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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell

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Raise your hand if you remember Chocolate News, the failed Daily Show clone with sketches hosted by David Allen Grier. My guess is that not too many people have fond memories of that show. It wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t really leave a distinct impression as an attempt at the incongruous combination of Chappelle’s Show sketch comedy and The Daily Show topical social commentary. Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell is a much better version of Chocolate News, which drops the sketch comedy bent for more explicit social commentary that blends The Daily Show with what Russell Brand wishes he could get on Brand X. It’s insightful social commentary that’s incisively funny, but with some of the drawbacks that come with using a familiar format.

The show breaks down much like The Daily Show, except Bell is on his feet, like Brand in Brand X. First, he goes through a breakdown of current events, starting with criticism of Gabby Douglas’ hair, and then moving on to the shooting at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee this past weekend. This is by far the funniest segment of the show, and where Bell’s prowess as a standup focused on cultural commentary shines the most. For the Douglas commentary, he shames idiotic people on Twitter by showing their dumb statements and making fun of their handles—even one that references Adventure Time merited derision based on the sentiment of the tweet.

The premiere’s best moment comes from the most serious topic Bell tackles on the night. Hateful morons have been mistaking Sikhs for Muslims in horrifying ways since 9/11, but this is by far the most terrifying example. But Bell manages to take the tragedy and turn it into hilarious cultural commentary. First, he pulls up a map to illustrate that the Middle East and the Punjab region of eastern Asia where the Sikh religion originated are “separated by land and water.” To Bell, mixing up the ethnicity and the religion is like confusing Lucy Liu with Gabourey Sidibe. Not the best metaphor, but it gets the point across in a funny way. Then, going off of a statement Mitt Romney made where he referred to Sikhs as “sheiks,” Bell creates a chart to illustrate the difference: A sheik (a Muslim elder), a Sikh, Mark Zuckerberg (a geek), Nile Rogers from the band Chic (who wrote “Le Freak”), Shaq, Shaq drinking a shake, the Shake Shack, and finally a Sith. It’s an ever-escalating chart of hilarity, with social commentary embedded in increasingly ridiculous jokes. Bell’s message: None of these people deserve to be shot—except maybe the Sith, which is just enough of a pullback to be really funny. He’s got a deft sense of humor, able to cut in for an over-the-top Star Wars joke (he makes three over the course of the premiere), but at the same time keep his finger on the pulse of an issue to make an insightful point about how the media covered the story and the tragic history of crazy people taking out their despicably unjust hatred on Sikhs.


The second segment focused on New York’s incredibly racist application of a new law that allows police to stop and frisk anyone they deem suspicious. It comes as a surprise to no one that white New Yorkers have little knowledge of the change, while black New Yorkers have grown increasingly agitated by constant stops in their neighborhoods as cops cuff them, frisk them, and hold guns to their heads. Bell’s street interviews range from confrontational to enjoyably humorous, as he gets people to laugh at the idea of getting a free soda or a punch card for a Subway sandwich with every police stop. Perhaps the street segment won’t be a permanent fixture of the show, and it’ll be a rotating shorter piece, but this one didn’t quite click beyond the initial exposure of the injustice. Some interviews are funny, but they didn’t coalesce into a bigger joke or point like the first segment.

I tend to like The Daily Show best when it stays in-studio for both pre-interview segments, focusing on Jon Stewart’s ability to work the camera and audience and only sparingly including the latest incarnation of the Best Fucking News Team Ever. When the periphery players get too involved in the studio segments, or they throw to a pre-recorded segment, I tend to tune out. Then my interest picks up depending on how intrigued I am by the guest. So it goes with the long segment/short segment/interview format. In a way, the interview segment of Totally Biased is a lot like Brian Williams’ newsmagazine Rock Center, which started with high-profile friend of the show Jon Stewart, then tapered off into less interesting studio guests. Bell gets Chris Rock, an executive producer of the show who even hocked the show to viewers last night as a guest on The Daily Show, which is direct timeslot competition to Totally Biased.

Rock is a fine guest on the show, and as an eager co-executive producer that makes perfect sense. He shares some tame thoughts on why it’s so hard to make jokes about Obama (because he’s “so cool” like Brad Pitt), and doubles down on his joking-but-not tweet that the 4th of July is white man’s Independence Day, which is correct, since it did not grant any slaves independence. It’s a fluffy interview, but one that pleases the audience in the studio and is sure to please the viewers at home. It’s impossible to expect hard-hitting material from Bell in a short interview with one of his idols that’s been a huge part of the marketing push for this show, but the strength of the final segment will depend on whether the show can book interesting guests or merely Bell or Rock's friends for a few softballs.

Totally Biased is one of the more fully formed standup commentary shows I’ve seen in a while, and Bell is such an endearing presence that it makes the show infinitely watchable. The long-term success of the show will depend on the strength of guests in the third segment and whether or not the shorter second act can get funnier street interviews or change altogether, but for right now, Bell does a great job at using his standup talents to critique current events.


Stray observations:

  • W. Kamau Bell looks strikingly similar to Seth Rogen. That might just be me, but I see it, and now I can’t stop seeing it.
  • Some items to put in your pocket to make the NYC frisk searches more interesting: hot fudge, sprinkles, oatmeal, short curly hairs, a magician string of handkerchiefs.
  • “What in the name of Jar Jar Binks was NBC thinking?”
  • Chris Rock, on Bell having his own show: “This is great. You got your own show, I used to have one of these!”

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