person more likely to internalize pressure. He is even taller in person than he appears on television (though based on all evidence I've seen, he's a born sloucher), and even when he's not mugging to sell a joke, his face has an animated warmth to it. If you didn't know he was a performer, it would be hard to shake the feeling that he is a man who is probably really good at getting infants to smile.
Walter Kamau Bell was born in Palo Alto, California, and then moved to Indianapolis, then Boston, then Chicago. He then went to live with his dad in Alabama for a while, then went back to live with his mom. "At one point it was like 10 schools in 10 years or something crazy," he says. "My mom was very concerned about the schools I was going to, so if I went to one for, like, a week or two and she was like, 'This isn't it,' we'd just move. At the time I didn't realize it was a lot."
In the mid-'80s, Bell's mother Janet made her living publishing compendiums of famous African-American quotations. "She self-published back when self-publishing was drive out to the suburbs, find a typesetter. Before that she worked in the textbook industry and she made it her thing to diversify the stories in English textbooks. They didn't hire her for that but that's what she decided to do: 'Why can't this character be named Juan or Jamal?' She would go to schools and she'd find out they didn't teach African-American studies, so she'd be like, 'Well, I'm coming on Tuesday and I'm bringing my slide projector.'"
But while Bell's mom wanted him to take pride in who he was, he mostly felt alienated from other African-Americans while growing up. But he was alienated from everyone growing up; after a few years of constantly moving, he began to get sick of constantly saying good-bye, and eventually made little effort to make new friends. "I've always gone by Kamau, but I would go to schools and they'd be like, 'Walter Bell,' and I'd be like, 'Yeah, it's fine. It's fine. I won't be here long enough.'" He laughs for a second. "This has become a therapy session."
An only child and a latchkey kid, Bell spent most of his childhood devouring comic books — Spider-Man and the Hulk, sure, but despite the civil rights analogy at the heart of the series, the X-Men were "too much like a soap opera" — and becoming obsessed with comedy specials like Bill Cosby's Himself and Eddie Murphy's Delirious and Raw. "I remember seeing [Jerry] Seinfeld on the Tonight Show: 'Oh, it's just a guy standing up there talking.' I spent a lot of time by myself, and I like spending time by myself. The thing I always hated about team sports is if you dropped the ball, everybody turned on you. Stand-up is the ultimate solo activity. If it goes bad, it's just my fault."
He dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania "when I realized I didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer" and attended Columbia College Chicago, an open admission art school where he took classes in acting and music appreciation. Eventually, he stumbled into Chicago's Second City program, one of the most respected improv comedy incubators in America. There's a shirt, now functioning more as a blanket, that is his proof that he went through the club's conservatory program. Meanwhile, he was secretly going to and performing at stand-up clubs in town, and realizing that was his calling.
Bell's parents didn't agree on much, but they both agreed that they hated Los Angeles. They passed that on to their son. An early visit to New York convinced him that the city was too loud and the buildings were too tall, so by 1997, he eventually found himself in San Francisco. "I was a big fan of the history of stand-up and knew that New York and San Francisco had a lot to say about it. And also the scene at the point — it's bigger now — was real tight-knit. There wasn't a lot of in-fighting or gossiping. The clubs there — the Punchline, Cobb's — really nurtured local talent. Which I find now is really rare."
But all the nurturing and support in the world couldn't make audiences actually laugh. "I was really a bad comedian for a long time," he says. "A lot of my early years were throwing anything I could think of against the wall, and whenever I talked about race, the audience would clam up so I would have to pull away. I would love to be able to write jokes that weren't always about something. It'd be easier. But I just can't figure out how to take those onstage and still care about them."
By 2007, Bell's frustration reached a breaking point. He was tired of watching other comedians move past him, and he couldn't stomach the hypocrisy of San Francisco's supposedly anything-goes culture. ("San Francisco is like 4% black, the country is like 12% black. Why is the most liberal city in the country 4% black?") Comedy clubs are filled with guys complaining that they're going to quit any day now. Bell was never that guy until he was.
"Comedy is too hard. It's too soul-crushing. If you have another option, take it," he says. "If video stores or comic book shops paid a living wage and came with health insurance, I would have done that."
He'd been involved with the activism and performance community in San Francisco, so in a last-ditch effort, he rented a theater and wrote his own solo show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.
"If I talk about race and racism in a comedy club, after 10 minutes they're going to want me to move on," he says. "But if I go to a theater and put it in the title, they either will like it or they won't but they won't be like, 'Why is he still talking about racism?' The moment I started doing that it felt like, This is what I'm supposed to be doing."
Bell Curve was sort of like his "version of The Daily Show," and, as such, an embryonic version of Totally Biased. He did it a few times a week, constantly rewriting and updating to include the day's events, and included clips and up-to-the-minute personal stories, often related to Kamau's white girlfriend (now wife) Melissa. "It really taught me how to get more personal and also how to really hold the line on things I want to talk about and not let the crowd dictate it."
If it took Bell a while to find an audience, he was at least making friends, including Janine Brito, 30, an openly gay stand-up he brought with him to Biased. "Ironically, this move to say 'screw it' to the industry is what got the industry's attention," she says. "It let him lean to a style and point of view so unique and personal to him, they couldn't ignore him anymore. Also, his Afro's gotten progressively messier — it's like, 'Jesus Christ, dude, get it together.'" She also credits San Francisco for encouraging performers to try bold ideas. "The Bay lets you play. We see old nudists' saggy balls, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and our friends' one-woman shows about strap-ons 365 days a year. So we're down for whatever."
"I learned a lot more about identity politics," says Bell, agreeing. "Hanging out with all sorts of different types of people, you start to let go of some things. And then it all naturally bubbled up through my act. The label 'political' got put on me eventually — if you're black and have opinions and those opinions don't rhyme, then you're political."
Bell soon toured the show on college campuses and at diversity events, as well as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. "It was very DIY, very punk-rock ethic of pack it up and take it wherever people want you." One of the people who caught a performance was Chris Rock, who had worked with Bell's friend Chuck Sklar, now a producer on Totally Biased.
"[Rock] came and saw and then called me a couple of months later, like, 'I want to help you get a show.' There were some stops and starts. Me and Chuck got a crew together in San Francisco and put together something to show him. He put his own money into it. And then he took it to FX. Getting the show was easier than anything I ever did in my career. Keeping the show was harder."
Bell is looking out the window. His glasses are off and he's rubbing his temples. He's meeting with a few of his writers, hammering out the MLK bit. The Walsh stuff has been dropped completely, and they've decided to focus on the fact that Obama's anniversary speech talked about the need for equality for women, homosexuals, Asians, and Native Americans. One idea is to riff on other people he could have included in his speech, including "Comic-Con people" and "dykes on bikes," but Bell isn't feeling these suggestions. "It took 12 people to write that?"
The writers' room is a few doors down from the Totally Biased studio. It's decorated with various props, including a license plate that reads "Not Questlove" and a photo collage from a bit where Bell assembled the dream jury that he wished George Zimmerman had faced in Florida. (It includes Ice Cube, Angela Davis, and four different Samuel L. Jacksons.)
"Barack's dream includes gays, Native Americans, and Asians. Barack's dream got waaay freakier," Bell says. A few minutes later, he adds, "Barack's dream was like something from Eyes Wide Shut."
So they have the kicker, but there are a few more things to go over. An idea about Sears having a Martin Luther King Day mattress sale is discarded when it's pointed out that Stephen Colbert had already done it, and there's still the matter of what to do about One Direction. At the moment, they're leaning toward Bell, using an outrageously broad, Absolutely Fabulous-worthy British accent, saying, "I support Marvin Luther King. I'd love to meet him one day."
Also, could someone please check and make sure that no women spoke at the original March? "At least Wikipedia it, so we don't get slammed on a blog post."
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."
Totally Biased'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 or Conan, 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."
Fishbone's "Lyin' Ass Bitch" plays over the speakers while an audience coordinator assigns people to their seats, careful to make sure that the first two rows are not a sea of white faces — not difficult, given the diverse crowd. Like every TV studio, the space is much smaller than it looks on television, just one brick-wall backdrop ("vandalized" with graffiti tags including "Race Is Not Real," "I Never Say Mixed," and "23") and a smattering of seats.
Bell, now wearing a gray suit and a burgundy dress shirt, runs out, starts introducing the show, and immediately flubs a line. "Hey, everybody, I'm new to show business," he tells the audience. "I just had a yearlong internship."
Bell starts running through the day's news, including the truly baffling statistic that 29% of Louisiana Republicans blame Obama for Hurricane Katrina. (Bell notes there is a margin of error plus or minus "you are out of your goddamn mind." I've seen him do the joke 10 times now through various writing run-throughs and rehearsals, but I never saw him bulge his neck out and smack down the word "mind" quite like this before.)
Eventually we get to the main act of the evening, the "I Have a Dream" bit. The rom-com stuff is cut down to one joke about Obama being afraid of his commitment to education and the environment but now he's back. Cut to the Obama as Lloyd Dobler Photoshop and Bell singing a bar of "In Your Eyes." The One Direction joke has been changed to, "Where were you in the '60s when we needed you, Harry, and why didn't you and Taylor work out?" Bell is standing up straight for the first time all day, hitting each beat efficiently and drawing out the "waaaaaaaay freakier" part for all the laughs he can milk. He confidently and smoothly makes the argument that we can't just keep covering Martin Luther King Jr. — we need to start making new songs that reflect where we are today and the struggles we still face. "Otherwise, we'll end up with this." Cue video of a Miss America contestant brutalizing the Dreamgirls ballad "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."
It's running somewhat smoothly. During a bit about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, aka the "top contestant on America's Next Black President," Bell trips over a line. And then trips over it again. His head writer Kevin Avery starts to read from the prompter, but Bell cuts him off. "I can read, negro!" he yells with mock anger. He smiles, and everyone loses it for a second. And then it's time to start the whole bit over before taping some FXX promos.
But first Bell turns to the audience and, pretending for a second that it's just him and them, says that when he was a kid all he wanted to do was stay up late and tell jokes. He shakes his head for a second and shoots the grin that a lot of people hope America will one day find familiar and reassuring. "I didn't want to work for a living."