W. Kamau Bell returns triumphant to the Bay, needs burrito

Pub date December 3, 2012
SectionPixel Vision

Attention burrito vendors of the Mission, there is a sale to be made at the arrivals gate of SFO this weekend when newly-minted TV star W. Kamau Bell makes his triumphant return to the city in which he spent 15 years honing his comedic chops. He is aching for a Mission burrito like this city is aching for a more efficient MUNI system.

Culinary yearnings aside, this Sunday Bell headlines a standup show at the Fillmore as part of his “Kamau Mau Uprising” tour. The tour’s moniker should come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Bell’s politically progressive, acerbic wit.

These days, that category includes more people than ever. Earlier this year Bell ditched left our lovely 49-square-mile patch for Gotham when he was offered his own TV show on FX (Thursdays at 11:30pm). And it looks like he’ll be spending more time back east — said show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell just got picked up for a second season that will start January 17.

In the inaugural season of Totally Biased, Bell and his crew of writers have covered a lot of ground, exploring the differences between Sikhs and Sheiks, sweet potato and pumpkin pies. They’ve made a fake PSA telling men to stay home and watch porn on Election Day instead of vote, and watched presidential election returns with the Brooklyn Young Republicans (some of whom are not, it turns out, are not so young.)

Now that both he and President Obama will be back in 2013, Bell looks forward to holding our Commander in Chief to task. Right before the Thanksgiving Break, and just hours after finding out his show got renewed, the self-proclaimed “billionth most famous person in the history of New York” took some time to chat with the Guardian about his homecoming, and on what makes a San Francisco comedian different from those from NY, LA, or Boston. Plus, on whether he’ll ever drop a “hella” on Totally Biased.

SFBG: In the past you’ve referred to Totally Biased executive producer Chris Rock as the “foul-mouthed Yoda.” How far along have you come in your Jedi training?

Assuming that this is the original prequel, I would say I’m probably halfway through the first movie. Although Yoda wasn’t in the first movie, so I’m screwing up my nerd status, but I’m at the very beginning of the Jedi training, if it’s Empire Strikes Back, I’m at the point where I lifted the thing out and then I got scared.

SFBG: What’s Mr. Rock’s involvement in the show? Is he more hands-on or hands-off?

WKB: I just talked to him and he literally said, “I’m around if you need me, call me.” He’s as available as we need him and he jokes that’s he’s on sabbatical from show business because he has no projects right now. He comes to all the tapings, but then again he also wants this to be my show so he allows me to use him as much or as little as I want to. Overall, I’ve used him a lot less than people thought I would.

SFBG: Would you say that your show is in competition with The Colbert Report and Daily Show?

WKB: Not really, but I would say that they’re a standard that we’re measuring ourselves against. You know, I’m just the new guy who likes “Hey guys can I hang out!” We’re certainly aiming for a lot of the same people, but I think that by the nature of Totally Biased we’re also reaching a group of way different people.

SFBG: Do you ever plan on saying hella during the show?

WKB: Here’s the thing, by the time I moved to San Francisco, I knew if I started saying hella, people from Chicago would think I had lost my mind. On the back of the set, we have these designs and there are a couple of Bay Area shout-outs and that’s the closest I’ll get to saying hella on air.

SFBG: How did your stand-up show Ending Racism in a Hour prep you for Totally Biased?

WKB: When I wrote that show, the idea behind it was: what kind of show would I write if I was famous? I would have a screen, I would have a computer, I would talk about the world, I would talk about racism all the time, and I would be very topical.

So I did Ending Racism the way I would do it if I had a TV show and through lots of luck and hard work I ended up with Totally Biased. I know for sure that I would not have gotten Totally Biased if I had just done stand up. And by the time Chris saw me at the UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) Theatre in New York, I had already been doing for about three or four years.

SFBG: Do you have writers from the Bay?

WKB: Janine Brito, Kevin Avery, Kevin Kataoka, and Nato Green.

SFBG: What’s the history of your relationships with them?

WKB: I used to do “Siskel & Negro” with Kevin Avery, who’s from San Jose, on Live 105 back in the day and I met him right when I moved out to San Francisco. We did a lot of shows together, we were writing partners and almost got hired to do a D.L. Hughley show for CNN.

Kevin Kataoka is originally from Oakland and I met him when I first moved to San Francisco, in the SF comedy scene. He actually introduced me to Chuck Scolar who’s an executive producer of the show, and he’s the guy who introduced me to Chris Rock.

I’ve said many times that Janine is my comedy daughter, who’s this little hipster, half Cuban, all lesbian. I met Nato on the scene about six or seven years ago, so I had already been on the scene by the time I had met Nato and Janine.

Myself, Nato, Janine, and at one point Hari Kondabolu (fellow TB writer) had a three-headed standup comedy monster called “Laughter Against the Machine” that we started in the Bay Area and the New Parish in Oakland was the home base for that show. We’re currently working on a documentary about going on the road last year to various political hotspots in America.

SFBG: What’s your take on the SF comedy scene?

WKB: The thing about San Francisco is that it always has had a good reputation as a good comedy city. Ever since Mort Sahl stepped on stage at The Hungry i in the ‘50s San Francisco has had a great reputation as a comedy town. Even though we’re not the biggest city, all the greats come through San Francisco.

I remember seeing [Dave] Chappelle when I moved to town, and he was already packing the club despite not being nationally famous. This is was big because this was before the Internet took hold. He was already a legend and I remember one night when he was stage and he said yeah I just finished filming this movie and it’s all about weed! I saw him go to the next level when he got his own show, and so San Francisco is a great city for developing comedic talent.

If you come up in the San Francisco comedy scene, clubs like The Punchline and Cobb’s are loyal to local talent if you show loyalty to them. You will work with the best in the business. I’ve heard that New York comics say that San Francisco comics know more headliners and have more personal relationships with headliners than New York comics do because San Francisco comics hang out a lot before and after shows, whereas in New York everyone is always running to the next thing. The city is known for having good comedians but there’s not a style called “San Francisco comedian.” You can pick out a Boston, New York, or LA comedian but you can’t really pick out a San Francisco comedian.

SFBG: How does it feel to headline a show at The Fillmore?

WKB: In some sense that’s bigger than getting a TV show [laughs] when they said that I was going to play The Fillmore, I thought “wait a minute! It’s too soon!” And time will tell if it is too soon. It’s just weird to me that it’s happening now. I think a lot of it is because I’ve built up a name in the Bay Area.

SFBG: Will you have time to stop by your old spots?

WKB: I’ll have a chance to visit my old spots and look at the “did that really happen?!” look on people’s faces.

SFBG: What are places and things you miss the most about the Bay Area?

WKB: The one thing overall that both my wife — who’s from Monterrey — and I miss most is that the style of living in Northern California is so easy. When I think about my time in San Francisco, even walking outside my house, it feels like a baby bird being born. When I think about New York, every time I walk out of my house, I feel like a paratrooper jumping out of a plane. And there are definitely five or six Mission burritos in my future because New York does not understand how burritos work.

I also want to go back to The Punchline on a Sunday night where all of it really started for me. That place is my mecca. I just need to go there and walk around the stage seven times and really reflect on all that is happening. And oh! I’ll be probably ride the N-Judah and visit my old block of Ninth and Irving.

SFBG: I know you just found out about the second season but now that the election is over and your boy is back for a second term what direction do you think the show will be taking?

WKB: My career and act has followed Obama’s presidency and a lot of comics say it would have been better if Mitt Romney had won and I’m like noooooo this black president thing has worked out for me nicely. And the great thing about Romney being gone is that now we can actually talk about Obama from a more critical angle. Now we can talk about how Obama is not a great president, we can talk about Guantanamo and immigration. I don’t just want to be a cheerleader.

The Kamau Mau Uprising

Sun/9, 8pm, $29.50

The Fillmore 

1805 Geary, SF