The W. Kamau Bell Legacy: A Talk Show Five Years Ahead of Its Time

W. Kamau Bell on "Totally Biased" in 2013. He had a gift for recruiting talent for the show.

If you haven’t been paying attention to recent talk-show news, a quick recap: Abby Elliott picked up a Comedy Central show and Jordan Klepper lost one; Hulu’s only host, Sarah Silverman, returns in September, while Showtime announced its next talk show, starring Desus and Mero, which starts in 2019. At Netflix, David Letterman and Joel McHale finished seasons, Michelle Wolf started her first and Jerry Seinfeld returns next month, followed in the near future by Norm Macdonald and Hasan Minhaj.

So many talk shows come and go these days, it’s hard for any to make a major impact. And yet, one of the most influential ones today was canceled five years ago. “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell” ran for only two seasons (first on FX, then FXX), but its legacy has only grown thanks to the success of its on-air talent, particularly its crew of progressive, diverse stand-up correspondents, many of whom got their first major national exposure on the show.

Just this year, two of its rising stars (Hari Kondabolu, Aparna Nancherla) released Netflix specials and a third (Guy Branum, who was on “Chelsea Lately” before “Totally Biased”) finished the second season of “Talk Show the Game Show” (on Tru TV) and wrote a new book, “My Life as a Goddess,” due next month. Mr. Bell himself shot a Netflix special, “Private School Negro,” which becomes available Tuesday. While starkly different, these comics share a self-aware and politically passionate style of humor suited to Trump-era popular culture.

W. Kamau Bell: Private School Negro - Stand-up Special | Official Trailer [HD] | NetflixCredit...CreditVideo by Netflix

Their stand-up turns jokes into cudgels to break down racism, homophobia and systemic discrimination, but they also tend to be more comfortable than many comics in delaying punch lines in service of an argument. When Ms. Nancherla sets up a joke about advice from women’s magazines, she adds a sincere aside about Teen Vogue doing great political work. In his unusually introspective and entertaining memoir, Mr. Branum reveals himself as a trenchant, surprising critic, offering close readings of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” makeover movies and the different ways “Entourage” and the Lisa Kudrow series “The Comeback” present Los Angeles.

Last year, Mr. Branum, who on “Totally Biased” scathingly ridiculed the homophobic jokes on Comedy Central’s James Franco roast, wrote a polemical attack on the boy’s club of comedy. He singled out the scene at the Comedy Cellar, where comics congregate around one table. His final line: “Burn the table down.”

In his new book, Mr. Branum describes the debate this set off in frank terms (he even conceded that he misrepresented the table), weaving it around a nuanced discussion of his relationship with the standup of Eddie Murphy, which made him love comedy but also taught him “the building blocks of homophobia that would keep me closeted and self-hating into my twenties.”

There’s a similar internal struggle in the comedy of Mr. Kondabolu, who took aim at a more famous and beloved institution than the Comedy Cellar when he made the documentary “The Problem With Apu,” analyzing the stereotypical Indian character on “The Simpsons.” The roots of this movie can be found in a segment on “Totally Biased.” While he received so much press attention that “The Simpsons” responded in an episode this year, his latest special was relatively ignored. It’s a shame, because it was an artistic breakthrough for him, an incisively funny and formally adventurous hour that reveals a comic in command of his powers.

Mr. Kondabolu has long been a gifted, brainy comedian on the subject of race — the title of his first comedy album, “Waiting for 2042,” referred to the year when the Census Bureau estimated that white people will become a minority — but he’s looser onstage now, riffing with the crowd, often treating it as a foil. He’s become more ambitious in how he toys with audience expectations. In one loopy bit, he does the same joke four times, turning familiarity into an asset. And while he is primarily a social commentator (“Remember the good old days when we thought Joe Biden was a loose cannon?”), his show is preoccupied with the idea of comedy being too smart or political to reach a broad audience. He nods to and mocks the idea of playing to like-minded audiences after one laugh, quipping: “Thank you, Choir.”

Ms. Nancherla, who stars as the human resources manager on the Comedy Central show “Corporate” and is starting a 29-city stand-up tour this summer, may appear less overtly political, poking fun at exchanges with her parents and investigating her own anxieties or depression with a world-weary wit. But don’t be fooled. Her stand-up excels at capturing the mood of those disaffected by today’s politics without mentioning the president. “Every time we travel it feels like an apology tour,” she says in “The Standups,” Netflix’s collection of 30-minute episodes.

Mr. Bell, who moved to the West Coast after his talk show was canceled and now hosts a documentary series on CNN “United Shades of America,” deserves credit for recruiting these comedians as well as making a political talk show distinct from “The Daily Show” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers”: Less wonky, more polemical and eager to engage in debate. Unlike many hosts, he was not afraid to cede center stage, putting the spotlight on an exchange about rape jokes between Lindy West and Jim Norton, for instance.

Yet compared with these performers, his new special seems a little tepid. His stand-up was never dense with punch lines, but “Private School Negro” veers further from a tight club set, toward a mix of storytelling, jokes and arguments. It’s a rambling, sometimes overly familiar hour. As the father of two biracial children, his material portrays domestic scenes navigating parenting in a racist world. (You won’t find a more full-throated defense of the cartoon “Doc McStuffins.”)

Some of his political points, such as when he pushes back against people who cite free speech as they defend offensive remarks, will not surprise anyone who follows the daily back and forth on social media. But in his voice, which mixes a Seth Rogen-style chuckle and a periodic bellow delivering punch lines, such points take on a laid-back West Coast charm. In a bit that compares the men surrounding President Trump to mildewed driftwood, he draws attention to the mild laughter mixed with applause: “You all like: It’s not that funny, but it was really quite the picture you painted there.”

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