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Interview: W. Kamau Bell, star of FX's "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," hits The Largo this Friday night

Socially-charged comedian and TV showrunner W. Kamau Bell performs at The Largo on Friday, December 7.
Socially-charged comedian and TV showrunner W. Kamau Bell performs at The Largo on Friday, December 7.
Matthias Clamer

W. Kamau Bell, the creator and host of FX's weekly half-hour comedy show "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," is coming to Los Angeles this Friday night to make his debut at The Largo (doors at 7pm, show at 8:30pm). FX announced last week that the 3rd cycle of "Totally Biased," this time with 13 episodes to begin on Thursday, January 17, in the 11pm time slot.

Bell made a name for himself in the San Francisco comedy scene, releasing his first album of stand up comedy, One Night Only, in 2007, the same year he developed and unveiled his one-man show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About An Hour, which toured across the country to much acclaim, garnering the attention of one Chris Rock, who cultivated a relationship with Bell that resulted in "Totally Biased," with Rock credited as executive producer.

In his time off between production runs of "Totally Biased," Bell is staging a mini tour of stand-up performances with stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis, Nashville, and Cleveland, before heading back to New York to get working on the next set of episodes. This is an opportunity for fans to experience Bell's work as a stand-up comedian in person, an opportunity that may become less frequent as Bell's show is proving to be a hit for FX.

I talked with Bell about his stand-up comedy and his work on "Totally Biased."


What is the origin of the title for your tour, "The Kamau Mau Uprising?" Is it at all related to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' song "The Feast of the Mau Mau?"

W. Kamau Bell: I think we're both referencing the Kenyan revolutionaries, the Mau Mau, we're both reaching back but I'm reaching back farther because he's older than me and did it first. Kamau is a Kenyan name and the Mau Mau were the Kenyan revolutionaries, it just seemed like a natural connection. Also, since our President has Kenyan heritage he's been vaguely connected to the Mau Maus so it seemed like a good call.

How is what you are doing on this tour different from your one-man show?

W. Kamau Bell: Oh yeah, they are very different. My one-man show is a multimedia, Powerpoint, and video clip/audio clip thing that I started doing 5 years ago which was about ending racism "in about an hour." I like to keep a lot of pots in the fire so in addition to doing that show I've continued to do stand-up, and my stand-up is about what's going on right now in my life and what I'm seeing in the world. My one-man show is about ending racism, but my stand-up might end up making it worse, we'll see when I bring it to LA.

Because of the social awareness of your humor and your origins in San Francisco, I'm wondering if you were influenced by the music movement there in the early 1990s, bands like The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Consolidated? There is similarity in the themes you have addressed.

W. Kamau Bell: Certainly I was a fan of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, but a band I'm really a big fan of is Rage Against the Machine which could take on the social issue of the day but you could mosh to it. Even going back to Motown, a lot of Marvin Gaye and The Temptations had songs about social issues that you could dance to. Stand-up comedy can be effective in that way too because you can talk about the ills of the world, if that's what you choose to do, and if you laugh about them they don't seem so heavy. Everyone from Mort Sahl to Lewis Black and Chris Rock, so many great comics. I'd like to try to engage in that same tradition, how effective I am is for those who listen to it to decide.

How crazy has this last year been for you?

W. Kamau Bell: I'd say the last 2 years have been crazy, I met Chris Rock in October of 2010 and that's when we started to talk about doing ["Totally Biased"]. He said he wanted to work on a show with me and it began in fits and starts and in between there my wife had a baby, so it's been pretty hectic and it only seemed to accelerate once we launched "Totally Biased" on FX. I'm a new dad, I'm a new TV show host, there's a newness to being in the public eye in a different way. This is why I'm really enjoying doing this stand-up tour because it's like "Remember this? What this was like, just standing there with a mic?" I'm really looking forward to this.

And how about being names to Salon.com's "Top Ten Sexiest Men of the Year" list?

W. Kamau Bell: [Laughs] Ohhh my god, of all the things I've never aspired to! It was a great write-up and I think they went to my website with the thought, "What is the least sexy picture of him that we can find?" and clearly, they found it. But I hear what they're saying, "Some people are sexy on the inside," and I'll take that!

It's been interesting seeing your performance as host, as well as the format of "Totally Biased" evolve during these first couple rounds of production.

W. Kamau Bell: You really have to learn how to be a TV host, there is a skill set you have to develop and work on. There were some things I was good at but others not so much, it really is like a decathlon. When you talk about the beginnings of other talk show hosts, Conan O'Brien and David Letterman would never want to have "the greatest hits" of their first season on the air, they probably have those buried somewhere. If we are lucky enough to have "Totally Biased" on the air for several seasons we will look back on what we've done this season as our "awkward beginnings." I'm really proud of what we've done but sometimes when people on Twitter tell me I'm doing something wrong, occasionally they're correct and I say, "I'm working on it!"

I've noticed that you are leveraging the staff to come on camera and do more bits. Is this to create more segments on the show and to help share the burden of carrying the show solo?

W. Kamau Bell: In my life I've always hung out with a lot of funny people and shared the stage as often as I could with them so it's very natural for me to do that. When the show began we were all aware that I was not "famous" so perhaps we erred on the side of having too much of me at the beginning but now I love that we are set up for me to throw over to "somebody who is not me" [laughs], we are much more of an ensemble show than when we began.

It's been great to see your segments out on the street, in public, talking to real people. What is your preproduction process for those?

W. Kamau Bell: We do a good amount of preproduction on those because sometimes the topic is very politically charged like New York's "Stop And Frisk" policy, and even "Who Would You Gay Marry?" We do ask ourselves to come up with responses that people might make when we ask the questions so that we don't feel like we'll be caught flat-footed but inevitably once we go out on the street it always goes in a direction we never expected and that ends up being more fun. Like in "Who Would You Gay Marry?" I ended up talking to two drag queens who were in their secret identities as regular-looking people and we went in a whole new direction of drag queen slang, which became a fun thing that we never could have predicted. We could have done an entire segment on those 2 dudes.

How has your relationship been with FX? How directly do you deal with network president John Landgraf?

W. Kamau Bell: I feel like I have a really good relationship with John. I feel like he is like the general manager of a team, he's around when he needs to be but is hands-off when we're functioning well. I've dealt with him directly on numerous occasions and he's told me that, "We want you to make a good show and it's up to you to decide what a good show is. If you are struggling you can talk to us, if we think we have ideas to help you figure things out, we'll talk to you." They're giving us the chance to make the show we want and then they give us feedback on that. I've never worked with the president of a network before but I can't imagine anybody better than John at it. It feels like he is a collaborator, not a boss, he respects us and I respect him. I initially never thought of FX as a destination for the show but when I walked into their offices and looked at the posters they had up, I realized that none of their shows were alike and that if we did the show there, we would have something unique.

What are some ideas you are exploring for upcoming episodes of "Totally Biased?"

W. Kamau Bell: We want to involve more comedians in the show, even ones outside of our immediate writing staff. We've had Hannibal Buress and Ted Alexandro, we want to do more of that, creating a playground for more comedians to come in and talk from their perspective. The goal is to make the show a kind of sand box for the type of comedy we want to present.

When is the last time you performed stand-up in Los Angeles?

W. Kamau Bell: I think it's been about a year, well, actually just before "Totally Biased" started I did some stand-up at the Improv Lab which was a lot of fun. Usually when I've gone to LA I've been on shows that I produced so usually I get my audience to come out to those shows. But this will be my first time performing [as a booked headliner] in LA for me, so I'm very curious in seeing who comes out [laughs]! Largo is a legendary venue, and I've never performed there, "You mean the first time I'm performing there is on my own show?" which seems disrespectful [laughs]! I'm really looking forward to it, it's weird to open my first big comedy tour in LA, it seems like I should build up to that but I've been non-traditional all the way so I might as well continue!


For more information on W. Kamau Bell, check out his website, follow him on Twitter, and see FX's "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell" website. W. Kamau Bell performs at The Largo on Friday, December 7.