On his gone-but-not-forgotten TV show Totally Biased, W. Kamau Bell analyzed the WTFery of current events, breaking down the difference between Sikhs and sheiks, moderating a debate on the appropriateness of rape jokes, and taping a vox pop segment on stop and frisk that Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi cites as inspiration for his book The Divide.
Bell—whose Oh, Everything tour stops in Seattle this January—is socially motivated. But his priority is comedy. —Ariana Dawes
How do you find a balance between humor and civics lesson?
The joke has to come first. There’s nothing worse than a comedian saying something that is poignant and nobody laughs ’cause it just feels like a poorly put-together speech. [Laughs] I’m not an academic. I will have something in my head for a long time, where I’m chewing it over, sort of rolling it over a lot, and eventually go, “Oh, there’s the joke,” and then take that onstage. The joke has to precede the point in some way. If all you’re getting is applause, you’re not really being a comedian. Nobody wants agreement, even if they think they do. But it’s okay that sometimes I say things you don’t like; that’s how you know we’re different people.
How often do you think, “I need to workshop this bit more”?
It used to be that people went to nightclubs, and they saw the work, and if they liked it or didn’t like it they went home and told a friend. This week a friend of mine, Hannibal Burress, told a joke about Bill Cosby onstage that’s been trending on Twitter and Facebook and it’s on the cover of, like, Yahoo! [Laughs] People are anxious to share things virally on the Internet, so as comics now, when we step onstage, we’re playing to the entire world, potentially.
Ultimately, it may sell tickets. It’s a strange world we live in, and we still haven’t figured it out. The way we handle the Internet right now is the way that the first cavemen handled fire: “It’s so hot and it keeps burning my hands. Anyway, I’m gonna eat this raw meat. I wish we could figure out something to do with this fire. This raw meat is disgusting.”
For standup comedy to work, there has to be a lot of room for error. If you go to a comedy club on a Tuesday, you’re probably seeing a lot of comics working things out. That’s not necessarily the show. As a comedy club owner reminded me years ago, “It’s not the show until it’s on HBO.” Anytime before that, you can work on material. Standup comedy is a rare sort of living, breathing, active art form, and if you hold it to the scrutiny of a politician [laughs], then we’re gonna break the art form and it’s gonna crumble in our hands. Sometimes we hold standup comics to more scrutiny than we hold politicians to.
Washington has done a few things recently that have made the news.
You’re one of the first states with marriage equality and marijuana. For a long time states were making a choice: Do we want gay people to be married or do we want to legalize marijuana? [Laughs] Washington was like, “We’ll take both.” Seattle, much like the Bay Area, is dealing with the woes of gentrification, which I talk about in my act a little bit. It’s also a city where lots of different people come together to figure it out. And those are my audience: people who are in the midst of figuring it out.
Which comedians or entertainers or artists inspire you?
Maria Bamford’s last CD, Ask Me About My New God!, is one of the greatest comedy performances I’ve ever heard. A lot of Internet activism I’m also inspired by; seeing how things went down in Ferguson, and seeing how people are able to use the Internet to make the world a better place or at least to highlight things that need more attention. And Rachel Maddow is the gold standard of everything. She takes it all very personally but also has the brainpower to make it make sense. The standup comedy version of Rachel Maddow is what I aspire to be, even though that’s too high a standard for any of us to ever hit. And I’m excited for the upcoming season of Downton Abbey.
Are you really?
Yeah, I am. It ain’t all the Lord’s work! I just want to turn off my brain and watch Downton Abbey.
Are you surprised by injustice?
I’m not surprised by the injustice; I’m surprised by people’s willingness or ability to turn a blind eye to injustice and pretend like it’s not there. A lot of my act [laughs] is playing to the people who’re like me and going, “I know! Isn’t this crazy?” But also playing to the people who don’t get it, like sort of shaking them and going, “Waaaake uuuuup!” I’m trying to be the end of a Spike Lee movie.
Is that inspiration to not get jaded or is that just not in your nature?
This all comes from a place of anger and cynicism, but the joke puts light on it. There are times I go onstage and I just feel like, “Oh, God, how am I gonna do this?” [Laughs] If I’m gonna go onstage and talk about Michael Brown and Ferguson—which I do—behind that is a ton of pain. Some of it’s my pain, but most of it isn’t my pain. I feel the responsibility to make sure I don’t fuck it up for the people who actually live in Ferguson but I want to put my spin on it.
What can audiences expect at your show?
A lot of standup comedy clubs become places to check your brain at the door and sit back and let humor wash over you. It doesn’t mean I’m an intellectual—but could you just bring your brain in with you? [Laughs] It doesn’t mean things won’t get silly and ridiculous, but even that’s funnier when you’re holding your brain.