Ready or not, W. Kamau Bell is leading us into a conversation about race
W. Kamau Bell wants to have awkward conversations. The longtime Bay Area comedian has been probing uncomfortable truths since his one-man stage act, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, promised two-for-one tickets to anyone who came with a member of a different race. While the show failed to forge global racial harmony, Bell parlayed its success into a television gig, hosting the recently canceled Totally Biased for two seasons on FX and FXX. Chances are the rising star won't be off-air for long. The Chronicle caught up with the sociopolitical provocateur by phone before his return trip to Moontower.
Austin Chronicle: Less than six months ago, I read an article where the president of FX said that you would be given the time and space needed to make Totally Biased a success on FXX. What happened?
W. Kamau Bell: As much as [him canceling the show] was a bummer, he also could have not given me a show in the first place. It wasn't like it was my turn, and he had to give me a show. The thing about Totally Biased and why I would never bemoan anything about its fate is that it put me on the map of a lot of people who didn't know who I was before. It has given me the ability to meet with a lot of people to talk about my future in television. I'm happy to report that there seems to be a future for me in television, but right now I'm trying to figure out what that future is. I did @midnight and Bill Maher recently, so TV still invites me in when they think I'm appropriate.
AC: That Bill Maher appearance got some attention because he tried to dupe you by getting your opinion on two racially coded Paul Ryan quotes, but one was really from Michelle Obama. Your rebuttal was that context matters. Michelle was speaking at a historically black college, and black folks don't have the same conversation when white folks aren't around.
WKB: I think that America as a whole – because I want to take this off of Bill Maher – has always had a difficult and sometimes impossible time trying to have a nuanced conversation about race and racism. It's because things are complicated, and we're not gonna find an easy solution to any of this. The best we can do is have an awkward conversation when we're not angry about it. This is part of my job as a comedian, to introduce the idea to everybody about the awkward conversation. And let's have it when we're not mad about it and we can ask those awkward questions and then get to a point of understanding.
AC: As a comedian talking about race and racism, do you have to make a certain segment of the audience uncomfortable to really do your job?
WKB: I don't go up there with the intention of making people uncomfortable. There are nights where you go, "Wow, nobody seems uncomfortable tonight," and it's just fun. And there are nights where you go, "Wow, everybody seems uncomfortable tonight," and it's no fun at all. Normally, it's somewhere in between, but I think you just have to be okay with people's discomfort.
AC: What accounts for the difference – is it all demographics?
WKB: If I'm doing a show in Oakland, it can almost start to feel like black church in the best way possible, even if it's not all black people. We have a lot of problems, and we're somehow turning it into joy for the next two hours. It feels like a revival meeting without all the snake handling and fire and brimstone. It feels cathartic and joyous, and there's an intimacy and immediacy to it that happens when the crowd is all on the same page as you. And when nobody's on that same page, it starts to feel like court testimony.
AC: I'm guessing your audience in Austin doesn't look like your audience in Oakland. How is it different when the crowd is mostly progressive white liberals?
WKB: Even if I go into a place where it's mostly progressive white liberals, there's always a pocket – or two or three or four – of people of color. And inevitably at some point early on in the show, that pocket will react to something I say in a much more fervent way than the progressive white people. Even if those white people agree with everything I said, it's just the people of color will react more like, "Yeeeeeesss!"
W. Kamau Bell appears at Moontower April 24-26: Thursday, April 24, 9:15pm, at Parish, 214 E. Sixth; Friday, April 25, 8pm, at Speakeasy, 412 Congress; and Saturday, April 26, 8pm, at Speakeasy.