W. Kamau Bell Wants to Make You Laugh and Think: "I'm Telling Jokes, but I'm Not Kidding"
Photo by Cassie Wright
Comedian W. Kamau Bell is best known for his acclaimed and somehow cancelled talk show Totally Biased. He brought humor to issues other shows wouldn't touch with a rational tone rarely found on television. On the bright side, he now has more time for stand-up, and he is more than ready for us.
He will be at the South Beach Comedy Festival Thursday night performing his new "Oh, Everything!" tour in preparation of his first hour-long special (finally). The gracious and down to Earth Mr. Bell spoke to Cultist about his first impressions of Miami, cutting his comedy with meaning, and repairing his resilient, crushed soul in the aftermath of the modern television circus.
Cultist: Thanks for talking with us. Have you been to Miami before?
W. Kamau Bell: Actually, just a couple months ago was my first time. I performed at FIU. When you perform at a university, you can't get a pulse of the city. You get off the plane, they drive you to the place that looks like every university on the planet, you do your thing, and you get the hell out. I can't compare the Miami I saw to the Miami of Will Smith's dreams.
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You'll probably see that Miami at the South Beach Comedy Festival.
I don't even know if I want to see that Miami. That's not how I roll. I wear hoodies and sweaters everyday.
Then you'll fit in with the rest of mainland Miami that also can't stand that.
I hope they come out to the show. The other thing I noticed, and this might sound stupid, I was just amazed that everyone I ran into was speaking Spanish to somebody else. I've lived in NY and San Francisco, and you can say "oh I expected that guy to speak Spanish." But in Miami, I was like, oh this is the future, this is what 10 years from now will look like, Chinese people speaking Spanish. It really encouraged me to get my Rosetta Stone on.
Did you lecture as Professor Bell?
At colleges, I do a version of my one-man show [The W. Kamau Bell Curve, Ending Racism in About an Hour]. It's like a classic car; I'm always working on it, but I don't drive it that often because I don't want to ruin it. My stand-up act is like the Jalopy that I take out and kick and drive too fast, and every now and again, the engine falls out.
You'll fit in perfectly here with our road rage. This new performance is part of your "Oh, Everything!" Tour. What's that about?
"What's wrong? Ohhh everything." People know me for focusing on race, and that's great, but if you turn on the news and pay attention to the world, it's basically everything. That leaves it open for me to figure out whatever is bugging me as I get to that town. Everybody has a tendency to focus what's on their corner, and I think we have to get to the place where we also look outside at everything.
It's not about Rebulicans and Democrats, as far as I'm concerned. It's about people who are cool and excited about the future, and people who are uncool and want it to be the past. If you break it down into those categories, there's waaay more cool people. If we could form the cool people party, we would win the election all the time.
So your comedy focuses on real issues, making audiences laugh and think. Do you find this is a handicap or does it excite you to work harder?
It excites me. I've tried to do the other kinds of comedy, and I like it. It's just the comedy that gets me off is the comedy where people have agendas and want to change your mind. Now, having said that, that's not the fastest way to a million dollars in the entertainment industry.
I don't write something smart and try to make it funny. It just so happens the things I think are funny people go "oh that was smart." If you say so. I'm trying to get the same laugh that Jerry Seinfeld is getting. I don't want to write dumb jokes. I don't think anyone does. I defitinetly like when people go "Oh! That was funny, and I'm going to have an awkward conversation after the show."
Does that happen often?
My favorite response from a show I did recently, this was from Portland. After the show, somebody told me they heard two guys talking. One guys goes, "that was the worst show I've ever seen," and his friend goes, "What are you talking about? that was the best show I've ever seen!" That's the response I want from every show. That's an awkward car ride home.
You are the biggest thing that ever happened in that friendship.
Exactly! Maybe they'll become even better friends or they'll never speak again.
I was a big fan of Totally Bias
You were the one!
Haha yes it was me. My Neilson box was broken. I'm sorry about that.
Yeah, weirdly, I don't think a lot of Totally Bias fans had Neilson boxes. That's weird how that works. Funny!
So in the aftermath, the ups and downs, the fan and critical acclaim -
The soul crushing defeat, yes?
So how is your soul? Is it crinkling out and refilling, or is it still squishy?
Part of the reason I'm doing the tour is, after a year of television and stand on your mark and read the prompter and go sit down and interview this person, I was really craving the freedom of stand-up comedy. I've done half a dozen shows on the tour so far, and each one has been different enough that if you came to all the shows, you'd go "wow, you didn't talk about that last time." It gives you the ability to work on jokes; a process I love. A jokes that starts out okay, you can work on and make it great. Where as on TV, you say it once and it's gone forever. Except for the Internet where it lives forever to be criticized.
Having said that, I'm still pursuing opportunities to get back in TV, and I'm talking to some people. It's great. I have options now that I didn't have before Totally Biased. People are like, "you got so screwed by Fox or FX" and I'm like, "hey, they could have just not given me a TV show in the first place." There was always that option, it wasn't like it was my turn.
Who was your favorite guest on the show?
It's hard. Like anything, the first experiences are the hardest to forget. Our first guest was Chris Rock, and that's cheating, but the second guest was Rachel Maddow. If as soon as that interview ended they told me your show has been cancelled, I would be like "well, I am in the win column!" I've been a huge fan of hers since she was a guest on Kieth Olberman's show. She does a great job of distilling information and making it bite-sized and funny. That's kind of what I was trying to do with Totally Biased. She's my buddha, or spirit animal, or other racist things.
Any future projects?
This will lead to the recording of a concert film. I'm talking to people about it, working on it. I've never recorded an hour special. That's the mark of being a comedian. The goal is to be like Geroge Carlin, where when you die, it's like "oh, you have fifteen of these." The goal is to leave a body of work behind, like a time capsule.
Finally, I have to mention, on Totally Bias, the Zimmerman jury thing was hilarious.
Thank you. I say that knowing full-well what he means in FL. That's what I felt separated my show from other shows. It was like "he means this." The jokes I like the most are where my opinion of the situation matches the joke. As I say all the time, "I'm telling jokes but I'm not kidding."
South Beach Comedy Festival presents W. Kamau Bell. Friday, April 3, at the Fillmore, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $29.00 plus fees via ticketmaster.com. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.
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