Comedian W. Kamau Bell Discusses Natives in Entertainment and 'Totally Biased'
Comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of Totally Biased, a politically-charged weekly show on the FX Network executive-produced by Chris Rock, had the best of intentions in the days leading up to the Presidential Inauguration. Bell had made arrangements to bring the Totally Biased crew to film a segment at the American Indian Society's Inaugural Ball -- but as things happen sometimes in the television world, Bell and company's commitments earlier in the day ran long and they were not able to make it as a film crew. But in an act of admirable courtesy, Bell and several of his colleagues traveled to the AIS Ball to apologize in person.
In radio interview with Bell on Native Trailblazers, hosted by Vincent Schilling and in another follow-up interview, Bell discussed his thoughts on Native Americans and minorities in the film and TV industry and what it takes to make it as a person of color.
First off, Kamau, thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
Umm, thank you for allowing us to stay in your country? You guys have been more than accommodating. Every time I think about Native people, I say, This is crazy that we are just walking around as if this all didn't happen. We should be like, "it’s crazy that we live here right?"
You and your crew were unable to make it to the AIS Ball, you came 45 minutes out of your way to apologize, why such courtesy?
It was important to me. This whole echelon of show business is new to me. I still have memories of six months ago when I would have liked people to be that nice to me. Where I came from, that's how you do things. I feel grateful people do things for me, and the opportunities that have been afforded to me have gotten me through this show. I am not owed any of this. I also felt bad and wanted to make sure that you guys knew I felt that. I wanted to be able to look you in the face, and I thought if they want to yell at me at least they can yell at me in my face.
Why do you think society does not give much attention to Native American people?
I think America loves a far-off magical story. For example, every few months there is some sort of tragedy around the world and we all love to look to the newest, greatest, latest tragedy. Tragedy tourism is a big part of being an American. "Oh, something happened in Haiti? Let me get out my cell phone and donate $10. Ok I'm done with Haiti. Oh, there is a tsunami in Japan? I got it; I got $10 for that too." That texting thing made it even easier to pretend like you care.
What do you think about minorities as role models or heroes?
With Native people I feel like we skipped over them, at least in the entertainment industry. Even now you have South Asians are getting doors opened for them a little bit, and 10 years ago all of the Latino people were on TV like Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin and George Lopez. But hey, what about the people who were here when we all got here? When are they going to get a TV show?
Until you get some success in the mainstream, where are you going to find the heroes? For me, I liked Superman because at least he had brown hair. Native American super heroes are always tied to earthly elements. Why does he always have to hang with the Wolf? And usually their powers are not in any way relevant to any sort of real history or culture.
The black superhero was the Falcon, what was his power? He was good with birds. He talked to birds, he could fly -- but flying is your low-level superpower. Being good with birds will really help him when he gets attacked by a giant monster. Even Aquaman looked down on that dude.
I think we are so scared of thinking about things too much that we just pretend it doesn't exist unless the Redskins are winning. I think that until native people at least get a percentage of the gate receipts or a discount on tickets, you cannot say it is respectful. To respect you means I'm going to do something for you.
What do you say to kids who'd like to have a TV show someday?
Make sure you have all the education you can about the field you're going into. I was lucky to grow up in a household where my mom made that paramount.
If you're going to do something as crazy as being in show business, define what your goal is and then be very honest with yourself every year that goes by, and ask yourself if you're getting closer to your goal or not. If not, ask yourself, What do I need to do to change that? Or do I need to go find something else to do?
If you want to go into any field in the entertainment industry, you have to be honest with yourself and set reasonable goals. If you have unreasonable goals, do you have a chance to get there?
What is your opinion as to what Native Americans can do to achieve a larger television presence?
Things are changing. The only thing I can say is what everyone needs to do. They have to make their own thing in the 21st century. They have to put it out there themselves. If that thing can make enough noise, than the chances are that somebody will come find you. I was not famous before I did this show; I had a solo show that made enough noise for Chris Rock to notice. It was underground, I did it long enough, I got it in front of the right people and he ended up seeing it. The thing to do is not rely on the route that other people have to do.
I live in San Francisco, which is not a small town but it's not a major entertainment venue. I went to Los Angeles and New York several times and I kept going back -- you have to be willing to take it to where major stuff is. You have to work as many angles as you physically and possibly can. I was a stand up, I did solo, I went on tour with other people and I was directing theater projects. Do as many things as you can.
You have to have a lot of pots on the fire -- sometimes one pot may get cold and you have to move it. You have to be prepared to do it yourself. You have to admit when it's working and when it's not working.
Would you ever consider introducing a Native element onto your show?
Yes I would. We talk about a lot of things -- we are pegged to the news, so we have to have a slight news angle to get it in. We also need a comic element. I would like other people to be able to tell that story, rather than have me try to tell that story.
Can you tell about Totally Biased and how it is doing?
Totally Biased is about a lot of things. We want to be funny, it's about jokes, but we also want to get some voices out there that we don't feel get to be out there unedited. We are certainly the little engine that could.
The show is going pretty good, I am on the inside so it is a little hard to tell. We are getting good feedback. Our last show was Thursday, then we have a ten-week break. We come back and we will be doing seven more.
FX is very generous, they think that if we have time we can build an audience and we are certainly starting to find an audience. I feel the pressure for comedians coming up behind me -- it's certainly not going to affect Chris Rock's legacy, it’s probably not even on his bio right now, because he does a lot of things. But if it does work, it will make the entertainment industry look to different sources for the next people.
My success here will open the door for the next people, or keep the door open ... I also have an 18 month old daughter and I would like for her for her to go to college, or eat breakfast every day.
Why is the show titled Totally Biased?
When you live in the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years there are just certain things you can't be talked out of. You cannot talk me out of religious freedom or gay marriage. I am totally biased. You are not going to sway me on those ideas but it doesn't mean I'm not going to have that conversation. Totally biased is against everything but facts.
I am able to change my mind but there are certain things I'm not going to go back on. In general the world has evolved into more progressive and liberal direction and I think people who don't realize that are only not paying attention to the world
The show Is executive produced by Chris Rock, how is he to work with?
Chris did a great service, he saw me perform and he said he wanted to help me get the show because, as he said, "Un-famous black guys never get TV show, so I am going to help you." I'm working on the being famous part, there is an A-list a B-list and a C-list. If Kathy Griffin is still on the D-list, than I am on the Q-list.
I think he is properly tough on me. He has a high standard for himself. I think he is setting that standard for me. It’s not unreasonable, just a high standard. No one gets promised a TV show. It is our job to try and hit that standard.
Chris Rock was a big proponent in making sure I get out there on the streets and mix it up with people. That was definitely one of the things he said I have to do, that so people can get to know you outside of the studio. That has been one of the most successful things on the show -- where we go out on the street and talk to people directly.
The great thing about working with Chris Rock is that he is a walking talking icon. It's like telling someone I work with Spiderman.