Interview: ‘Totally Biased’ W. Kamau Bell talks God, Twitter and rape jokes

If you missed “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” on FX last season, good news. The show is moving over to FXX for season two (debuts tonight at 11:00 p.m.), and it will no longer be on just once a week — but nightly. It’s a big step for Bell, who has added more writers and tripled his production staff for the supersized gig. But for the guy who made rape jokes a hot button topic when he asked comedian Jim Norton and Jezebel.com writer Lindy West to take opposing sides of the issue, coming up with new ideas that make Twitter blow up should be no problem. I talked to Bell during press tour, and here’s what he had to say about that pivotal debate, the topic he wants to tackle next, and why he might be just the right guy to do it. 

The Lindy West/Jim Norton debate absolutely blew up. 

Thank you for saying that. Certainly from the inside, I was aware we got more attention for that than anything else we’d ever done. I was happy about that, because that was my idea. A lot of things on “Totally Biased” are other people’s ideas and I’m happy for all of them, but I was like, oh, so I do know what the show should be! [laughter]. Because I’m the guy, it’s good I know what the show should be, because that’s what I want the show to do, create interesting conversation the kind that’s not had on TV but through the lens of comedy.

It’s amazing Jim Norton had to tell his fans to cool it. 

I don’t think he would have gotten to the point of ever telling his fans, which a lot of them were, to stop it if he hadn’t seen it through his own eyes. I think if Lindy hadn’t experienced a lot of hate and he hadn’t been involved in it, I don’t know if he would have gotten to that point. Jim’s a smart, intelligent, thoughtful reprobate, and that’s why I had him on the [show].

Still, the reaction was pretty startling. 

Which actually proved the need for the conversation. It was almost like, the conversation really didn’t make sense until all the pushback on the conversation, because this exists.

The video she shot of herself reading the nastiest tweets was really powerful. How did you pick these two for the debate?

I know one of the writers on the show, Hari Kondabolu, is good friends with her since she was a writer for The Stranger in Seattle, so when I thought of the thing, I thought, it has to be Lindy. If it’s not, I don’t see it working the way I want it to work. Because you can get a lot of intelligent, thoughtful feminists — my wife could have done it — but I knew Lindy would be able to be funny and not think a point is more important than being funny. Because the funny part is what translates at home. A lot of people were like, she was way funnier than I thought she would be. And also you need someone who can stand up to Jim. And you need a comic who isn’t a dummy. A lot of comics from that side are going to go to there, so these are the two people you need to do this. 

So, what plans do you have next? More debates like this one?

The whole rape culture in comedy thing kept bubbling up, especially the last couple of years. So you have that. I feel like whenever I see atheists debate people who believe in god, they usually get the dumbest god believer they can find so the atheist can look like the genius. I would love to find the conversation between the reasonable God believer and the reasonable atheist. 

Of course, a lot of the time true believers feel they’re being set up to fail. How do you find someone willing to talk?

In the same way with the Lindy and Jim discussion, I have been accused of being a comedian, I have been accused of being a feminist. So I feel like I understand both of these worlds. I also understand as a black man who’s lived in the South, I can’t give up on God. I get the argument behind it, but I kinda can’t give it up, because sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. You kind of need to believe in something else just to say, hey, I’m gonna try to make this happen today. It doesn’t mean I don’t hang out with atheists and go, yeah, I totally get it.

So, you’re a believer?

I’m more than a little God-y. I’ll say thank you, Jesus! But I’m not in church every Sunday, I’m not telling people not to be gay. I think a lot of that gets associated with that culturally, and I know a lot of people of color who say I can’t give up on God because that’s such an important part of my culture, but that doesn’t mean that my belief has to stop anybody from doing their thing. 

Would you take on, say, the Catholic church?

You’re not going to find a bigger critic of the Catholic church than me. You can find a bigger one, but I certainly feel like I have no room for that. My wife is Catholic, we got married in a Catholic church, and I think that’s how you become a critic, because you see it up close. But I’m not going to tell somebody in a third world country who has nothing but their belief in God. Like today in the Ariel Castro thing, Michelle Knight mentions God, are you going to try to take her God away? Michelle, believe in logic, logically someone will find you! That’s the kind of discussion where there’s humor there.

You’ve done a great job of finding balance, and also adding humor to serious topics like this. 

I certainly feel like I’m in the middle of it a little bit, and I know I can find intelligent, funny people on both sides. A lot of the time, when those discussions are set up on TV, they find one intelligent person and one dumb person, or just people who are going to yell. This isn’t about yelling, it isn’t about one person being set up to be knocked down. It’s about a funny, interesting, intelligent conversation like the one we’re having right now, but on television. That window on “Totally Biased,” this is what the show is. There are more of those discussions. It’s just about finding the right people, and the more we model the discussion on television, the more people who want to have those discussions will show up.

You‘re setting the tone, and guests will follow, in other words? 

We were modeling a discussion, the best version of that discussion, not to be too big headed, but for the country. You can disagree and not reduce it to you’re a dummy. We can actually go back and forth and play tennis, and then they leave and they became friends through this thing. I don’t know if they’re hanging out together, but they had an idea of each other that as broken down by the thing. 

Right now, it seems like a lot of America is at odds. It’s not your job to figure it out, but any ideas about how to bring more people to the middle?

Luckily, as a comic it’s not my job to figure out. Comedy is job one, but how I choose to be funny… for me, it’s really awesome to model good behavior with hilarious jokes, or to criticize bad behavior with hilarious jokes. It’s easier to do the latter than the former. I lived in the bay area for 15 years, I was raised by my black mom but then I was finished being raised by two white lesbians with black kids, so if this is how you want to be, this is how you should do it.

Chris Rock, who’s a producer on the show, says whether you like it or not, you’re representing something. When I get recognized in the streets, 99 percent of the time, it’s by black people who are like, you’re a black guy on TV! That’s still exciting. “I haven’t seen the show, just the commercials, but I’m very happy for you.” So I understand that, and it’s in a different way now.

During press tour, there weren’t a lot of people of color on the stage, unfortunately.

When something is all white guy, nobody ever goes, oh, this is a white guy day. Whereas if it’s all black guys, it’s like, whoa, it’s black guy day! I just watched the documentary Shut Up Little Man, it’s about these two guys who recorded their neighbors fighting and it became a viral thing before it was viral. The entire documentary is all white guys talking about it. They don’t even realize they haven’t talked to even a woman. That it’s all white guys, which gives it a very window of what it’s about, but nobody ever sees it that way. My job is to go, I’m gonna ring this bell and say, hey, are we all noticing this? At least laugh about it, then go, hey, wait a minute. That’s all you can do with humor. Hahahaha… hey!