W. Kamau Bell
The Totally Biased star has some hilarious words to share with Chicago.
During our phone conversation, W. Kamau Bell shares a memory that will resonate with many South Siders. “A lot of my life has been spent waiting for the Number 6 and then being mad when it’s not the express,” he says of the Jackson Park bus, the lifeline between Hyde Park, where Bell lived during his high-school years, and downtown Chicago. Bell may be best known as the host of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, an FX hit that ended its first season in November and will return January 17 with six more episodes. He returns to Chicago Friday 14 for a night of stand-up at Lincoln Hall.
Bell was raised all over the place but claims San Francisco, his residence from 1997 to 2012, as his hometown. The one constant that has followed him both in his career and in the places he’s called home are issues of race. He was raised by a mother who came of age during the American civil rights struggle, and the election of Chicago’s first black mayor brought the family from Boston to the Heartland in 1984. “When Chicago elected Harold Washington, [my mother] was like, ‘I want to go to a city with a black mayor. It seems like they’re doing something right,’ ” he says. Bell finished high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, studied at the University of Pennsylvania for a year and a half and returned to Chicago, where he took classes at Columbia College and also trained at Second City.
In 1997, he moved to SF to pursue comedy. “Once I found out I couldn’t be a superhero I wanted to be a stand-up comedian,” he says. “San Francisco has always had a very vibrant, close-knit stand-up comedy community, so as soon as I got there I felt like I was adopted into that.” Bell cofounded the touring comedy collective Laughter Against the Machine, but it was his slideshow presentation, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, which he developed with his friend and show director Martha Rynberg and debuted in 2007, that piqued the interest of critics and audiences. It plays like some wiseass grad student’s thesis project but with pointed barbs and tongue-in-cheek punch. “The thing I liked about the show is that it sparked a conversation,” he says. “[It] sort of got people in the room on the same page, and I’m trying to do that with Totally Biased.”
In Totally Biased, Bell opens each show with a PowerPoint monologue but also ventures into familiar talk territory with a mixture of interviews, sketches and man-on-the-street segments, often with a political bent. After Hurricane Sandy, Bell brought his microphone to the gas station lines where people waited hours to fill their tanks. (Absurdly, the long waits cost some motorists as much fuel as they gained.) He spent election night with the Young Republicans Club of Brooklyn where a sea of white faces turned even more ashen as the night wore on. His first guest was comedian Chris Rock, also the show’s executive producer, and subsequent guests have included Lewis Black, Rachel Maddow and Janeane Garofalo. The show is imperfect but interesting, and Bell is well aware. “There’s certainly a lot of rough edges that we’re hammering out,” he says. “I’m still at the very beginning of this.”
It’s still a big if, but it is possible we’ll one day be talking about it in the same breath as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. The initial 13-episode run, which neatly bookended the 2012 elections, certainly gave it a timely push. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the President is black,” Bell says. “I’m glad that FX has confidence in me that not during the election of Barack Obama I can still be on TV.”
Bell’s Kamau Mau Uprising Tour hits Friday 14.