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'Totally Biased' TV Show Canceled, A Total Loss?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll speak with actor Hill Harper about his new book, "Letters to an Incarcerated Brother." That's in just a few minutes.

But first, speaking of television, when you think of late-night topical humor you probably think Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon. Well, for the past year, there's been another show out there that's taken a satirical look at the news but with a much sharper and direct focus on race and gender. Produced by Chris Rock, it's called "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell." Here's a clip talking about a New York controversial stop-and-frisk policy.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm tired of being searched like - I want to be searched by ladies - if it was ladies cops, I wouldn't mind, they could search me every day.

W. KAMAU BELL: Do you dress like this for your job or so you don't get stopped and frisked? What if every time they stopped you, they gave you a soda? And they called it like pop-and-frisk?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That would be tight.

BELL: Would that make it better?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Or pop-and-lock.

BELL: Uh-oh, uh-oh. Look at you, look at you. How about if every time they stopped you to frisk you, every sixth time you got a free Subway sandwich. Would that make it better?


MARTIN: So now that you're excited about it, it's been canceled. Despite a dedicated following online, the show's audience numbers drop significantly after it was moved from FX to Fox's new network FXX. We wanted to talk about why late night still doesn't look like America. So we've called NPR's TV critic, Eric Deggans. Eric, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Yeah, thanks for having me back.

MARTIN: Well, you know, shows are canceled all the time. So why do we care about this one?

DEGGANS: I guess we care about this one because it is one of the rare late-night shows that stars a nonwhite host. And it was a show that had a really distinct political point of view. I mean, of course Arsenio Hall's doing what he's doing in syndication and late-night. But W. Kamau Bell had this real sharp, political focus. He did some great comedy as you saw about stop-and-frisk, about the difference between Sheiks and Sikhs and how we get confused about ethnicity and religion in America. And he did a great pointed thing about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. And so he was a voice for a certain kind of politics that we really don't see in late-night very much. And so I think there are some fans - some dedicated fans out there that are sorry to see it go.

MARTIN: You mentioned Arsenio Hall. Now he had a good run, right? Back...

DEGGANS: Back in the day.

MARTIN: Back in the day. He was on for what, like seven years? Right?

DEGGANS: He was on for a good - yeah, seven years.

MARTIN: So until there was kind of a sense that he had kind of run out of gas. I mean, surely he didn't meet the longevity standards set by Johnny Carson, for example. But what do you draw from his experience as opposed to the experience of W. Kamau Bell?

DEGGANS: Well, and you know Arsenio is on now. He has a syndicated late-night show and he's trying to come back. And I think the difference was that the old Arsenio was presenting something that hadn't really been seen on television. Back at that time, you still had Johnny Carson on. You still had a domination of not just white male TV hosts but white male culture - old-school, middle-aged white male culture. And so young people didn't have a lot to watch on late-night television and young urban people didn't have a lot to watch on late-night television.

And what you see now is that hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel have found a way to tap elements of urban culture and youth culture - of course, Jimmy Fallon's pretty young. And so is Jimmy Kimmel and Conan. So they're able to generate sort of that youth culture in a way that the old school TV hosts who were on when Arsenio was on, they can't do.

MARTIN: Isn't it curious though, that of the one area of television - I mean, in public affairs television there's some, you know, diversity - I mean, the public affairs Sunday morning shows there's Candy Crowley on CNN. There's you know, on "The NewsHour," public television now, you've got Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff co-hosting that program. So these kind of venerable institutions of, you know - the sort of tent-poles of television, you know. Public affairs, late-night - late-night is still not diverse. I mean, George Lopez made a run at it. You know, Mo'Nique had a show. Why do you think that is?

DEGGANS: Wanda Sykes.

MARTIN: Yeah, Wanda Sykes had a show, which was very different in a lot of respects. I mean, not to mention the fact that she would drink throughout the show, which, I mean, some people found really funny. But why is that, do you think?

DEGGANS: I think TV is about target audiences. Especially in cable, especially in late-night, which is kind of a fringe time period, right? So I think part of the problem is finding a niche audience that wants to see that show that you're putting on. What's interesting to me is that if you look in daytime, you see people like Steve Harvey, you see Queen Latifah, you see Cedric the Entertainer took over hosting "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and that's doing well. There is a sense that the target audience in daytime, which is middle-aged white women, are more receptive to the hosts of color that we're seeing in that time slot. Late-night still seems to be kind of the province of young white guys.

And, you know, part of it is you've got to figure out a way to develop a show that targets an audience. Bravo's "Watch What Happens Live" - I don't know if you're familiar with that show - hosted by Andy Cohen. But it was a recap show for all of the unscripted reality shows like "The Real Housewives" and it's hosted by a gay man. And he was able to draw all the middle-aged women who are watching those reality shows to his late-night show. And unfortunately, W. Kamau Bell was kind of cut off. He was put on FXX, which is targeted to white males with shows like "The League" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and reruns of Charlie Sheen's latest show "Anger Management." And it didn't - he wasn't really in an environment that could funnel people who might be his niche audience to his show.

MARTIN: So would he - perhaps we might see him resurfacing during the day? Is that possible?

DEGGANS: I doubt it.

MARTIN: On the face of it, kind of, that kind of edgy very pointed humor does not seem like something you really...


MARTIN: ...Do see during the day. But is it possible?

DEGGANS: No, no. The stuff during the day is much more sort of evenhanded and mainstream. What I always wanted to see was W. Kamau Bell on HBO or Showtime or a pay-TV channel where he could really be sort of as raw and as pointed as he wanted to be. I thought Chris Rock had a brilliant late night show on HBO in the '90s, if anybody remembers it. Louis C.K. was a writer on the show. I mean, Prince was a musical guest one time. And I would love to have seen them do something that took that into the 21st century.

MARTIN: Well, maybe we'll see that. All right, Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. He was kind enough to join from his home office in St. Petersburg, Florida. Eric, thank you.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.