Using Humor in the Dialogue on Race

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

(The Root) — "W. Kamau Bell is one of America's few leftist black male feminists from San Francisco with his own television talk show, and for that alone he should be treasured," Salon wrote last year.


He's also a straight, married young dad who's an outspoken proponent of marriage equality and gay rights.

Welcome to the new era of African-American comedians.

Last week, stand-up comedic artisan W. Kamau Bell returned to the television airwaves as host of the critically acclaimed late-night comedy show Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell. After a successful first season that aired on Thursdays on FX, the show has been expanded to five nights a week and will help christen FX's new channel, FXX.

Totally Biased grew out of Bell's 2010 solo comedy tour, "The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour." Legendary comedian Chris Rock attended a performance and was impressed, telling the young comedian, "I'm gonna make you a star." Rock helped develop the platform and pitch it to the FX network and is now executive producer of Bell's brainchild.

Early on, Bell committed to pushing the boundaries in America's dialogue on race. In fact, to ensure a diverse audience for his 2012 comedy tour, he offered free tickets to people who brought a friend of a different race.

Totally Biased is no different: delivering colorblind comedy that transcends black and white. The program is a celebration of diverse perspectives, taking on race, religion, pop culture and homophobia with balanced, insightful commentary and humor that challenge stereotypes and encourage critical thinking.

Bell's supporting cast is a rainbow coalition that includes Kevin Avery, the show's head writer, whose Web sketch "Black Guys on a Beautiful Day" and short film Thugs, the Musical have won acclaim on the film-festival circuit; Dwayne Kennedy, who operates as the "real talk" correspondent of all things "black"; and Janine Brito, an impeccably dressed, out-and-proud lesbian who could give Ellen DeGeneres a run for her money. Other contributors include Hari Kondabolu, the sharp satirist of Indian descent; the outrageous Guy Branum, a gay comic who first cut his teeth on Chelsea Handler's E! Entertainment show; and Kevin Kataoka, an Asian-American comedian who brilliantly challenged American stereotypes of Asians as bad drivers by reminding viewers that there would be no transportation system without Asian immigrants who built the nation's railroad infrastructure in the 19th century.


In The Root's conversation with both comedians, Rock explained why he was drawn to Bell's work and why being behind the camera is more rewarding. Bell offered us a peek into the new season and explained why the n-word is the most powerful word in the English language and why he is both offended and unoffended by it in equal measure.

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?

WKB: So many white people in America can understand race simply by quoting Chris Rock or Bill Cosby. That just goes to show how powerful comedy can be. It helps people see through the eyes of others without the fear of misunderstanding. Laughter is a great equalizer that way. It brings us closer together, without us even realizing it.


TR: How will your second season be different?

WKB: Having five nights will definitely enhance what we're able to do. One of the main changes will be that we'll have my talented cast and writing staff do some of the "man on the street" segments. I'm also excited to have longer, more in-depth interviews. The 30-minute format was frustrating at times because I had these amazing guests, but only six minutes to talk.


For example, our most popular segment last year was when I asked comedian Jim Norton and writer Lindy West to take opposing sides and discuss whether rape jokes were appropriate in comedy. Our audience wanted more, and we ended up putting the extended version online, and it went viral. We'll be doing more of that — taking advance of online resources to engage viewers and provide more content, from videos to our blogs to special online-only content.

TR: What was interesting about the rape-joke debate is that it was deadly serious and seriously funny at the same time. But there was also a lot of push-back about the segment and its content, and it seems that's the kind of spirited debate your comedy inspires. Subjects like rape in comedy and use of the n-word have long had their critics. A recent federal court in New York ruled that use of the n-word was inappropriate in the workplace, even if used by and between blacks. How do you feel about the use of the n-word in comedy and by African-American comedians in particular?


WKB: Well, I admit I use that word in my comedy, and I think it's the most powerful word in the American English lexicon. But I also understand why it's controversial and why a lot of people think we should stop using it. But everything is about context, and in comedy we often use it to express a bigger point.

From the perspective of free will and constitutional protections for free speech, I think people should be allowed to say what they want — within limits, of course. The truth is, there is a tradition among blacks that we seek to reclaim the word and own it, as opposed to [being] subjected by it. I'd like to believe that is possible, but I'm sure any scholar would say emphatically, "No!"


To that end, there are situations when I've heard the word and been totally offended by it. And other times that I'm totally unoffended. And as far as comedy is concerned, that's what it's all about. My work is to engage, challenge and make people think — but above all to make them laugh. Like I said, if you have people laughing, you have them paying attention.

Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell airs on FXX at 11 p.m. from Monday to Thursday, with a "best of" mixtape airing on Sunday.


Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.