Anyone who has watched Mike Judge’s Idiocracy can’t help but see some of the more moronic features of the present as signs of a Dystopic future where electrolyte enriched sports drinks flow from drinking fountains, Costco hands out law degrees, and “Beef Supreme” is a perfectly acceptable baby name. We can be thankful, though, that two new shows on FX are at least attempting to combat stupidity. Brand X with Russell Brand, which wrapped up its six-episode run earlier this month, and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, which premiered last week, synthesize what’s happening in the news in ways that are accessible to people who don’t usually seek out political comedy or care about social commentary.
Like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, both Brand X and Totally Biased offer a sometimes biting, sometimes silly spin on current events. The two FX shows, however, aren’t concerned with satire or news parody and structurally are informal to the point of almost seeming haphazardly thrown together. Russell Brand and W. Kamau Bell dress casually and spend the majority of their time standing in front of a wall—something that is fittingly and simultaneously reminiscent of a comedy club performance and an academic lecture.
They host their shows in a conversational manner with Brand usually venturing out into his live studio audience, sitting on someone’s lap, and then having a little chat with the “lucky” person. For anyone who gravitates toward political humor, the faux newsroom setup that Stewart and Colbert operate within (or the table o’ opinionated folks that Bill Maher has over on HBO) works just fine but the informal format of the FX shows is inviting to people who check out mentally whenever they see a news desk.
Bell is a political comedian and activist whose insightful stand-up work has been celebrated by critics and fellow comics (including, of course, Totally Biased’s executive producer Chris Rock, who is interviewed in the premiere’s final segment). He’s endearingly nerdy (this guy drops Star Wars references like no one’s business) and the first episode of his show brazenly but drolly takes on New York’s “stop and frisk” program (a practice that gives the police the right to pat down anyone who simply looks suspicious, though the targets are predominantly African-Americans and Latinos); the (non) issue of Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas’ “nappy” hair; and, in the wake of the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, the apparent inability of many people (even presumptive GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney) to differentiate between Sikhs and Sheiks.
In the latter, he presents visual aides to help people distinguish between the two groups, displaying photographs of a Sikh, Sheik, and a Muslim, and saying that “a Muslim can be a Sheik but not a Sikh.” Then he shows a photo of Mark Zuckerberg, explaining that “he’s a geek, not a Sheik, not a Sikh, not a Muslim, just a geek.” Bell criticizes idiocy, clears up confusion, and points out injustice. While nothing is laugh-out-loud funny quite yet, the bits are amusing—the kind of stuff that you feel compelled to summarize for friends who’d missed out.
The “totally biased” conceit gives Bell carte blanche to examine troubling phenomenon like “stop and frisk” and basically say, “this is wrong.” His opinions are clear and even when the show lags, that, at least, gives everything some focus. Brand, on the other hand, only vaguely knows what his own show is about. Essentially, the British comedian walks back and forth on the stage, pondering American current events and then tries to make sense of them as someone who wasn’t raised in the country. From time to time, Brand will consult his expressionless, sort-of co-host Matt Stoller—a Harvard graduate and former congressional adviser—who will provide a few edifying remarks. The most amazing—or annoying, depending on who you ask—part of the show is Brand’s stream of consciousness riffing. He can take a topic, like the significance of the Dalai Lama, and turn it into a decent, impromptu monologue. His penchant for doing this, though, does end up dragging down the momentum of the show.
There is something inherently awkward about the format that Brand X and Totally Biased share. The shows have the clumsiness and airy pacing of a Saturday Night Live opening monologue, the shifts from one observation to the next just aren’t as punchy and seamless as you’d want them to be, and neither Brand nor Bell has totally found his hosting groove, but the sheer existence of the shows is encouraging. Both shows endorse inquisitiveness and socio-political awareness, so perhaps the lack of flow should be overlooked during the Snooki era.