W. Kamau Bell knows the importance of viral videos. As the host of FX’s Totally Biased, the year-old half-hour late night show produced by Chris Rock, he tackles a lot of political and social issues that the Internet loves to discuss ad infinitum. “The more biased, the better” might even be a perfect motto for Internet debates.
The show’s most entertaining and intelligent clips live long lives on YouTube, where they’re shared by bloggers making points about feminism, wage inequality, classism, racism, and other hot-button issues. It’s always better to emphasize your point with well-written jokes—like when Bell talked to people on the street about the reasons women don’t like being catcalled, or when writer Janine Brito listed famous lesbian athletes who came out publicly before NBA player Jason Collins.
The comment sections on Bell’s videos are a combination of arguing against the show’s liberal perspective and praise for someone “finally calling this out!” That word-of-mouth social media and Internet presence earned the show a second season—and a move to a daily format on the new FX brand, FXX, this fall.
The show’s writers and host are also embarking on a summer-long standup tour, which kicks off July 11, in Boston, Mass. The Daily Dot talked to Bell about the importance of creating TV that also works online, hiring writers who are integrated in Internet communities, and the damage too much social media use can cause.
How much consideration goes into whether a sketch has the potential to do well online when it’s pitched for the show?
I don’t think we think of it that directly. I think you can go crazy, as many people have, trying to think about something going viral. We know when we’re writing something, if it’s about a specific issue, we try to write it as specifically as possible, because we know whether it goes viral or not, at least the people who are interested in that issue will have a new weapon in their arsenal with which to promote that issue.
For example, Mike Lawrence, a New York comedian, did a piece about working at McDonald’s for seven years and what it’s like to work in the fast food industry. Now that video only has 32,000 views, but it’s been shared a lot among the fast food workers blogs. Those people now have a thing where they go, “This is what we’re talking about!” but with jokes. Another video we did about men catcalling women, every now and again it’ll get another 20,000 views because something new will happen with catcalling and that video will be discovered and a bunch of people will watch it over a couple of days and so it’ll creep up on our video list.
Do you get a lot of your ideas from the Internet?
No, that’s backwards engineering. We have writers on the show that were already reading Jezebel or Feministing or Tumblr blogs before they got hired on the show. They were already engaged in the LGBT community, or the South Asian-American community so they say, “I’m already in this community, I know a lot about it and I want to write something about it because it’s a great way to get some comedy out of it.”
For example, I read Jezebel regularly and I’m also a comedian, so I’m very caught up in the middle of the rape joke debate. I’ve been accused of being a comedian, and I’ve been accused of being a feminist, so I’m the sweet spot for that argument. The arguments online are between feminists and comedians, so we wanted to reenact that on the show. So we did the thing “Feminists vs. Comedians” and the two best people we picked were Lindy West, who I knew would be great and be funny and smart, and I knew Jim Norton would be on the other side, but also be sensitive enough not to devolve into name-calling. I think they both did an incredible job. … It was quickly clear this was going to be our most-viewed clip ever. It’s also by far the longest clip we’ve ever posted.
It’s nice to know that people will sit and watch a longer YouTube video if it’s something they care about.
Do you have trouble selling more Internet-y stuff to a TV audience or is Totally Biased as niche as the Internet?
We’re more niche than the Internet. [Producer] Chris [Rock] has that perspective. You can talk about whatever you want, but don’t act like everything is a major news story. Paula Deen is a major news story, however I tend to think rape jokes and comedy culture is a more important, interesting story than the Paula Deen story. I think social media causes us to have a skewed perspective on what’s “going viral” because we can tailor our social media so what we think is a big deal is based on what’s getting posted about on your feed or your timeline.
On Totally Biased, we’ll talk about whatever we want to talk about. We just have to frame it in a way that someone who isn’t on the Internet every day isn’t going, “What is this?” My father-in-law one time said, “When you do jokes about Chris Brown, you really need to explain who he is.” I thought, wow. That’s crazy. To me, he seems famous. To him, Michael Jackson is famous.
How much does having an online following for the show factor into getting a second season or going daily?
I don’t know how much it matters to FX, because they’ve never said to us, “You need to get your views up on YouTube.” But that doesn’t mean they’re not behind closed doors talking about it. I think they’re not used to shows having big YouTube presences, because they’re not used to putting content from shows on YouTube. They put up snippets from other shows, where we try to put up as much of the show as possible. We probably post like 60 percent of Totally Biased.
I’m always comparing our YouTube views to like, Epic Rap Battles of History, where they have 30 million views a video or Fallon and Kimmel’s YouTube game and I’m like, “We are not doing a good job.” But then you compare us to other FX shows, and we certainly have a more active presence. I think FX believes in the show and right now it’s the Field of Dreams phenomenon. If we build it, they will come.
How important to you is maintaining a social media presence?
It’s of the utmost importance, and because I was no level of celebrity when the show started, I was always maintaining a social media presence and engaging with people. Not to the same extent as now but sometimes I’ll just go on Twitter for an hour and engage with people and answer intriguing tweets. I’m a big fan of turning people, if they’re being mean.
Do people on Twitter want to debate you?
Absolutely. We have a lot of “fact-checkers” out there, who are like, “That’s not how that goes!” And guess what? I don’t care. Not the news! Not pretending to be the news! Not even pretending to be the fake news! Just being totally biased.
I’ve said this before, but it’s like, man, what would Lenny Bruce’s Twitter feed have been like? Can you imagine? If Lenny Bruce had Twitter, how much more quickly he would have gotten boring? How many fights with trolls? “Lenny Bruce can’t come on stage tonight because he’s engaged in an epic Twitter fight with a troll.” We may be losing some of the great artistic statements of our time, especially from some of our comedians, because we’ve given up too much of our artistic energy to Twitter.
Fans take everything too literally.
Yeah! We did this thing about George Zimmerman that I pitched to the writers as “I want to write the ultimate character assassination of George Zimmerman” so clearly not something fair or balanced. People wanted to attack us because it wasn’t fair or balanced. I was like, “Yeah. I know. Comedy show.”
One thing social media can do is ruin your ability to be profane for the sake of being profane. That’s a big part of comedy and the history of comedy, going, “I’m going to be outrageous for outrageous’s sake just to see what happens.” I’m not talking about hate speech. Part of comedy is walking that line, being on the edge and sometimes going over the edge and seeing what happens. People are like, “How can you say that?” And as my friend [comedian] Moshe Kasher puts it, “Uh, because I was kidding.” That’s not an excuse for every joke. Two things happen: Sometimes comedians hide behind that “I was kidding” and sometimes audiences pretend they don’t know you were kidding. Both of those things can be problems.
Do you agree the Internet never forgets?
It doesn’t. It kind of sucks. There’s a clip of me on Comedy Central from 2005 telling a joke that I wish I could take down because it’s like a baby picture. Except it’s not cute or adorable. It’s, “Oh, I wouldn’t say that that way now. That was a different me.” But it’s up there forever. Eventually humans are going to learn that you can’t criticize every Internet clip like it just came out today. There’s different contexts for different things.
Right now, humanity and the Internet are at the same place cavemen were when they first discovered fire. They were like, “This fire thing is so cool! I love it! Ow! It keeps burning my hand. Anyway, gotta eat this raw meat. I wish I could figure out some way to make this meat taste better but this fire keeps burning my hand.”
Right now, with the Internet, we’re sort of just burning our hands with it. In 50 years, they’re going to be like, “Man, they really didn’t know what they were doing with the Internet.”
Photo via Counter Pulse/Flickr