(The Root) — W. Kamau Bell got the hookup. After comedy-industry insiders tipped Chris Rock to the San Francisco comedian's irreverent multimedia stand-up act, in which he goofed on race, politics and current events, Rock approached Bell in 2010 to do his own half-hour TV show. The result is Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, which premieres Thursday at 11 p.m. on the FX network.
"My live show had slides and video clips. That's why Chris could see a TV show, 'cause it felt like a TV show already," Bell told The Root. But a co-sign from his Hollywood mentor, whom he's called a "foulmouthed Yoda," doesn't mean the rising comic thinks he's totally made it. "I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but I'm not famous. I'm most famous as a guy who's about to have a show produced by Chris Rock."
That self-deprecating style of humor may serve him well as he embarks on his first big TV moment. He's entering a crowded field with fellow late-night talk-show hosts that include Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher on the cable channels and a new program from BET's T.J. Holmes on the horizon.
When The Root caught up with him this week via phone, Bell seemed up for the challenge. He shared his honest perspectives on Olympian Gabby Douglas, the Romney vs. Obama battle for the presidency and what it's like to have a Rock in his corner.
The Root: In a behind-the-scenes video, show writer Janine Brito said that you talk about awful things, but everyone walks away thinking, "I like this guy." Do you think she was being facetious or do you take it as a compliment?
W. Kamau Bell: I'm pretty sure she meant it as a compliment, and I take it as a compliment. I guess I have to look at it again and go, "Should I be insulted?" [Laughs.] We have this comedy trio called Laughter Against the Machine [outside of the show], where our whole thing is to talk about subjects that comics don't really talk about, but in new ways. Edgy is in the eye of the beholder, so one man's edgy is another man's not edgy.
I really don't want to go onstage to be a jerk, but certainly, the hate mail I get says that some people think I'm a jerk. It's the 21st century. If you're in the arts and you have a Facebook and Twitter account and you're not getting hate mail, maybe you're not doing something right.
But maybe as a human species, we're not evolved enough to handle social media. Gabby Douglas wins a gold medal — first black woman to win a gold medal in the Olympics — and we go onto Twitter to talk about how her hair's not nice … Ya know, she may have nappy hair, but she's also got a gold medal. I got nappy hair; I got a TV show. What are you doing?
The Root: What's it like to work with Chris Rock? When you first met, did he have a comic-god glow when he entered the room?
WKB: Bob Costas said something like this about Michael Jordan years ago: If you didn't know who Michael Jordan was and he walked across the room, you'd still be like, 'Who's that guy?' Chris has a presence about him. [Dave] Chappelle has that [presence] where you feel like there's somebody in the room who commands attention. Chris is not yelling all the time like he is in stand-up. He just very quietly has a powerful presence.
He told me he thought I was funny, and then he said, "Where do you live?" and I said, "San Francisco," and he said, "Move." He said, "There's nothing there. You gotta go to New York or L.A." My wife was pregnant at the time, so I was like, "I'm not moving anytime soon."
But then, a couple of months later, I got a call from an unlisted number and I answered it. I was like, "Hello." He said, "Kamau Bell?" and I said, "Yeah." "This is Chris Rock." I said, "No, it's not." I [had] told my friends [about meeting Chris], so I thought they were just screwing with me. But it turned out to actually be him. And then he said, "I want to do a show with you. Unfamous black guys don't get TV shows. Unfamous white guys get TV shows all the time. So I want to help you get a TV show."
The Root: Was there a race to get on air before T.J. Holmes, the CNN anchor who's set to do a talk show on BET in October?
WKB: Quite honestly, I've been so focused on my show that I was watching the BET Awards, and then I [became] aware that he was having a show. That's no insult to him; I've just been so head-down focused on this. I don't feel like we're competing. He's certainly a journalist. I'm a comedian.
Everybody has a DVR; you record one of us or both of us or none of us. People who watch The Colbert Report also watch Stewart and Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow. If black people have to be constantly competing for the one spot, then we've screwed up in this 21st century. Arsenio's show is coming back, apparently. Good for him. Nobody says this about white shows, like, well, with Breaking Bad out there, how are we going to watch True Blood?
The Root: Seems like the show has good timing as the election season ramps up. Excited about Romney vs. Obama?
WKB: I'm looking forward to the debates. Most of the polls say that Obama and Romney are neck and neck, with, like, 10 percent of voters [who are undecided] they're actually going after. The rest are fully ensconced — like, I'm going to vote this way and you can't talk me out of it. The moment you put the good-looking, incredibly loquacious, great orator Barack Obama next to awkward, stumbly, weirdly smiling at inappropriate times Mitt Romney, I can't imagine how those 10 percent won't go, "It's clearly the black guy; I don't know what I was thinking."
Brett Johnson is The Root's associate editor.