Despite his ever-expanding recognition as a socio-political voice in our society, one thing remains the same for W. Kamau Bell: His desire to be recognized as a great comedian. Kamau will be storming the stage at the the Firebird in St. Louis on December 11th for the next stop on his The Kamau Mau Uprising Tour.
Fresh off of hearing the news that FX announced it is picking up thirteen more episodes of the acclaimed Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, beginning January 17, 2013, he joined me by telephone for an interview.
Matt Conty: You've got Chris Rock as the executive producer of your own show. You have Robin Williams saying great things about you. Do you ever just wake up and go, "What the hell happened? Is this real?"
W Kamau Bell: Well, no. You know, I was like the punk rock band of stand-up comedy, you know what I mean? A few people knew who I was and liked me, and most didn't or had never heard of me or were just not interested. When Chris Rock came and saw my show, I was sort of content on being on the indie scene making the projects and going forward and seeing how far I could take it.
But with him liking the show and getting FX to take a chance it's sort of allowed me take chances and sort of go up the ladder in a quicker fashion. I mean, I've worked hard, and people who know me and my career know I've been working hard, but nobody is promised anything. So I'm constantly surprised how crazy this all is. That's why I want to keep working hard at it and get as much out of it as I can and hopefully show people how much I appreciate it so.
It's pretty impressive that you are in the heat of taping and you're still out there touring?
Yeah, I mean this is crazy. This is crazy. As a comic when you start you have the big dreams of getting on TV, then you come down to reality and think maybe I can just be funny and put some food on the table, and I'm able to do that, then all of a sudden I'm hosting my own talk show. It's pretty unique moment, and I want to get the most out of it I can, and by that I mean make the best show I can. When I say "I" I mean "we" because there are a lot of people involved in making the show great and we're working hard on it.
It looks like you're booking a rock club tour. Any reason for this, instead of a comedy club tour?
I like comedy clubs, and I still perform in comedy clubs, but I wanted to do something a little different for my first real tour.
When you do a tour of rock clubs or theaters like this, you know that everyone in there is there to see you. Whereas at a comedy club, no matter how big you are, someone might just roll in there because it's a Thursday. With having the TV show now, I kind of wanted to get out and talk directly to people that are watching the show and are fans of the show. Do something a little different. But I will be back in the comedy clubs and if the comedy club in St. Louis wanted to book me, I would love that as well. But I wanted the first one to be different.
What's one thing you just really hate? It could be anything. For example, I don't think anyone can pull off Capri pants. I hate them.
Hmm. One thing I just hate, let's see. I have an eighteen-month old daughter and I hang out with her at the park. There are not a lot of dads at the park. I'm not judging. I'm just sayin', so a lot of times at the park when they see me there with my daughter some of the moms will try to parent my daughter because they're like, "Uh oh, she's with her dad, he doesn't know what to do..he's a dude with an eighteen-month-old kid; he is going to destroy her." So I hate going to the park and have other parents parent my kid for me.
Do you get to the point where you're almost telling your kid to do something wrong just to defy what that overbearing mom is telling her?
A woman the other day: I was standing there, she was parenting her kid, I was there with my daughter, and my daughter picked up a leaf. And I was talking to her like, "Oh, what do you got there?" and the other parent goes, "A leaf, and if you're not careful she's going to eat it." And I was like, "I don't have the leaf eating kid, maybe you have the leaf eating kid but I feed my kid food. She knows the difference between leaves and food."
Let's talk about that. I read that you said you're daughter was born pretty white and she is slowly becoming darker. Is that part of the act?
Yeah, I definitely talk about it. You know my wife is white and I'm black, and she came out super white. I wasn't sad about it. I was like, oh cool, I created a little double agent. She can tell me what white people think about me when I leave the room. But no, she has gotten darker as each day goes by and I'm having fun charting her color progress with the cover of Michael Jackson CDs.
You've said that Bill Hicks is your favorite comic?
Hicks was relentless and dangerous, and he was one to experiment. He's overwhelming and awesome and hilarious, but also a little scary, and I was just aware that here was a comic who did what he did to the nth degree as hard as he could. You know, it's sad that he died so young because a 50-year-old Bill Hicks could have been an awesome thing, too. Probably still just coming into whatever he could have been. Same way with Jimi Hedrix.
I've always been inspired by Hicks. I'm not like Hicks and would never compare myself to him, but I was inspired by the fact that he took it as far as he possibly could, and he was on a mission to say to himself, "what do I want to say and how do I want to talk the people?" And one of the things he said was he treated the crowd like they were his friends, sort of a respect for the crowd's intelligence, and I certainly try to practice that.
I'm quoting Bill Hicks -- pretty easy to sound profound.
You cut your teeth in San Francisco?
Yeah I moved out there in the late '90s.
A lot of great comics have come out of San Fran? Why is it such a great place to grow up as a comic?
The history of modern stand-up goes through San Francisco. Lenny Bruce played San Francisco a lot, and it was the first city he got arrested in for obscenity. If you get arrested for obscenity in San Francisco, you are really obscene! San Francisco has always supported the arts, and stand-up comedy is something it has always supported. Mort Saal started out there. I think it has always been a place where you can do whatever you want to do, and because of that there's not one style of San Francisco comedy. The thing that resonates from all of us is that we all have our own unique voices. There are places where you see a comic and think, well that's obviously a comic from a certain city, but we don't have that. The crowds are so good and let us do what we want to do, and because of that we have voices. The San Francisco reputation follows you. Like I did a show in Edinburgh, Scotland and they billed me as "from San Francisco." That means something and I don't you can say that about all cities. It definitely has a national and international reputation.
You've said you were a pretty shy person? If I was doing an interview with you in seventh grade, who would I be talking to?
Seventh grade. I'm trying to think of where I lived in seventh grade. Probably Alabama. I mean, I am pretty shy. I kind of just sat back and watched everything. But I had funny things to say to my friends who were right next to me. I wasn't the class clown, but I was the guy who was cracking jokes for my group of friends. I wasn't trying to get the attention.
I'm still in a position where I don't really want the attention. I just want to be heard. I mean, being the center of attention comes with stand-up comedy. It's a part of it that I don't really need or think about. I don't think that necessarily makes me better. I think some of the best comics are the ones yelling. "I am here!" They want that center of attention. You think of someone like Chris Farley who was demanding the center of attention, and he was hilarious.
I think there's a thing where people think most comics are the class clowns and stage hogs, and that's not true with a lot of comics I know. A lot of comics are like, "No, I just like to tell jokes and this is the best way to tell jokes to people."
You're kind of getting this freedom fighter mentality but I get the idea that behind it all I get the idea you're a pretty happy nice guy?
That's the image I'm putting forth, "Happy nice guy."
No, certainly it's a lot to do, and I'm not complaining. I consider myself lucky to be where I am at but the only title I want to claim is comedian because if I claimed the title of freedom fighter, real freedom fighters will be like, "Hey dude, then we need you down here in the jungle, here's your gun." I know a lot of activists, and if I can make some of them laugh doing comedy that's great. But there are people out there doing real work, and I'm sort of just playing. Freedom fighting requires waking up way earlier then I wake up and going to bed way later that I go to bed, so I think I'll just stick with this comedy thing, and let the freedom fighters fight for freedom.