I admit, I was a pretty infrequent watcher of the show. I watched the way most people now watch TV, through YouTube clips, funny recaps, and even the lowest form of TV watching, gif recaps. But the announcement last week that Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell had been cancelled was pretty crushing. Other sites have more thoughtful and timely responses to the show’s cancellation. But, ven though I’m a little late to the internet news cycle, it’s important to continue to share shows like Totally Biased which was unappreciated in its short life.
Totally Biased was very similar to other comedy shows on TV. It riffed on news stories with comedic, political commentary. It wasn’t as polished as The Daily Show. He didn’t assume a character like Stephen Colbert. He didn’t necessarily always buddy up to his interview subjects like most late-night hosts. A lot of times, interviews were awkward, but that’s what made it endearing. He approached his interviews with a kind of open honesty, acknowledging his own ignorance in some areas while still trying to be engaged in the subject matter. Often times, W. Kamau talked over audience laughter, and sometimes jokes didn’t seem to quite land. He laughed at his own jokes, acknowledging the ridiculousness of some situations. The strongest part of the show were the pre-taped segments, often on the street, that really made use of its diverse group of writers and comedians, as well as their NYC filming location.
This video was one of the first that gave them some internet fame in their early days, both for generally being hilarious, and for thoughtful approaching feminist issues, giving voice to actual women who deal with street harassment.
That was the strength of the show, and why it felt so new and so real. The writers and guests were exceptionally diverse. They tackled issues like street harassment, racism in the media, and issues of representation.
Guests and commentators looked like me, without fake foreign accents, which yes, is still a thing people of immigrant backgrounds in the media are expected to have. People were allowed to be their authentic racialized selves. The comedy came from real life, not heightened imagined situations filtered through sitcom-y writers’ rooms. This show was staffed by people who looked and acted like you. The show had a feeling of intimacy despite it being a nationally broadcast show. It spoke directly to many people’s perceptions of themselves as racialized beings in a larger society.
I had the good fortune of going to a taping of the show. I had never been to a taping of any show, and like I said earlier, was only a casual watcher of the show. Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black was the guest, which was mostly the reason my friend and I had even decided to go. We were free, and so was the event, so why not? Unlike most tapings (so I’m told), everything moved swiftly and efficiently. The line outside wasn’t kept too long. Instead, they ushered people up through security as quickly as possible. It was clear that the people who worked there were also excited to be part of their work, as rumors of a Denzel Washington sighting in the building led some Production Assistants on a mildly excited goose-chase around the building, as they all schemed ways to get to him and get him on the show. The audience itself was exceptionally diverse, mostly college-aged. I was briefly seated a row behind my friend but, after some rearranging, someone remembered we were together and asked if I wanted to be next to her, a gesture that seemed really thoughtful in the larger context of just making sure the set was camera ready. The show was great, broken up by the occasional technical issue or line re-read. The interview itself was kind of awkward, mostly based around W. Kamau’s own lack of knowledge around trans issues. Laverne Cox, however, dealt with his questions admirably and eloquently.
After the interview and in the middle of promo taping, an audience member interrupted with a question about the difference between transgender and transsexual. At this point, Laverne Cox had gone, leaving W. Kamau to answer this the best he could, which honestly wasn’t that great. You could feel some members in the audience getting a little uncomfortable (or it might have been mostly me and my friend). However, in a moment that I thought was exceptionally honest and smart, W. Kamau pointed to the fact that two, presumably straight, black men were trying to have an open, non-judgmental conversation about gender and sexuality, in a very public setting. Spaces aren’t usually provided or created for those conversations. The audience laughed, and realized that what he was saying was absolutely true. It spoke very clearly about the nature of the show. Totally Biased was creating safe spaces for conversations that weren’t comfortable or easy, and it was trying the best with what it had. The best part was that conversation, after all the scripted and rehearsed bits, managed to make it to air. Again, emphasizing that this show was unlike others, in that it was willing to advertise its imperfections and present candid, honest conversations.
So here’s to Totally Biased, a show that was gone too soon, but hopefully will not be forgotten. It was a show that America wasn’t quite ready for, but challenged us to see the flaws in ourselves pretty openly.