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Interview: Fam’s Tone Bell

by Charles Trapunski

It’s wonderful to see that the phenomenal Tone Bell is everywhere. He’s a lead on the much loved CBS sitcom Fam, stars in the upcoming highly anticipated film Little, still hits the comedy circuit to do his act, and will have his own special, Tone Bell: Can’t Cancel This, premiering tonight on Showtime.

We spoke to the multi-talented and funny comedian by phone, and he really provided a good perspective on what he is working on.

The following a condensed and edited version of our interview with the hilarious Tone Bell.

Brief Take: How great is it to be a part of a series that doesn’t call attention to an interracial marriage?!

Tone Bell: It’s been a nice change from the elephant in the room. Like, ‘can we ignore it’? People want you to put your finger on it, but it’s like “how about we all understand that there are other problems that can snowball into bigger things, and this is not one of them”. You can have a conflict without relying on the skin colour or culture. And that’s another reason why I took this part in the first place. This is the first year that after Disjointed was cancelled and I was released from my contract, that I just got flooded with “Hey, do you want to do this?”. I’ve gotten offers before, but this was like ten scripts laid out, whichever one you want to do, you can have it. I was like “Oh, this is different”, I’ve never had this abundance of material before. So going through everything, my parents read stuff, my assistant, one of my managers, and we got down to Fam. Then Kate Walsh called me, who our creator is friends with from before, and she said  “Give this one a good read. If you don’t like it, then whatever, but at least check it out”. So I read it and I could tell it wasn’t written with me in mind, it wasn’t written with a black dude in mind, because it was kind of built from our creator Corinne’s (Kingsbury) lifestyle. When I read this, I knew that my wife wasn’t going to be black as well, and so it worked really well with Nina (Dobrev) and I already being tight from the movie that we did together (Dog Days). That kind of came together and it was like, you never see the black family be a little more affluent, you never see the white family be a little more dishevelled, but that’s not the problem. There’s problems that arise within it, but it’s like, hey man, people are people, people come from different backgrounds, and can we make it work? And I think, yeah, if you want that show to be about one thing, you can find that show, it’s out there, this is not about that.

BT: What do you like best about working with Nina?

TB: Man, we talk. I mean, we are really good friends since we shot Dog Days, because what was great about that movie is that our first scene shooting together is when our characters met, and her and I had met two hours before that. So you kind of see the evolution in our shooting of how comfortable we have become with each other. And we’re just silly, man, we’re always in one another’s dressing rooms, we leave the doors open, we invite our friends out afterwards, and kind of party afterwards. She’s like “I’m hanging out at the beach afterwards with my friends, come on!”, so I’ll pack up my truck and head out there. We try to keep it that we’re on the same page, so it comes across on screen. I mean if you break down the show, there’s stuff you see that would’ve been…like I’m a big fan of trading lines and giving jokes out. Like “Oh, you should say this, I’ll react to that” and not even tell the producers [laughs]. We’re just going to do it! So she will come to me and say “I don’t know how this joke works, can you give it to me, can you give me delivery? Or I’m like “Here, I might do it like this, but this might work best for you”. And so we just share and we just figure out how to make the team aspect work for us, and I think that it comes across on screen.

BT: Tell me about working with your TV parents, the legendary Brian Stokes Mitchell and Sheryl Lee Ralph. 

TB: I found that out when I read it, because nobody told me, they kind of let it be a surprise. When I found out, I was like “Dude, are you kidding me?!” I grew up watching these two and I show up to work and this is like ‘Mom and Dad’ and you can check my Instagram for this, but they kind of favour my actual parents. [chuckles] I took a picture with both of them, while my folks were in town, and I call them “Mom and Dad”. It’s crazy to watch them during my years growing up, even when I was like, “Oh, this is what I want to do”. I was watching Fresh Prince of Bel Air and I was like “I want to be on a sitcom”, and then to walk into work one day and it’s like, “Oh, this is your Mom and Dad for hopefully 6+ seasons”. It’s such a dream.

BT: What does it mean to you to be an Executive Producer on your Showtime standup special, Tone Bell: Can’t Cancel This?

TB: When I said yes to Showtime, we had this meeting like “where do we go with my special?”. It’s like here’s the idea: I want everybody I grew up with and who I am friends with to be involved. I don’t care what it is, we’re going to find them a job. And so my buddy, the first guy who ever took me on the road when I started comedy, he did the pre-warmup, the guy who was on the road now did the warm-up, the voice that you hear intro me is one of my boys, Omar J. Dorsey, from my neck, Decatur, Georgia. The end credits music is done by a dude who I grew up with since I was fourteen. Photography, the key art, the logo on the floor, every piece was like, I want them involved and pay them for their work, because I didn’t get here alone, so they need to be compensated and they need a credit. I didn’t want to do it and take all the credit. It’s a team effort.

BT: What do you want people to learn about your authenticity from Can’t Cancel This?

TB: I want people to know about me after a set, if it’s a ten minute set, if it’s an hour. I prefer you to think about me in the car on the way home and discuss it first and get in the crazy laughs you don’t remember in the moment. So yeah, if you can’t relate, I’m at least going to lay it out for you enough to go “Okay, I can walk in your shoes. I may not understand your perspective, but I can walk through it with you right now because you gave me all the details.” It’s important for me that most of the stories are 80 to 90 per cent accurate, sprinkle in a little bit for comedic effect, but it’s all true.

BT: What is something that you’d like the audience to take away from your comedy special?

TB: I want you to realize that comedy for me is a skill at which I work hard, and you get some people who are just naturally funny, you grab a mic, there’s no writing this stuff down and they’re just hilarious. I’ve worked hard for it, and to be able to mould the story and also know it’s true, it’s authentic, and there’s a lot of perspective in there. I mean, the first half of it is a lot of “Oh, here’s some actual things that happened”, also kind of silly, and you start chipping away at who I am as a person. Then the next half is kind of how I feel people label me in Hollywood, kind of non-threatening, like I just want to get my sitcom work, but also here’s what my life is like when I’m not on stage and everything is fine. So don’t think that I’ve made it because I’m on a sitcom, I still have to go through these small towns who don’t watch my show and I get treated like a non-celebrity, and here’s my perspective on it. Can’t Cancel This is almost like an open letter on my perspective. You will also 100 per cent be able to understand who my influences are.

BT: Who would you like to have as some of your future collaborators?

TB: I really want to do something with Reggie Hudlin. I met him on Bad Judge when he did that with us, Richie Keen, I mean. I’m developing a project right now with Richie. I got a couple of features on the line that I’m trying to sell too. There’s plenty of people with whom I want to work.  I’d love to work with Kathy Bates again, I’d love to work with Jordan Peele, Lil Rel Howery, Damon (Wayans) Jr., Lamorne (Morris), Sam Richardson, Justin Hires. I would like to work with plenty of people in this new class. Hopefully everybody else is getting a little bit older, we’re moving in. Mahershala (Ali), you know, Chadwick (Boseman), Ava DuVernay, Kenya Barris. There’s plenty of directors and producers who I would love to get a chance to work with, and hopefully it’s coming.

BT: What did you like best about working with Marsai Martin on Little?

TB: Man, that girl’s so funny. Marsai is great, man, she’s a little general. She is so funny, so talented and very professional for her age. She was just, you know [laughs] she was just walking around having a good time. She talks like she has a mortgage, like she has stuff to do. But it was great. I probably had two or three scenes with her, but she was on set every day and yeah, it was great, man. I thought my part was going to be way smaller than that and I got a chance to ad-lib. A lot of my lines aren’t in the script, I’m just kind of playing around. So if Will Packer, James F. Lopez, Regina (Hall), Marsai (Martin) could trust me, and Tina (Gordon) says to me, “Do whatever you want to do”, I was like “Alright!”. She said “Just make sure that it fits”. To do a movie that I know Will Packer is probably going to break another 100 million dollars and will be crazy box office will help me with my career, because he also did Truth Be Told, so I’m already at least one foot in the door in that family. Hopefully they keep me around because they’ve been very nice. It’s crazy, because I auditioned for Stomp the Yard back in the day, like early, early on. Like in Rainforest Films Will Packer Production days, so it’s nice like 10 years later, almost 15 years later to work with him. I wasn’t that far along in my career, but it was like “Oh, I saw you then and now you’re bigger”, I got a better career. So it’s nice to come back and be able to go “Man, remember when I didn’t get that part?”. [laughs]


Tone Bell: Can’t Cancel This is on Showtime at 10pm ET tonight on Showtime. Fam airs on Thursdays at 9:30/8:30c on CBS. 

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Brief Take