W. Kamau Bell performing in New York. (Photography by 92YTribeca, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Comic timing

W. Kamau Bell, LAB’90, prepares for his next upswing in the roller coaster business of comedy.

W. Kamau Bell, LAB’90, kicked off his standup-comedy career at a Rogers Park café open mic in the early ’90s. To work up his nerve, he spent a month visiting the café to watch others perform. The majority of the performances were, according to Bell, horrible, which gave him confidence. He figured, “‘I could at least do this badly.’” Finally he decided to try standup himself. After spending five minutes making jokes about a personal ad he placed in the newspaper, he says, “People told me, ‘You have great stage presence,’ which I later learned means, ‘Your material is not good at all.’”

Over the next two decades, Mr. Bell’s material improved. His 2010 album, Face Full of Flour, was named one of the Top 10 Best Comedy Albums of the year by iTunes. The one-man show he developed in 2007 to talk frankly about race in America, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, earned so many raves that veteran-comedian Chris Rock approached him after a performance to propose working together.

The eventual result, the sociopolitical talk show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, debuted on FX in August 2012. A mix of Bell’s commentary, interviews, and off-site segments, Totally Biased won praise from the New York Times, which called Bell “the most promising new talent in political comedy in many years.” Yet after the show moved to the new network FXX, its ratings dropped, and it was canceled.

Although he would have preferred that Totally Biased last longer, the show had presented Bell with some challenges. Yes, he got to write, produce, and star in a namesake television show, interviewing celebrities like actor Don Cheadle, chef Rocco DiSpirito, and journalist Rachel Maddow. But along with such highlights came the daily grind of a high-level position.

“At some level I’m the CEO of Totally Biased,” he said before the cancellation. “I have to learn how to become a manager while still leaving time to be the funny guy who got the job in the first place.” While many people go into standup comedy because they don’t want a regular job, Bell says, “If you get really good at it and get really lucky, you get a regular job.”

The show’s nightly schedule also made it difficult for him to spend time with his wife and his two-and-a-half year old daughter at their New York City home. “We’re working 12-to-14-hour days,” he said. “My weekends are my time I see [my daughter], and it’s hard.”

Still, Totally Biased raised his visibility and seemed like the next big step in his career. Before the show aired, he opened for comedy stars such as Dave Chappelle. And Robin Williams described Bell as “ferociously funny.” Yet for Bell, his most validating moment was not about big names or autograph seekers. Instead he cites “when I finally was made a feature comic”—the equivalent of middle management in standup comedy, between humble opener and star headliner. “Even though I hadn’t been on TV, and nobody cared necessarily who I was, when I got to feature, that was the moment that was like, ‘I’m not a guy who’s trying to be a comedian; I’m actually a comedian.’”

When Bell performs his Bell Curve one-man show at college campuses, he is happy to pass his wisdom on to the next generation. Although the colleges usually set up Q&A sessions after his performances, “a lot of times the students don’t have questions until I stay after the show and talk to people,” he says. “That’s where the real questions come out.” Often he’s asked for advice on how to get started in comedy, to which he replies, “Start right now. The sooner you start, the sooner you can get good at it.’”

The students are often just grateful that Bell is there to perform his act, which addresses race, politics, and gender in America. Especially at non-historically black colleges, “I’ll get these black kids who are like, ‘Somebody else understands what I’m going through.’ I spent a lot of my life being the only black kid around, so a lot of times the black students will really appreciate that.” His humorous attempt to “end racism in about an hour” addresses all ethnicities; sometimes an Arab student, he says, “will appreciate the fact that I talk about [Muslims] in the show, because he won’t get talked about unless it’s in a negative way.” And frequently, in what Bell describes as “the best a comedian can hope for,” he’ll see his act change the way a white student thinks. “They’re at that point where they say, ‘I just know what my parents told me.’” When Bell hears them ask, “Is this really true? I never thought of it that way,” he thinks, “Mission accomplished.”

Bell’s comedy speaks to an audience that is informed and proud of it, an attitude he picked up as a Lab student. “When I was there, the cool kids were smart,” he says. “I felt like Lab had given me such a high level of basic education that the rest of my life could be up to me.” Although Bell didn’t explore comedy until after graduation, Lab gave him the skills to do it. “A lot of comedy is just persuasive writing,” he says. “My basic writing skills come from Lab: ‘Write a topic sentence; prove the topic sentence; conclude.’ That’s basically my comedy act, just with laughter.”

Bell appreciated comedy even as a child. “I saw Eddie Murphy’s Delirious on VHS at an age at which I was probably too young to see it.” An only child, he connected with the lonely standup: “I felt like I was onstage by myself the whole day. ere was nothing else that looked that cool except being a superhero.”

Traveling between divorced parents, Bell attended numerous schools in Boston, Chicago, and Alabama. Finally his mother enrolled him at Lab, where he stayed for three years until graduation. “Mom was like, ‘By hook or by crook, I want you to go to the school that you’ll be the best at.’” It was difficult for his mother, who self-published books of famous black quotations, to afford tuition. Her mentality was, as Bell put it, “You just need to go to this school because it will prepare you for your future.”

After graduation, Bell attended the University of Pennsylvania for a time, returned to Chicago to take classes at Second City and work on his act, and in 1997 moved to San Francisco, where he struggled at standup before putting together The W. Kamau Bell Curve.

Even when Totally Biased was in full swing, growing from a weekly show to four nights a week, Bell’s mother remained a touchstone. After each episode, she would text him to let him know her favorite jokes. “My mom’s is the laughter I’m always going for,” he says. “It means that I’m saying something that’s true to my personality.”

Two days after the cancellation news, Bell was considering his future. “Now I get the chance to find a new ‘thing’ and to see how that goes. That’s amazing,” he wrote on his blog. “The show was canceled. I’m not canceled. 99.999% of stand-up comics don’t get this far. ... I am literally boiling over with ideas, and I can’t wait to get started.”