Executive producer Chris Rock, left, is W. Kamau Bell's first guest… (FX )
FX continued its experiment in late-night comedy Thursday night with the premiere of "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell," filling the spot previously occupied by "Brand X, With Russell Brand." With their short runs and running times — six half hours spread out over as many weeks — there is something tentative about these shows, almost as if they are auditioning for some more substantial, nightly show to come.
For Brand, his month and a half in late night had the look of a lark, whose success or failure will have meant nothing much in the arc of his already established career. For Bell, it is potentially a step to bigger things
He will be an unknown quantity to most viewers, though he has been at this comedy thing for a while now, working out of the Bay Area, where he blogs for the SF Weekly ("Kamau's Komedy Korner") and developed his one-man show, "The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour," which drew the interest of Chris Rock, an executive producer of "Totally Biased" and its first guest. (Longtime Rock associate Chuck Sklar is the series' head writer.)
Typically, for topicality, the show tapes the day of broadcast. Bell's first subject was Olympian Gabby Douglas, both Twitter-tweeted complaints about her hair and Bob Costas' suggestion that her success might inspire other African-American girls to give gymnastics a try — "I love you, Bob Costas," said Bell, "but it isn't 1968 anymore — everybody can be inspired by Gabby Douglas."
He moved on to the Sikh temple shootings, playing with Mitt Romney's confusion of Sikh and sheik and Fox News' use of the term "anti-Semitic" to characterize such attacks. This is the stuff of "The Daily Show," delivered with similar incredulous outrage, but in a more personal and less ironic voice.
An interpolated segment had Bell out on the streets of Harlem interviewing fellow African-Americans about NYPD's controversial "stop and frisk" policy, which overwhelmingly targets people of color (who even more overwhelmingly are innocent of any crime), wondering whether a free soda with every stop ("Pop and Frisk") might make a difference, and suggesting things to put in one's pockets to make the process "a little more awkward for them and a little more fun for you" (oatmeal, sushi, pubic hair, magician's scarves).
Late-night comedy benefits from frequency and familiarity, which give host and audience room to unwind and the jokes room to fail. But there's no formula; every host must find his rhythm and voice there, and past experience would lead one to expect Bell's show to find its feet right about the time it leaves the air.
The premiere felt a little tense; the host is still learning how to relate to the camera, how to occupy television. Nevertheless, he proves a friendly presence; there is a voluble sweetness to his manner that should prove a tonally better companion than did the nattering Brand to"Wilfred"and "Louie," which it follows directly onto the air.
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