Ask Me Another
Thu January 30, 2014
W. Kamau Bell: After 'Totally Biased,' What's Next?
Originally published on Sun February 2, 2014 3:30 am
Imagine stepping offstage from performing your one-man comedy show in a tiny black box theater to find none other than Chris Rock waiting for you backstage. If you're W. Kamau Bell, then you've lived it.
"It was almost like meeting Santa Claus. But like, the real Santa Claus," Bell joked, when he joined Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg at the aptly-named Bell House in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Like 'I thought you were fake! I'm sorry, Santa!'"
The rest of the story goes like this: Rock thought Bell was funny, and advised him to leave his home in San Francisco and move to New York, where the industry was. Amid a Broadway stint for Rock and a new baby for Bell, the pair developed Totally Biased, a politically-leaning late night variety show on FX that mashed up sketch comedy, monologue, and man-on-the-street and celebrity interviews, all with Bell's signature style: opinionated, outspoken and willing to go over-the-top. In November 2013, after moving networks to FXX and going nightly, the show was canceled after 64 episodes.
Bell waxed about the challenges in his early days of stand-up, and dropped hints about what's next for him; from the sound of it, it'll involve a live audience. Then for his Ask Me Another challenge, we had Bell perform Pyramid-style clues about other funny folks who've hosted their own brilliant, but canceled, TV shows.
Plus, in the podcast extra on this page, hear Bell tell the story of being heckled by Barbara Walters on The View.
On meeting, and receiving life advice from, Chris Rock
I've met other famous people before. But he's so famous, that it's almost like meeting Santa Claus. But like, the real Santa Claus. Like "I thought you were fake! I'm sorry, Santa!" Or like meeting the actual Spiderman — but the real Spiderman! It was quite surreal. It all happened in a cloud. The thing I remember him saying was, "Ah, you're pretty funny." I said, "OK, thanks!" And he said, "Where do you live?" I said, "San Francisco." He said, "Move!"
On being pegged as a "political comedian"
Here's the weird thing about America. I was just a black guy with opinions, and people call that "political." I just had thoughts about the world we live in. To label it "political" seems to me to put it in a tight Washington, D.C. beltway politics box. "Politicized," I like.
On his early days of stand-up comedy
I was bad for a really long time. When you start in stand-up comedy, it's a little bit of a shotgun approach. You say, "What about this?" I feel like it's like having a garbage bag of things that you think are really valuable. You pull them out and show them to the audience, and they go, "Nope!". And you go, "OK, let me reach back in here...how about this one?" Eventually if you work long enough and have some level of talent, you keep pulling out things people like. "Let me polish this one up, and make it shiny."
On the call that changed everything
[Chris Rock] called me two months [after we met backstage]. "Spiderman's calling me!" It was an "Unknown Number." I really didn't think it was him. And then he started to do that thing: "You don't want to be the guy who doesn't think it's me when I'm calling."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR and WNYC's hour of trivia puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg. And please welcome our very important puzzler, comedian whose show "Totally Biased" ended far too soon, W. Kamau Bell.
W. KAMAU BELL: Thank you. Or, it ended right on time.
BELL: Depending on your perspective. Aw, thank you. I love that Brooklyn, aw.
BELL: Reminds of being in the Bay Area.
EISENBERG: I want to go back in time...
EISENBERG: ...to October 2010.
EISENBERG: OK, so there you are. You're performing your one-man show.
EISENBERG: At the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is like a small black box theater...
EISENBERG: ...in New York.
EISENBERG: And you finish your performance and you head backstage...
EISENBERG: ...to sort of think it out.
BELL: Yeah, to do that thing you do after you finish performing, like oh, man, I'm amazing.
EISENBERG: I'm amazing close to yourself...
BELL: God, I really, I really did some things.
EISENBERG: Look at yourself in the mirror and repeat...
BELL: Well, it went well, so I had that. Like, it was a good show so I had that like post show like, you know, thing.
EISENBERG: Hi, right?
BELL: As opposed to the one like I should end everything, you know.
EISENBERG: But on this particular night, Chris Rock comes backstage.
EISENBERG: What was that like?
BELL: I met other famous people, other famous, you know, you just sort of meet comedians who are famous, but he so famous that it's like almost like meeting Santa Claus.
BELL: Or like the real Santa Claus.
EISENBERG: Right. Right.
BELL: Like, oh, I thought you were fake. I didn't know. I'm sorry, Santa.
EISENBERG: All these other Santa Claus's are based on you.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Right.
BELL: You know, it's like meeting the actual, like it was like, oh, it's meeting Spiderman, but the real Spiderman. Like it was, yeah, it was really, it was quite surreal.
EISENBERG: And what did he say to you?
BELL: It all happened in a cloud for a little bit because it was like OK, this guy, but he said - the thing I remember him saying is like ah, you're pretty funny.
BELL: Which I was like OK, thanks.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Great.
BELL: It's like and eh, you're pretty funny. And he said where do you live? And I said San Francisco. And he said move.
BELL: He's a New York guy, as many people know. And so he was like there's nothing happening there. The industry got to be here, LA and da, da, da. I was just talking to Seinfeld and - he just went - he sort of monologues.
BELL: Yeah. Like an evil villain, he monologues.
EISENBERG: But in this case he was monologuing advice.
BELL: About - yeah, advice about where I should about where I should move, about the show is good. He's like, you're pretty funny and, you know, I only think like eight guys are funny, so take that for what it means.
EISENBERG: Yeah. You're like...
BELL: Yeah. Yeah.
EISENBERG: I'm going to remember that for the rest of my life, as a matter of fact.
BELL: Yeah. Yeah. No. No. I did, and as I'm proving right now.
EISENBERG: And did you move from then that's when he decided all right?
BELL: No. No. I didn't move. I'm hardheaded, as they say.
BELL: You know, my wife was quite pregnant at the time and so I knew we were not moving anywhere anytime soon because, you know, we are they had that deal in San Francisco for the baby.
EISENBERG: Right. You didn't run home and say, Chris Rock told us to move, we're leaving.
BELL: Yeah, no. She wouldn't have taken that very well.
EISENBERG: And that show that you were doing what's called "The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour."
BELL: Where if you brought a friend of a different race you got in two for one.
EISENBERG: How many people...
BELL: See, look, not even Martin Luther King Jr. did that, everybody.
BELL: Of course, he also didn't charge admission so, you know.
EISENBERG: So you made your name as a political comedian.
BELL: I guess. That label is sort of late to me. Here's the weird thing about it. America, I was just a black guy with opinions...
BELL: And people call that political. I think that's a weird thing. I don't, I mean I sort of just had thoughts about the world in which we lived in. But to label it political seems to me to really put it in a real sort of a tight like Washington, D.C., Beltway politics.
EISENBERG: Oh, interesting. But when you started stand-up...
BELL: Politicized. I like politicized comedian.
EISENBERG: Politicized. When you started stand-up, was your act in as similar vein?
EISENBERG: Oh. What was it - I was your - what was your style like?
BELL: It was horrible. It was horrible.
BELL: I would bad for a really long time. Some would say, still.
BELL: I knew you'd do it. I knew you'd do it. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Do you remember some of the stuff you talk about in the beginning?
BELL: No, not at all.
BELL: Of course I do. I'd say, yeah. Yeah.
EISENBERG: But what was it like cats, men versus women? What was it?
BELL: I don't know. You just do those things. I don't know. You just sort of, it's a, when you start in stand-up comedy it's sort of a I think sometimes a little bit of a shotgun approach and you sort of say, what about this? What about this? I feel it's like having a garbage bag of things that you think are really valuable and you just pull them out and show them to the audience and they do nope. And you call all right, what about, let me reaching here. How about this one? No. and you just keep. And eventually, if you work long enough and have some level of talent, you keep pulling out stuff that people like in your like OK, let me publish this one up and let me get it all shiny and ahh.
EISENBERG: So did you find that there was a moment where you shifted in your act or was it more just a progression where you were like, all right, I really like talking about this kind of stuff and I feel stronger about my opinion about this?
BELL: I mean for me, for me, I grew up in the household where we talked about issue - well, I grew up with my mom mostly and she's one of those black moms like many of you have.
BELL: Like those two people have.
BELL: All right. One right there.
BELL: Why don't the four of us meet afterwards.
BELL: You're one of the black moms who talks about stuff, like I jokingly say that in my house every month was black history month, you know I mean? Like it wasn't, we didn't wait until February.
BELL: And so we just talk, and so I just had that in the back of my head all the time, but I didn't come out of the comedian who was like I got something to say.
EISENBERG: So how did your show "Totally Biased" come about?
BELL: You know, actor Chris Rock came backstage, he called me like two months later, which I wasn't expecting, that was another like, you know, Spiderman's calling me.
EISENBERG: Was it unknown number, by the way?
BELL: It was unknown number...
BELL: ...which is, you know, usually it's weird, for me unknown numbers a lot are my dad, which I don't know what he's got that kind of number.
EISENBERG: Your dad is very mysterious.
BELL: Yeah. So I answered it like hello and it was like, it's Chris Rock. And it's that thing where I'm really was like no it's not.
BELL: Ha, ha, dad. I really didn't think it was him.
BELL: And THEN he started to do that thing, where you can tell he was pacing like, you don't want to be the guy who doesn't think it's me when I'm calling him, trying to give him, oh, its Chris Rock.
BELL: And, you know, he said I want to do a show with you - unless you don't want to do a show with me. And it was like I'm sitting in San Francisco doing nothing. I mean, you know, waiting for my wife to pop out this baby and I think we should probably - I said yeah. So...
BELL: Over the course of about - I mean it took it - that was right before he went to Broadway and we had the baby, or she had the baby and I got, you know, ah...
BELL: Get half baby credit, but that was so - for about a year, we sort of what about our separate - not a year but several months we went our separate directions and then finally we came back together and get a pilot in Santa Monica. And I could tell a much longer version of the story, but the show has been canceled so I think I should just abridge it.
EISENBERG: How many episodes did you do?
BELL: I don't know. I got lost after a while. It started out once a week...
BELL: ...and we did like about 26 episodes once a week. And then they took us to five days a week at that point it was like being hit by a slow-moving train.
EISENBERG: Oh my God. Yeah, the speed at which you're working was just unbelievable.
BELL: Yeah, you just, I mean it's just, we did - I feel like we could 26 and then we did one long one for several months.
EISENBERG: Just kept going.
BELL: Yeah, just kept going and every now and again they would ask me to change clothes.
BELL: But, yeah, it was, so I don't know, I mean it was, it was somewhere around 50 or 60 or something.
EISENBERG: Now when you also wrote a roundup about your show, you end by saying, "I can't wait to get my voice back," I'm quoting you. "Many of you who watched "Totally Biased" have only seen a sliver of the really."
EISENBERG: That's very intriguing.
EISENBERG: So what exactly are you pointing to there?
BELL: I mean there's a, I had never worked in TV before and it was, and I never, certainly, it was I feel like it was like an internship that I got paid to do and everybody got to see. So they got to see like the parts that didn't work and the parts that did work and when I was like clearly trying to catch up to the train and clearly when I was hanging off the back of the train. And there's a level of comfort that I have sitting here with you, talking to real people in a real room where I'm not worried about is this all going to fit on this tape or da, da, da.
EISENBERG: Yeah, I got to worry about that.
BELL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly, yeah, that's on you. Good luck.
BELL: Good luck cutting that up. But I know you have to worry about those things. Like you have to, as you're sitting there having the conversation or reading doing the bits, or reading the teleprompter, there's a all these other things you have to worry about that there was a point when I was on stage doing the bell curve or doing standup, that it just becomes the experience in the room with the people and you do have to, and you can sort of be more personal and not represent a cause in the same way that on "Totally Biased" I felt like I don't know if anybody else is going to talk about this so I want to make sure that at least represent it as well as I can and sometimes that left little room for my like - I don't know if anybody's going to talk about this so I want to represent it as well as I can - and sometimes that left for little room for my like - I don't know what's going on. You know so, and that's basically where I live is - I don't know what's going on.
EISENBERG: Well, I think you know what's going on actually quite well. I enjoy talking to you, but we want to find out if you know what's going on now in an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge. What do you think of that? It
BELL: I'm totally down.
EISENBERG: All right. A big hand for our wonderful VIP, W. Kamau Bell.
EISENBERG: So Kamau, you're going to be playing with a member of our audience. Please welcome Meredith Lorenzen.
EISENBERG: Welcome, Meredith.
MEREDITH LORENZEN: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Now you, I heard you and your husband met on a trivia team?
LORENZEN: We met in college but didn't know each other that well. So the trivia was kind of the standard nerd mating ritual, I think, where you like pretend you don't like each other for six months and find out how much White Snake video info you know, and then, then you get married.
JONATHAN COULTON: It's three the steps.
EISENBERG: It's all right, yeah. OK. So Kamau, even though your first show didn't last as long as we'd like it to last, you have become part of a long line of comedians who have had their own limited run television series. So in this game, we're going to see how well you know some of your fellow TV funny people - like Ben Stiller, who show was canceled after 13 episodes on MTV. I will try an example to Jonathan. OK, ready?
COULTON: I'm ready.
EISENBERG: Can we talk? Once a week, Kathy Griffin, my daughter Melissa and I get together with no makeup, no hair and we look like the three witches from "Macbeth." Too much? Am I wrong?
COULTON: That's Jonathan Winters.
EISENBERG: Exactly. You nailed this.
COULTON: No. No. That's John Rivers.
EISENBERG: Right. A bad, bad adaptation, but yes. So see, see how easy that was?
EISENBERG: So you're going to see how many you can get right before the time runs out. And if you get stuck you can pass.
EISENBERG: And if you get enough right, both of you will win and ASK ME ANOTHER pride.
EISENBERG: Are you ready?
EISENBERG: All right. Let's do it.
BELL: What's the deal with this comedian?
LORENZEN: Oh, Jerry Seinfeld?
BELL: Yellow Puddin' Pop.
LORENZEN: Bill Cosby.
BELL: Oh. Hmm. She likes to dance? And she's kind of like Rachel Maddow in a way.
BELL: I'm I (unintelligible)? I'm sorry. Like they probably attend the same meeting.
BELL: She likes to dance. She dances on these a lot. She's totally like everybody likes her. She had a show, obviously. She often joked about being Lebanese, but that was just a joke.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
BELL: My clues were not good.
BELL: How could you not know? This was a guy who my show was compared to, but clearly, his show is better than mine because his is show is still on the air and he's one of the titans of late night political talk shows.
LORENZEN: Conan? No?
LORENZEN: It's not really political, is it? That's a little embarrassing. No.
BELL: Well, that's OK. He's a very popular guy and he had a show that was canceled. He is what, for late-night, can I say - I mean can I say, describe - I mean I can describe show, right?
BELL: It's a parody of the news.
LORENZEN: Jon - what, Jon Stewart?
BELL: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG POUND BARK)
BELL: This is a clue.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG POUND BARK)
LORENZEN: Oh, Arsenio Hall?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
BELL: You might be a redneck...
LORENZEN: Jeff Foxworthy.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
BELL: Yeah. Let's get through all these. Pass.
BELL: Yet a really long last name that people like to not be able to pronounce and he - pass, we'll do this one. He produced a show that was canceled that I starred in.
LORENZEN: Chris Rock.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: Oh, good one.
BELL: Oh, last one. Last one. This is - he had a very successful show. His last name are his initials. His last name is are...
LORENZEN: Oh, Louis C.K.
BELL: Yay. There we go. Yay.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: Kamau and Meredith are both going to receive an official ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's cube.
EISENBERG: Congratulations. Let's hear it for our VIP, W. Kamau Bell.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
COULTON: (Singing) As I walk through this wicked world, searching for light in the darkness of insanity. I ask myself is all lost, is there only pain, hatred and misery? And each time I feel like this inside, there is one thing that I want to know, what's funny about peace, love and understanding? Oh-oh-oh-oh. What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?
EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.