Once Chris Rock and Robin Williams become lifetime members of your fan club, you should be used to getting compliments. Not W. Kamau Bell.
"I still feel like people who are digging me are early adopters," said Bell, host of the FX talk show "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell," which will expand from a weekly to a nightly show on the FXX channel in the fall. The comedian, who will be a guest Friday on MPR's comedy-and-music show "Wits" at the Fitzgerald Theater, took time this week to chat about race, his laid-back attire and his dream interview.
Q You made your first trip to Minnesota just a few months ago. I'm assuming there weren't as many black people in the audience as you usually get. Does that make it tougher for you?
A Well, you've got Prince, so that makes up for it. I think crowds are smarter when there are lots of different kinds of people in the crowd. When there's not, they can develop a "group think," which is not great for comedy. I always tell people that if my material makes them nervous, it's not me. It's them. The Minneapolis crowd was amazing.
Q Why are so many comics skittish when it comes to addressing race?
A There are a lot of comics that go there. It just depends on how high you're willing to go. I come from the same school as Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. You've got to have a point. If I don't have one and I'm just going for laughs, I put it on the shelf.
Q When you got the talk show, you were pretty open about the fact that you had a lot to learn about being on TV. How so?
A I can always do a better job of interviewing. These things take time. I don't think they'll ever release the "Best of Conan O'Brien" that includes his early shows. I've learned a lot from watching Conan and Jon Stewart. There's a real skill in setting people up and letting them knock it out of the ballpark. I didn't grow up wanting to be a talk-show host. When I got the job, all the headlines included "black talk-show host," and I thought: "Is Arsenio coming back?"
Q There's a lot of conversation right now about who will end up where on the networks' late-night shows, but none of the serious candidates are people of color or women. Does that trouble you?
A Well, I guess they want the widest possible audience and, in their minds, the widest audience is made up of straight, white men. Arsenio did it, but that show was syndicated. The audience is more fragmented now, so maybe someone will take a chance. Maya Rudolph would be amazing. Who wouldn't want to watch that?
Q You dress pretty casually on TV. Anyone suggest you get a makeover?
A Funny thing is that is a makeover. If it was up to me, I'd probably be wearing old blue jeans and Dickies work shirts. They do a good job of making me feel comfortable. No one has said I've got to wear a black tie and white shirt.
Q Who's your dream guest?
A Denzel Washington. I'd love to have a conversation with him about race. I don't think that's ever happened.
Q Do you think because of his status that he's obligated to talk about it?
A Well, look at the movies he's chosen. You don't accidentally play Malcolm X and Steve Biko.