September 13, 2012
Guest: W. Kamau Bell
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He hosts the FX series "Totally Biased." It's a show of largely political humor that mixes standup, brief sketches and an interview. The show was proposed by Chris Rock, who serves as its executive producer.
As an African-American, Bell often addresses race in his comedy, including his take on the first African-American president and the hatred directed at him. Bell also co-hosts the Podcast "The Field Negro Guide to Arts and Culture" with Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid.
"Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell" is on Thursday nights. Its six-episode season ends a week from tonight. W. Kamau Bell, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how would you describe your show for somebody who's never seen it?
W. KAMAU BELL: I'd say it's a very left-leaning, liberal, politically charged, socially, politically charged comedy show from a six-foot-four, 250-pound black man who is steeped in the Bay Area.
GROSS: And why is the Bay Area important to you, who you are, and what your show is?
BELL: I mean, I think I was a different person when I moved to the Bay Area 15 years ago. And I thought I knew who I was, and then I got to the Bay Area, and they really - even though I was pretty much an adult, they finished raising me.
GROSS: We'll get back to that. So you have your show, in part, because of Chris Rock.
BELL: Yeah, I think he's - you know, almost entirely in part because of Chris Rock. Chris Rock lifted me out of the wilderness and shined me up and put me in a position to get a TV show.
GROSS: So what happened? He heard your act and then proposed to you do your show?
BELL: Yeah. What happened was I have a solo show that I do called "The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour," that I've been doing since 2007. And if you bring a friend of a different race, you get in two for one.
BELL: Which I like to say not even Martin Luther King Jr. did that on the march on Washington. But, of course, he also didn't charge admission. So yeah, I had this solo show, and I was doing it for about five years. And, you know, as a comic, once you're in the scene for a while, you sort of are only one or two degrees away from every other comedian. So I knew people who knew Chris. But, you know, I didn't think anything about it.
And I met a producer named Chuck Sklar, who has worked with Chris for years, and he basically badgered Chris to go see my show, and then another woman named Jocelyn Cooper who runs afropunk.com, who grew up with Chris, badgered him to go see my show.
And then he - I was doing my show at the UCB theater in New York, and after the show, I was like, that was a great show, and suddenly a figure clad in black floated backstage like "The Matrix," and it was Chris Rock.
GROSS: So just to back up for a second, would you really do a two-for-one ticket sale - if two people showed up, one black, one white?
BELL: We absolutely did it. We did it for multiple races, not just black and white, yeah. We did it - every time I do a show that I'm producing myself, I insist on doing it that way.
GROSS: You can get the Asian discount, too?
BELL: We get the Asian discount, and actually we have a very strict don't ask, don't tell policy. So if you say you're of two different races, then we accept you. That's the only time that policy has ever worked for good.
GROSS: Arab discount?
BELL: Absolutely. We don't - we're just glad you're there. Take our money, please.
GROSS: But you can't do this by phone. Like you can't call the box office.
BELL: Well, no, we would sell the tickets in advance and then let people sort of show up. And, you know, people were very tentative about showing up. They didn't realize that we actually meant it, and we were very welcoming. And, you know, I made sure nobody at the box office gave anybody a hard time, and it absolutely changed the complexion, pun intended, of the audience.
GROSS: Did it really?
BELL: Yeah. No, it certainly did, I think, because I was doing the show in small, independent, black box theaters in San Francisco, and when you do those shows, there's just a general type of audience that shows up. And I knew if I did a show about race, I wanted to make sure I didn't just get a theater audience.
And I wanted to get an audience - because otherwise, you know, generally a theater audience is a more white audience. And I knew that if a black guy was onstage doing a show about race and racism, and he was doing it in front of all white people, then it becomes like court testimony.
BELL: And I really wanted to make sure that it was - 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.
GROSS: So was your comedy always political?
BELL: No, no, no, not at all. I think, you know, I started out as a comic - I mean, I still just want to be funny, even with the label of political. I'm still trying to get big, healthy, gut laughs. And I started as a comic just trying to be funny, and I sort of was all over the map, and I was bad for a really long time. And, you know, I sort of came into this.
GROSS: I love hearing people's early bad material. Would you grace us with a really bad joke from your early act?
BELL: Oh my God, it makes me - it literally makes my stomach hurt to think about that. I was - I mean, I - my palms are literally sweating.
GROSS: You're welcome.
BELL: Yes, only because you're Terry Gross and I'm honored to be here, will I actually tell a joke from my early act. Otherwise I would never do this. I think it was a joke that went somewhere along the lines of - I haven't told this joke in forever - I met a woman last night, and she said I want you to take me home, and I want you to make love to me all night long. That's not my fantasy. My fantasy is that a woman says I want to take me home and just do your best, just try real hard.
BELL: If it doesn't work out tonight, come back tomorrow. That was my - that was sadly my closer.
GROSS: Compare that to how you recently opened your act. And I'm not talking about your TV show now, I'm talking about the act that you did, "The Bell Curve: Ending Racism in One Hour." You'd open with Tyler Perry jokes.
BELL: Yeah, I think at the point I was doing the Tyler Perry material, I cared a lot about the Tyler Perry material, and I never really cared about that joke I just told you. That was a joke that was written because the audience thought it was funny at that time, whereas the Tyler Perry joke that I did that's on my last CD, "Face Full of Flour," was a joke that literally, the first time I stepped onstage to do it, I was afraid that the audience might turn on me because I was in front of a lot of black people.
But what happened is that it was sort of a release. Like, they were, like, you're saying the thing that many of us think. And to me, that's the kind of material I always want to be going for.
GROSS: What was the thing? What were you saying about Tyler Perry?
BELL: I mean, it was - it's probably explicit for NPR.
GROSS: That's why I'm not playing the record. So yeah, you can clean it up for us.
BELL: I mean, it was really just the idea that, like - and this was two years ago. And that's the thing about my act is that it's really - what I cared about two years ago is not necessarily the same thing I care about now in the same way. So it's like a little snapshot. And at that point, Obama had just won the presidency, and I said that, well, now that Obama's won the presidency, there's something I've wanted to say for a long time, that I feel really passionate about. And now I feel like that we have a black president, I can get this off my chest.
And it was basically (beep) Tyler Perry.
BELL: And just - at the time, I felt like you couldn't really - 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 that, even if we don't like them, because it's - 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 like under the protection of a black president, maybe we could have some more independent opinions. Now unfortunately, that hasn't changed as much as I thought it would. So, you know, I wouldn't do that joke again today.
GROSS: So how has it changed your relationship to politics and to political comedy, to have an African-American president?
BELL: Nobody considered my act political until America got a black president. I talked about race a lot, and 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. So I started - because every day on TV, I saw this black guy who was, you know, 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, despite the fact that they insisted he was the black president.
And I sort of became engaged in news in a way that I hadn't been engaged before. And also, I think, as a facet of getting older, caring about the world around me in a different way. And so my act really - I got labeled a political comedian. I didn't - that wasn't my - that wasn't the thing I was trying to do.
GROSS: But you do do a lot of political humor on your program.
BELL: I do, I do. I mean, I think it's also the nature of the election. You know, I feel like I want to have a voice in that. So I want to - I feel like I want "Totally Biased" to be a part of the discussion of the election.
GROSS: Now since your show is so political, I just want to ask you, this is the week when the American consulate in Libya was attacked, and our ambassador there and three other people were killed. How do you do your show in the shadow of that?
BELL: You know, I mean, we have a lot of writers on the staff who are also deeply embedded in politics, and a lot of the things that come out of the show come out of discussions in the writers' room. Like forget the comedy side of it, just let's talk about this thing. What do you think about it? What do I think about it? And then from those discussions emerge an angle that is comedic.
And the important thing for me about the show is that 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. And I think if we do that correctly, then we get pieces in the show like we did on the very show. We did the piece about Sikh versus sheik. And that...
GROSS: This was after the murders at the Sikh temple.
BELL: Yes, that I felt like we had addressed it in a comedic way, without in any way diminishing the issue. And we got a lot of good feedback on that. And 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.
And so I feel that we would - you know, when I get back to the writers' room today, we will talk about that and see if something emerges. But we don't feel like we have a homework assignment about things. Like if we don't find anything that's funny and also nails some part of the issue, then we just won't do it.
GROSS: Yeah, so since you're talking about how you handled the Sikh - the murders at the Sikh temple, why don't you talk a little bit about what you ended up doing. Now a lot of it is visual because you kind of a flow chart behind you. You often have visuals behind you. So in as radio-friendly a way as possible, describe how you handled that.
BELL: Well, again that came out of a discussion in the room. We were talking about - because, you know, we have - the room is very - a lot of different races, too, like the writers' room on the show, which I'm really happy about. And so one of our writers is an Indian Hindu, and he has ties to the Sikh community, you know Sikhs.
And so we were sort of talking to him about it, and he was explaining some things. And then one of us, and it may have even been me, was like, OK, well, what's the difference between a Sikh and a sheik, like really asking that question. And we pulled up our computers, and we're like oh.
And as we started answering the questions, we started having fun with those words, you know, and from - and very organically emerged a chart where we would show a picture of a Sikh and go this is a Sikh, and this is sheik, and we showed a picture of a sheik. Because what had happened was after 9/11, a lot of Sikhs were attacked because people thought they were Arabs or Muslims, and they're not. That's not the same part of the world.
And so it became this thing that I do on my solo show where you explain something but use comedy to explain it, and if the comedy's good enough, then people don't even realize they're being - that anything's being explained to them.
GROSS: And just - yeah, go ahead.
BELL: And we went all the way down the line of this is a Sikh, this is a sheik, and then we got to - we showed a picture of Mark Zuckerberg, and people were like what's that, and like this is a geek.
BELL: And we showed a picture of Nile Rogers, and this is Nile Rogers from the band Chic, they wrote "Le Freak." And this is Shaq, who's a Muslim, so he could be a sheik but not a Sikh. And in the sort of Dr. Seussian inspiration of that, we got to a part of the issue.
GROSS: And just explain how you ended it.
BELL: We ended it, the one thing all these things have in common is that none of them deserve to be shot, which, you know, is not the funniest way to end it, but it was a way we felt we wanted to end it so it was clear what the message of the piece was, because we'd already given people the humor.
GROSS: But there was a kicker after that, too.
BELL: Yeah, and the kicker after that was you can be any of these things, it's OK to be any of these things. The one thing it's not OK to be is a white supremacist.
GROSS: Yeah, so you managed to make a really good point in a funny way after a tragedy.
BELL: Yeah, I think that that's probably one of the best things we've done all season. I mean, we always talk about that piece, as we call it, lightning in a bottle, and we're always looking to catch that kind of lightning in a bottle because, you know, that piece got shared through the Sikh community. We've heard a lot from the Sikh community that they really liked that piece.
And I feel like when is the Sikh community being discussed on TV in a comedic way that is not, you know, making fun of them? I don't know if that - you know, how often that happens, and I feel that glad that we are a part of that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is W. Kamau Bell, he hosts a new FX comedy show Thursday nights called "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell." The last episode of this season is Thursday, September 20. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is W. Kamau Bell. He hosts a new FX comedy show Thursday nights after "Louie" called "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell." It was a six-episode season that has its final episode of the season Thursday, September 20.
So in talking about how you look for your angle on a joke, after Congressman Todd Akin talked about how if a woman is the victim of legitimate rape, her body has a mechanism to shut down and prevent pregnancy. I mean, there's comic gold there, but everybody had done their jokes by the time your night came around, which was Thursday night.
So how did you decide what you were going to do with that?
BELL: Well, I think one of the things I have on my side is because I'm, you know - you know, even just looking at me, I don't look the same as the people who are on late-night TV doing those jokes. And I don't - 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.
And also I really like the fact that our show has a little bit more of - has a little bit of my own biography in it in ways that maybe some of the other shows don't have. Like it's funny to think that I have a late-night talk show, because that's something I aspire to. I just think of it as I have a late-night comedy show.
And my solo show and my comedy is always a little bit personal about my life. So for me, when Akin says, you know, that the body has a way to shut that down in legitimate rape, my brain goes to slavery, you know. And so - and then through that, like, that's clearly not true because - and so from that is where we had the opening line of the show.
GROSS: Which was?
BELL: Which was: Todd Akin, if there's no such thing as legitimate rape, then how come there's so many light-skinned people walking around Alabama?
GROSS: I thought that was really funny.
BELL: Yeah, we - I mean, we really - you know, and that was a line that, you know, we have this writing staff, and we come up with these things, and sometimes we write these things in the room, and somebody goes: Can we say that? And we go: I think we can.
BELL: And part of it is really FX allowing us to sort of do what we want to do. All the feedback they've given us about the show has sort of been do the show you want to do. And when they do give us critical feedback, generally I agree with them. You know, I think they want the show to be as specific as possible, and so we really have a good time sort of, like, surprising ourselves and seeing if we get to say it on air.
GROSS: Being an African-American comic during the period when America has its first African-American president, have you noticed racial things and things about how he's treated, that have made you think about race in ways you hadn't thought about it before?
BELL: Well, yes, I think that's why my act has gone in such a political direction because I see the ways in which Obama's treated, you know, across the spectrum, as things that are connected to his race for me, that I can't help but separate them. I mean, you know, and it - and sometimes those things are good things, and sometimes those things are bad things.
Like very recently, you know, Obama's in Florida, and he meets the owner of that pizza restaurant, and the guy picks him up and gives him a bear hug. And there's a part of me that goes that guy likes him, and he's excited to see Obama, and he loves Obama, so he picks him up.
But the other part of me is like I've never seen that happen to a president before.
GROSS: I know. I thought, like, really that seems very kind of, you know, adorable on one hand, but it's crazy. You're not supposed to touch a president unless he extends his hand to shake hands with you.
BELL: It's adorable, and it's also frightening to me. I mean, there's a side of it that, like - you know, and there's an interesting part because Obama gets picked up, and you see his arms go out, and he looks to his right, and I feel like he's looking at the Secret Service, going like hey guys, uh, still the president over here.
BELL: For at least the next few months. And then when he comes down, he looks at the guy in the face, and Obama looks ashen. And nobody's really talked about that. He looks like a guy who's like - for a minute I thought maybe this was over. And, you know, I'm sure he's away of the responsibility and how, you know, nobody's ever picked him up like that. And then - you know, and yet I connect that in some way...
And I'm not mad at that guy. I think he had no bad intentions. But again, I've never seen anybody do that to a president before. And then you look at Jan Brewer, you sticks her finger in the president's face a few years ago, and that's another thing. That doesn't happen to presidents, where a governor would stick their finger in a president's face. And to me that's very much connected to race.
GROSS: So let's talk about your background. Where did you grow up?
BELL: I grew up all over, but I went to high school in Chicago. And then I moved from Chicago to San Francisco 15 years ago. But I was born in Palo Alto, lived in Indianapolis, lived in Boston. My dad's from Alabama, so I spent a lot of time in Alabama.
GROSS: How come you moved so much?
BELL: I had one of those moms who eventually would get fed up with a place and go: We're moving.
BELL: It was just me and her, and she would eventually just be like that's enough of this. And so she just had a real wandering spirit, which is a part of me, which is why I think I sort of feel free to get up and go, too.
GROSS: So you've said that when you move to the Bay Area, it kind of changed you. That was about 15 years ago. What changed?
BELL: In Chicago I would have identified myself as a Democrat. When you go to the Bay Area, you realize that's not far enough, you know. And the thing about the Bay Area is that you're surrounded by so many different types of people, and you can choose to just stay with your group and not engage with those different types of people, but I think very naturally I chose to sort of engage with lots of different types of people.
And many of the prejudices that you didn't even realize you have start to sort of melt naturally. And then the other thing is people in the Bay Area will call you on your prejudice, if you hang out with the crew I did, in ways that you didn't realize that you were prejudice.
Like when I started doing my solo show, one of my good friends Martha(ph) 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 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 sort of end the ignorance of something, you have to end all the ignorances or at least not make some of the ignorances worse.
GROSS: If you don't mind my saying, I'm really glad she said that.
GROSS: I think that's the kind of thing that really needs to be said.
BELL: I'm really glad Martha said a lot of things.
GROSS: Yeah, so what did you have to extract from your show?
BELL: There were just ways in which I talk about women. Like it's sort of funny because whenever I start talking about this, there's - a lot of the comedy community would think I'm being oversensitive or too politically correct. But this is really who I am and who I want to be. And we - all comics set down rules for themselves, and these are just the rules I set down for myself, but I still have to get the big, healthy gut laughs everybody else does. So I'm not trying to claim that I have some high degree of difficulty.
But, you know, just even referring to women as girls for no reason, you know, and also, like, she said this to me, which had a big impact on me. She's like, you know, on my show I would say the word bitch a couple times. And she said Kamau, you know, every time you say that word, you're in some way connected to every black man who ever says that word because that's a word that through hip-hop and popular culture, black men are identified with.
And even though you're not saying it in the same context, you're connecting yourself to that in some way, and you have to ask yourself how badly do you want to use that word. And she said if you want to use it, fine, but just be aware of that. And for it became like, yeah, I don't think I need to use that word then. And it just doesn't - and it doesn't mean that anybody else is necessarily doing it wrong, it just means that's how I choose to be.
GROSS: W. Kamau Bell will be back in the second half of the show. He hosts the FX political comedy series "Totally Biased." The next-to-the-last episode in its six-episode season ends a week - well, the last episode is a week from tonight. The next-to-last episode is tonight, OK. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic W. Kamau Bell, the host of the FX series "Totally Biased." It's a show of largely political humor that features Bell's standup and interviews as well as short sketches. When we left off, Bell was talking about how much he changed after moving to San Francisco 15 years ago. For example, he took his friend's advice to get rid of the sexist language in his act. I asked him what else changed.
BELL: You know, it's funny. I, you know, I wouldn't have described myself as a homophobe either, but to be in San Francisco and to hang out with the sort of the multiculty crew that comes across all lines, including sexuality, I hang out with a lot of people of a lot of different sexualities. And so I really feel in some way not threatened by that in any way, I don't think. And so I'm comfortable joking about it and I'm also comfortable using my comfort with it to sort of make other people sort of think about their comfort level with it.
Like one of the things we did on the show which I'm really proud of was the if gay marriage was mandatory, who would you gay marry?
GROSS: Right. Yeah.
BELL: And for me that was a really fun piece to do and also in some ways a sort of a very lightly - I don't know, I really enjoyed doing it because what it said is like forget what you think about yourself. If you had to put yourself in a different body and you were gay, how would you be in that body? And, you know, and it was a fun game to play with people and it's fun to be in that space and not be threatened that somehow somebody is going to think I'm gay or somebody is going to - or they're going to think the wrong thing about me. And also, though, who cares about what people think about me. And also I realized as a black man, black people a lot of times get the bad end of the stick. We are sometimes thought of being the most homophobic group of people, which I think is ridiculous. But I'm also aware of the fact that as a black man on TV who is talking about gayness in a way that's not threatened by it, I think that's kind of a cool thing.
GROSS: Now, what kind of race consciousness did you grow up with? Because from what I've read, your mother was really into like African-American studies and, you know, talking about equality.
BELL: Yeah. My mom was actually working on her PhD at Stanford in African-American literature but they wouldn't let her finish it because at that time in the '70s Stanford did not believe African-American literature was a valid field of study. So from that point forward, my mom just sort of said I'm not going to do this and she went her own way and she worked in the textbook industry and she self-published her own books of famous black quotations, because in the '80s there were no compendiums of books of African-American quotations. There are now, she - because of her example, and she sold like 50,000 copies from our car, you know, basically, because this was before the Internet when you had to just sort of go hat in hand to places and sell your product. And so she was always a self-starter. And because we moved a lot, every time we went to a new city and she would always try to put me in private schools, she'd go to the school and be like, do you teach African-American studies here? And they'd be like, no. And she'd be like, well, you do now.
BELL: And she would come in one, you know, one week or a couple of days and go - and teach about African-Americans studies, and she would show slides of Africa because she knew that people at that point, kids thought Africa was just a jungle and Tarzan. And she would go here's Africa, here's buildings, here's people doing regular things that you do here. And so my mom always showed me that - be the change you want to see and be the example.
GROSS: Did it make you feel proud or embarrassed when she came to school and insisted, I'll take care of that, I'll teach African-American studies?
BELL: Oh, it was horribly embarrassing. It was...
BELL: I still get embarrassed thinking about it now. I mean, you know, no kid wants their parent coming to school to teach, I don't think, you know. I often say why can't you just bake some muffins or something?
BELL: But she did - she is not a muffin baker. She's a change maker.
GROSS: So when you were going to private schools, were they racially mixed or predominantly white?
BELL: I mean at that point the private schools I went to, they were predominantly white. There were always other black kids there but it would be that weird thing, sometimes you'd go to a private school and there'd be one other black kid in your grade and I always got the feeling from that kid that they were like, I can't be friends with you because that's going to remind everybody else that I'm black, so I'm going to have to let you go your own way...
BELL: ...which I understand in theory, but yeah, so there was always, there was usually some weirdness around that. And I sort of struggled with my own black identity for a lot of times because I was like, you know, I sort of got that message that maybe black isn't a great thing to be. And then through growing up and doing my solo show and reading a lot - "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" changed my life and that was the point in which I was like I can define my own blackness.
GROSS: Was there ever a point when you were, one of the very few black people in your school, where you felt like you had to play the role of the black guy? Do you know what I mean? That you had to stand in for all black people and be, I don't know, whatever it is that the white friends that you had wanted you to be as the black person in the group?
BELL: First of all, I love the way you said the black guy.
BELL: I like the basing your voice, Terry.
GROSS: Thank you.
BELL: There are times when, you know - you know, and every black person I think has this, where you'll feel put in a position to either speak up for the race or have opinions about things that you haven't actually expressed knowing about. I'm a fan of music. I don't have the biggest knowledge of hip-hop, and regularly people, especially when I was younger, would start conversations with me about hip-hop and I would have to sort of choose to fake my way through it or else feel like I was going to look uncool. And so, I mean and that's not the worst position to be in, but also I had times where I had friends where would say something to me like - a friend of mine says to me Kamau, you're black but you're not black black.
BELL: And I immediately knew he was like, you're black but I still have my wallet and I appreciate that.
BELL: Like he was associating blackness with the kind of thing, a negativity that he doesn't see in me and he thinks he's complimenting me, you know. And if I - and I have to choose to take it as a compliment or else I lose a friend.
GROSS: My guest is comic W. Kamau Bell, host of the FX series "Totally Biased." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is W. Kamau Bell, and he hosts the FX series "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell." It's on Thursday nights.
You're wife is white and you've talked a little bit in your act about what it's like to be a couple with a white woman.
GROSS: Reactions that you get from strangers and the reactions that you get from African-American women. So can you talk a little bit about that?
BELL: Yeah. I mean it was funny. The first time me and my wife went out together, it wasn't even officially a date. We were in a Tacoria in San Francisco and a black woman and a black man came into the Tacoria. And the black woman looked visibly shaken and kept looking and was really sort of like just agitated. And my then friend, who became my wife, was like, what's wrong with her? And I was like, and she had never experienced that. I was like I think she's mad that we are together. And my wife was like, really? Like she just couldn't - and she's a cosmopolitan person but she's never seen anything like that, whereas I sort of had smelled that before. And the woman just got really mad and really like agitated, so much to the fact that after they got their tacos, her, the guy she was with literally escorted her out of the place and put her in the car the way a cop puts somebody in the back of a car...
BELL: ...like sort of put his hand on the back of her head and sort of like gently guided her down into the car because she was so agitated. And, you know, and that's in San Francisco, you know what I mean? That's not in the backwoods of someplace. That's in San Francisco.
GROSS: Did she say anything to you?
BELL: On her way out she said, hmm, you dating a white girl 'cause you can't handle a black woman.
And I very - looked at her and said, maybe.
BELL: Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm a trifling Negro. Thank God there's white women to take this trifling Negro off your hands. And that's...
GROSS: Did you really say that to her?
BELL: I said - I didn't say that to her. I said that at another time.
GROSS: Yeah. OK. I was sort of wondering like how quick are you and how willing are you...
BELL: How willing am I too entered the fray?
BELL: Well, no, generally as a comic, the reason why I think I'm a comic because I think of the good things later.
GROSS: Yeah. Sure.
BELL: If I thought of the good things at the time, I would then be a, you know, I don't know, less popular with people.
BELL: But I think that a lot of things that makes me a comic is the thing that makes me go home and go, what, I should've said something different. Oh, I know what I should've said. I'll go say that on stage.
GROSS: So you have a daughter. I assume she's lighter skinned than you are. What reaction do you get to that?
BELL: Well, the funny thing about my daughter is that when she was born she came out white, like very pale white, and so much so that like when we brought my wife's family around, like I remember my brother-in-law - my wife's brother - literally looked at her and looked at me and I felt like he was going like, dude, I got to tell you something.
BELL: But I know, because black people sort of know this because we have more, probably more experience with this, that the color that a kid is when they're born changes. And so - and it's even true of white kids, that their color, 'cause they come out one color. The funny thing was is that - so my daughter immediately started getting darker but I always said that we didn't know where her color would start, and so I always said I would track her color every day to see where her color would start by using the cover of Michael Jackson's CDs...
BELL: ...in reverse chronological order.
BELL: You know, I would just be like, oh, today it's "Bad," yesterday was "Dangerous," maybe we can make it to 'Thriller." It's never going to be "Off the Wall," who am I kidding?
GROSS: So has having an interracial marriage affected your views about race and what it means, like what race means?
BELL: Well, yeah. I mean I think it has affected my views about race. 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 didn't, that it probably wouldn't if you marry a person of the same race. 'Cause I mean we've had a lot of things, you know, just in, you know, I'm aware that when I'm hanging out with my wife's family that I'm the only black person around. And I'm aware that if my wife's, her cousins start talking about Obama, and they're very conservative, they start talking about Obama in ways that makes me want to like - ahhhh! You know?
BELL: But I also want to make sure I can come back for Thanksgiving. And I get very - and so I just spend a lot of time being quiet and mentally jotting down notes to use in my act. But, yeah, so it certainly becomes a bigger part of your discussion. But I also feel like that it's not the biggest part. The biggest thing that separates me and my wife is the fact that my wife is Catholic and I like to say I'm sane. You know what I mean?
So that's way bigger for us than race.
GROSS: So what have you learned by being married to a white woman about race that you didn't know before - about how white people perceive African-Americans or some white people perceive African-Americans, about your own preconceptions about white people?
BELL: Well, I mean - let me say - I, you know (unintelligible) I've grown up around white people.
GROSS: That's right. Right.
BELL: Some of my best whites are friends.
BELL: I've spent a lot of time, you know, it wasn't really like such a "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" scenario with my wife's family. But it was this thing where, you know, like I always felt like my wife's family, it sort of took them a while to warm up to me. But I don't think it was because I was black, I think it was because I was a comedian.
BELL: I think my un-famous comedian trumped black with her family.
BELL: But I also feel like that, you know, the real change is that since we've had a daughter, my wife told me that her mom was like, uh, so does that mean that Sammy's(ph) black? Because she just never thought about that, you know, and in her life, I'm sure when she grew up and got married and had kids and thought about her kid's kids, she didn't feature a black granddaughter. Now, she's a great grandmother and I don't feel like she's ever done anything to Sammy - I don't think she's treated Sammy worse because she's black, she loves Sammy, but I think it's somehow altering her perception of the world in a way that I think is awesome.
Now, for me, the other thing is that when Sammy was first born, Sammy was very light and I would walk around in the world with this baby who looked to be white and we got a lot of weird stares because, you know, a black guy with a white baby is not the most popular color combination, you know.
BELL: We're all very used to the white guy with the black baby, because you're like, oh, that's very nice of you to adopt that child from that place. But with me it was a whole different thing. We got a lot of stares, a lot of questions that I had to deal with, while at the same time knowing that I didn't care what people thought because this was my daughter. And this is a true story. When my daughter was born, you know, it's a very emotional moment, your kid is born, they hand you the kid, they wipe the kid off and you're just sitting there with your kid. And I actually realized when I looked in my daughter's eyes that it was the first time in my life that I was looking at somebody and they didn't think of me as black, that I knew for sure that she didn't think of me as black. She just thought of me as dad. Well, at that point she probably thought of me as ahhhh!
BELL: She thought of me as the one that didn't have milk. But that was a very important moment for me to realize that this is actually, that that's how embedded race is in me, which I think it's kind of sad but also that how exciting a moment that was for me that I know for sure this person doesn't think of me as black.
GROSS: Now, so much comedy club material is about sex and about being graded at it or being terrible at it or getting it or not getting it or - anyway. So you've actually worked at a condom store and at a video store that sold adult videos. So I'm thinking you must have material galore, even though you're not the kind of comical who talks a lot about sex. What were those experiences like?
BELL: I mean, you know, I think the reason that I don't talk about those experiences a lot of stage is because I know comics who do incredible sex material and I feel like that's not my strength. So I would, you know, I would gladly give those stories to those comedians if they wanted them. But the working at the video store, I mean it was one of those video stores that you walked in and it was like this is the worst video store I've ever seen. They only had like "Jurassic Park III..."
BELL: ...and like "Home Alone 4" and you're like how does this video stores survive? And then there's a door in the back that leads to stairs that go up and it's all the porno that's ever been created in the history of the world, and that was the video store I worked at.
BELL: All the videos downstairs were dusty. And I didn't know that I was going to work at that store. I thought that I was working at a really bad video store until they sat me down and explained to me what was happening upstairs. And you get a real window into male humanity in that way because it was also a video store, again, it was in Chicago on the edge of the gay area so we had probably twice as much gay porn as we had straight porn.
And I think that's actually where I started to learn about the fluidity of human sexuality, because I would regularly see guys who were renting from the straight side of the porn section - over time they rented so much straight porn that they would start to leak over to the gay side of the porn section.
BELL: Just because I think they were like, I've seen everything this combination of people can do and so let me go look over to this combination. And it really was an eye-opener to, like, oh, I guess human sexuality is on a spectrum.
And you know, it was a very funny time. I also had a guy say to me one time, like, man, I see you here all the time. And I remember thinking, no, I see you here all the time.
BELL: I get paid to be here.
GROSS: So since you were working in the store, were you expected to have seen a lot of the videos so that you could be helpful to people?
BELL: Yeah. There is a weird thing where you're expected (technical difficulties) recommendations you're expected to have if you work at a regular video store, you're expected to have at the adult video store. And at the time, I'm not saying I'm any kind of Puritan, I just wasn't partaking at the level that I was going to have a top 10 list or a list of suggestions. You know?
BELL: Occasionally people would come in and say that a tape was broken and you would have to sort of play the tape on your VCR to make sure that it was or wasn't broken, which is a very, a very surreal experience of, like, nope, looks fine to me. I can see all the body parts doing the things that they're supposed to be doing. You know, so it was a very - it's funny. When you work in a place like that, it becomes very regular after a while. It's just what you do for a living.
GROSS: So W. Kamau Bell, you can't leave before telling us what the W stands for.
BELL: Wow. This is, again, Terry, you are digging deep into the...
BELL: I'd normally have to know people for years before I let that fly. The W stands for - because I respect Terry Gross so much - my name is Walter Kamau Bell. My dad's name is Walter, so the W stands for Walter. But I would never go by Walter because I'm not an old man.
GROSS: Oh, you think of it as a really old fashioned name.
BELL: Yeah. It's a very - I mean, there's no joy in the name Walter.
BELL: And I love my dad, but it fits him perfectly.
GROSS: But when you're K-A-M-A-U, a lot people have to say: And how do you pronounce that?
BELL: Yes. That's probably a good 22 percent of my day, is telling people how to pronounce my name. Yes. It is Kamau.
GROSS: But that's better than being Walter?
BELL: I think that's better than being Walter. And also there's not that many Kamaus so I get to kind of own that name in a way. You know, right now all the Kamaus on the Internet are finding me and they're super excited that a Kamau is on TV. So - it's also a name that has origins in Kenya so I'm not - I don't know that I'm Kenyan because, you know, we didn't keep good records of that stuff, but I have a big Kenyan following and I've been made an honorary Kenyan by people online.
So I accept my honorary Kenyan roots. And yes, I do have my birth certificate.
BELL: But that's why - we're working on a comedy tour for the fall and we're actually calling it the Kamau Mau Uprising.
GROSS: Well, W. Kamau Bell, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
BELL: Thank you for having me. This is an extreme honor.
GROSS: W. Kamau Bell hosts the FX political comedy series "Totally Biased." The next to the last episode of its six episode season airs tonight. You can watch a clip from the show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: The 2012-2013 TV season doesn't begin officially until September 24, the day after the Emmy Awards are handed out on ABC. But NBC jumped the gun by sneak-previewing two of its new comedies during the Olympics, and four other new series will have premiered before the season begins in earnest. Here's our TV critic David Bianculli's take on what he's seen so far.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Last year, the broadcast networks didn't do well at all when it came to new series development. We got ABC's clever "Once Upon a Time," which was about it for the fall crop until mid-season perked things up with NBC's "Smash." Otherwise, a year ago all the exciting new fall series were on cable, thanks to Showtime's brilliant "Homeland" and FX's audacious "American Horror Story."
This fall there are no new cable shows to steal the spotlight, but the broadcast networks don't seem interested in striving too hard either. And even when they've reached for the stars, they've put those stars in new shows that waste their talents. Of all the new programs premiering this fall on CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and the CW, there isn't one you have to add to your weekly viewing list.
And while there are more than a handful which are entertaining enough to sample, there's only one that stands above the rest. More on that later. For the most part, the best the new TV shows can muster this year is hitting for average. They're good but not great, or shaky but promising. You may have seen of these already - NBC's new Matthew Perry series "Go On."
It's got a good cast and a solid premise but it needs sharper writing. Three of the new dramas worth sampling are based on super-high concepts asking viewers for an aggressively willing suspension of disbelief. The first one out of the box: NBC's "Revolution" on September 17, the newest show from J.J. Abrams.
This new show borrows a theme from James Burke's old "Connection Science" series. What if all the power went off and never came back on? But by the time the pilot episode was over, if my TV's power had gone off, I wouldn't have cared much. "666 Park Avenue," premiering on ABC September 30, leaves you with more of an appetite to see more.
But that's only because it has Terry O'Quinn from "Lost" playing a role similar to Al Pacino's in the movie "The Devil's Advocate." O'Quinn plays a powerful Satanic figure holding court over a luxury apartment building in New York and manipulating the lives of those around him. It doesn't make much sense, even in its own pretend reality, but it's amusing.
And while another ABC drama, "Last Resort," can't be called amusing, it is intriguing. This show, which premiers September 27, is about a U.S. nuclear submarine crew that ends up disobeying orders, threatening to attack the mainland, and considering setting up its own government on a remote island. And these are the good guys.
All very implausible, but the submarine commander, played by the always-commanding Andre Braugher, makes it work - even when he refuses a direct order to launch his missiles, over the objections of some members of his own crew, because his underwater antenna is still picking up regular TV programming from the United States.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST RESORT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) USS Colorado Command, this is National Command.
ANDRE BRAUGHER: (as Capt. Marcus Chaplin) This is Captain Marcus Chaplin, USS Colorado. I have an authenticated fire order through the Antarctic secondary network. Requesting confirmation of the order through the standard EAM network.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Captain, you have an authenticated fire order.
BRAUGHER: (as Capt. Marcus Chaplin) I'm aware of that. And I'll send it through the proper channel.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as crew member) Why aren't we firing? It's a direct order, sir.
Captain, are you refusing the order?
BRAUGHER: (as Capt. Marcus Chaplin) Listen, whoever the hell you are, I don't have a declaration of war and I see no reason for this order to come through a secondary channel, which we all know was designed only to be used in the event that D.C. command was wiped out. But I'm sitting here watching "Hannah Montana," so I'm not going to annihilate 4.3 million Pakistanis without hearing directly from someone whose authority I recognize. Get me someone I can talk to. Colorado out.
BIANCULLI: I'll stay with "Last Resort" for a few episodes at least just to watch Andre Braugher. Other actors had me doing the same for a few other shows this fall, even ones with very familiar concepts. CBS's "Vegas," premiering September 25, is the standard early days of Las Vegas drama, but Dennis Quaid in a role that's a mix of "McCloud" and "Walking Tall," nails it.
Another CBS drama, "Elementary," is yet another modern variation on Sherlock Holmes. It's not even close to the brilliance of PBS's "Sherlock" or even the cleverness of CBS's "The Mentalist," but it does have Johnny Lee Miller as Holmes, transplanted to today's New York, with Lucy Liu as a female Dr. Watson.
And while NBC's "Nashville" is nothing but a country music "All About Eve," it does have its moments. With Connie Britton from "Friday Night Lights" and "American Horror Story" as the reigning queen of country, and Hayden Panettiere from "Heroes" as her auto-tuned sexy young rival, it has to. "Nashville" premiers October 10.
Now for the best new show on broadcast TV. But remember, best this fall is graded on a curve. It's a new comedy drama from the CW about a brand-new doctor at a tough Denver hospital. It's called "Emily Owens, M.D." and it's basically Ally McBeal if she were a doctor instead of a lawyer.
Same insecurities, same internal monologues, same goofy charm. This time the loveably vulnerable title character is played by Mamie Gummer, who had an impressive recurring role as Nancy, the shrewd young attorney, on "The Good Wife." Gummer, I should mention before playing this clip, is the daughter of Meryl Streep. As on "The Good Wife," she acts so genuinely and winningly that she deserves to be judged and enjoyed on her own terms.
In this scene from "Emily Owens, M.D.," she finally reveals to a long-time med school colleague how she really feels about him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMILY OWENS, M.D.")
MAMIE GUMMER: (as Emily Owens) I like you. I've liked you since you cracked that chest in Gross Anatomy. You took out the heart and held it in your hands and I remember thinking that could be my heart. He may as well be holding my heart. And I was too shy to say anything.
(as Emily Owens) And then when we became friends, I didn't want to jeopardize the friendship and I know if I never said anything then we'd always just be friends and I don't want to be that shy girl always wishing that her life would turn out the way that I want it to.
(as Emily Owens) I have to make it turn out the way that I want it to. And what I want, what I really, really want is you.
BIANCULLI: There's a good bit of Ally McBeal in her portrayal and a little Meryl Streep as well, but there's a lot of Mamie Gummer and she's a treat to watch. "Emily Owens, M.D." doesn't premier on the CW until October 16, by which time, I'm sure, some of the new fall shows already will be history.
How can the networks avoid this annual cycle of waste? One way, for starters: make better shows.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.