People often assume the mother of comedian W. Kamau Bell is a college professor – Janet Cheatham Bell has edited textbooks, compiled anthologies of black quotations and written a memoir about growing up in pre-Civil Rights America. But Bell, who considers his mother his role model, says "she's really a self-employed person with an opinion. She's an intellectual hustler. Whatever it takes to pay the rent and not have to work for the man."
That's a funny statement, he readily acknowledges, coming from "the guy who works for Fox." Bell, who has been honing his socially charged standup act in San Francisco for a decade, gets his national debut this week with the premiere of Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, a new FX show produced by Chris Rock. The show runs through the rest of the summer in the coveted Thursday slot right after Louie.
Those are some heady associations for a comedian who has no qualms telling well-wishers he's just as surprised as they are that he landed such a plum gig. Two months ago he was in Providence, Rhode Island, making an appearance with his comedy partners, Nato Green and Janine Brito, at this year's Netroots Nation conference, where he told Rolling Stone he had precious little time to prepare the format for the new show.
"The whole thing is insane," he joked. "Why focus on the schedule?"
Totally Biased will look a lot like Bell's successful one-man show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, which he launched in a San Francisco theater during the run-up to the historic 2008 presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain. Working in front of a projection screen, Bell riffed on the endless absurdities of American life, his imposing hipster glasses and Afro giving him the appearance of a mad professor of the culture wars. (His act features an amusing bit about being mistaken for Cornel West and Questlove.)
If race is his field, Bell can make hay out of any cultural disconnect: The biggest issue in his interracial marriage, he jokes, isn't the fact that his wife is white and he's black – "The biggest one is that she's Catholic . . . and I'm sane."
With Green and Brito (who are writing for Totally Biased), Bell has been touring and filming their group show Laughter Against the Machine, which explores identity politics of all kinds. At the progressive Netroots Nation convention, Green – a self-described "red-diaper-baby Jew from San Francisco" – said he and Bell first came together during the Bush years, when both felt the political humor of the time, focused on "dumb president" jokes, was too easy.
"We wanted a more open-ended exploration of ideas, not just cheerleading" for the Left, he said.
Bell himself was initially skeptical about doing his one-man show. All comedians, he said, roll their eyes when a colleague says that's their next move: "Oh, here we go. What, are you just going to tell your jokes slower?"
But the show, which evolved rapidly, drew repeat ticket buyers week after week. "Even the people who worked the show were always talking about how much new stuff there was," said Bell, in jeans and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, sitting in a quiet corner on the top floor of the Rhode Island Convention Center.
Rock first caught Bell's show when he brought it to New York for performances at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Afterward, the comedian "sort of floated backstage," recalled Bell, "this figure all dressed in black, looking like The Matrix."
"Where you from?" Rock barked.
A few months later, Bell's cell phone rang with a blocked number. It's Chris Rock, said the caller.
"And I said, 'No, it isn't,'" Bell recounted with a laugh. "How many times have I seen that on TV and in the movies? That's such a hack moment to have in your life."
But the caller was in fact Rock, who told Bell he wanted to help him develop a TV show.
"Unfamous black guys never get shows," he said. "You need my help."
By the time Bell met with FX, the show was pretty much a done deal based on Rock's recommendation. "They just wanted to make sure I didn't have a horn coming out of my head," Bell said, laughing again.
The spontaneity of Bell's show, he believes, is what appealed to Rock. "I think he's in the Dr. Dre phase of his career," Bell said. "I do think he's got his eye open in a way he didn't five or 10 years ago."
Whether or not the show gets picked up for an extended run, he said, "I already feel like I'm in the bonus . . . I feel like Chris Rock telling me I'm funny is like Michael Jordan telling someone they have a good jump shot. That's just the beginning of it."