News Column

Kamau Bell steps up his game with expanded show on new FXX channel

September 2, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 02--The past couple of years have been one "be careful what you wish for" after another for comic W. Kamau Bell.

It wasn't too long ago that he was playing small Bay Area clubs and building a fan base through his brand of edgy, topical humor. Then Chris Rock discovered him, said, "I'm gonna make you a star," and helped Bell launch his own weekly late-night show on FX called "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell."

This week, Bell not only returns for a second season on Wednesday, but expands the show to five nights a week and christens FX's new channel, FXX.

Bell admits there will be a lot more pressure to do five topical shows a week, especially since each show is taped earlier on broadcast day because so much of the material is meant to be immediate and topical.

"At the beginning (of the TV show), I felt like, one day a week? I didn't know what that was but I just sort of ran with it and got through to the other side," he said during an interview last month in Beverly Hills. "So now that it's five days a week -- well, we have to start that again. I feel like if we'd started with five nights a week, I might not be on the planet anymore."

Bell readily admits there was a learning curve when he went from stand-up to TV.

"I did have to adapt and I probably overcorrected at first," he says.

The show packs several elements into 30 minutes, including Bell doing a stand-up riff on a topical subject -- somehow, "monologue" seems inexact -- as well as on-the-street chats with everyday people about current issues, and a sit-down chat with a guest.

"The interviews started out and I got lucky," he says. "You know, Chris Rock was my first guest and he sort of handled all the heavy lifting. And then Rachel Maddow was my second guest and I had that interview in my head a million times before I met her."

There was more of a challenge later in the season when Bell welcomed other guests, though, and for how to meet that challenge, he turned to other comics.

Studying playbooks

He's not ashamed to say he even studied the playbooks of one comic whose show competes directly with his own in many markets.

"I studied Jon Stewart's interviews as a way to learn how do you do it in like six minutes. How do you make it funny and interesting in six minutes. And Jon Stewart was the guy who really helped me figure out the best way to get to that place, whether he knows it or not," Bell says.

Of course, he's also a fan of his show's producer, Rock. In fact, the two share a deceptively genial way of delivering up-front and edgy comedy with the intent of making you laugh and think at the same time.

From the stage of the Beverly Hilton's International Ballroom, for example, Bell answered questions from members of the Television Critics Association before our interview last month.

"What do you think is missing from (the national) conversation or ... dialogue on race?" he was asked.

"I feel like what's missing from the dialogue on race in America is white people doing this," he said, making a sour face. "I feel like every white person needs to practice that. That's your listening-to-racism face."

After the laughter ebbed, he continued: "I feel like a lot of times you know, the worst thing a white person can say to a person of color is 'I don't think that's racist.' I don't know if that's your area. You know, you can have an opinion, but you can't have the final word ... And I put myself on the line, saying -- if I say to a woman, 'I don't think that's sexist,' watch out.

"I've learned that from being steeped in the Bay Area culture and being raised by my mom," he added. "A black woman raised me, and then two white lesbians in Oakland finished raising me. So I sort of I think that's what's missing from the race discussions, that white people, you've got a lot of jobs. You can't always have the 'knowing what's racism' job. That's all I'm saying. Knowing what's imperialism? That's a good one."

College to comedy

Bell lived in many places in the country, including Chicago, where he graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools before attending the University of Pennsylvania. He left college to pursue his stand-up, which he fine-tuned in the Bay Area, winning fans like Robin Williams and awards from Punchline and local publications. He was a founding member of the comedy collective Laughter Against the Machine, and has recorded two comedy albums, "One NIGht Only" in 2007 and "Face Full of Flour" three years ago.

Although there will be some changes in "Totally Biased," such as having members of his now beefed up writing staff do some of the "man on the street" segments, Bell is hoping to put "more of my stand-up" sensibility in the show but to maintain the way he decides what issues to focus on from night to night.

"Once we got past the election (in the first season), we sort of cherry-picked what we wanted and picked things that really related to me," he says.

'That's my family"

As an example, he cites one of the last episodes from the first season on which he talked about the Internet fuss over the Cheerios commercial featuring a mixed-race family, not unlike Bell's own family, which includes his wife, Melissa, and their energetic young daughter.

The commercial was "not a thing that everybody felt they needed to cover, but I was like, no, I need to cover this, and I got to make it really personal to me, by saying on TV, 'That's my family up there.' "

"Totally Biased" may be a lot bigger this year, with many additional moving parts, but Bell is determined to preserve its winning formula.

"I think the great thing is that we get to look at even smaller stories and blow them up, as opposed to just covering what everyone else is talking about," he says.

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle

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