When I stop by W. Kamau Bell’s office in Manhattan, I notice he has a TV on his desk that he leaves on and tuned to CNN, like an IV drip of current events. His manager comes in with posters for him to sign, one of them to be framed and given to his mother. He balks. “No, it’s just–if I had more time, I’d think of something nice to say. It’s my mom! I can’t just write ‘Stay Outta Jail! W. Kamau Bell.’ ” There’s a rack of new-with-tags shirts and jeans that all look exactly like the shirt and jeans he’s currently wearing.
Tonight, FX Networks broadcasts the series premiere of Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, a new politically-charged late night show hosted by the San Francisco comedian (and board member of Colorlines.com’s publisher, the Applied Research Center). FX is investing in the show’s success up front, giving it the coveted slot right after critically acclaimed series Louie.
Bell’s success is well-earned–anyone who’s witnessed his perpetually updated Powerpoint-driven solo show “The W. Kamau Bell Curve,” or who’s caught his “Laughter Against the Machine” tour across the red states, can attest to the dude’s skills and voice. In context of the status quo, however, “Totally Biased” is an outlier. Bell will be the only black person hosting a late night show at present; in interviews, he makes it clear that he wouldn’t be here without the advocacy of comedy superstar Chris Rock, one of the show’s executive producers.
Bell’s politics aren’t just liberal; they’re unabashedly progressive, as he uses comedy to expose and examine the structural ties between race, class, gender, and sexuality. He will be co-hosting our Facing Race 2012 conference in November and is a member of immigration artist-activist group CultureStrike. So “Totally Biased” isn’t just the “Daily Show” with a black guy hosting; it’s something an audience this size may have never been exposed to.
Bell tells me about the hatemail he’s been getting for his yet-unaired show (“Proof that the advertising is working!”). Most of it concerns inaccurate phrasing in a joke he makes about Spiderman in the TV promo, which he improvised from an audience question: What did he want to be when he grew up? “Either a comedian or Spiderman…but they don’t let black people be Spiderman!”
To Bell’s core audience, it’s clearly a reference to Donald Glover’s #donald4spiderman campaign, and Bell was fully aware of Marvel Comics’ new black-Latino Spiderman reboot (the source of the letter-writers’ contention) when he said it. But in a 15-second ad, there’s no space for footnotes or hyperlinks.
It mirrors what is perhaps the biggest challenge facing standup comedy today: in an artform in which every first-draft punchline has to be tested in front of real live people, what happens when those real live people each have a tiny video camera in their pocket? According to many comics, it means any joke, at any stage of its development, can get snipped away from its context and be used to start a publicity nightmare.
Bell doesn’t have any answers. But he sees something big on the horizon. “It used to be, when comics were talking, they were only talking to the people who decided to come through that door. From the moment Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco, that changed–the moment that a cop came in to wait for him to say ‘fuck,’ or something about the Catholic Church, it changed…. And that’s the moment that standup comedy went from ‘take my wife, please,’ to ‘man, I’m thinking about this war.’
“We’re at a similar precipice right now. We’re talking to different people than we think we are.”
I ask about the gender ratio in his writers’ room: one woman, Bell’s protégé Janine Brito, alongside six guys. (Sadly, it’s better than many writers’ rooms.) He answers slowly; he’s clearly thought a lot about it.
“In comedy, like most of corporate America, the structure that is built is not inviting women’s voices in,” he says. “I’ve never been on this side of it before, and in this first season, I don’t have enough power to bring in everyone I want. The first thing I had to do when I got in here was, let me get the people that I’ve worked with and who know the business and who know my voice, and then let me work on the structure. And I don’t mean that as an excuse, certainly. I want women’s voices in the show. I don’t want Janine to have to take up for women. I want to do better. But we’ve got to get through six episodes first.” As an ‘unfamous’ black comic who just got a big break from an established black comic, Bell clearly wants to pay his good fortune forward and help knock down those barriers, just as soon as he knows he can redeem it.
Over in the writers’ room, Janine Brito talks about those structural barriers facing women in standup.
“There were some scary moments. I’d be in the middle of nowhere in Illinois, and after the show a guy would corner me, and nobody would help me out, and I’d just be out there on my own,” says Brito, explaining her initial decision to leave Kansas City for San Francisco, a bigger city with closer-together venues. “I’ve heard stories from other women, too; I had a friend who drove out to do a show and kept getting called by the club manager, in her hotel room, at three in the morning. And when she turned him down, he paid her half of what he had promised, essentially because she didn’t sleep with him. Shit like that happens all the time.” The other writers listen quietly.
The conversation leads naturally into shock comic Daniel Tosh’s recent “joke” in which he called for a woman in the audience to be gang-raped. “That’s not just dumb shit,” says comedy veteran Dwayne Kennedy, “that’s crazy, psychotic, pathological shit that he’s been doing for a long time. And it finally got to that tipping point where someone was fed up. It becomes a media thing, and people start to look back at your body of work and ask, ‘What’s going on in your head, man?’ You forget maybe everybody doesn’t chuckle at rape.”
“And that is what’s happening,” says another of the show’s writers Hari Kondabolu, a former immigrant organizer whose recent comic accomplishments include writing a legitimate feminist dick joke. “Everyone’s looking at [Tosh’s] body of work now; they’re not just waiting for the next thing he’s going to say. And all of a sudden, the pattern comes out: oh, a kid was sodomized and they showed the video on [Tosh’s] show, and here’s another rape joke, and another.”
Sure, the Internet can now take any raw joke out of context–something which the room is unanimously frustrated by–but it can also provide context and hold people accountable for their real messages.
Nato Green, a San Francisco comic and former union organizer, moved to New York City for the show. He’s feeling the industry’s economic barriers; he didn’t want to leave behind his wife and twin 5-year-old daughters, but the Bay’s comedy scene couldn’t pay his bills forever. “This is the step in my career I have to take to ensure that I’ll be able to support my kids 10 years down the road,” he told me a couple of months ago, the day before he shipped out. “I’m not good at anything else!”
Green’s been thinking a lot about responsibility since the Tosh headlines. “It’s past the point of argument that how women are portrayed in the media affects how women view their bodies, that how black people are portrayed affects political debates about black people and crime and welfare,” he says. “The thing that I’ve been wrestling with and that I don’t have an answer to is, what’s the implication of this for us individuals? Nothing that any of us does is directly responsible for an individual hate crime. But it also has to be true that there’s some relationship between people laughing at rape and actual rape. But I don’t know how to give any weight to that.”
He mentions the challenge of writing material about the nation’s attitude toward Sikhs. “I think the thing we’re all committed to is that it’s got to be funny–and that Sikhs have to be able to watch it and not be like, ‘Man, again? They’re getting us wrong again?’”
“It’s about representation,” says Kondabolu. “We’re part of the creation of media. We’re reinforcing ideas; people are laughing, and that confirms a perceived truth.”
But while Kondabolu feels a responsibility to his audience, he also isn’t looking to crowdsource his jokes. “Some of this isn’t defined. I don’t know why certain jokes work. I don’t know why people laugh at that. You just do it. But I do know that if I add something to it, it’s not funny anymore. And what am I supposed to do then?” he laughs. “Go up there, like, I educated you, don’t you guys feel smarter? What a Friday night you’ve had! I can educate while being funny. But if I’m not funny, it’s done.”
And that’s the flipside of lowest-common-denominator shock humor: a comedian can’t change anyone’s perspective if nobody’s coming to see them. So what’s the rule that the “Totally Biased” writers hold themselves to? In their life’s work, what’s their duty to their audience, in the balance between punchlines and footnotes?
“Personally, I think my responsibility is just to try and do my best,” says Brito. “And I’m going to falter and I’m going to make mistakes, and I’m going to change my mind on things, and we’re all evolving. It’s knowing that the first goal is laughter, but that we’re all aiming for something beyond that. I think that’s all I can really promise myself and the people I’m trying to reach.”
“I’ve given up on trying to make the world a better place,” says Kennedy. “Not really. But you know what I mean? It’s not as noble for me. I realized a long time ago that you can make people laugh, and it might be people you don’t agree with, and we might all come together and laugh, and guess what? We leave, and you’re still who you are and I’m still who I am. Someone might be thinking about my funny joke as he beats his wife that night. Does it make a difference? I really hope so, but I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Well, I might be the least political comedian of all the writers,” says Bell’s old partner-in-podcast Kevin Avery. “My act is very autobiographical, so I just want to be honest and tell the truth.” Green points out that Avery just directed a short film that uses comedy to explore questions of black authenticity. Isn’t that political?
“Oh yeah! Yeah, there was that,” says Avery, to laughter. “Even that, though, is grounded in my own experience. And I guess that’s part of the evolution: let me complain about my life, now who else has this experience? How can I bring this to life? It’s probably not just mine, so let’s explore it and talk about it.”
“Do no harm; speak my truth,” says Kondabolu of his own philosophy.
It’ll be interesting to see how light filters through this kaleidoscope of philosophies in the coming weeks. One thing’s certain: W. Kamau Bell and his supporters have a singular opportunity. If a late-night comedy show can hold a conscience and a mission, and find ratings success in the process, it could mean big things for all of us.