It’s been a whirlwind few years for W. Kamau Bell. Before the launch of his FX talk show, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, he was–at best–a cult-favorite comedian best known for his “Laughter Against The Machine” tours, which would often put him in front of dozens of fans a night. But after Chris Rock took an interest in his career, and executive produced his series for FX (and then FXX), Bell found himself with a major platform from which he could discuss race, politics, and comedy.
Of course, it only lasted two years.
In March, however, Variety reported that Bell had sold a pilot to CNN for a new documentary-style series, United Shades Of America. And while his increased profile has given him new opportunities (his podcast, Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, with co-host Kevin Avery, put him on Fast Company‘s list of innovative podcasters earlier this year), the end of Totally Biased put him at a turning point: take a desk job, or look for another opportunity to say what he wanted to say in front of the camera.
“After Totally Biased was canceled–Is that the word? Yes!” Bell laughs, “I had an opportunity to take some meetings. I sort of had this, ‘Welp, my show biz career is over,’ just because that’s how I roll with my things. I get very dramatic. But because I had a political bent, a lot of the cable news people were like ‘You could maybe work over here somehow.'”
Bell met with a lot of networks, but the meeting that captured his imagination was one with CNN’s Jeff Zucker, who already had an idea for a show that Bell could host. And when he got the details, Bell was surprised, because it was something he’d already written down in his notebook, for a travel show about race, racism, and culture.
Bell compares the idea he had for United Shades Of America to shows like Anthony Bourdain’s and Dirty Jobs–“All those shows where people sort of walk around talking to people like, ‘What’s this here?’ except I would be like, ‘What’s this racism here?'” he says. “I always wanted that kind of show.”
Bell worked with CNN to tweak the idea into something that merged the network’s initial concept with what he had in his notebook, and then they came back to him with the name. But as he was in these meetings, he also had a choice to make. Some of the staff writers from Totally Biased (including Avery, his podcasting co-host) had landed other jobs already at shows like Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and Bell could have pursued that sort of opportunity for himself. CNN expressing interest in a pilot is a nice boost for the ego, but most pilots don’t end up actually leading to a job.
“There was an idea that I could take a thing was going to pay me a more direct salary, that would sort of be more stable, and this was a chance. Ultimately, it came down to–I have to bet on myself,” Bell recalls. “I have two kids. I have one kid, and a new one on the way. We have to bet on ourselves, and my wife and I are big fans of that. We know we’re doing our thing when we bet on ourselves. The safe path works for a little while, but then it starts to suck. So we decided to bet on ourselves.”
Because Bell’s roots in comedy were relatively modest–he had a following in the Bay Area, but his tour a year before Totally Biased put him in venues with capacities in the double digits, and he’s no stranger to setting up the chairs for the audience before the show himself–he was something of an overnight success to people who didn’t watch his career develop.
But for Bell, the intimacy he developed with his audience sticks with him even as his platform continues to grow. “Because Totally Biased was such a personal show, people now in show biz–Like people that recognize me from Totally Biased also feel like they know me, because I put a lot of myself in there. Most people walk past me and don’t know who I am, but then the people who do, it’s like they’re seeing like a guy they went to high school with. Which is, I think, a way cooler thing than hanging out with Chris Rock. People look at him and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know Santa Claus was real!’ They start taking pictures of him and they don’t even know why.”
Bell admits that the Chris Rock-sized paychecks would be nice, but there are creative perks to growing with your audience. Bell’s material has gone from talking about being single, to talking about his girlfriend, to his wife, to his pregnant wife, to his daughter, and eventually on to his second daughter–but beyond some of his dating experiences, he didn’t have much to say about his life in his early years. “I was sleeping in various living rooms of various apartments to keep rent low, and my life was really just about trying to be a comedian and trying to keep a day job. I had several different retail jobs–condom shop, ice cream shop, Michael Jordan’s restaurant. So there was no life to talk about, really.” Bell was able to develop his voice and viewpoint as something he would explore through a lens of race and politics, and that served him well as he found that he could do more personal material, too.
“The older I got, and the more I had adult-people problems and adult-people challenges, I had to talk about this in order to process how to get through this stuff. A big part of why I do comedy the way I do is because I’m trying to process my inside world, and if I can make myself laugh while I’m processing it, I go, ‘Oh, that’s a joke. I should say that onstage,’ Bell says. “If the audience laughs, I go, ‘Oh, so I’m not the only one who feels this way.’ And that’s true whether I’m talking about politics or social justice issues, or if I’m talking about myself. The laugh is just my way of knowing that I’m not going crazy. So it’s a big part of it processing my world. And because a lot of my perspective on how I see the world is through this lens of race and being a black man, so the stuff I talk about in my personal life is going to be through that lens, too.”
In addition to developing United Shades of America and continuing to perform, Bell has another ongoing project–that weekly podcast with Kevin Avery, Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, in which the two discuss, yep, Denzel Washington, each week, often with a guest. It’s a podcast borne out of the natural affinity that Bell and Avery have for one another (and, of course, for Denzel).
“We’ve known each other since the beginning of our comedy lives together. We met in the Bay Area, in San Francisco,” Bell says. “Like any good romantic comedy, we hated each other at first and then we sort of had to spend a lot of time together and were forced to get along, and now we’ve got a beautiful love relationship for a long time–When Kevin Met Kamau. That’s all true. Two black guys who had similar backgrounds who were like, ‘You can’t be in this room. I’m already in this room.'”
After they each realized that the comedy world could, in fact, be big enough for the both of them, they discovered their shared love of a number of topics. And after Totally Biased ended, Bell and Avery wanted to keep working together. The Denzel podcast was a product of that desire, after Bell met with podcast network Wolfpop to talk about ideas.
“I have lots of ideas for lots of podcasts. There’s definitely another radio show or podcast in me that’s actually based in Totally Biased, about real stuff, but I sort of wanted something that would give me a chance to go someplace and just have fun talking to my friend who I don’t talk to that much,” Bell says. “I pitched that idea–‘Denzel Washington’s the greatest actor of all time, period,’ and they all laughed because it’s a funny title, whether you agree with it or not. And if you don’t, you’re wrong. They were having this new entertainment network and they sort of felt like it fit right into that. It’s just a goofy, fun thing that me and Kevin know how to keep the ball up in the air when we talk.”
Of course, even though the concept is a light bit of Denzel hero-worship from two guys who definitely seem to worship Denzel, it’s still a W. Kamau Bell project, which means there are still undertones of race. “There’s stuff about how hard it is to be a working black actress in Hollywood, because you see [Denzel] and where are all these black actresses that you see in one movie? Why aren’t they working more? So we end up bleeding into other issues,” Bell says.
It’s very much a side project for Bell–he compares it to Russell Crowe’s rock band or Billy Bob Thornton’s country music career–and admits that it’s not for everybody. In fact, that seems to be part of the appeal for him. “You can get hyper-specific about how you brand yourself,” he admits.
And ultimately, for Bell, self-branding is really just about saying what he wants to say, and being himself. Totally Biased was very much a product of Bell’s own passions and interests, and taking those things on the road in the form of a travel show that explores race and racism in different parts of America is obviously something very close to his heart. But he’s not out there looking for ways to increase his presence across all media, or to diversify beyond someone who says smart, funny things about race and culture (and if it just so happens that Denzel Washington is at the intersection of those things, so much the better).
“I’ve spent a long time learning how to be me, and I really feel like I’m getting better at it. I sort of check in with myself every year, ‘Am I doing a better job at this than last year?’ And I’ve had years where I’ve looked at me and said, ‘Nope’ and had to sort of make decisions,” Bell says. ‘The comedians that I’ve always admired are people who are identified as being comedians first, and then maybe they did other things. Which doesn’t mean if Spike Lee thinks I’m good for his next movie, I won’t do Spike Lee’s next movie. If Spielberg thinks I’d be good getting stomped by a dinosaur, I will probably take that meeting, but I get sent things to audition for, and I just never find the will to do it. At some point I just sort of let that go. If there’s an opportunity that really presents itself to me I will look at it, but George Carlin, Lewis Black, Cathy Griffin–they’re all these comedians who do lots of other things, but at the end of the day it’s about knowing them as comedians. All those other things just end up becoming the hot dogs at Costco, just to get you through the door so you’ll spend time with them as comedians. To me, that’s the type of career that I hope to have–where I’m a stand-up comedian who does some other things.”