Interview: Comedian W. Kamau Bell Talks Chris Rock and New Tour Ahead Of STL Show
A socio-political comedian who got his break on TV with his show “Totally Biased” after Chris Rock saw his act, W. Kamau Bell received high praise for his takes on current events before the show was cancelled last November. Now, Bell is back on the road in a tour called “Oh Everything!” and is traveling across the country. ALIVE caught up with Bell before his upcoming show at the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill on Thursday, March 13 at 9pm.
ALIVE: Where are you from and how did you get your start in comedy?
W. Kamau Bell: I’ve lived all over the country. I was born in Palo Alto, Calif., and then lived in Indianapolis, Boston, Chicago and spent a lot of time in Mobile, Ala., where my dad lives. When people hear that I lived around a lot they think I came from a military family, but no, I just had a black mom who had a lot of opinions that she wasn’t afraid to share, which meant we often had to get the hell out of town.
I lived in San Francisco for the past 15 years. I was doing my act there and experienced various levels of failure. Then I wrote my solo show, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour,” toured that around the country and eventually ending up doing it in front of Chris Rock at The UCB Theatre in New York City. That led to my show “Totally Biased” on FX and then FXX. And even though it was cancelled, I look at it this way—I had a show on television for over a year! I mean, hell, FX could have just not given me a TV show. It has opened up a lot of new career opportunities for me and maybe more importantly, it has open up a lot of new discussions for people who watched it. Although, I do feel like there is some unfinished business that I started on “Totally Biased.” I think I’ll figure out a way to get back on the TV.
ALIVE: Your tour is called “Oh Everything!” How did the name and idea come about?
WKB: Basically the idea of “Oh Everything!” came from something I would say a lot on “Totally Biased.” Everyday there would be these horrible subjects that would come up in the news over and over again. And in the writers room many of us started saying, “Oh, racism!” “Oh, homophobia!” “Oh, Ted Cruz!” “Oh, Florida!” Eventually I just started saying, “Oh, everything!” It just saved time because everything is screwed up and everything changes every day.
Now, because I am interested in the world and like to talk about it, I’m considered a socio-political comedian. I try to share my understanding with the audience, and the laughter is them going, “We understand what you are saying.” It’s basically an ongoing conversation I’m having with the audience. It’s just that since I’m the one with the microphone, I do most of the talking.
ALIVE: What kinds of current events do you talk about?
WKB: Depends on what is going on by the time I get to St. Louis. Although I’m pretty sure I’ll still be interested in George Zimmerman by then.
ALIVE: Sounds like a fun job.
WKB: I guess. There are certainly harder ways to make a living. Like being the guy who sits next to George Zimmerman all day going, “No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not you, it’s them.”
ALIVE: So does your family make it into your shows?
WKB: Yeah. I mean, my family is kind of a socio-political experiment of it’s own. I’m in an interracial marriage. We have a mixed race daughter, so I’ll never run out of material there. Although, my mother-in-law has banned me from telling jokes about her, and since I like going to her house for the holidays I’m respecting the ban for now. Even when I talk about my wife onstage, she has to pre-approve what I say. My daughter has become a big part of my act. One of the really good things about the show being cancelled is that I get to spend a lot more time with her. And she’s way funnier than me.
ALIVE: What is it like to have Chris Rock get you into the business?
WKB: I think Chris has a great understanding and appreciation of comedy. Eddie Murphy did the same thing with Chris when he saw him perform and then jumpstarted his career. Chis has helped many comedians, although he probably helped me in biggest way. He was an executive producer of “Totally Biased.” It was a totally surreal experience and I am totally grateful. It was like working with Yoda. He’s like the Yoda of Comedy. There’s some comedians that are like Jedi Knights, and he is definitely one of them.
ALIVE: Who else inspires you?
WKB: I have been a huge fan of Rachel Maddow for years, and I was lucky that she agreed to be interviewed on the second episode of “Totally Biased.” I think she’s the gold standard of how to live out your beliefs and do so in an engaging way that invites people in. I’ve been able to hang out with her and she’s a Yoda too. Well, maybe a different kind of Yoda. She’s like the Samuel L. Jackson kind of Jedi. Her light saber is purple.
ALIVE: What plans do you have for the future?
WKB: The plan is to book more dates and by the end of the year, record a concert special on DVD and CD. I also have a belief that I will be on TV before the end of the year.
ALIVE: Will it be similar to “Totally Biased”?
WKB: There are a lot of things I did on that show that I really enjoyed, and any one of them could probably be their own show. People really seemed to dig Man on the Street segments. I’d love to do more of those types of segments somewhere. Maybe more of a documentary feel.
ALIVE: Have you been to STL before?
WKB: I did a show there in December of 2012 at the Firebird. And like I said, I used to live in Chicago so I’ve been to St. Louis several times. St. Louis is an interesting city. It’s one of those handful of cities in America like Baltimore and Cincinnati, where it really exists at the intersection of the North and the South. Which means the food is good and the culture is interesting. And that you kind of never know what accent is going to come out of somebody’s mouth.
ALIVE: What should the audience expect from your show?
WKB: I hope they laugh—and laugh a lot. And I like people to walk out of the show and be talking about what they saw. And I hope they get hugs. I often give hugs. So it’s those three things in that order: laughter, conversation and hugs.
NPR named Bell’s episode of “Fresh Air” as one of its favorite of 2012, and you can see his installment of the “Actually…” video series, “F*ck Science,” which went viral, below:
Check out W. Kamau Bell live while he’s in town at the Duck Room on Thursday, March 19 at 9pm. Purchase tickets in advance online.