Standup comics are rarely one-trick ponies nowadays. Some act in movies, others in sitcoms and a handful even take a crack at the music business. But only a small minority ever host their very own TV show.
The Chris Rock-produced Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell ran on FX for two seasons, making the program's namesake one of those elite few. The show was met with critical acclaim — Bell's hometown paper, The San Francisco Chronicle, applauded its edginess, commenting that "it makes The Daily Show look like something your dad watches." Despite this, Totally Biased was canceled in late 2013 due to low ratings.
In advance of his upcoming show at Blueberry Hill on Thursday, March 13, RFT Music spoke with Bell about his television ambitions, his rocky start in standup and the fact that FOX News is still crazy.
Kelsey McClure: I think for a lot of people, when somebody tries out something new and it doesn't go well, they just don't do it anymore. What is it about comedy that keeps you coming back, even when it isn't rocking and rolling right off the bat?
W. Kamau Bell: There's something broken inside of me that won't let me stop. I think if you talk to most comedians, I would say an overwhelming majority start out and it doesn't go well for a period of time. It's longer and shorter, depending on who you are. You have to believe, contrary to the evidence, that you're going to figure it out.
I often was trying to figure out, "OK, I can quit," but then I was like, "What else would I do?" I couldn't think of a thing. If I had thought of a thing, we wouldn't be talking right now.
Do you want to get back on TV?
Certainly. I feel like there's unfinished business that we started with Totally Biased. One of the great things about being part of a show is that when it's over it turns out like Woodstock. A lot of people are like, "Oh my God, I can't believe it's gone, I watched it every night." And I was like, "I don't think you did, because if you did, we'd still be on the air."
I think sometimes people who are strongly opinionated come across as preachy, and that's something that triggers an automatic shutdown from the receiving party. How do you find a balance without coming across as someone who just wants to convince me to think the same way as you?
That's one thing about the word "preachy." Preachy can be bad, but a really good preacher is actually doing everything you want in a really good conversation. A great preacher is actually reaching to you through telling stories and being funny and actually being a great orator. I feel like those aspects of preaching I would certainly aspire towards.
A lot of times I will tell you what happened to me, or what I did in a situation, or how I responded. I think that impression is personal and also trying to build logic bubbles or jokes where it's like, "Yeah, that doesn't make sense."
Continue to page two for more of our interview.
Do the topics come first? Or does the punch line come first and then you develop it from there?
I think I'm like a lot of people. I'll spend all day with my computer open and, like, eight browser windows, and one of them is Twitter and one of them is Facebook. One of them is however else you get your media — some sort of MSNBC thing on TV, or I'm at Yahoo! News' homepage. You need to know how America thinks, what America believes.
There's different outcomes, different blogs. Each one of those pages is talking about the same thing. You go, "Ah, this is the thing we're all thinking about right now." Out of that you usually start airing your frustration about it.
I think for me, when I see Yahoo!'s homepage, I think, "This how America thinks. This is what mainstream America either is thinking about or being told to think about." But if you're only getting your information from Yahoo!'s homepage, then you have a very sort of specific take on the world.
Sometimes I'll even turn on FOX News and say, "Still crazy? Yep. Still crazy."
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