Nov 15, 2013

Channel Surfing: Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell - with Jim Norton


Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
Sometime last year, FX decided to enter the late night programming market with their own brand of talk shows. The two that aired were Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and Brand X with Russell Brand. Where the latter was a more free form flow of conversation, Totally Biased seemed to have unexpected longevity. It took the news of the week and satirized it in ways akin to the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, but appealing to a demographic that hadn't received much attention: minorities and gays. Despite being a more minimalist show with only a screen portraying clips and images as the backdrop, it managed to outlast Brand X and eventually became essentially FXX's version of the Daily Show with nightly episodes and "Best of" episodes every Sunday. 
In a way, Totally Biased's expansion probably had more to do with FXX's decision to exist in the first place. Separating dramas and comedies, the move proved to be interesting, if baffling. As it stands, the marketing for the new network may be lukewarm, but its placement on the dial of channels is even more baffling and more to blame than any fault of Totally Biased. It wasn't that people weren't ready for the show. It was more that landing a comedy channel in between a series of sports channels was like a needle in a haystack. Things just didn't add up. 
Maybe there is more to it and the ratings were essentially honest, but that doesn't make the departure of Totally Biased less heartbreaking. As someone who enjoys checking out late night talk shows, this was one of the younger series that felt like it would last. Everyday they would post videos onto their fan pages and it featured biting satire that managed to be fresh and funny. It not only expressed issues important to minorities, it gave them a voice. W. Kamau Bell's voice was one that took some time to grow. While early on the series was finding its voice, by the time it moved to FXX, it was confident and knew what it was doing.
In fact, a large part of it came from formatting. While the show never expanded to an hour like Brand X, it did manage to find ways to make the most of the 30 minute format. With some of the best photoshop images and absurd clips, they managed to bring the news to life in the opening "monologue" of sorts before diving into segments that ranged from man on the street to editorials from cast and crew. Closing with an interview with figures ranging from political commentators to comedians and actors, the show had a homely feel where conversations could be had and opinions could be expressed and heard. 
It was a nice change of pace from other shows, which were either joke-heavy or just relied on satirizing broad news stories. With a group of comedians whose placement in the show managed to become distinguished and eventually as recognized as the hosts', this felt like a community show that even if the minimalist setting wasn't flashy, the personalities filled the room. Comedians like Dwayne Kennedy, Janine Brito, and Hari Kondabolu had segments that explored topics sometimes through rants, but other times through skits and realization of the show's limited resources. It was fun and endearing in ways not present in any news show since Infomania.
Getting to the final episode, it was an episode much like any other. Even if Bell was aware of the finale, he planned to go out with a bang. Making a bunch of "low hanging fruit" jokes about Rob Ford and Sarah Palin, he proved to be in top form as he tackled the news in ways that remind us what exactly we'll miss about him. His biased view and deadpan delivery are hilarious and with his growing skill as an interviewer, he does manage to portray charisma that will hopefully draw people to check out his stand-up work and whatever he does next.


It almost seemed fitting that Jim Norton would be the final guest as well. While not integral to the show initially, one of the show's biggest moments came when he discussed rape culture with Lindy West that turned into an affair of issues on Twitter. Even if the final conversation between Norton and Bell weren't on political news, it was on an issue that summed up what the show was about. It was about giving a voice to those who needed it more than ever. In an expanding world, the amount of minorities with TV shows remains low and with this cancellation, it loses one of the best young shows out there.
The discussion was about what justified as comedy. Much like Totally Biased, the limits to comedy was constantly argued and with Bell pushing the envelope while staying informative, it created this behemoth of freedom. While Norton spends most of the conversation defending his actions, what he says almost seems like a mantra for what the show stood for. As he quoted Trey Parker and Matt Stone: "Either everything's okay or nothing is okay." In terms of humor, he explained that just because you're offended, it doesn't mean that the joke should be removed from existence. People should be allowed to say what they want than fabricate some forced emotion.
Closing on photoshop images that were never used, Totally Biased ended its run on a hopeful note for all involved. There was a lot of crazy stuff that happened on the show and at very least, it gave Bell much deserved wider attention. It is arguable if this was caused more by the FXX movement or his ratings, but as a fan of the show, there is very little I can see to argue against it. On his personal blog, Bell stated "The show was canceled. I’m not canceled. 99.999% of stand-up comics don’t get this far. If I’m really lucky, what we did on Totally Biased will be remembered long after it stops airing. Heck, my mom is still mad that they canceled Frank’s Place."
Ending with humbleness and grace, Bell joins the pantheon of short lived talk shows that were something special, if just for a brief moment. Its existence is out there on the internet, where clips of skits and conversations remain to entertain and maintain one comedian's legacy in an attempt to give a voice to those who otherwise wouldn't have. Kudos Bell. Hope to see you around.

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