Using Humor in the Dialogue on Race

Chris Rock and W. Kamau Bell talk to us about comedy, the n-word and doing Totally Biased five days a week.

Chris Rock and W. Kamau Bell (FXX)
Chris Rock and W. Kamau Bell (FXX)

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The Root: Chris, as a seasoned veteran of comedy, do you find being an executive producer more rewarding? Do you enjoy being behind the scenes? Or is it tempting to be onstage and in front of the camera?

Chris Rock: I like being behind the camera because it’s my job to help comics. Guys like Eddie Murphy, Keenen Wayans, Arsenio Hall and Bill Maher all helped me get where I am today. Sometimes it’s tempting to be on camera, but not tempting enough to do every day. I enjoy where I am now: investing in talented guys like Kamau and being creative in new ways.

TR: There are loads of talented young comedians out there, and especially those of color. What did you find so unique about Kamau that inspired your investment in his career? Is there anything about his work that reminds you of your own?

CR: I just thought Kamau was polished and original — and a decent person. I meet funny people all the time, but funny isn’t enough to be successful in this business. You need character. Kamau has that in abundance.

TR: Kamau, a lot of your work could be characterized as political satire. You have a way of dissecting major issues and offering insight through humor. But given the current polarized nature of American politics and so much biased political reporting, do you think there is a role for comedians to educate and inform audiences, not just entertain them?

W. Kamau Bell: If you have someone laughing, you have them paying attention. My role as a comedian is to make audiences laugh. Comedy doesn’t care about political affiliations, and comedy doesn’t belong to a political party. I enjoy profane, goofy, outrageous humor. And I admire the work of people like Dick Gregory, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Chris Rock. They operate from the top to the bottom intellectually: You always feel like you’re learning something, but you’re laughing at the same time. I’m a fan of that kind of comedy.

Chris would say, “If it’s not funny, then it’s just a poorly organized speech.” I believe comedy is the best way to communicate, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what your job is or what you’re trying to convey. Politicians, musicians, actors — all of us use comedy to connect.

TR: And what about the issue of race? How do you use humor to connect with audiences in a way that they can more deeply understand serious problems like police brutality, stop and frisk or even the death of Trayvon Martin?