W. Kamau Bell, the political comedian whose show, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, ran on FXX, is back in the standup circuit. Tonight, his Oh, Everything! tour, comes to The Bell House in Brooklyn. We caught up with him to talk about everything from his act, to being mentored by Chris Rock, to his recent controversial appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher.
On Oh, Everything!
The whole idea was that my last comedy album was in 2010, and Totally Biased came in and it was great, but I got away from standup…People know me to talk about race and racism, and I talk about that still, but I just wanted to open up and talk about oh, everything. Because it’s not just one thing that’s fucked up – everything is fucked up.
On the short-lived Totally Biased
It was tough because it was on a new network [FXX], but I feel like in some sense maybe it’s better that it worked out this way in the long run, because it can be added to the list of black folk tales in the history of television shows…now I get to walk around and be like, “Yeah, The Man couldn’t handle my truth,” even though it was probably that The Man couldn’t handle my ratings…there’s still some good clips around that will survive on YouTube. When I’m on the road regularly I hear that teachers use my clips in their classes, which is not really most comics’ goals but that’s pretty cool…It’s occupying this space where on some level it may be bigger in the rear-view mirror.
On his relationship with the executive producer, Chris Rock
I mean that would have been cool even if there weren’t a TV show, just to be in the Chris Rock mentorship program for a couple years. For comics who do the kind of comedy I do, there’s only a handful of them who I would be like, “That’s the comic I want to meet and sit down with and work closely with,” and Chris is probably the number one guy…Chris thinks everybody is still sort of semi-professional until they headline Madison Square Garden, so he helped me get in a lot more people from what I was dealing with at the time.
On developing his style, which centers around politics, race and equality
The more I did [standup], the more I realized that the more I didn’t give a shit about a joke, it was harder for me to pull of more than a few times. I would just lose interest and then I couldn’t pull the joke off anymore…It became a burden, so eventually I sort of developed my style and let it be known even on the show posters the subject material that I would be talking about…I would be having all of these conversations if I wasn’t on stage, it’s just stuff I like to talk about with my friends.
On having a larger agenda to facilitate change
First of all I want to be funny, because there are already better smarter people giving these speeches. And beyond that, I think every artist has some sort of agenda, in music and in comedy…the thing that fires you up is thinking about how people are going to get this. When people leave my shows it just creates conversation – I’m a big fan of awkward conversations as a way to promote change.
On the makeup of his audience
I talked about my interracial marriage a lot of Totally Biased, so it’s funny because my audience tends to be pretty diverse but I think it’s sort of a safe space for interracial couples, there are a lot of them… I certainly get racially diverse crowds, people will comment on that on Twitter before the show starts. I think that makes the crowd smarter.
On being voted Salon’s No. 8 sexiest man of 2012
I mean I was flattered but I sort of got what they were saying: “We think he’s sexy because his brain is sexy.” I don’t think it’s because of the number of crunches I’ve done. Even the picture they used is the goofiest picture of me I think I’ve ever taken. It’s like, “we don’t want to have sex with him, we just think he’s sexy” – like a teddy bear.
On his recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, which sparked controversy and prompted this post on his personal blog…
It’s just about the context. For me, especially in the 21st century, I think the conversation that he brought up could have been a fascinating conversation that could have been had on his show but that’s clearly not the conversation that [Bill Maher] wanted to have. At the time I sort of thought I had jujitsu-d my way out of it, which I was happy about. But then I get home and see that the right wing Internet is watching Bill Maher, waiting for him to do that to people. It’s certainly Bill Maher’s show to run the way he wants to run, but it’s also my career to run the way I want to run too…I would have preferred to just have a conversation about what we were talking about…I feel like he came up with the bit before he had me as the person, because there is nothing about my career that says I’m here to represent the Obamas. I gave them $30, just so I could get a free t-shirt
On what’s next
I’m enjoying doing this standup tour right now and I’ll be doing that until the end of the year. That is, until something else comes up. As my Twitter bio says, I’m available.