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Recess Interviews: W. Kamau Bell

W. Kamau Bell, perhaps best known for his FXX series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, is a standup comic based in New York City with strong ties to San Francisco. Bell performs Friday, April 4 as part of his Oh, Everything! Tour at DSI Comedy Theater in Chapel Hill. Tickets are available online. Recess online editor Prashanth Kamalakanthan spoke with Bell about the benefits of a TV-fueled childhood, the untouchability of Dave Chapelle, race of audiences and more.

The Chronicle: People call you a "political comedian," but you've said before that you don't really like that label. Are all comedians political? Do you think comedy can be used to further political goals, or is it sort of a separate thing?

W. Kamau Bell: I mean, the reason why I don't like the "political" label, or some of it, is that if you think you're going to come to my show and see political comedy, you might be a little surprised by the content. Because it's not straight politics. A lot of it is identity politics, race and racism as identity politics, which I feel very comfortable talking about. And it just so happens that a lot of identity politics get caught up in a lot of regular, old D.C. politics. But me, I like to think about social movements. I think of myself as sociopolitical, because it's the social and cultural movements I'm interested in, and many of those end up getting old guys in D.C. going, "Is this okay? I don't know if it's okay."

Are all comics political? I mean, on "Totally Biased," we had Aparna Nancherla, who's not in any way explicitly talking about politics, but because she's a South Asian woman, and she's on stage speaking her mind, to me that feels like a political statement. I feel like she's not represented in the world a lot, and her stepping on stage strikes me as political, even if it's not political material. Any time you're sort of subverting the norm, there's a political, subversive element in what you're doing. That doesn't even mean the person's consciously trying to do it, necessarily.

TC: Interesting. You know, I'm also a huge fan of Dave Chapelle

WKB: Aren't we all?

TC: Yeah, seriously. One thing that's always stuck with me, though, about what he's said, is this fear of tokenization as a black comedian, like being laughed at rather than with, or this thing where 'let's let this guy say these things so we feel better for listening.' So I was wondering, do you ever think about these kinds of things? Do you ever feel the same discomfort?

WKB: Yeah. I'm familiar with when Chapelle said that too, and I learned from that too, about how you can't control what people do with the jokes after you give it to them.

TC: Right.

WKB: And you know, Chapelle was in a very unique position that few people feel, where he had one of the hottest TV shows in the country, and the next thing you know, people in the street were yelling catchphrases from the show at his family. [Nobody] can account for that or predict that. I try to be very exact about how I write the jokes so that you can break it apart into different parts, but I told you knowing exactly what I did. So it's very hard for you to turn it into something else. But I mean, people still do that. That also means that when somebody goes, "Hey, but in that joke you said blah blah blah," I can be like, "No, I didn't." I can feel comfortable saying, "That's not what I said; you've misinterpreted it." But I've gotten nowhere near the level of Chappelle in fame or acclaim or talent.

TC: Getting there.

WKB: Nah, he's like a superhero. He's built like a superhero because he's been lifting weights.

TC: (laughs) He's Superman, and Chris Rock is Spiderman.

WKB: (laughs) Yes, I think that's how they do it.

TC: Are you still based out of San Francisco?

WKB: No, I live in New York right now. Now that the show is gone, we're sort of exploring our options, seeing what's up next and so on. But I would take any opportunity to move back to the Bay Area.

TC: I've read in various places that no U.S. city has seen so sharp a decline in its black population as San Francisco. What's it like for you to see that going on around San Franciso, being a comedian that tackles race and identity issues? Are you seeing your audiences getting whiter; is it that clear?

WKB: Well, part of the answer is that for me, by the time I moved to the Bay, San Francisco had already seen its drop. I mean, it's still dropping, but the significant drop had already happened. But then, I'd visit Oakland, across the bridge. So I was very aware of where I could go find black people. (laughs) The thing with the Bay area is that it's kind of like Manhattan and Brooklyn. Like, some people in Manhattan never go to Brooklyn, and some people in Brooklyn never go to Manhattan, although more people go from Brooklyn to Manhattan than the other way. And here, it's the same thing. So I would go over the bridge all the time, and the lack of black people in San Francisco didn't affect me in the same way because I lived in Oakland for a little bit; my girlfriend, now wife, lived in Oakland; I had a lot of friends in Oakland. So I didn't feel that lack of blackness, in a way. And, of course, some of the black people that left San Francisco moved to Oakland.

TC: Sure, yeah.

WKB: But certainly I think I was always aware of that. One of the reasons I do the kind of work I do is because in places like San Francisco, a lot of people are like, "Oh, well, we're definitely cool, because of where we live. So there's nothing we're doing wrong, because we live in the most liberal city in the world." And I think the reason the way I do the work I do is because I started getting really frustrated and interested in calling people out, like, "How come you say you're so liberal, but you chased all the black people away? Is that why white people are so liberal here, because there are no black people around?" I think that's part of why I am the way I am, because I've lived in an area where though there wasn't, like, the outright racism of the pre-civil rights movement, there was still this sort of 'how come I'm the only black guy here and nobody's talking to me?'

TC: So now that the show's over, what's your relationship with Chris Rock like? Do you find yourselves collaborating, or is it more like he's kind of the rich uncle with the money bags?

WKB: Nah, I mean it's not that. I don't think I can go to Chris and be like, "Man, you know, I can't make rent this month." (laughs) I mean, how would I describe it? Like at the end of "Return of the Jedi," when you know [Alec Guinness] is dead, but he shows up at the end and Luke can talk to his ghost sometimes? (laughs)

TC: Oh, right, I see.

WKB: So he's still around, he's just not as around as when we were working on the show every day. I still hear from him, but he's also got a career he's working on too, and doing "Totally Biased," he sort of turned the volume down on parts of his career to help the show, and since the show got booted he's turned the volume back up. But we've got a healthy relationship, and I think he'll be a part of my jedi counsel for the rest of my career.

TC: You've talked in the past about standup being more interpersonal, perhaps freer and more comfortable for that reason. That said, do you miss anything about doing a TV show? Would you do it again?

WKB: I'm talking to different networks and people right now about other projects in television. I would definitely love to get back into TV. I know so much more about it now that I got to do it for over a year. I had, like I've said, kind of an internship with a year in television. But I'm really excited to get back to standup after doing a TV show, to do standup for a couple of years. For me, it's really exciting to be able to have that intimacy and know that every night, even though I'm doing a similar routine at a lot of venues, that things change. If the city is different, if the people that show up are different. We form a different relationship, you know. I did a show in Denver that was probably 97% white people, and then I did a show in Oakland that was probably 50% black people. And that changed what happened in the show, even though a lot of the material is the same. I like that, where every night is a little bit different.

TC: Right, right.

WKB: And also I like working on jokes over and over again until you get them really good, whereas on TV you do it once, and it's like, 'Yeah, I'd like to work on that—oh no, it's done. It's gone forever.' But still, if I get the opportunity, I'd love to get back on the screen. They'd also have to invite me. (laughs)

TC: Another interesting thing is that we have this weird connection, apart from me being a fanboy of yours. Hari Kondabolu, who wrote for your show, you may know, has a brother, who was in a now-defunct band—

WKB: Yeah! Dapwell.

TC: Yeah, yeah. One third of which band, Victor Vazquez, I opened for when he came to perform at Duke.

WKB: Whoa, cool.

TC: It was totally cool and surreal. So my question is: are you a rap guy? Fan of Das Racist? What sort of artists, comedian and non-, have influenced you?

WKB: Oh, I'm certainly a fan and friend of Das Racist. It's funny, despite the fact that I'm black and grew up in Chicago, I came to music mainly through my friend, who was a guitar player. Like that's how I started listening to music. The first concert I ever went to was Tom Petty, I think. (laughs) You know, the first album I bought was Bob Marley's "Legends."

TC: Wow, nice.

WKB: So you know, I came to it through different angles. I was listening to more jazz than I was listening to hip-hop. He'd be like, "I'm listening to Miles Davis," and I was like, "Okay, if you say so!" (laughs) It's great to have a friend who's like, 'I'm going to help you curate your music tastes.'

TC: For sure.

WKB: If they have good taste in music. But I'm always listening to more music from the past than the present. Like, I'm a huge John Coltrane fan, huge Jimi Hendrix fan, and not just the greatest hits, like I've heard "Fire" and "Purple Haze" enough in my lifetime, but I love all the other stuff he did. But also, like, Rage Against the Machine is one of my favorite bands of all time. Living Colour is one of my favorite bands of all time. It's funny, I like experimental music that drives the point home. Which is what I feel like Rage Against the Machine and Living Colour are. Jazz elements, but also, they rock out.

TC: Any standup comedians you're digging at the moment?

WKB: Well, it's funny you mention Hari Kondabolu. I was just at Hari's CD release party last night here in San Francisco. And I'm really excited, you know, his CD is out, and people are noticing him in a big way. He did Letterman last night. I feel like in short order he'll be one of those like, "Oh yeah, him. He's one of the people, one in the comedy limelight." In the same way, you know, I saw Hannibal Buress turn into one of "the guys." (laughs) If you don't know him, you don't know comedy. I want Hari to be like, if you don't know him, you're the asshole. (laughs) And because of that, because I've known him for a while, I get a lot of inspiration from him when I see him work. How he's so on-point, but also funny and also silly. It makes me want to do the same thing... Who else? You know, there's this woman in Oakland, Karinda Dobbins, who is this black lesbian from Detroit with a 19-year-old daughter. She's a very powerful presence on stage. To me what's really interesting about her is that there's not really a moment on stage that she comes out as a lesbian, because we're sort of past that a little. Like she's sort of past that, you know what I'm saying? She's not really taking time to walk you through her process. And she's just damn funny.

TC: One thing I've always wondered: why did you drop Walter?

WKB: Oh! (laughs) Well, I never really dropped it, because my dad's name was Walter, and nobody really called me Walter as a kid. I was always Kamau. Although, there were times—I moved around a lot—and I would go to school, and they would call attendance the first day, and they'd call "Walter Bell." I'd be like, "Yeah, it's fine. I'm probably not going to be here that long." (laughs) Also, as a kid, there was this [comedian] who was on "Saturday Night Live" called A. Whitney Brown, and I always thought that sounded cool. So I decided, "Oh, I will be W. Kamau Bell when I'm an international superstar."

TC: Now you're living the dream.

WKB: Now I'm in showbiz!

TC: I moved around a lot as a kid, too, and I feel like that's shaped a large part of who I am. Can you see how that's influenced who you've become?

WKB: Oh, absolutely. I'm an only child, and I moved around a lot. Means I had a lot of time to myself, and I was always in the position of having to make new friends. And me, I was really shy as a kid, so it sort of kept me isolated sometimes. So it meant I was living in my head a lot, and I also watched a ton of TV. (laughs) Being in your head a lot and watching a lot of television are the perfect ingredients for breeding a standup comedian.

TC: What kind of television?

WKB: Oh, um. Like, all of it. (laughs) You know, people say don't let your kids watch TV; I say don't let them watch bad TV. Good TV is great! TV will improve your vocabulary. TV will make you see things you wouldn't see otherwise. As a little kid I watched a ton of "Tom and Jerry" and "Looney Toons," and the thing about those is that they weren't written for kids. They were written for adults. So as a little kid, you were like, "Hey, war bonds, what's that all about?" (laughs) It just sort of soaks in, you know.

TC: Yeah, definitely.

WKB: But then I'd also end up watching a lot of TV ads. Because that was one of the channels we had, and we didn't have cable. But, you know, I can sing probably the theme songs to most of the '80s sitcoms. (laughs) Does that make me smarter? No. But as a comedian, I can bust them out every now and then.

TC: Oh, of course. So, my final question: "Totally Biased" movie?

WKB: (laughs) Yes, we will release the "Totally Biased" movie once the "Mr. Show" movie comes out.

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