Comedian W. Kamau Bell W/ Zach Sherwin
The Mill — Thursday, Nov. 13 at 9 p.m.
Full disclosure: Interviewer Arashdeep Singh will be an opening performer for W. Kamau Bell’s show at The Mill.
Comedian W. Kamau Bell, best known for his short-lived but iconoclastic TV show Totally Biased, performs stand up this Thursday at The Mill for his ‘Oh, Everything’ tour. The ‘Oh, Everything’ title refers to Bell’s approach to comedy where he brings his humor and progressive outlook to bear on a whole range of issues, from marriage equality to racial identity to religion to America’s standing in the world at large.
It’s the same style that made for such a dedicated fanbase for Totally Biased, a program where viewers could regularly see Bell, as well as a range of comedians and commentators from different cultural and social backgrounds, dole out incisive, satirical commentary with segments like “The End of Raci-Oops Never Mind,” “The Wonderful World of Muslims, and “Happy Columbus Day?” The show also gave an opportunity to see interviews with progressive figures from politics and pop-culture who otherwise don’t get much exposure on television, such as Kathleen Hanna, Big Freedia, Tim Wise and Henry Louis Gates. This tour’s stand-up act gets more personal than his TV show, Bell notes, as it sees him discussing more about his life as a family man, but it still examines issues within their political and social context, such as with his reflections on raising children with a mixed-race background.
Little Village recently talked with Bell about what America’s current politics mean for comedy and for the left, the influence of Totally Biased on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, why Mad Men is a poor guide for what was going on in 1968, and how having children has affected his politics for the better.
How are you feeling about the recent elections. Good for comedy, bad for…everything else?
A freshman congress struggle like this is always good for comedy and bad for the world. When the leaders of the Republican party feel full-throated and pitbull-y about the state of the world, and they are in control…it’s like a pitbull who sees a baby without its parent around.
That’s good for comedy, but that’s also bad for the baby. That’s how I feel about it.
Bad for the baby. Good for my career.
You’ve talked about how the 2008 election of Barack Obama had a big impact on the direction you took your comedy in. How do you feel about the Obama presidency these days?
I have talked recently in my act about how there was a time when, like many of us, I was in love with Obama. He could have called me at 3 o’clock in the morning and been like, “I’m on my way over,” and I’d have been like, “Ok! Dude, hurry up!” But now, I feel like if he calls me at 3 a.m., I’d let it go to voicemail, and I’d text him three or four days later and be like,”If you want to talk to me, you call me during the daylight hours.”
That’s what happened in the last election. Even though we were technically going out to vote for Obama, people couldn’t get excited about elections on the left because they weren’t excited about Obama anymore. Now, having said that, I think it is more complicated than that because most of the democratic candidates in this country were trying to run against the Republicans, by also saying, “I am not with this black dude.” “You know the leader of our party? I ain’t with that dude. Vote for me.” And it’s like, what are you for then?
I think it was just an awkward situation, but as Rachel Maddow, who I’ve said before is my Patronus — when things go bad, I think of Rachel Maddow, it makes me feel better — on her show on the night of the election, she went through all the good things that happened in the country. In every Republican state where raising minimum wage was on the ballot, it won. So, forget Republican or Democrat, that is just good for what I like to call “people.”
How would you describe your own politics? It seems well to left, as you imply in a line from your stand-up about Obama, “Black militant, socialist, muslim — I wish.”
That is probably my politics. [Laughs.] In general, I think I am just more a fan of society reaching the future, and the future is better when people aren’t oppressed. That’s how I put my politics. I’ve always been a social movements guy. For me, probably the biggest accomplishment to come out of Barack Obama’s presidency…if someone told you when he came into office, by his sixth year 33 states would have marriage equality, you’d be like, “Stop talking science fiction.” But that happened.
Now, he didn’t sign an executive order, but the thing he did do was when people asked him about gay marriage, he said, “Yeah, I am okay with that.” Which to me…a lot of people who were probably on the fence about it, or maybe on the side of the fence that wasn’t okay with it, were like, “If the president is okay with it, maybe I should be okay with it.” And then it sort of put a bunch of dominos in effect.
So, to answer you question, my politics is that I want the future to be better than the present.
I was curious how you feel about John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, a show which has gotten a lot of praise lately for the direction it’s taken political comedy in. It has Kevin Avery writing for it, a comedian you’ve frequently collaborated with. How do you feel the show compares with what Totally Biased was doing?
There is a part of me that feels like Totally Biased might have cracked the door a little bit on the door that John Oliver’s show is now steamrolling through. Kevin Avery is working on the show, and actually a lot of the people who worked on Totally Biased are working on that show. The guy who directs it, Joe Perota, directed Totally Biased. So I have pride for that show, even though I personally don’t have anything to do with it.
I do watch that show, and a lot of the things I was told that I couldn’t do on Totally Biased, John Oliver is doing on his show. And I am not saying he stole them from me. [Laughs.] We just sort of banged our head against the door, and cracked our head open, and blood spilled out.
But John Oliver now, with the virtue of that seven-year internship on The Daily Show that he had, he is able to walk in there and really do a incredible job.
But also, he is doing it from a British white guy perspective. So there are things that if I had my show on the air…I think we would match well together, but I don’t think we would be doing the same things every week. I don’t think he’d cover all the same things I’ll cover.
I do think Totally Biased, at its best, becomes like the Velvet Underground where only a thousand people bought their album, but all thousand of those people started a band. I think the reaching effects of Totally Biased will be felt for a long time.
Your last comedy album Face Full of Flour was recorded in 2010, and a lot of it is topical to that year, but it’s interesting to see what hasn’t really changed. For example, you take Mad Men to task for how it deals with race and gender. That general criticism has been out there for years, and it still hasn’t been seriously addressed by the show. It actually seems worse now. I watched this last season and I was like, “This isn’t the 1968 I know about.”
Yeah, when you think of 1968, you don’t think of a bunch of white guys drunk on Madison Avenue. It’s funny, one of the great things about topical comedy is that sometimes jokes seem like they are topical at the time, and then sometimes jokes have a long tail.
My favorite comedian of all time is Bill Hicks, and I don’t know if it would still be that topical today, but he recorded stuff about the Iraq war probably around 1992 that you could listen to for like the next 15 years, and still be like “Oh, he’s talking about the Iraq war today.” And he’s talking about President Bush, and thanks to our love of dynasties in America, we still had a President Bush at the time I was listening to it.
It’s often said that becoming a parent makes a person more conservative. Do you feel that there is any truth to that now that you have your own children?
It depends on how you react. Sometimes becoming a parent makes people more conservative because they get afraid. But for me, it’s actually made me more liberal and progressive, more in need of shouting louder and making the world become a better place sooner, because I have a three-and-a-half year old daughter, and a two-week old daughter, and I feel like you all need to clean this shit up before they move on to high school. [Laughs.] This is a mess, and you guys all need to clean this up before they are adults and understand what’s happening.