W. Kamau Bell: Comedy Beyond Black and White

The comedian brings some much-needed color to a space dominated by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

(The Root) — In the decade following 9/11, growing cynicism about the Bush administration’s military response to the terrorist attack gave rise to a new generation of political satire. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central used humor to speak inconvenient truths for younger Americans — many of whom were disillusioned and convinced that the mainstream media had literally become a joke.

The role of the comedian to expose what is most untrue and unseemly in society is not new. The Italian medieval-Renaissance period saw the rise of the mattaccino (“matachin” in English), a Harlequin-like jester famous for speaking truth to kings through comedy. Even Shakespeare combined tragedy and humor to shape attitudes toward monarchy, colonialism, corruption and political dissent. Stewart and Colbert, along with Bill Maher, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno, follow in this tradition — and are all respected for their mastery of satire — but where they falter is a complete lack of racial diversity.

W. Kamau Bell, the host of FX’s new late-night hit Totally Biased, offers a balance to the scales of colorblind comedy (T.J. Holmes’ new BET show, Don’t Sleep, is also doing its part to diversify late night, but with less acclaim). Bell’s program is a celebration of diversity, featuring an array of talented comedians: from Dwayne Kennedy, who operates as a de facto “chief black correspondent,” to Janine Brito, a dandily dressed lesbian, and Hari Kondabolu, a sharp satirist of Indian descent who is also the older brother of Ashok Kondabolu, a founding member of Brooklyn, N.Y.’s alternative hip-hop group Das Racist.

Totally Biased grew out of Bell’s 2010 solo comedy tour entitled “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour” and his 2010 stand-up album, Face Full of Flour, which was named one of the top 10 comedy albums on iTunes that year. Legendary comedian Chris Rock attended a tour appearance and decided to collaborate by executive-producing the brainchild that became Bell’s hit show.

The San Francisco Chronicle declared, “It makes [Jon Stewart’s] Daily Show seem like something your dad watches.” After a successful run of the show’s first six episodes, it has been renewed for a full season. Rock expressed delight at the FX (which is owned by Fox) show’s success, joking, “Please don’t tell Rupert Murdoch.”

Bell takes on race, religion, pop culture and homophobia — balancing insightful political commentary with laugh-out-loud humor that crosses racial barriers. And his first episodes, which featured interviews with the likes of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Alex Wagner, as well as Issa Rae of Awkward Black Girl fame, prove that Bell isn’t afraid to be unconventional.

Bell spoke to The Root about his new show, President Obama’s first term and the need for more laughter and less race-baiting.

The Root: What do you see as the role of comedians in politics?

W. Kamau Bell: Ultimately, the role of the comedian is to be funny. And I can only speak for what my role is — not the role of every comedian. But I spend so much time looking at the world and saying “What?!” because so much is out of step with my sense of what’s right.

My humor is often about filling that gap between what is and what could be. I talk about things I care about — and that just happens to be political. Being black in America, for instance, happens to be a political issue, and that’s something I care about — since I’m a black person in America. And my president is black. So yes, I see this presidency differently.

TR: What is your ultimate goal?