Before comic W. Kamau Bell became host of the new weekly political humor show Totally Biased, which mixes standup, sketches and interviews, he had a one-man show called The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.
"If you bring a friend of a different race, you get in 2 for 1," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Bell is not joking. He wants people of all races at his one-man show.
"I knew if I did a show about race, I wanted to make sure I didn't just get a theater audience, because otherwise, generally, a theater audience is a more white audience," he says. "And I knew that if a black guy was on stage doing a show about race and racism and he was doing it in front of all white people, then it becomes like court testimony. And I really wanted to make sure that there was people in the audience who could either affirm what I was saying or disagree with what I was saying in front of other people."
Bell's new late-night show has a bit of his own biography, he says.
"I don't look the same as the people who are on late-night TV, which means I don't have the same life experience, which means when I look to sit down and create these pieces with the writers, I'm trying to find an angle in it that's more personal to me," he says.
And that means addressing race. Bell says he didn't set out to be a political comedian — it just turned out that way because he has always been interested in race issues.
"Nobody considered my act political until America got a black president," he says. "I talked about race a lot. It just became that, once Barack started running for president, I started to care a lot about the presidency in a way that I hadn't cared before. Because everyday on TV, I saw this black guy who was under a microscope, and I felt like there was some percentage of me in that guy that I didn't see in, say, George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton ... and so my act — really, I got labeled a political comedian; that wasn't the thing I was trying to do."
Bell says he approaches political events a little differently than other late-night comedians.
"A lot of times people think comedy is making fun of things, and I feel like, no, it can also just be making fun out of things," he says. "That, to me, is the kind of comedy I always like to do, where you can make jokes about the thing without making fun of the thing."
The season finale of Totally Biased, produced by Chris Rock, airs Sept. 20 on FX.
Bell, based in San Francisco, is the founding member of the comedy collective Laughter Against the Machine. He co-hosts the podcast The Field Negro Guide to Arts & Culture with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid.
On being called out on prejudices he didn't realize he had
"When I started doing my solo show, one of my good friends, Martha, said to me, she's like, 'Kamau, you can't end racism and make sexism worse.' And I was like, 'What do you mean by that?' And she went through my solo show and pointed out all the different parts of it that she felt were sexist. And that's a good friend, a friend who will tell you that in a way that you can hear. And that was a real revelation for me, is that you can't sort of pick your issue over other people's issue — that if you want to end the ignorance of something, you have to end all the ignorances or at least not make some of the ignorances worse."
On being open about his dislike of actor Tyler Perry
"There's this thing with black people that we, sometimes we feel like we have to have a unified front, and we have to protect things even if we don't like them, because we know that at any point, one of us can get snatched up and be accused of something we didn't do. And I sort of felt, under the protection of a black president, maybe we could have some more independent opinions. Unfortunately, that hasn't changed as much as I thought it would."
On being in an interracial marriage
"Sometimes people will say if you are in an interracial relationship that you're somehow a sellout or you're taking the easy route, or something like that. And, literally, if you want to talk about race a lot in your life, marry a person who is a different race than you — because that will become a topic in ways that it probably wouldn't if you marry a person of the same race."