W. Kamau Bell brings different niches to comedy tour
BY MIKE THOMAS firstname.lastname@example.org July 11, 2013 11:22AM
W. Kamau Bell brings his stand-up style to the Park West on July 13. | MATTHIAS CLAMER PHOTO/COURTESY OF FX
JANINE BRITO; KEVIN KATAOKA; APARNA
♦ 8:30 p.m. July 13
♦ Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago
♦ Tickets, $25
♦ (773) 929-1322;
Updated: August 13, 2013 6:07AM
A couple of decades ago, University of Chicago Laboratory School grad W. Kamau Bell slung scoops at the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop just minutes down the street from where the comic and TV host soon will perform (July 13) with a few writers from his politically and racially charged FX show “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell”: the Park West.
Bell also used to attend concerts there (Ziggy Marley, Divinyls), he says, never dreaming that one day he’d be headlining.
Before touching down in town, Bell — who also sampled a few courses at Columbia College Chicago after dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, and studied under Steve Carell at Second City’s training center — talked about his ever-evolving program (launched in August, it will go from weekly on FX to nightly on new sister network FXX in September), his melting pot audience and the influence of executive producer Chris Rock.
QUESTION: When you’re doing the kind of comedy you do (political, racial), you must have to be smarter about it in order to be funny.
W. KAMAU BELL: I don’t know if smarter is part of it. I think you have to be more sensitive to the issues you’re covering. I don’t want to say smarter because there are a lot of times where we’re like, “Wait a minute, what is that? Hold on, somebody Google this.” Or somebody in the office will be like, “I know what that is,” and we’ll all sit around the seat of one of the writers as they explain it.
Q. What is Chris Rock’s influence on the show?
WKB: It really depends on the week. I think, over time, he’s sort of backed off. Because he spent the first 13 episodes [coming] around once a week and he’d take us out to lunch and talk to us and go do scripts with us. And he’d also come to the tape days. At some point he just started coming only to the tape days. He’d get there at the time we rehearsed, stay through the whole show, [then] stay for the edit. And then he started to get in there later and later as he saw us being able to do it. Some weeks he’d get there later and be like, “You guys totally screwed this up. Let’s start over.” And some days he’d be like, “You guys got it. This is good. I’ve got three jokes I’d like to pitch.” Now it’s to the point where he certainly gets emailed the script so he knows what’s going on … but he’s always available for a phone call. Our show airs at [10 p.m.] on Thursdays. I’d say at [10:29] I get either a phone call or a text saying what he thinks about the show.
Q. What’s good and what’s bad?
WKB: Mostly what’s bad.
Q. Is he gentle about it, or is he how you imagine Chris Rock might be?
WKB: [jokingly] Do the words “gentle” and “Chris Rock” make sense coming out of your mouth together? I mean, he certainly has a way of talking and it’s certainly constructive, but if he feels he needs to be direct he’ll be direct. … Sometimes I’m like, ‘I’m sorry!’ I’m home at night, crying into a pillow. But I would rather have that than him not care at all and let me just make mistakes.
Q. Who is your audience for “Totally Biased”?
WKB: It’s funny; our audience is niche-based. We have a lot of different niches that come together to form a new audience. It’s kind of like the Voltron of comedy audiences. It’s easy to say our show is a leftist comedy show, but we represent so many different voices on the left that you’ll see a Sikh in the audience and a Muslim and you’ll see a South Asian-American and you’ll see a bunch of black old ladies and you’ll see gay people and a trans[gender] person. All these different niches come together to form one huge motley crew. I like to think of our audience as the Island of Misfit Toys.
Q. As you get bigger, what are you starting to demand on the set?
WKB: Um, I’ve asked for water recently, and they’ve said that they will provide water from now on. Chris [Rock] tells me this: “You can ask for more things.” I sort of have this thing like I won a contest, so I don’t want to mess it up. I don’t want to ask for one Red Bull too many.