Stand-up W. Kamau Bell takes NYC
This Totally Biased comic brings a bit of San Francisco to the city, inviting different kinds of audiences to share the same tent.
Wed Apr 24 2013
Rather than rush into the place where angels fear to tread, can a fool just waltz in, crack a wry smile and announce that he’s going to end racism in an hour? That’s exactly what happened during San Francisco comic W. Kamau Bell’s disarming solo show—The W. Kamau Bell Curve—at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in October 2010. In spite of his impractical premise, Bell didn’t come off like an ass: He earned thoughtful laughs as he dissected interracial dating, black hair and Barack Obama. And as it turns out, angels were around: When Bell retired backstage, Chris Rock was waiting for him. A conversation ensued, and two years later, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell debuted on FX.
Now, 18 episodes in, Totally Biased hasn’t just found its footing, it’s helping to anchor FX’s new offshoot, FXX, this fall and moving from a weekly schedule to a daily one. (As a result, Bell, along with his wife and baby, have relocated to NYC.) The comedian continues to get offers to perform Bell Curve at colleges, and will be headlining Carolines for the first time Thursday 25–Sunday 28. He has a hard time believing this surge of good fortune, however. “Before Chris saw me, I was making a living. You work hard enough, do good shows, get a reputation, you can work it out,” Bell says. “But lots of people didn’t know I walked on this earth before last August. Right now, people are excited about me.… [but] I remember last July.”
Bell had been talking race onstage before Obama, but when the senator from Illinois became a viable presidential candidate, it compelled the comic to include more politics in his act. He received media attention in San Francisco and invitations to appear on issue-driven comedy shows. He began to tour more frequently, often with politically inclined Bay Area comedians Janine Brito and Nato Green, on a bill titled “Laughter Against the Machine.”
Meanwhile, Bell’s stage persona solidified. He tied the analytical, purposed mind that fueled his solo show with the stand-up who loved wordplay. He found appropriate places to reveal flashes of anger while appearing generally amused and amenable. Bell also discovered the sorts of crowds he most wanted to reach. “Audiences are better and smarter if they’re mixed across all lines—race, age, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic background,” he says. “You get in front of a crowd that’s any one thing, and it feels like a family reunion or a wedding.”
Bell’s desire to “get everyone under one tent,” comes across clearly in Totally Biased. His writing staff, many of whom appear on camera, comprises multiple races, genders and sexual orientations. One of the show’s highlights, its man-on-the-street pieces, doesn’t belittle interviewees as on, say, The Daily Show; in fact, when Bell visited a Young Republicans Club on the night of Obama’s reelection, he didn’t seem happy about the President’s victory so much as he felt bad for them.
In the end, what helps Bell stand out as a host and onstage is his affable self-awareness. As you might expect, part of his recent stage act deals with moving to New York. In one bit, he talks about staying briefly in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood: “I thought I was going to say, ‘Yes, I’m home!’ Instead, I got there and I was like, ‘Uhhh…’ ” Though Bell may have rushed in, he’s still no dope: He and his family are comfortably settling on the Upper East Side.