W. Kamau Bell on political humor, rape jokes and why he wants an Obama cabinet position
W. Kamau Bell is a comedian and sociopolitical commentator who came up in the San Francisco comedy scene. Until recently, Bell served as the host and creator of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, a political satire featuring revealing interviews and sharp political commentary steeped in the catharsis of laughter. In the wake of FXX's cancellation of his show, Bell has mounted the "Oh, Everything" tour, which lands in Denver at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 16, at the Soiled Dove Underground. In advance of that show, Westword called Bell to talk about his visit to Denver, how his standup act grew more politically engaged, the debate about rape jokes he hosted on his show, and why he thinks he should have a cabinet position in the Obama administration.
Westword: You moved to New York City to do your show. Now that it hasn't been renewed, are you tempted to return to San Francisco?
W. Kamau Bell: Oh, yeah. Yes, yes. Let's be clear, though: It wasn't only not renewed, it was cancelled. We were coasting off the tracks as we were racing down the highway. We were in the middle of the Daytona 500 and FX stepped out in the middle of the roadway and said, "Stop! Get out." I would imagine that at some point, I will settle in San Francisco after a long, successful career, or I will run back there in shame. You've got to keep your options open. But yeah, San Francisco is my home.
Let's hope it's the former. It's weird that celebrities have to achieve a certain level of fame before they earn the right to move there but keep working.
Yeah, Robin Williams lives in San Francisco and it doesn't really affect what anybody thinks of his career. Nobody's like, "Man, Robin Williams, so sad he had to move back to San Francisco." When you're in the middle of it, though, like I hope I am, you want to be as close to the hot flame of show business as possible.
There's a great local scene in San Francisco, though.
The scene there has gotten really, really good. I was there before the scene got good. I was there between when the comedy boom crashed and before the Internet picked things back up again. I started out there. There was no way to get anybody to come to shows. Nobody was interested in comedy. When I got there, all the big, exciting comedians like Patton Oswalt had just moved out of town. Everyone was like, "Man, you should have been here two weeks ago." So I was there during a real downtime in comedy; it was all over the country and San Francisco certainly wasn't sheltered from that. Then the Internet came and suddenly everyone had to get a website and a Facebook fan group, and over time people slowly got excited about comedy again, which is great.
How has your act changed from those early days when you were just starting out?
I would have to say that the biggest difference is that I'm funny now. Some people come out of the gate really fast and some people come out of the gate not so fast. It certainly took me a while to figure out what I wanted to say, how to say it, and then how to say it the exact way I wanted to say it. I'm still working on that last part. Part of it was that there wasn't a ton of stage time available when I started. What makes you a better comic is getting out there -- and pardon the metaphor, which is a poor one, considering the state of the world -- and it's a war of attrition. You have to keep at it and the more at-bats you get, the better your hit ratio is. Now I'm mixing all my metaphors.
How did you find out what you wanted to talk about?
I grew up in a very racially conscious home. When I started doing comedy, I talked about lots of different things. It took me a while to realize that in some ways, I was going to pick up the family business of talking about race and racism.
When did your act take on a more sociopolitical bent?
It was really when I was preparing for my solo show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. I decided after being in the clubs and doing a joke about race -- it's funny, I just heard Colin Quinn talking about this -- at a comedy club, the audience kind of expects you to change the subject every few minutes. It's probably even faster now because post-Internet, everybody just wants to click onto the next thing. I remember being at clubs, feeling like "I'm not done talking about racism yet," but feeling the audience be ready to click on to a new thing. I don't want to click on a new thing. There are more articles about racism and I want to click on those. So I decided to set up a show where I put racism in the title, so the people who came were aware what we were there to do. If people didn't enjoy the show, it would be because they didn't like the jokes, not because they didn't like the subject.
That's the show that eventually got adapted for TV, right?
Yeah, Chris Rock saw that show, and he offered to produce a TV show with me. But, yeah, what he saw on that show is what basically ended up being Totally Biased. Which ended up with me being back in my apartment and unemployed. Ah, the circle of life.
Now that you're touring, is the show more oriented towards straightforward standup, or are you still primarily focused on political commentary?
I think political commentary can be just straightforward standup. I'm not bringing a screen and pictures. I will be saying things that will be based in political commentary because that's, you know, how I roll. It's a standup show. I love standup, I came from standup. I loved doing my solo show and I loved doing Totally Biased, but I want to get back to standup. The whole idea of this tour was to get away from the screen and go out and meet the people. After having a year of being wedded to my mark, wedded to the screen and wedded to the script, it's liberating to think, "I can just go out there and talk! I can say funny things and see how it goes!" I love standup, and I'm hoping this tour will culminate in a comedy special recording at the end of the year. Which is something I've never done. Keep reading for more from W. Kamau Bell.
You were on Premium Blend, though. I remember you were wearing a big, bright orange hat. You also made the bold proclamation that Barack Obama would never get elected.
That's right, that's right. Now do you want to call me a political pundit? I like to think of myself like a Trojan horse, because America hadn't really heard of that dude yet by then. I'm still awaiting my cabinet position. He has a few years left.
Every president should get to appoint their own First Comedian.
I think he wants to remain scandal-free for the rest of his term, and hanging out with comics would prevent that.
I also wanted to touch on -- well, that's a poor choice of words, considering the subject -- but I wanted to discuss the Lindy West Jim Norton debate about rape jokes that you had on your show. It kind of rippled through the comedy community.
Rippled, or, you know, tore a hole through the comedy community, depending which side of the debate you're on and how you see things.
I tend to agree with Lindy West.
Well, that's because you're sensitive person who understands that feelings matter and we're all in a community. We do what we can to keep the community whole. It's funny, because Jim Norton was on the final episode of our show, and we kind of rehashed parts of the debate, and I think it became clear that I was on Lindy's side. I'm not against Jim Norton; in fact, I think he ended up more on Lindy's side than he expected to be. After the debate, the Internet trolls were so harsh on Lindy that he ended up writing a blog on XO Jane telling his fans to back off. Lindy never had to tell anyone to leave Jim Norton alone. Her fans, even if they yelled at him online, there were not threats of violence from the Jezebel readers.
Yeah, feminists have a pretty good track record as far as not oppressing anyone with violence goes.
Yeah, I mean, feminists get angry, but when they do, they're going to just quote Gloria Steinem at you. Not find your address and wreak havoc on you. I've spent a lot of my life with feminists, and I've opened for Jim Norton once. I preferred the company of feminists. I like him. He's a good dude, but he brings something out in people where they start to seem feral.
It takes more intelligence to do an act like that than it would seem, though. Jim Norton is one of those guys that I appreciated more after I started doing standup than I did when I was just a comedy nerd.
Which is why I booked him on my show. We debated a lot about who we would have to represent the opposing side of the debate, because there are a lot of comics who would represent the side that Jim Norton was on in a much more crass and mean-spirited way. It didn't devolve into insults and crying. I'd be the one crying. I made a joke about sensitivity earlier, but Jim's actually a sensitive dude, but he likes to look under the rock of society. He also likes to be peed on.
I'm glad they both dismissed the censorship argument up top, because that's a real canard.
Yeah, it's funny, though, because based on the comments, the people who agreed with Jim Norton didn't hear him say that. There were some people who confused the question from "Can you make rape jokes?" to "Can you make any rape joke regardless of who it hurts?" You can make a joke about anything you want to, but let's be real: Words are like knives. Some knives are plastic butter knives that won't cut anything, but rape jokes are like Ginsu knives. So you can't be surprised if you're swinging those around if someone gets cut. That's the thing people have to realize. You can drop the N-bomb any time you want to, you can make rape jokes. But be prepared for the consequences.
Have you been to Denver before? What do you think of the sort of unique political climate here?
I haven't been to Denver before. I've landed at the airport and then driven to some college gigs, but I haven't actually spent time there. I've been reading about it more as it becomes like a hub of the nation. How is that legalization going?
It's been pretty un-eventful so far.
Yeah, I knew it was going to be fine. Know why? Because I lived in San Francisco for fifteen years. The cops there have a thing: "no blood, no foul." As long as nobody gets hurt, smoke your weed. I have plenty of friends with medical marijuana cards who actually need them, and then I have several more who just kind of got them from a guy. It's not going to bring down the fabric of society; you just have to get used to the smell of weed all day long. It'll work out.
That's sort of what I mean. On some issues, it seems like we're ahead of the country, but on others it seems like we're way behind. We don't have marriage equality. Legalization won in a landslide, but it was a real struggle just to get civil unions passed. It's a weird libertarian backwardness to our priorities.
You'd think those two things would march arm in arm, but none of the legalization states actually have marriage equality. Colorado also has a lot of rich white people, correct?
Very much so.
There tends to be a thing where the more money you give a white person, the more conservative they get. In Colorado, the rich white people happen to love getting high.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.