W. Kamau Bell has been touring the US with his one-man show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in about an Hour. His new current events show, produced by Chris Rock, hits FX this fall on August 9th. He was kind enough to sit down with me for an hour to talk about what it's like to be in that brief moment before embarking upon a television show.
You've still got some time to catch his live performances before he starts production on the TV show! Check the calendar on his website.
W. Kamau Bell: The day that the story hit…it was a Wednesday at 9:45 in the morning. By 9:48 everything had changed. Emails emails emails. Facebook facebook twitter twitter. Phone calls phone calls phone calls. It was just like…oh! This is different now.
It’s calmed down considerably since then. I was at a publicity event for the show in New York and one of the executives asked, “Has it been crazy since it came out?” I said it had been crazy. “Wait ‘til you go on the air.” I was like, “Oh yeah, huh, that’s going to be more crazy.” I mean, I got an email from a woman asking, “Did you use to work at a Ben & Jerry’s in Chicago?” …With the internet now, everyone’s so much more public than they used to be. It’s hard to figure out how to clear it off completely. I’ve been thinking, “Do I need to get a new cell phone number noooooow?” Because I know my current cell phone number is all over the internet. Back when I was doing my solo show, my cell phone was the number you called to get tickets. So, for a while I was getting phone calls for the theatre [where I’d booked my shows] because people thought that was the number of the theatre.
I don’t think there’s any way to totally prepare for it. I’ve had all these weird meetings about things…like I had to get a lawyer…I’m probably going to have to start my own LLC. What am I, a company now? Well, it’s in case you get sued. No, not in case, when you get sued. WHEN? I haven’t done anything yet! There’s a steep learning curve here. In this era [being famous] is not as fun as it used to be.
The first pilot we did here was a pre-pilot, me and Chuck with a bunch of San Francisco comedians that we made so we could show Chris what our idea was. It wasn’t made to be shown to anybody but Chris Rock. It was a whole month of work, filming two shows and editing just so we could show Chris and have him say, “Oh yeah, I think that’d work.” Then he invested money in making a better version of it.
It’s been a very easy process. The work has been hard, but I’ve been involved in other people’s pilots where you’re like, “This is great! This is so much fun!” and then a few months later you think, “Whatever happened to that?”
We just took the pre-pilot show to Chris. Then we had a pilot presentation. It’s not really a pilot unless the network invests money in it. We never had to make a pilot. We made our pilot presentation to Chris, he made his pilot presentation to the network and then they very easily could have ordered a pilot for themselves, but they didn’t do that, they just went straight to series. There’s lots of parts of this that are a big deal and that’s one of them. They could’ve easily made us jump through some more hoops. They trust Chris, they were impressed with our pilot. They want to help us make it better, but y’know they trust us to do something with it.
It’s like putting a lobster in cold water and turning the heat up so it doesn’t know it’s being cooked. It was just a series of conversations and phone calls. By the time I met FX, they’d already decided they wanted it. I didn’t have to dance for them. That’s what comics and actors spend most of our careers doing. By the time I met with the people who make the decisions, they’d already decided and we walked out of that meeting with a show. But they already knew that…meeting up with the president of the network, saying, “I feel like we’re married but we just haven’t met yet.” This is all due to the huge hand of Chris Rock. Without him, we might have gotten this far, but in a much more protracted way. It wasn’t until me and my manager left that meeting that we knew we had a show but like I said, everyone else at that meeting already knew. Chris finds out things before I do.
There’s no precedence that I know of for someone getting a show this way. This is not the way it’s supposed to happen. My whole career has been that way.
I was not paid to be in Second City. I paid to be in Second City. I was taking classes, like a year and a half of classes, and at the end they give you a red T-shirt that says Second City Conservatory. That’s my proof that I graduated from the Second City Conservatory. We did our level 5 show and…really I wasn’t that great at Improv. People always liked me and said, “He’s got good stage presence,” which is a nice way of saying, “He’s not that funny.”
This is the weird thing. The director of my level 5 show was an unknown actor named Steve Carell. At the time, people were like, “He’s gonna be the guy.” Everybody thought he was gonna be the guy and now he’s the guy. He’s one of the guys. Daily Show, 40 Year Old Virgin, The Office. I remember he told me, ‘cause I didn’t really do impressions, but we did this Improv game where I played Mike Tyson and he told me, “You do a really good Mike Tyson!” Which has always stuck with me, that Steve Carell thinks I do a good Mike Tyson impression.
[My wife and I are] both in the arts. She’s getting her PhD in modern dance. She has her MFA in experimental choreography and is getting a PhD in [Critical Dance Studies]…she’s got her own dance company, BreadnButter Dance, so we’re both in the arts and…really, it’d be better if one of us was an accountant, but being an artist is constantly up and down. Sometimes it’s all down and sometimes the ups are only bad and then it goes straight down again so…y’know, we’ve been together almost 10 years, been married for over 3, but there have been lots of starts and ups and downs. If she didn’t get it... y'know, understand that I’m not going to do something else… She realizes, “This is his thing and he really wants this, he’s good at it and struggling with it.” I’ve gotten better, but sometimes I get crazy before shows and I’m like, “I need to be by myself!” and she has to make space for that or call me on that, “You’re acting crazy,” so without somebody there to call you on your bullshit but also support you. Also, she’s much more organized than I am so she’s been a very big factor in being able to keep everything running. When I went to the Fringe Festival in New York and the Sola Nova Festival in New York, she came and worked on the show. Hauling stuff, lifting things up, working the door and y’know, to the point where I finally realized we had to stop. “You can’t work the door anymore.” I could keep her working at that level. It’s too much to ask from your partner all the time.
She’s good at delegating and will jump in when she sees something needs to be done. We’ve done that for each other. I’ve worked her dance shows and done tech on her things. We met doing theatre. I was directing her friend’s solo show. That’s how we met.
We’re still in the middle of [the starving artist years], in the grand sense of things. Like, she’s in school…they’re paying her to be in school and I’m on her insurance.
As a comic you have a good month, you have a bad month, you have two good months! The show hasn’t started yet, I’m still putting things together, so...the only person who can make money for me is me.
I book a lot of my own gigs. My manager works with me to create opportunities. Some of that’s gotten easier, but still…if I don’t actively make this happen, I won’t make money. This show, I’m hoping, will change that. It’s definitely a big step to go from where I am to that. It doesn’t happen that often for people. Or ever, maybe.
Anything that I feel highlights something people don’t talk about enough, especially things that make me say, “I didn’t know that!” I am attracted to creatively. Anything that is something that we all look at but we don’t look at from the angle I feel we should look at it from, I’m inspired by. In my solo show, I have a thing about how there was a Japanese man who was in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the days that both were bombed. He lived ‘til he was 90 years old. To me that was like, “How come nobody talks about that?” The only reason I’d read about him was because he died when Avatar came out and James Cameron was thinking about making a movie about his life. That made me go, “Ewwwwww.”
I’m sure I’ll be highly critical. It’s hard for me to watch myself now... We have to build this thing in front of people. We don’t know what the show’s going to be yet and I’m sure the first won’t be as good as the second, the second won’t be as good as the third, then the fourth one’s going to be worse than the third one ‘cause we get cocky, then the fifth one will be sloppy because we didn’t have enough time. The sixth one will be the anniversary show. Thanks Hollywood!
Hopefully I have a good team around me with my agent and manager who are committed to making this as seamless as possible. FX has said that we don’t have to be the most successful show right away because they’re not spending that much money on us so we kind of have some time to figure out where we live. If we’re putting forth a good effort, we’ll be allowed to do our thing, If not, they’ll just cancel us. But as Chris said to me the day after the press hit, “You’re more famous today than you were yesterday. Even if it never airs, you’re better off.” Even if it airs and it’s a disaster, I’m better off.
I’ve assembled an all-star team of comedy writers that no one’s heard of yet. It’s gonna be fresh voices. I hope it’s as many writers as I want, plus one.
A lot of writing happens in my head exclusively. I’ll have a thought and it will bounce around in my head for a couple of days. I won’t actually write it down until I’m about to go onstage and then I’ll write the logline that’ll make me remember it. On stage I’ll talk it out and as I do I discover things and think, “Oh yeah, that’s funny,” or “I need to get to that quicker.” For the show it’ll be totally different. It’ll be like writing for my solo show. I’ll pull these different pieces…oh, I need this article, I need this picture, I need this video…it’s like, I don’t write it, I follow the arc and it comes together. There’s a lot of me in it, but for the show, it’ll be like, “Here’s the article, here are the parts that are funny.” Through doing that, that’s how I’ll tighten it.
The TV show will be scripted with prompters, so it’ll be a lot different than my live show. Chuck Sklar is helping me figure out how to do that. It’s like, when you watch the Chris Rock Show, there’s the script but then there’s still room for Chris to go off, “RARRR”. There are very specific places for that. He’s not just winging it. With my act, there’s a lot more room to breathe in there. So I’m going to have to learn to take that out. That’s one of the reasons the show’s not going to be that good the first time as….say, season 9.
No suit. No couch. Standing. Sort of the way they do the news on MSNBC, y’know how they stand now? No couch, I don’t want it to look like a talk show. Maybe stools with a high back. Awkwardly high so their legs are dangling.
If we get a bigger budget, it’s more likely to end up in bigger projects. I’d like to fly to places and show different communities. I’d like to go to the KKK museum. I’d like to go do things. My ideal goal would be that the comedy is not all the same type of comedy... On Radiolab, I’m aware that they’re teaching me stuff, but I’m also aware that it’s entertaining me. I’d like to be able to do things where the tone changes. You can cover serious stuff like Trayvon Martin in a comedic way without feeling like you have to be Jay Leno funny, a ha ha ha ha. You can slow it down a little bit. I think Jon Stewart does a really good job of that in his interview segments. It’s funny, it’s funny, and then suddenly he’s talking to some guy about the debt ceiling. And that’s a little bit funny, but he’s actually having a conversation with that person.
I sort of feel like my ideal is to do the show, the show is great, you drop through a trap door and you’re home with your family. You get in the teleporter and they teleport you back to do your show. You keep the outside influences out. Except for the ones you can’t. I’m sure I’m going to hear about ratings and the New York Times or whatever. I won’t be able to keep that out, but I’ll keep out as much as possible.
I feel really great about the fact that I’m married with kids, that I know there’s a normal life. I don’t think I would have survived if I was a single dude.
I’m glad I’ve had a long life as a person. Which is not to say I’m not a person now, I just mean that…y’know, my career in San Francisco has been this slow, steady climb to where now, when people talk about the best comics in San Francisco, my name comes up. I’m sure that if it doesn’t come up, that person hasn’t been doing their job. I’m very proud of that, I worked hard for that. I put a lot of work in, but I know this is going national in a way that I can’t prepare for. So, from 9:45 to 9:48 that morning, things changed.
When asked whether he anticipates popping up in movies and commercials:
I can’t say yes or no until someone makes me an offer. I’d be foolish to turn down something that hasn’t been offered to me yet. But I also think that…everyone can pick their own version of that. Some people are like, “I’ll take everything!” Some people are like, “I’ll take nothing!” Then there are the people who say, “I’ll take that one but not that one.” The minute you start doing any of those things…if you are presenting yourself as a voice of integrity, then you have to start answering questions about, “How come you took that thing?”
There’s a point in life where you go, “I would never do those things!” then there’s a point where you go, “Well, I would do some of those things,” then there’s the point where you say, “Well, my kids have to go to college…and it’s going to be really expensive.”
I would like to not be Mary J Blige in a chicken commercial. But then if Mary J needed to pay her mortgage, I can’t be so mad at her. It’s called “Not Dying When You’re 27”. Jim Morrison never had to do anything embarrassing because he was already dead. We didn’t have to see him in a Cadillac commercial.
Mary J could’ve squashed all the controversy if she just said, “Folks. I’m broke. When’s the last time you heard one of my songs on the radio? No, a new song. Yeah, not that recently. I have a lifestyle I’m trying to maintain and a staff of people to support who have families.” I think, especially the black community, there would have been total forgiveness. Instead, she said, “I didn’t know they were going to put me in a chicken commercial!” How could you not know?
For me, it’ll be a case by case basis. There used to be a thing where artists were criticized for having their music in commercials, but now artists realize one way to get your music out there is to put it in commercials because we’re not all sitting around listening to the same radio stations anymore. If you’re a band and you get put in an iTunes commercial or a car commercial, that’s how people find you and say, “Oh, I like that song.” Everything’s gotten more complicated.
When asked what he'd do if he had "six-month-money" (a wad of cash from doing commercials/cheesy movies):
Everything being equal, I’d be at home with my family. I’d probably get a bigger television. I’d get the Netflix account where they send you movies. I’d really upgrade. I’d get HBO.
I’d spend my time doing projects that wouldn’t make money. Things that I want to do but haven’t yet because they wouldn’t make money. I want to direct a production, a full stage production of Glengarry Glen Ross: the Movie, the play. The movie is different from the play. I want to direct a full scale play production of the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross. This is a breaking news story. My goal would be to cast it with all comedians. That movie is about comedy and what it means to be a comedian. It’s about sales, but it’s basically the same. I want an all star all comedian production of Glengarry Glen Ross: the Movie, the play.
That’s what I’d do if I had 6 months. The music would be done by a live onstage jazz band. Once you get that six month money, you start thinking, “Hmmm.” But yeah, that’s the only thing I’d do besides sitting at home with my giant TV, getting Netflix mailed to me.
One of the big stories here is the fact that this all happened without me moving from San Francisco. That’s just not how it’s done. That can’t be emphasized enough. I left and went to LA and NY when I needed to, when they asked me to. I wasn’t just staying in my bedroom refusing to go, but I still lived in the city and…even this. I’m going to go shoot it in NYC and come back here. Unless it gets big enough where I can’t go home anymore.
I hope it helps to get SF comedy more exposed to the national media. Our media here can be supportive but they’re not interested in creating stars the way the media is in NY or LA. If the media here did that, they could do it regularly because there’s enough talent here that every six months you could say, “This is the new person!”
The industry’s not here. The comics who say, “I’m not going!” never became famous. But Robin Williams still has a house here, but he also goes and shoots movies. There’s a bunch of comics who came through here to get good before they went on their way. Maron lived here for a while. Hedburg used to spend a lot of time here and we claimed him. SF has always had that reputation everywhere except in SF. People in SF don’t give it enough respect.
My rise to whatever this is has been about actively putting myself in front of the media and then finding media members who liked me and would help me. Hiya Swanhuyser from the Weekly. Rachel Swan from the East Bay Express. Rayhan Hermosi, Kimberly Chun. They were interested in comedy and helped promote it. But the media as a whole? Maybe it’ll happen eventually. I mean, it’s a big deal to get a TV show and Kimberly covered it in her column, the watch list, but isn't that something to write a feature on? Maybe they’re gonna do it later, but we haven’t been contacted by anyone.
In the time that you’re here, if you start doing comedy here, there’s nothing wrong with being here for five years and digging in here. As soon as you start developing your voice, court the media, produce your own shows…not only a show that you’re hosting but a show that is your show. “Come see me do an hour!” or do sketches or whatever. The same thing that hurts SF is the same thing that helps it. There’s no industry here so you can feel free to make a lot of mistakes onstage. It doesn’t affect you the same way it would if you were in NY making mistakes onstage week after week. Then people know you as a mistake maker, whereas here you can really get good in front of people. Take advantage of that freedom.