Two years ago, Chris Rock caught W. Kamau Bell’s act in New York, and went back stage afterward to tell the Bay Area comic that he was funny. Bell has said it was like Michael Jordan saying you have a nice jump shot.
For the past 15 years, live audiences have known Bell was funny. Now, thanks to FX’s Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, the rest of us are in on the joke, too.
Totally Biased, which Rock produces, is far from typical late-night fare. In fact, it makes The Daily Show With Jon Stewart seem like something your dad watches.
On last week’s premiere, Bell’s first bit targeted the to-do over Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’ ’do. As the 16-year-old swirled and twisted her way to Olympic gold, the twit-o-sphere clattered with stunningly offensive commentary about her “nappy hair.”
A tweeter known as Lumpy Space Princess opined, “So for real no one wanted to go to London to do Gabby Douglas’ hair?”
“So for real,” Bell responded, “your name is Lumpy Space Princess?”
And while Bell took primary aim at what is making news, those who deliver it did not escape his mockery. NBC’s Bob Costas was shown in a clip saying Douglas should be an inspiration to other African-American girls.
“Is this 1968?,” Bell asked. “ Everyone can be inspired by Gabby Douglas.”
The bit was funny and made its point, but it also displayed one challenge of doing an off-the-news show weekly: The news arc for Gabby Douglas’ hair had peaked a couple of days earlier. (That’s not to say the segment misfired, just that after the first six episodes, FX should consider giving Bell a nightly slot.)
Nonetheless, the comic had a great last word on the Gabby Douglas flap: “She won by a hair— one small, beautiful, nappy hair.”
Bell showed just how good he is at walking the fine line between serious news and pointed commentary in a segment about the killings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin by a white supremacist.
He spoke of the differences between Muslims and Sikhs, pulling out a map to show that the Middle East is a region, while Sikhs are a religious sect from Punjab. And then he began to riff, building on the difference between “Sikhs” and Muslim “sheiks,” pulling up one photographic example after another as he threw in similar words: “Shaq,” as in O’Neal, “shake,” as in milkshake, “Sith” as in Star Wars.
And that’s only a bit of the brilliant chain of similar-sounding words that made us laugh at the same time it reminded us of the stupidity that festers at the base of all prejudice.
Bell is likely to smooth over the minor bumps in coming shows, but don’t expect Totally Biased to look much like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show. It doesn’t need brass-heavy theme music, fancy graphics or a gleaming studio.
Unlike the Comedy Central late-night shows, you see the studio audience sitting just a few feet from where Bell is walking back and forth, telling a new truth for different ears.