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Interview: W. Kamau Bell 

The star of Totally Biased on political humor, late-night talk shows and his Oh, Everything! tour

click to enlarge W. Kamau Bell brings his Oh, Everything! tour to New Orleans.

Photo by Matthias Clamer

W. Kamau Bell brings his Oh, Everything! tour to New Orleans.

When the world seemed so impossibly bleak it became hilariously absurd, W. Kamau Bell would look over his newspaper and throw a phrase to his writer's room with a smile on his face: "Oh, everything."

  "I think it's meant to be pessimistically optimistic," Bell says, laughing. "It's a way to not get caught into each individual problem and just go, 'Oh, everything.' You look at your Twitter feed or Facebook news feed, there's not just one thing wrong. It's hard to focus on any one problem. It's a multi-headed hydra."

  The standup comic often offered sharp, hilarious social and political commentary, topical sketches and interviews on his former FX series Totally Biased (Chris Rock was executive producer). Bell brought his Totally Biased tour to New Orleans last year, and he also performed with his comedy collective Laughter Against the Machine in the inaugural Hell Yes Fest in 2011. He returns to New Orleans with his Oh, Everything! tour on Jan. 6.

  Bell aired Totally Biased against a largely white-washed late-night spectrum. The show's writers' room had a diverse cast of standup comedians, and Bell's interview guests ranged from Big Freedia and musician Kathleen Hanna to author and ethnographer Yaba Blay.

  Totally Biased was canceled late last year, before the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and New York set off national debates about race, police and justice. Bell's fans have been eager to hear his thoughts, which typically would be broadcast on his weekly show. He hasn't necessarily stopped thinking what he'd say to that audience if Totally Biased was still on the air.

  "A lot of fans of the show will hit me up on Twitter and Facebook pretty regularly like, 'We need your show right now for what's going on right now!'" he says. "I'm pretty active on Twitter about giving my opinion. If people want my opinion, I'm always doing standup on the road. The show coming back is not going to happen. The show got canceled. I didn't get canceled. That's what I had to remind myself. I still get to talk and say things. With the ratings with the show at the end, I probably had more Twitter followers than people watching the show."

  For now, Bell and comedian Kevin Avery are going to the movies. The duo host Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, in which the series' title is debated in every episode. But why Denzel? "It's not a cult," he says.

  "He can go from basically playing the straight man in Philadelphia and holding it down against Tom Hanks, who is acting his ass off — playing Scottie Pippin to Tom Hanks' Michael Jordan — then you go to Training Day, and every scene he's in, even if he's not saying anything, he's blowing them off the screen," he says. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a Robert De Niro role like, he's just playing this guy who's small and quiet and doesn't take up too much space. Every time he speaks on screen it's like, 'Oh, shit, Robert De Niro is speaking.'"

  Bell also is working on another TV project (much different than Totally Biased, he says), though he's not jumping in line in hope of becoming the next late-night talk show host. With political humor on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart now competing against celebrity-filled late-night slots, Bell says he hopes to see that model recreated but with diverse voices.

  "I want a show where I can talk, not a talk show," he says. "The talk show model, it's like being a car salesman. There's only so many ways you can sell the car. You have to have a band, you have to have a sidekick, some sort of announcer, you have to do a monologue, and every night you have to have the most famous people on the show. It's not really about the conversation. It's not about a perspective. It's about the salesmanship. Again, no disrespect to the Jimmys or the few of those hosts not named Jimmy. ... There's other ways to get this stuff, and I think we have to break out of that model.

  "In the next five years, can we get a woman of color to be the host of The Tonight Show? Probably not. On an infinite timeline? Yeah, I think we can do it. You have to be like Don Quixote running at a windmill. I'd hate to waste the time and energy running at the windmill of 'major network talk show host' instead of just starting our own thing. Whoever produced the Jack Paar show, we're still basing it on that person, who has probably been dead for many years."


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