The first thing Chris Rock asked comedian W. Kamau Bell was where he lived. When Bell told the comedy legend that he made his home in San Francisco, Rock gave him one piece of advice: "Move!"
Rock had just finished watching Bell perform a set at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in the fall of 2010. The comedy legend went up to Bell backstage after the show and, after complimenting him on his set, let the Chicago native know he likely had a bright future ahead of him.
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A few months later, Rock called up Bell and offered to help him develop a TV show.
"Unfamous black guys never get shows," Bell recalled to Rolling Stone Rock telling him on the phone. "You need my help."
"It was surreal, and it’s slightly less surreal as each day goes by. I’m so busy with the show, there’s no time for that surrealism to be in there," Bell (who now lives in Brooklyn) told NBC Bay Area. "I don’t know how you have a better shot at something like this than to be mentored by someone like Chris Rock and on a network like FX, which is the most exciting comedy network right now...If someone said, 'Imagine your biggest dreams,' I wouldn’t have asked for all that stuff. I’m honored to be in that position."
Tall, bulky and boasting a distinctive afro, Bell has a genial, disarming presence. (Bell likes to joke that people sometimes think of him as "the black Seth Rogen.") This serves him well in making his cutting and incisive political/cultural/racial commentary seem as easygoing as jokes about long waits at airport security or, I don't know, farts.
That isn't to imply that Bell, who is probably about as progressive in his politics as anyone is actually allowed to be on television, will be packing his show exclusively with "Republicans are stupid" jokes.
As he told The Huffington Post in an interview earlier this year, wanting to get away from the trite back-and-forth volley of partisan potshots is precisely why he started a comedy group, Laughter Against the Machine, with fellow Bay Area comedians Janine Brito and Nato Green--both of whom are now writers on his show.
"[After Obama began running for president] I got put on political shows and I found that the audiences that showed up to liberal comedy shows weren't good comedy audiences," he explained. "Nato always said that what they really wanted was a cheerleader. 'George W. Bush is dumb.' I mean, I never wrote a joke like that; I don't have those jokes. So we thought, what if we started a comedy show based around the idea of talking about stuff from the left, but it's not there exclusively for you to agree with necessarily...Part of the reason we wanted to do it was because we want to have criticism for both the left and the right, but a lot of left-wing comedy crowds don't want to hear that."
That attitude, proudly progressive while maintain a strident independence, is what Bell promises to bring to the new show that's being described as "a racially charged version of The Daily Show".
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell premieres on Thursday, August 9th at FX at 11pm EST/PST (10pm Central).
Check out these clips of Bell performing: