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Late-night round-up: Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell - Week of September 4-11, 2013

Illustration for article titled Late-night round-up: Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell - Week of September 4-11, 2013
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Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell had a modest first season, one that started shakily as Bell and crew tried to see what worked and what didn’t. It was fun to watch the work-in-progress and I was delighted when, toward the end of that season, the host seemed to have found his footing. The monologue jokes were sharper, Bell’s delivery grew increasingly more confident, and the show’s social commentary became more poignant. Sure, some segments may not have totally worked but there were a few classics—the debate about rape jokes between Lindy West and Jim Norton, the segment about street harassment, and the hilarious “Anything you want to say to a white guy?” video are among my personal favorites. Even when jokes fell flat or when the interviews elicited little more than polite applause from the studio audience, it was clear the show would eventually find itself when it returned.

Last week, during the launch of FXX, Totally Biased began its second season and veered into new territory: instead of weekly, the show will now air nightly from Monday to Thursday (with a “Mixtape” episode on Sunday nights that chronicles the week’s best moments). It shows that FXX has faith in W. Kamau Bell and his staff and I’m happy to report that they don’t disappoint.

The first episode did start off a little rocky but it was mainly due to a pre-taped cold open about Bell attempting to take a vacation but getting bombarded by news everywhere he went. The problem here wasn’t the jokes, but the outdated nature of the news. It’s hard to fault him for this considering the show had been off the air for a little over two months. The rest of this episode (and most of the other ones) went as normal. His monologue is done in a relaxed fashion; it’s worth noting that he never sits behind a desk during this but remains standing, which makes it feel more like a stand-up act—something that really works for Bell, who is a gifted stand-up—and less like a clone of The Daily Show. Like the rest of his late-night counterparts, there are hits and misses throughout, but Bell is always effortlessly endearing, especially when he’s in total disbelief of a ridiculous news story or when he tackles subjects related to race or feminism.

The various segments on Totally Biased have always been my favorite bits and there were two highlights over the last week: First, a man-on-the-street segment where Bell examines the word “cracker.” It combines silly humor (asking strangers for a word that’s more offensive to white people; “snow monkey” took the cake) with intelligence (he also talked to an etymologist to discuss the word’s origin). Second, Guy Branum, a writer and performer on the show, provided his take on the overabundance of gay jokes at The Comedy Central Roast Of James Franco by roasting the roast.

During this last week, Totally Biased has featured an eclectic batch of guests. Jim Gaffigan (Bell: “one of the whitest guys I know”) opened the season and the two had a pleasant, though not outrageously funny conversation about parenting; Tracy Morgan was a train wreck but an amusing train wreck; Chris Rock, the co-producer of the show, stopped by on Monday to talk about race and Obama. The success of Bell’s interviews varies from guest to guest. Sometimes Bell tends to sit back quietly and let someone just talk and talk—it’s obvious that he’s interested, but prefers to not to interrupt. Sometimes, such as with Tracy Morgan, it feels more like friends hanging out and shooting the shit. Sometimes it’s a mix of the two, such as last night’s interview with Laverne Cox from Orange Is The New Black.

The two had serious conversations about Cox’s status as a role model for transwomen and her childhood, but also had some back-and-forth about silly things like the terms marathoning and binge-watching. These interviews often bring back Bell’s aforementioned endearing nature. There’s something great about watching a talk-show host admit that he doesn’t know much about someone’s situation or, in a lighter sense, watch his adorable excitement when he realizes Laverne Cox is from the same city as his father.


W. Kamau Bell and his staff have done a fine job at quickly adapting from a weekly format to a nightly format. They’re embracing the quick turnaround and are churning out some truly funny content—all with a tinge of poignancy and truth embedded within the jokes. Still, there’s a lot of work to do—Totally Biased is still fairly rough around the edges—but they have plenty of episodes left to work out the kinks.

Stray observations:

  • The “Mixtape” episodes on Sundays are a good catch-up if you haven’t watched during the week. They also provide some bonus scenes that didn’t make the cut but most of it is unnecessary. I do get the point, though, and I would actually love it if other late-night shows did the same because I’m pretty bad at staying awake long enough to watch Conan and Jimmy Fallon every night.
  • Similar to the Lindy West/Jim Norton debate last season, Bell had two comedians (Jamie Kilstein and John Fugelsang) debate the existence of God—perhaps the only respectful and funny debate you’ll ever see on the subject
  • “This dude dropped eight N-bombs on her and she was awarded $280,000. That’s 35 grand an N-bomb—which means Quentin Tarantino owes me 3.8 million bucks just for Django Unchained alone.”
  • Really, the only part of any of these episodes that I didn’t like is a segment where Hari Kondabolu went to a steampunk festival—but that was only because I wish the world would stop encouraging steampunk.
  • Also: more Janine Brito, please. Totally Biased needs so much more of her.
  • “How has Maya Angelou not won a major award already? The only black person who has done more for reading is LeVar Burton.”
  • Is there anyone in the world who can say “FXX” without sounding ridiculous?