W. Kamau Bell, creator and host of the late, great Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, has recently been performing all across the US as part of his Oh, Everything! Tour, but these days something much more recent and (arguably) more important has become an even greater source of pride: the birth of his second child. We were fortunate to sit down with Bell after he performed at Fun Fun Fun Fest where we talked about his growing family, the San Francisco comedy scene, and how comedy can help further the ongoing discussion of race in America.
First of all, congratulations on the new baby girl!
Thank you! These days, when I’m getting congratulated, I’m not sure what they’re congratulating me for. But yes, that is something to be excited for.
Well, that must be a good problem to have.
Well, I like to not look at as so much of a problem [Laughs]. But it’s a challenge. Time will tell if I step up to it.
Oh, I’m sure you will do well. In what ways has becoming a father affected your comedy?
Well, today in my set, I had a lot of jokes about being a dad, but it’s all sorta still funneled through a sociopolitical view. Like, it’s, for example, about having a mixed race kid and how the world sees her and she’s a lady, etc, etc. I always think kids make comedians funnier, unless they abandon them then maybe not. But if they try to be a good parent, it does make comedians funnier. If I didn’t talk about being a dad, I would be losing a lot of my perspective.
In what ways has it changed your perspective?
I was talking to Pete Holmes about this. Most comics who start out, I don’t know if this is true, but I feel like most comics starting out are single when they start. It’s really a life style that doesn’t encourage being in a relationship, y’know [Laughs] ‘cause I have to stay out all night every night really late and hang out and drink a lot or hang around people who are drinking a lot, and I’m not going to be making any money. And also, when I’m around you, I’m going to be thinking about other things, like jokes and trying to get booked, and I’m going to be talking shit about other people who are doing better than I am. Relationships don’t have time for that. Once you get married, you have to sorta adjust how much time you can focus on your thing, and having kids, I think I went from thinking about comedy 100% of the time to, after my first kid, thinking about it 80% of the time. And now, with the new kid, 99% of it is my family, the new kid, and making plans with just 1% time for comedy. [Laughter] So I have to use that 1% effectively.
Well, you did pretty well today.
Yeah, sometimes, just with a situation like that at a festival, especially inside a tent, you just have to hurl yourself down the hill as fast as possible and let the chips fall where they may. You can’t get caught up in the fact that nice, subtle jokes don’t work with big crowds like that, and you have to change your set up to sort of open up and get them to pay attention. But once I felt that I had got ‘em, that I had built-up whatever relationship we were going to have, I always want to make sure there are jokes, punch lines, and tags for people who are like deep appreciators of the work I am doing. So it’s not all for everybody. I think it’s great when there’s art, in general, that everybody can like, but there are things in there that the “cool people” can get. Like in music. There are some people who like the Beatles ‘cause they’re catchy, while there are others who like them because it’s subversive. What I’m basically trying to say is that I am the Beatles of comedy. [Laughs] No not really, but I appreciate when art has multiple levels.
So you honed your craft in the San Francisco comedy scene. In what ways did the scene help you create your work and your comedic identity?
Well, I started briefly in Chicago, but when I started to focus in was when I got to San Francisco. The San Francisco comedy scene is legendary for letting you get away with more things, there’s a certain quality where the crowds are more willing to go with you and are smarter. And that’s true in part, but you have to search those crowds out. Those crowds aren’t necessarily walking into comedy clubs. If you can find those crowds, you can find what you want. For me, just living in the Bay Area and meeting lots of different people, I could more easily find those crowds. That’s how it affected my comedy. Once you can get that incredible crowd, when you go out and look for those people, then I can sort of do what I want to do. Then I can go back and do clubs where those aren’t the converted, but I have felt better about what I was doing then. I was able to build my base of comedy stronger by doing it in front of people who are like-minded. I started by just renting theatre space and just putting on shows. I knew people in the independent theatre scene, and my friend Bruce helped me put on my solo shows that ended up getting me my TV show. So yeah, I rented a space, had me and some friends made some posters, and had people who helped me and volunteered, and let me curate my own audience. And then, going back to the clubs, I could do really specific things so it doesn’t feel like I am playing to you in the same way. I’m playing to the audience, that may not even want to really be here, in a way that, I still want you to laugh, but I won’t change to fit you. Comedy clubs are great, but no comic wants to end up in comedy clubs. You want to graduate out of comedy clubs. Even comics who play them would rather be in a theatre, y’know [Laughs], because you get more people in a theatre and you get your crowd. I was talking to Colin Quinn about it, and he is sort of just doing one-man shows in theaters. People don’t go to theaters ‘cause it’s their birthday. It might be their birthday, but it’s not because it’s their birthday. Bachelorette parties don’t go to theaters to celebrate. [Laughs] They go to comedy clubs for that. You want people who want to pay attention and take your gig in because, if they don’t like it, you know they were really paying attention. Like today, I did stuff in a different order and moved stuff around because I realized that people are outside, they’re drinking, it’s daytime, but I didn’t do a whole different act. Like, have farting in a hilarious way? If I have I’ll think of something, but I’m not going to start just writing fart jokes. Not that there’s anything wrong with fart jokes, but I want to write a good one that’s actually part of my act.
How do you know when to change it up?
Like, today, I opened on a couple of shorter jokes, a few jokes that would grab people by the throat a little bit, ‘cause I know in the situation they have a lot of different distractions around them because it’s a festival. Normally, I open on jokes that are longer and more personal, but I wanted to use jokes that were more “GAH, GAH, GAH”, that made me feel a little bit like a lion tamer. And then when I got their attention, it would take a little longer to build. Normally the jokes about my kid are earlier in the set, but knowing the demographics of a festival, most of the people don’t have kids or don’t want to think about their kids, they just want to come drink in the day and watch comedy. But I know people understand the concept of having kids, but I will open up with stuff that’s like, “Hey! Hey! Pay attention, pay attention. Oh! That was funny! Why did I say that? What does that mean?” And then I can sort of settle into, “I have a kid, etc.” So it’s not just about flipping things around, which helps a lot and helps me sort of get in. It’s also fun for me because it’s like I’ve never done this in this order before. It keeps it fresh, and also shows me, “Oh, I can open on this joke.”
For your show Totally Biased, how did you assemble the team of writers/comedians that you did?
Many of them were friends or people that I respected and had known for a long time. They were people for the show I knew I could work with on this thing. And then there were people who were recommended and who I got to know through the show. And a lot of them were just comedians from the Bay Area ‘cause I felt like a lot of those voices don’t get heard in that way a lot. I mean, Bay Area comics get to work in the industry a lot, but they couldn’t be their Bay-Area-bad-selves on TV all the time, so I was like, “I want to put that on TV.” I tried to make the show I always wanted, despite efforts to the contrary of others. [Laughs] I did the best I could in the time allotted, and it wasn’t always perfect, but I felt like I put something out there that hadn’t been seen much on TV before.
Yeah, definitely. One of the bits that really stood out to me was the one about the list of the most racist things ever, and the first thirty were slavery.
Yeah, that was one of my favorites. As much as our show was said to be “like The Daily Show”, The Daily Show is not going to do that joke. When we wrote that joke in the writers’ room, me and Dwayne Kennedy, the other black writer, were on the floor laughing because we knew we were putting that on TV. [Laughs] Like, “the first thirty most racist things are slavery”, that’s funny! It’s really absurd, but true. Slavery can’t take up one spot. Things like that make me laugh a lot, and a lot of people want to shy away from those types of jokes. I like to lean into them.
Through your work, you’ve shown that comedy can add a new dimension to the ongoing conversation about race in America. In what ways does comedy allow that that other mediums can’t?
When people are laughing, you know they are paying attention. You can’t laugh at something, and be not paying strict attention. And you can tell when people are laughing out of politeness, like, “[WKB mimics forced laugh] Heheheh.” Like they’re not paying attention, or they don’t think it’s funny. But when people are gut-laughing, rolling over, and tears are going to their eyes, and their sides are hurting, you know they’re paying attention. When you’re watching those panel shows that talk about the issues, a lot of it is just people waiting to talk. They’re not actually listening. So if you get someone to laugh at what you are saying, you know they’re paying attention, and you know that they therefore have to not only respond to what you are saying but to think about what you’re saying ‘cause it’s in their head now. So with comedy it’s like- every politician opens on a joke. Every teacher in school tries to be a little bit funny, and the ones who aren’t everybody hates. Humor is the best way to communicate anything, because if people are laughing then they’re paying attention. Now it doesn’t everyone has to be good at humor, but it just so happens that that is the best way to communicate an idea. That’s why people send around Mark Twain quotes around all the time on the internet. He was funny. You could send Thomas Jefferson quotes around, but they’re not that funny. [Laughs] And they say the same shit a lot of the time, though Twain had a little bit less of a slavery hookup, but it’s that people value humor in a way they don’t even realize.
As America becomes more and more diverse and more and more people are born into an ethnically mixed background, like I am, in your opinion what is the best way to balance that and be able to identify with both while also being aware of how people see you?
I think, one, you have to have respect for both cultures and respect that your attempt to balance things may be something some people might be offended by. [Laughs] Like, I think of parents who adopt black kids and who want to have their kids to sorta have a black experience, one way to do that is to celebrate Black History Month and maybe celebrate Kwanzaa. But then another way is to buy your kids a lot of rap CDs, [Laughs] so everything can be done poorly. But also, asking for help when you realize that- You have to have enough distance from your ego to ask for help. I think the best way is to make sure my kid has some black friends and goes to a school where there are some black people going. Also be aware that you don’t have all the answers. Americans aren’t good about realizing that they don’t have all the answers. With my oldest daughter, it’s at the point now that she is clearly ethnic in some way. Like, obviously people get that she is mixed race, black and white, but it also depends on who she is hanging out with. With my youngest daughter, she is at the point where she is still a pale white baby. I always think that they have to rest for a little while before they are ready. [Laughs] Because sometimes they need to brown up a little bit. But I don’t know where she is going to end up. Where she ends up on the spectrum will determine how people treat her and who they expect her to be. So much of race is how the world sees you, and then how you process how the world sees you. You could speak Mandarin, spend six months of the year in China every year, you could be as culturally and ethnically Chinese as possible, but if you have red hair and a Roman nose, people will treat you like a white guy. I knew a white guy, he looked like an Irish guy, who was telling me he was Indian. Some of that is about just understanding that a lot of race consciousness is about processing how the world treats you. It just so happens my mom told me I was black, all my relatives were black, and I look black. So it’s a very easy thing for me to just go, “Oh ok, I’ll just check one box all the time.” But with you [Travesty correspondent] on the other hand, you may go into a group and they may think you are Chinese or they may think you are white. You have to understand you have to make choices. Race is not all in here [points to his mind], but a lot of it is out there and how people view it. It’s a construct invented by the Man as a way to divide and separate people, but if we try to pretend it’s not real, we will end up in stupid situations.
Thank you for your time!
Oh I appreciate it. Thank you.