In 2011, before launching his acclaimed FX/FXX TV program, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, W. Kamau Bell did his first stand-up show in Pittsburgh. Fans packed the unlikely confines of Downtown restaurant Papa J's Centro, and Bell still calls it "one of the most fun shows that I've ever had in my life." Today, Papa J's is gone, Totally Biased is off the air, and the Bay Area-based Bell is on tour. In advance of his Nov. 21 gig here at another nontraditional comedy venue, Garfield Artworks, the socio-political comic spoke to CP while driving from Oklahoma City to Austin, Texas, "just like Jay Z and Beyonce do it," he notes.
How has your relocation to California been?
I just moved back to Berkeley. The People's Republic of Berkeley. Which is so far to the left, sometimes I'm like, "Jesus, let's pull back a little bit." ... I lived in the Bay Area for like 15 years, so this is a return to the way I like things. I like being pulled further to the left. Berkeley just voted to tax sugar!
Any thoughts on the mid-term elections?
In this country, we like the pendulum to swing back and forth. After about six years, the people go, "We're just tired of looking at 'cha." And I think the problem with the left is we tend to only want to come out and vote when something exciting or cool is going to happen, something Instagrammable or Twitterable is happening in an election.
As I get older, I try not to get caught up in that pendulum, because it can drive you a little bit crazy.
Utah elected the nation's first black female Republican Congressperson.
Mia Love! I'm in that weird position where I'm still proud of her accomplishment even though I disagree with everything she probably believes. "I'm so proud of you — your politics are horrible! I couldn't be more proud of your horrible politics!"
Some say the Republican Party will tout her as proof of its diversity.
Name me the last time that has worked for a black Republican. Somewhere there's a room, and in that room sits Michael Steele, Allen West, Alan Keyes. Talking about, "But I was told ..." Herman Cain. "But they said I was going to be ..." Yeah, they sure did, didn't they? Ben Carson, he's actually probably going to be in that room shortly.
I understand intellectually you being a black Republican, because you might be fiscally conservative — and you might be socially conservative, even though as a black person, when has that ever worked out for us? But the minute you sort of want to allow yourself to become the face of Republicans as a black person? That's not even as long as you get to be Miss America. 'Cause after about six months, the party goes, "You know, that's enough of that black person. Let's get back to the white guys we like so much."
It was a rough mid-term for progressives in Congress, but a few red states did approve minimum-wage referendums.
The other night, Rachel Maddow — who I should note, is my patroness: when I get in trouble, I think of Rachel Maddow, and that makes me feel better — she did a whole show the other night about all the good things that happened on Tuesday that people were ignoring. Yes, the Republican Party has the House and the Senate, that is true. But things like the minimum wage passing, she said — even Republicans want these things.
There's a lot of good things that will come out of this that ultimately will help us way longer than who is in charge of the Senate and the House right now. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell — [sings] bah dah bam pa dah bup — that's a temporary thing. The minimum wage being raised, that's not gonna change.
Progressives have long looked to the federal government for change. Does it make more sense to work at the state level?
It's that old "think globally, act locally." You're always gonna have more power in your community than you have in the White House. That's probably even true of Barack Obama. He has more power in the bedroom than he has in the government.
Who would have thought when Barack Obama was elected that by his sixth year in office there'd be 33 states where gay marriage was legal? And that's not something that happened in the halls of the White House. Although when they asked, he said, "Ah, I'm not that bothered by it." ... And that actually gave people a lot of power to go out and fight the battles.
I think maybe his greatest accomplishment is maybe that, and "Maybe people should be paid more." He can't raise the minimum wage himself, but just by giving people permission to fight that battle, minimum wage is going up.
My days of being in love with Barack Obama are long past. [I like him,] but there's a lot of other stuff I wish he should have done, had done, would do differently. But I do think that his greatest accomplishments are going to be social movements that he doesn't actually do anything, but they happened on his watch, and he should get credit for that stuff.
It still amazes me how fast public opinion changed on same-sex marriage.
I think a lot of people thought they were against gay marriage but hadn't actually thought about it. Like as soon as you sat down and had a conversation with someone who was for marriage equality, they were like, "Oh! Yeah, I'm for it."
It's like a kid: "I-don't-like-carrots!" You ever had a carrot? "No." Exactly. Once you sat down and experienced talk of marriage equality, and what that means to people, you'd be like, "Why would I be in the way of that? Why would I want to be that asshole?"
There's certainly people in the country who want to be that asshole. But as progressive movements always work, those people eventually die off and their kids are a little bit less of assholes.