Why We Needed ‘Totally Biased’

At first glance, Totally Biased’s set comes off as pedestrian. A brick wall that’s too well-manicured, graffiti manufactured solely for the sake of being graffiti. It all seems like forced shorthand for “the street,” like instead of a half hour of social politics, W. Kamau Bell is about to record a twelve-minute video telling middle schoolers in the late nineties not to do drugs.

But as one gets more familiar with the show, that set stops being a caricature and instead becomes something genuine. Sure, it’s still far too well-lit for its own good, but over the past year or so, Bell and his cohorts took that facsimile of coolness and broke it in, almost to the point of making it look like it was literally broken into. When the show moved to a nightly format and its politics became even more targeted, it wouldn’t have been difficult for a viewer unfamiliar with it to think it something that snuck its way on air, as if executive producer Chris Rock found an abandoned building, tagged it, and then brought in a camera crew. Its exile to FXX was all the more fitting, then, as it turned the show from a sleeper hit to some sort of pirate radio production. At times a good audio mixing was the only way to tell that Totally Biased wasn’t some public access show that mistakenly leaked its way into more households than it should have. The entire atmosphere culminated in a feeling like the show was some illicit material, as if every night viewers had to hit a button on their cable boxes at just the right time in hopes of getting a grainy, out-of-focus video, nervously eying the driveway in fear that their parents would come home too early and catch them watching it, or ask them about a mysterious twenty-dollar charge on a billing statement.

That feeling wasn’t all too off, however. It was never seedy, but Totally Biased always kind of seemed like it shouldn’t have been on television. Though it held the aesthetics of 1998, the show was crafted for some far-flung future, where audiences across the nation eagerly plopped down in front of a couch to watch Hari Kondabolu emphatically talk about why Columbus Day shouldn’t be celebrated. The goofy laugh that followed most of Kamau’s jokes on the show was tinged with a certain incredulity, not just that a picture of him with a plantain Photoshopped over his genitals was being used as a diagram in an instructional video about gender identity, but that it was being seen by millions of people.

The rest of the laugh, of course, was simply a chuckle at the absurdity of the whole situation. Totally Biased wrestled with some of the stickiest sociological issues, but did it with silly quips and audio cues. Throughout its run, as it danced around opportunities to be genuinely offensive, the show sometimes doubled as a seminar on how to joke about serious affairs. Sarcasm is a trap that political commentary can easily fall into, jokes dripping with indignant vitriol and spoken with a sneer, but Totally Biased only ever played up sarcasm to squeeze an extra laugh or two out of a bit. Aside from the occasional groan-worthy pop culture joke, nothing on the show ever felt particularly forced. A multicultural writing team allowed the humor a level of earnestness, and segments with on-screen regulars like Janine Brito and Aparna Nancherla felt less like flashy pieces and more like stand-up sets that just so happen to be about the apparent racism of a drug law. Likewise, though it was mostly lighthearted, the show avoided being particularly frivolous. As unlikely as it sounds that a show that once had an honest to God dance number could have tactfully addressed life-and-death issues, it was a mostly respectful affair. There were misfires, sure (Laverne Cox chiding Bell over laughing about how the culture of violence against trans people makes her feel threatened when fans try to make physical contact with her was particularly squirm-worthy), but there was heart behind every segment.

One would be remiss not to mention the show’s interviews, either. As a show created by a group of comedians and sponsored by one of the largest comedic voices of the generation, seeing fellow comics like Maria Bamford and Sarah Silverman sit down with Bell wasn’t a surprise. Nor were most of the first season’s guests, the likes of which included Rachel Maddow and Don Cheadle. These interviews were entertaining and interesting, sure, but some of the early guest spots come across as an attempt for the show to find traction and validity. The second season’s movement to a nightly format opened up opportunities for less conventional guests, and with it the staff writers put in an effort to invite voices typically unheard on television at all, much less on a late night show. In its final month of airing alone, Bell sat down with rap aficionado Jay Smooth, garage punk band Death, and an American Sign Language interpreter who specialized in concert interpretation. These interviews were not only funny, but served as a good introduction or shorthand for certain lifestyles or subjects. Bell’s skills as an interviewer truly shined when he was enthusiastically asking questions to his guest, hoping to have them explain their ideas not only for the audience, but for himself as well.

In that same sort of educational vein were the occasional group interviews, where two opposite-minded advocates of a certain issue would have a debate of sorts with Bell moderating. Bell’s laid-back approach to these conversations kept them from seeming like contrivances meant to pad show length or boost ratings and instead like real discussions between two parties a little too hostile to one another to be considered friends. These segments also had a habit of blossoming out into something bigger, like when a question of whether Washington D.C.’s football team was in need of a change turned into a question of whether using indigenous people as a mascot could be done tastefully at all, or when a debate between comedian Jim Norton and writer Lindy West about the appropriateness of rape jokes became placed in the ongoing comedic question of what, if anything, is off limits. At the time of this writing, a bubbly conversation about the existence of God is the most popular thing on Totally Biased’s Youtube channel, with a view count exponentially higher than anything else uploaded. If that video serves to be the only lasting record of the show, it’s a succinct approximation of everything it stood for.

The news of Totally Biased’s cancellation is a sad one for many reasons. Its movement to FXX came off as an ill portent, and the tanking in ratings it saw because of the switch made it seem doomed from the beginning. The show was, in a sense, still in its nascence. Bell is a talented stand-up, but only recently gained his sea legs for late night, eschewing the dad joke snort after most of his one-liners for a more confident giggle. But the worst aspect of its ending is simply that it’s ending. Totally Biased gave voices to many who desperately need to be heard, and for all of its anodyne humor, much of the show’s subject matter was heavy-hitting. Totally Biased will never be the groundbreaking powerhouse it could have been, but its short run still serves as a weird, funny, tumultuous experiment. The show was a fever dream, one that couldn’t fully decide its tone or which decade it existed in. It was like nothing that had come before it, and it’s unlikely anything else will ever have quite its brand of weirdness. Considering what it set out to do and what it ended up becoming, that might be a fitting legacy.

Garrett Brown doesn’t have much of a web presence, but occasionally writes about things at adumbjerk.tumblr.com.

Why We Needed ‘Totally Biased’