The Funny Side of Race and Politics

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W. Kamau (rhymes with ka-pow!) Bell is a San Francisco-based comedian whose new show, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, will provide a satirical take-down of the week’s political and cultural news. Executive produced by Chris Rock, the show — which might be described as a racially-charged version of The Daily Show — premieres Thursday night on FX. We reached Bell to talk about race, politics, and how to make both funny.

Lauren Feeney: You’ve said your goal for your new show is “to be a comedic thorn in the side of evil.” Tell us more. 

W. Kamau Bell: It is going to be my weekly take on the events of the world through a social and political lens. I’m a race person, so the lens of race will never be that far from what I’m doing. We’re excited about coming out right before the election. The hope is that we will be able to enter the national discussion around the election the same way that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher have. I think they’re all doing great, but I think there’s room for more.

Feeney: Can you tell us a little bit about your own background?

Bell: I’m what is known as an American black, which means I’m a mix of a lot of different races. I think black people in this country are forever reinventing the terms with which we identify ourselves because for the most part, the terms that we’re identified by, we didn’t get to pick. I don’t have any issue with African American, but if people ask me what race I am, I identify myself as black.

I have a daughter who was born a year ago and my wife is white, so my daughter is mixed race — which means that she will tell us what she is once she figures it out.

Feeney: According to the 2010 U.S. Census, minority babies are now the majority. What does it mean for minorities to be in the majority?

Bell:  Anyone who is actually worried about that has just discovered that they’re a racist, if they didn’t know it before.

I think the census sort of tells on itself when the category of “some other race” appears. It’s like the census goes “We give up.” If you look at the census in the U.K., their categories are completely different from ours. If two countries who have a special relationship like us and the U.K. can’t agree on what the races are, then race is clearly not real. Racism is real, but race isn’t real.

Feeney: You’re part of an organization called CultureStr/ke, which uses art to fight discrimination against immigrants. Can you tell us more about that?

CultureStr/ke grew out of Sound Strike, a group of musicians led by Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, who said, “We’re not going to perform in Arizona until SB 1070 is cast down.” CultureStr/ke was started by author Jeff Chang and some others. They invited a delegation of artists to the border in Arizona last September. I went with two other comedians, and together we formed a group called Laughter Against the Machine, which is like a three-headed social-political comedy monster.

We wanted to see what would happen if comedians, instead of just making jokes out of headlines, actually went to the front lines and learned what was really going on — would that help inform our acts and our comedy? And it did. We talked to officials on both sides about what it’s like to cross the border illegally, and we found out horrible things. Like, apparently 70 percent of women who cross the border are sexually assaulted, and many people die just from crossing, because of the heat and the lack of food and water.

As a comic, it’s not that I can take that and make it funny, but my experience informs the way I talk about immigration. Without all the information comedians can be very cavalier about how they talk about these subjects, so this helps me not be so cavalier.

Feeney: Why make jokes about race and prejudice?

Bell: I mean for me, it’s sort of the family business. My mom was a race warrior in the ’60s and ’70s who showed up at all the marches and did a lot of the heavy lifting. And my dad is the kind of guy who was always the first black guy to do something. His approach was, “I’m just going to be better and stronger and faster than all of the people around me so that my race will matter less.” Now he works for a Fortune 500 company, so clearly that’s working out for him. Dealing with race for me is the equivalent of the family hardware store.


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