"Ooh, I hope Jon Stewart doesn't see this!"
Speaking to the Scene by phone from Manhattan, comedian W. Kamau Bell is none-too-seriously referring to a moment in the first season of his FX Network show Totally Biased when the in-studio crowd immediately recognized, and cheered for, a photo of electoral college prediction wizard Nate Silver — after which Bell mused that they "might be the smartest audience in television."
Bell says that wasn't exactly what he meant.
"It just sort of means you're paying attention to the things I pay attention to. So I was really complimenting myself," he laughs. "It was just cool to be on the same exact page as an audience of people and to know that's going to be broadcast on television."
It's just this kind of mental synchronicity Bell aspires to, and he fully acknowledges his debt to Stewart and other funny-news forebears such as Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert. (In an interview on Marc Maron's WTF podcast in October, Bell called his one-man show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour — which caught the attention of Chris Rock, who eventually came on as executive producer of Totally Biased — "my version of The Daily Show.")
"Sometimes Jon Stewart will just make a strange look, and the audience is like, 'We know exactly what you're thinking!' " Bell says admiringly. "And I think that's the kind of relationship I would like to develop with my audience, because if you felt that relationship with the audience in the room, then you're probably developing that with some aspect of America."
The aspect of America with whom Bell is quickly establishing a rapport — Totally Biased was recently picked up for 13 more episodes, with its second season set to begin Jan. 17 — just so happens to resemble the aspect of America that helped deliver a second term to Barack Obama.
"The things that make audiences better, for what I do, is if an audience is generally a diverse audience across all lines of diversity — you know, ethnicity, race, religion, sexuality, gender — because the more you get those lines crossed, the smarter audiences are, in general," he says. "You get different types of laughter, and people laughing at different things, and those are the best audiences."
That might sound like more self-complimenting on Bell's part, but it's for his own benefit, really.
"If I perform in front of a crowd that's all white, I generally start to feel like I'm in the past," he says, "because I feel like when there's a black guy in front of an all-white audience, it starts to feel a little bit like court testimony." It's not that he hasn't had good shows in front of all-white audiences, he says, rather that a more diverse crowd feels "more like I'm in the future — and that's where I like to live."
And Bell takes affirmative steps to court the future, so to speak, by offering a two-for-one ticket deal to anyone who brings someone of a different race to his stand-up show. "We have a very strict 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," he explains, "which is the only time that policy has ever worked for the forces of good. If two people show up and claim they're of a different race, we don't do any DNA testing to find out if it's real or not."
This take on racial identity will be just one of many liberal views on display during Bell's show at The High Watt on Wednesday, one of a string of performances he's calling the Kamau Mau Uprising Tour — a riff on his name, which is Kenyan, and the Mau Mau revolution that began in that country in the '50s. Bell doesn't know whether he's actually of Kenyan descent, an uncertainty that can be chalked up to murky birth records, ironically, but he says he feels a certain kinship with President Obama all the same.
"There's not a lot of prominent Kenyans in the media other than Barack and me," he says, "so I'm happy to represent." Bell openly endorsed Obama's re-election bid — and celebrated the win — even if he does wish the president were more like the radical black Muslim he's often painted as by zealous (racist) opponents.
Speaking of liberal views, Bell says people often ask him why there are no prominent conservative comedians out there — no counterweight to the Stewart-Maher-Colbert axis of pinkoism. For Bell, it's more a matter of branding than imbalance.
"You know, Jeff Foxworthy endorsed Mitt Romney," Bell says, "but it doesn't help him to call himself a Republican comedian or say, 'I'm a conservative comedian.' When you found out he endorsed Romney, you weren't like, 'I can't believe it!' It's just like, 'Oh, it makes sense.' "
But then, Bell adds, "If Larry the Cable Guy is a Democrat, I would be surprised."