Telling Stories with Tone Bell

After attending college for film and television, Georgia native Tone Bell did what many would call the responsible thing: he got a day job in promotions and marketing. His work took him to San Francisco, then Dallas, where in 2008 he decided to take up a new evening hobby in open mic comedy. By 2011 Bell had won NBC’s “Stand Up for Diversity,” which led to a development deal with the network. Since then he’s appeared on several NBC sitcoms including Whitney, Bad Judge, and Truth Be Told, as well as cable comedy staples like Chelsea Lately and Key & Peele. This Saturday night at midnight marks the premiere of Bell’s Comedy Central Half Hour. I talked to the comedian and actor about the special, his influences and his plans for the future.

What’s up Tone?

I just had a pretty mediocre audition.

Have you been doing this long enough to know whether or not you nailed it?

You know what’s funny is that the ones where I think I’m the shittiest are the ones I end up booking, which is crazy.

What was this audition for?

I was auditioning for The Flash on CW.

Most of your television work has been comedic. Do you want to stay in comedy or go into drama, action or other areas?

Being a standup I love comedy, but one thing I’m finding out is that it’s difficult to do other people’s comedy. Although I enjoy it, I have a want for people to write for my voice more. Hopefully my FX show goes to series and I can do my voice the entire time and not have to worry about going hand in hand with a writer so we can compromise. I don’t want to compromise, I guess is what I’m saying. But I would love to do action/comedy where I would have a chance to be dramatic, but also have those things that are funny. Right now I’m not stressing about it though.

You’re currently on Truth Be Told, which is interesting given the fact that you said you don’t really like doing other people’s comedy. You play a standup comic on the show. How do you reconcile your feelings with your role?

This is my third lead and it’s been the best experience I’ve had so far. I’m able to bring my voice to it. They may write a joke that makes more sense for Mark Paul [Gosselaar], who’s a 41 year old white guy, but I want to make it work for a 31 year old black dude. I’ll be like, “I get it. It’s hilarious. But let me try this…” I respect the joke, but want to add my voice.

I read an article that described you as a “comedian-turned-actor.” Do consider yourself more of an actor or will you always be a comedian at heart?

If I didn’t know me and was looking at myself I would probably think that I was an actor that does comedy. But personally, I’m a comic first and an actor second. I enjoy acting, but I love comedy. I enjoy the sets that don’t go well. I love when life turns into a bit. I love a good story. It’s a selfish thing but I love not having to work with other people. On stage it’s all me. Whitney Cummings kind of taught me that. If I do well, it’s all me. If I shit the bed, it’s all me.

Since you’ve been getting more exposure on TV, what changes have you noticed in your comedy audiences?

People have never come to see me for what I’m currently on, which is funny. Maybe a handful, but I just hopped back on the road and I’ve got more people who came to see me from Bad Judge now than when I was touring when Bad Judge was on. When I was on Bad Judge and touring people were coming because of Whitney. It’s almost like people binge watch stuff later. Then they know your face 100 percent. They’ve watched the episodes and know exactly what you look like, as opposed to a week-to-week thing. My crowds are a lot more diverse than they used to be. My crowds are mixed right now. I’m getting a lot more black crowd members. I was getting 20 to 30 percent a year ago. Now my crowd is 50/50. I remember when I started comedy I went to see Kevin Hart at my home club and his crowd was 60 to 70 percent white, which made sense to me at the time. Now it’s like 90 percent black. I remember watching that happen. I don’t think I’m there, but I’m seeing the change and people taking notice.

Who are some of your comedy influences?

I have no problems saying that watching Bill Cosby’s Himself growing up was a huge influence. Also Sinbad, Ralph Harris, Carlin. I love stories. I can’t wait until I get to the point where I can tell a 10 or 12 minute story and get away with it. Right now I can tell a six minute story and people are engaged. But you’ve really got to want to hear a 12 minute story. I’m right in between mainstream and alt. I look more like a mainstream dude but I play more in the alt rooms. Kyle Kinane and Nate Bargatze are good friends of mine. Patrice O’Neal was my favorite comic. We miss him. The only person that’s really doing what Patrice was doing now is Bill Burr. Bill is awesome. He definitely helps fill the void of Patrice. I feel like Patrice was about to be the best comic in the world. We lost him too quick. And Brent Morin! Brent’s a really good friend of mine. We hang out a lot and are fans of each other, which I adore. We actually share a story that we’re both doing on stage right now. It’s his version and my version of the same story.

Your Comedy Central Half Hour airs this weekend. You were talking about your goal of telling longer stories. The material in this special is built mostly around a few short stories. Is this stuff part of something bigger that you’re building toward or is this material that you’re only doing for the Half Hour?

One thing I wanted to do is get people listening to me. I wanted to make sure that I could keep their attention for the next thing. I don’t think I’m going to use much of what’s here for the next thing. I was laying a foundation to pick up where I left off. When it’s time to do my hour I plan on picking up right where I left off. It’s like, “Here’s the fried ravioli or spinach artichoke dip for the meal that’s coming.” I gave you a little appetizer. Hopefully you liked it and are ready for more. I don’t want to tell jokes. There are a couple of jokes in there that help lead to something bigger, which I was nervous about because of commercial breaks. If the setups don’t make it in, people can get lost. But I think it’s worth the sacrifice.

Telling Stories with Tone Bell