Illustration by GARY TAXALI©
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Comedian W. Kamau Bell has been fighting the good fight in the stand-up comedy trenches of San Francisco since the phat pants ’90s. It was there that Chris Rock discovered him and eventually brokered a deal with FX for Bell to have his own TV show. In 2012, Totally Biased, a much-buzzed-about late night sketch comedy show starring Bell and produced by Rock, debuted to strong reviews and a big enough viewership to justify a second season until its ill-advised migration from FX to FXX, subsequent plummet in audience share and ensuing cancellation in November of 2013 after 64 episodes. His response to the bad news was both reasonable and entirely logical: Make a baby and go on tour, in that order. A few weeks ago, Bell became a father for the second time in three years. And on Sunday, his Oh Everything Tour stops at Underground Arts. All of which is easier said than done. Much easier. “I guess I thought two kids would only be twice as hard,” he recently blogged. “Two kids isn’t twice as hard anymore than getting hit by a second train right after the first train is twice as hard.” To mark his return to the City of Brotherly Love, we present this encore version of our 2013 interview with Mr. Bell. DISCUSSED: His days at Penn, the first black president, Trayvon Martin, Edward Snowden, Paula Dean and if and when white people can drop the N-bomb.
PHAWKER: I am calling from Philadelphia, as you may or may not know.
W. KAMAU BELL: Oh I know, I got it written down on a piece of paper. [laughs]
PHAWKER: It’s my understanding that you went to University of Pennsylvania for a time…
PHAWKER: What can you tell me about your time here?
W. KAMAU BELL: I was living in The Quad, which is probably the Penn-est part of the campus. I was eating Wawa hoagies. My major was Asian Studies, which I picked because I was a big fan of Bruce Lee. Surprise, surprise that did not work out. I would have liked to have stayed if it was not so expensive and I’d realized I wasn’t going to do anything with the degree. I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman, so this is probably not the school for me. But you can let them know that I will accept an honorary degree at any time.
PHAWKER: Next time I see the dean I will mention it. So, I thought we’d talk about some current events since your comedy is very sociopolitical. My first question is do think that the election of Barack Obama aggravated race relations in this country or in fact improved race relations in this country in that it sort of lanced to boil on a lot of thinly veiled racism that’s been seething under for a long time and that all this nonsense about socialism, birth certificates and he’s a secret Muslim is sort of the pus that comes oozing out when you lance that boil…
W. KAMAU BELL: Absolutely. I think you said that very well. Just say I said what you said. As I said before, what’s a better recruiting tool for the Klan than a black president? That’s a lightning rod for racists. Before Obama they didn’t have anything to rally around and then Obama came along and they’re like ‘Now we have a cause! It’s so much better to be a racist now!’ Racists love Obama, despite what they say. They LOVE him! Because it gives them a discussion point with every other racist in the world. They’re like ‘The president is black, isn’t that the worst?!?’ ‘I know!’ Before that is was, ‘Um, that Michael Jordan is kinda annoying.’
But it’s like you said, like lancing a boil. The thing has popped but once it runs out it will heal a little bit. It’s not going to go away, but it will get better. For black America and for non-racist America, believe it or not that is a demographic, a black president is better as a symbol than a reality. But symbols are very important. Like my daughter was born two years ago, in the era of a black president. Now I don’t know if there will ever be another black president in her lifetime, but she does know it’s possible for a black man to be president. Which is huge.
W. KAMAU BELL: Marginalized groups take a lot of pride in The First. It’s important to have someone be the first to do something. It used to be ‘Yeah, that’s the guy that went to the other side of town and came back alive.’ So we’ve expanded the definition of what The First is. So we have our first black president, ‘Yay! Now stop killing people with drones, please.’ Now we can start talking about his policies, not just the color of his skin.
PHAWKER: Which leads me to my next question, taking off your black man hat, assuming you have a black man hat…
W. KAMAU BELL: It’s pretty much stapled on…
PHAWKER: …And put on your liberal/social justice/activist hat, what do you make of his presidency so far.
W. KAMAU BELL: You have to look at it in the grand scheme of things. It’s clearly better for America that Obama is the president instead of Mitt Romney, and I think even Mitt Romney knows that. Mitt Romney is so happy he’s not the president, it’s ridiculous. However, that doesn’t mean that Obama doesn’t suck as a president, because by definition the president sucks. If you can say he doesn’t suck, then he’s not doing a good job as president. Presidents have to be pushed to do good things. He came into office with the legacy of Martin Luther King and the greatest one word campaign slogan of all time — ‘Change’ — but then he gets into office and it’s not even business as usual, it’s moving along business as usual a little faster. But I’m not going to take off my black person hat completely because if I start going through his policies, there’s a Tea Party person behind me yelling ‘And he’s a Muslim!’ Aw boy, slow down.
PHAWKER: I was a huge, huge, huge Barack Obama supporter in 2008 — this blog was practically The Barack Obama Times during that election — but like most good white liberal progressives, I’ve found his presidency to be profoundly disillusioning. And my question for you is, once he was elected was he just co-opted by the machine of Washington, where business-as-usual is so intractable that not even the President of the United States can change that, or was he never really an agent of change, he just portrayed one, brilliantly I should add, on the campaign trail in 2008?
W. KAMAU BELL: He’s an agent of change. I just think that what he defines as change is not the same as the progressive left defines as change. He is an agent of change, but not the kind of revolutionary change the left wants, and it’s our job to push him to do that. I used to live in Chicago and I have a friend who lived in Chicago when he was a Senator and he’s like ‘Nobody in Chicago thought he was a lefty.’ He was kind of seen as a company man there. Like he ran against Bobby Rush, and people are like ‘Why are you running against Bobby Rush? Are you crazy, negro?’ And that’s what he did, he assumed the mantle of change, just like Bill Clinton was the Man From Hope. Black people are like ‘Hooray, he’s doing his Martin Luther King impression! He’s dropping his g’s!’ It’s clearly a very studied thing he’s doing. I think if we only had one term of it we wouldn’t see through it in the same way.
W. KAMAU BELL: Yeah, but remember, we don’t really have a record of how Bobby Kennedy would have governed had he been elected. When people talk about being disappointed by Obama I think of my favorite Bill Hicks joke that once you get elected they take you into a room with the three capitalist pigs that rule the world, sit you down and show you a movie of the Kennedy assassination from an angle you never saw before. And then they ask ‘Have any questions?’ And you’re like ‘Yep, what’s my agenda?’
PHAWKER: Next question, I’ll just throw this out there and you go wherever you want — Trayvon Martin case?
W. KAMAU BELL: When they started jury selection a couple weeks ago I went into the writer’s room and said ‘I don’t care how you do this, but I want the ultimate George Zimmerman character assassination. And that’s the beauty of having your own show. You get a whole room of writers to do that for you. [laughs] I like the fact that I can say ‘George Zimmerman is wrong!’ and I can do it with jokes. As a black person, if George Zimmerman gets exonerated I’m gonna be sad but I’m not going to be surprised because I know how America works: Historically — not great for the blacks. So I feel like it’s my job to do whatever I can to poison the jury pool against George Zimmerman. We had this photoshop of what the dream George Zimmerman jury would look like and it was, like, Chuck D., Angela Davis, the ghost of Malcolm X, Ice Cube before ‘Are We There Yet,’ fat Al Sharpton, angry Bill Cosby, four different Samuel Jacksons from four different movies. That’s what I love about having a show: Nobody can convince me that George Zimmerman was justified and I get to say that with jokes and pictures.
PHAWKER: We’ll take a break on race-based questions. Do you have an opinion on the Edward Snowden warrantless wiretapping controversy.
W. KAMAU BELL: You mean The Boring Identity? Didn’t we want that hero to be more interesting? As a black person, no black person is surprised to learn that the government is spying on us. And also, know that we’ve installed tracking devices from every major corporation into our lives, we shouldn’t be surprised that the government is going ‘Now that we’ve installed that tracking device, why don’t we see what you’re doing.’ Like we say on the show, ‘Would you like to purchase this tracking device?’ ‘No’ ‘It plays Fruit Ninja’ ‘I’ll take it, and it fits inside my pocket!’ Having said that, I certainly think Snowden is a whistleblower not a spy or a traitor, but I wish he made for a better movie and not be such a drip. But it’s always better when the people know what their government is doing. Again, as a black person, not knowing what the government is doing doesn’t usually work out for us, so I want more information not less.
W. KAMAU BELL: I don’t know if she should have been fired, but she definitely should have been mocked. And I thought Black Twitter did a good job of knocking her down and rubbing her nose in her mistake. But I think often times people like to fire somebody for being a racist because it makes them feel like they are not a racist and that’s bullshit. ‘We are going to fire Paula Dean because we want America to know we won’t stand for what she said about those niggers…I mean black people!’ Plus, she got fired so quickly — she must be hard to work with. Because they wasted no time in firing her.
PHAWKER: I feel like she was already on thin ice because of the whole diabetes thing.
W. KAMAU BELL: Exactly, it seems like they were just looking for an excuse. She must have been a pill to work with, because Imus said all sorts of stuff and they were like ‘Ah, we’ll give you 16 more chances.’ They were like, ‘We’re gonna suspend you for a few weeks and after you learn your lesson in Nigger Rehab, then we’ll put you back on the air.’
W. KAMAU BELL: Any white man can use any word he wants. Every word has different weights and power. It’s like tools in a tool box and you have to use the right tool for the right job. I have a bit in my act, like when you go into a bar, you have the well drinks, like ‘damn’ and ‘shit,’ anybody can use them at any time. ‘Nigger’ is on the shelf, and if you drink too much of that stuff, it’s gonna be expensive and you better be able to pay for it.
WARNING: Not Safe For Work Unless You Work At A Stand Up Comedy Club