While NBC executives were staying up late last month pondering the fates of Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon and “The Tonight Show,” a relative newcomer was unknowingly changing the landscape of late-night.
At the end of March, W. Kamau Bell, the host of FX’s weekly topical comedy series “Totally Biased,” was invited to a dinner with FX head John Landgraf, a network VP and Chris Rock, the show’s executive producer. Bell figured the FX guys just wanted to check in and say “good job,” since they’re not often in New York, where the show tapes.
“I’m still at the point in my career where a free meal is exciting,” Bell says.
Landgraf quickly got down to business: FX was launching two new networks — news to Bell — and he wanted “Totally Biased” to become a daily presence on the young-adult-oriented FXX. Oh, and they were going to announce all of this in 48 hours.
Suddenly, Bell, who has taped just 19 episodes of “Totally Biased” since its debut last fall, was looking at the prospect of doing five episodes a week (four new, one best-of), a staggering 130-episode order.
“The funny thing is, we still have seven more weekly episodes [from May 9 through June, on FX], so I think I have to focus on those because if I mess those up, they may decide not to do the rest of them,” Bell says.
Bell wasn’t completely surprised by the upgrade. Before “Totally Biased” premiered, back when it had a measly six-episode order, FX brought up the idea of going daily one day, but, Bell says, “I was like, ‘I haven’t been on TV once.’ … So, we weren’t talking about it that much.”
When the daily, FXX version of “Totally Biased” premieres on Sept. 2 (timed to coincide with the network’s launch), it will compete nightly at 11 against “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which helped inform the template of Bell’s show. Bell doesn’t see the two as direct competitors, though.
“I think we’re pulling in an audience that likes ‘The Daily Show,’ but it’s also a different audience,” Bell says. “We’re a little more lefty and progressive and liberal than they are. And we’re more cultural than political.”
That last bit is an important distinction. Bell doesn’t consider himself a political comedian by choice: He fell into it because “I started telling jokes about the possibility of having a black president named Barack Obama.” Even though he looked at Obama from a racial perspective, he started getting booked for politically themed stand-up shows in San Francisco (where he lived for 15 years before relocating to New York).
“It was placed upon me because a black guy talking about the president becomes a political comedian,” Bell says. When “Totally Biased” premiered, in the heat of the 2012 presidential election, Bell again felt obligated to focus on politics.
Since the election, he’s experimented with the show’s subject matter and format (which usually goes something like: monologue, break, filmed piece, break, guest monologue or another bit, break, guest). On a recent episode, Bell did an animated story about the time he got way too high at Coachella. Other shows have included a puppet, a performance from musical comedian Reggie Watts, and fake, absurdist Valentine’s Day cards presented by Hannibal Buress.
“I think the show is most successful when it feels like ‘Sesame Street’ for grown-ups,” Bell says.
Before Bell moves to late-night full-time, he still has some stand-up shows to perform, including his stop Sunday in D.C. at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. “I was joking with my manager: ‘Does this mean on Sept. 2 I announce my retirement from stand-up comedy?’ ” Bell says. It’s not that extreme, but with the increased workload, Bell isn’t sure what his stand-up career will look like this fall.
“So, D.C.,” Bell says, “come see me, or you’ll never see me in real life again.”
Sharing the Spotlight
One thing that distinguishes “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell” from other late-night shows is the way Bell features comedians. Rather than relegate them to the last five minutes for a quick bit of stand-up, he’ll let a guest deliver a monologue midshow. Bell says he’d rather have an openly gay comic like Guy Branum, one of his writers, talk about gay marriage than himself. “He can be more biased,” Bell says. His spotlighting of comedians is part of his pay-it-forward attitude (Chris Rock helped get him the gig). Further evidence: “Totally Biased” writer Aparna Nancherla, who grew up in the D.C. area, will open for Bell on Sunday at Sixth and I. “The more [“Totally Biased”] sounds like a playground for comedians, the better,” he says.Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; Sun., 8 p.m., $20; 202-408-3100. (Gallery Place)