On a crisp Tuesday in September, primary election day in New York City, volunteers are handing out mayoral campaign flyers on the fringes of Zuccotti Park, and Laurence Lau sizes up the odds. “I don’t let my ideology get in the way,” he says. “You can’t — that’s how you lose money.” On a concrete table, a spreadsheet listing candidates and prices is open on a laptop and Lau explains how his computer model once turned raw data into positions on Intrade, a now-defunct site that billed itself as “the world’s leading prediction market.”

“I like betting because it’s the ultimate form of truth,” Lau says. “If someone says something to me and won’t put money on it — forget about it.”

Our meeting place is famous due to its association with Occupy Wall Street, but Lau picked it because it was one his regular lunch spots when he worked inside the nearby World Financial Center. By day, as a 26-year-old mutual fund analyst, he pored over billion-dollar investments, and by night, he traded tens of thousands from his own savings on Intrade, making bets with counterparties around the world. The market’s mechanics mirrored the proposition of a handshake wager: Traders bet directly against one another, winner takes all, with contracts always paying off in increments of $10. If a seller was willing to risk $6, the buyer would put up $4, and people would say the contract was “trading at 60,” giving the price the appearance of a percentage probability.

Intrade’s system was designed to evoke sophisticated investment, not a casino or a horse track; it rewarded analytical calculation over partisanship and wishful thinking. In theory, the traders’ collective wisdom, reflected in the market’s prices, would augur the ultimate electoral outcome. In 2008, for instance, it had come within one electoral vote of nailing Obama’s margin of victory. Its record had won it a following among journalists, Washington insiders, and a small cadre of economists who believed in a radical-sounding proposition: that free markets could be used to reliably forecast world events.

Though Intrade was tiny, and based in Ireland for regulatory reasons, its backers included several billionaires and a passel of American hedge fund managers. The site reflected their gospel of quantification — the numerical ethic that has spread, in recent years, from the finance world to nearly every competitive facet of American life. Intrade says its users wagered a total of $230 million on the 2012 presidential campaign, which made it nothing more than a flyspeck in comparison to actual financial markets. But it attracted an avid community of traders — finance guys, card sharks, political junkies — most of them young men in their twenties, the Xbox and Red Bull demographic. They scoffed at the rubes, like the tea partiers who bet real money on Herman Cain. They competed for inside information, cozying up to political reporters and campaign workers. A few traders, the evidence suggests, employed the sort of bucket-shop tricks that might have gotten them handcuffed by the Securities and Exchange Commission if they had tried them in their day jobs. When they made a killing, the wolves of Intrade howled about it on the site’s message boards, and on Twitter.

On primary nights, Lau would sometimes call county clerks to pry out the latest voting numbers, before they reached news organizations. “That’s what I think a lot of Wall Street is,” Lau says. “Have an edge and don’t tell anyone about it.”

In his wagering, Lau gave similar weight to the teachings of Paul Tudor Jones — a Wall Street legend who was an early Intrade investor — and Billy Beane, the statistically minded baseball executive who was the hero of the book and movie Moneyball. His computer system owed something to Black-Scholes, a financial model for derivatives, and something to Nate Silver, the poll-crunching star of the 2012 election, then based at the New York Times. Though Lau’s winnings were modest — “five figures,” he says, money he was setting aside to pay for an MBA program — he thrived on the competition, and the stories, perhaps apocryphal, of traders who had hit big jackpots. “Some other guy,” he tells me, “bought a million-dollar condo in the Financial District with his winnings.”

The night of the 2012 election, Lau camped out in his office adjacent to his firm’s trading floor, taking advantage of the ultrafast internet connection to get an extra nanosecond’s advantage over the guys using their living room Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, down in Virginia, Joe Schilling — a communications professional who drove a car with the vanity plate “BETSMRT” — was sitting in front of three computer screens, monitoring the markets for individual states, which you could also bet on Intrade. “We were buying, hand over fist, Obama-Virginia contracts in the 40s,” he said, “and rode it all the way up to 100.”

Along with the reelected president, new modes of quantitative analysis were vindicated by the 2012 campaign season, which sometimes seemed as much a contest between dueling statistical models as ideologies and candidates. Journalists like Silver and the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, and the Obama campaign’s own sophisticated numbers operation, were hailed as avatars of a new force of rationality in media and society. The nerds won.

But Intrade wasn’t given much of a chance to capitalize on the moment. Within months of the election, the company had collapsed beneath the weight of a U.S. government lawsuit and a crippling financial scandal. Some of the factors in Intrade’s demise — regulatory ambiguity, erratic management, a flawed business model — were ills common to many internet startups. Other travails, including the mysterious death of its longtime CEO on Mount Everest, were like plot twists from an adventure novel. But the root source of the market’s problems, defenders say, was a gap, perhaps unbridgeable, between a promising model for predicting the future, and the legality of Intrade’s betting parlor.

As New Yorkers cast their ballots for mayor, Lau could do nothing but rue the wasted profit opportunities. “What is gambling? Can someone define gambling for me?” he asks. “Is it putting money on an uncertain outcome? Then that sounds like Wall Street.”

In a federal lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., the U.S. government accuses Intrade of flouting regulation and violating securities laws. The regulators contend that beneath its innovative façade, the site was really just another grubby offshore bookmaker. Koleman Strumpf, an economics professor at the University of Kansas, says the powers that be could never accept the promise of prediction markets. “It was socially unseemly,” says Strumpf, who has shown that the practice of betting on elections has a long history, and an equally a persistent habit of attracting the wrath of the authorities.

Roman bookies ran numbers on the election of Renaissance popes until Gregory XIV banned the practice on penalty of excommunication. Around the turn of the 20th century, Wall Street brokers openly traded election futures and newspapers quoted their prices like modern opinion polls. Strumpf estimates that at the peak of this practice, in the election of 1916, around $10 million was bet on these markets — more than $200 million in today’s dollars. By the end of the New Deal era, though, the electoral markets had all but disappeared, due to both competition — modern polling pushed the betting lines out of the newspapers — and legal crackdowns.

American law has traditionally drawn a distinction between hedging risk for an economic purpose and playing games of chance. Putting $100 on the Broncos is illegal, but speculating on the future price of a barrel of oil, or the timing of your own death (via life insurance), is perfectly acceptable. “Lots of ordinary financial things are gambling,” says Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University. “But they are carved out in the public mind.”

Hanson argues that laws against gambling suppress a useful social purpose. Economic studies have shown that point spreads, which shift with the actions of numerous bettors, are a reliable predictor of sports contests. More than two decades ago, Hanson began to wonder: Why couldn’t the same mechanism work for other types of clashes, like contentious scientific debates? “I was a contrarian hanging out with a lot of other contrarians in Silicon Valley,” Hanson said, describing people who were both “rabidly libertarian” and interested in exploring the internet’s capacity to solve problems. “I sort of pulled those two things together,” he explained, “and said how about betting markets?”

Hanson called his concept “idea futures,” and devised a game where people could wager play money on questions like the chances of developing cold fusion. In a 1995 article for Wired, he wrote that he hoped the prototype would inspire real investors, with real money, to create “a radical, market-based alternative for reaching scientific consensus.”

The idea ended up resonating, initially, with a different audience: the U.S. intelligence community. After Sept. 11, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the military’s research arm, commissioned a group involving Hanson to develop a market to forecast events in the Middle East. The resulting firestorm was, perhaps, predictable. “The idea of a federal betting parlor on atrocities and terrorism is ridiculous and it’s grotesque,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. The head of DARPA, Adm. John Poindexter, was forced to resign and the project was squelched.

In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Wyden suggested that he seized on the gambling experiments as pretext to kill a more sinister surveillance program Poindexter was pursuing. But Hanson says his research was a collateral victim. “Once you have a moral principle like that,” he says, “factual analysis doesn’t really matter.”

The logic of the marketplace has many proponents. In his popular 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds, financial journalist James Surowiecki extolled the accuracy of collective predictions, citing the success of experiments like a rudimentary election market run out of the University of Iowa. But lawmakers have shown extraordinarily little sympathy. “We idolize Einstein and Isaac Newton,” says Emile Servan-Schreiber, a prediction market pioneer who now consults on corporate applications. “The idea that the expert human mind could be outclassed by a bunch of amateurs getting together is very disturbing, as disturbing as saying the Earth is not the center of the solar system.”

The irony, of course, is that even as academics struggled to establish their fledgling markets, Wall Street was conducting its own experiment, with much more dangerous stakes. In the late 1990s, Congress passed a series of laws relaxing regulations on financial derivatives. Some of them had practical applications — a utility could buy weather futures to hedge its financial exposure to a heat wave — and some proved disastrous. Infamously, bankers invented derivatives to place trillion-dollar bets on home mortgages and the risk of credit defaults, which led to the near-implosion of the world economy when the real estate bubble collapsed in 2008. But long before any of that, in 1999, some guys from the pits of New York’s commodities exchange decided to start a website where you could speculate on current events.

“Anything that you could answer yes or no to, or measure objectively with a number, could be traded,” says Ron Bernstein, one of Intrade’s founders. “That was our philosophy.” Why couldn’t the same pricing system that allowed him to trade sugar futures, for instance, be repurposed to predict the outcome of a football game or a civil war? The idea proved bewitching to Wall Street professionals, who were used to seeing the world in terms of probabilities, whether they were betting on interest rates or the Jets.

“You have a couple thousand testosterone-laden young men who are all mad about sports,” says Patrick Young, author of the book Capital Market Revolution and an early investor in Intrade. “So it’s easy to draw the corollary.”

Intrade secured an early $6.5 million investment from Paul Tudor Jones, which bequeathed instant credibility. One day, Young, Bernstein, and others met at Jones’ estate in Greenwich, Conn., to pitch Rupert Murdoch’s son, Lachlan, who flew up in a helicopter. Murdoch bought in, as did many others. By 2001, Intrade was flush with $13.5 million in venture capital. The site’s initial focus was on sports, but it also offered markets on elections, box office returns, and geopolitical events. “You talk about the wisdom of crowds,” Young says. “This was the ultimate mass-market operation.”

Intrade began, essentially, as a wager in itself — on the possibility that the U.S. government would take a relaxed attitude toward gambling on the internet. But it launched into the maw of the dot-com crash, and instead of loosening up on gambling sites, U.S. law enforcement tightened the screws. Though Intrade operated out of Ireland, a country with a permissive attitude toward bookmaking, Bernstein and his partners had always seen their home country as the site’s primary market. (Betfair, a publicly traded and very respectable British company, dominates Europe, but excludes American customers.) But U.S. prosecutors began pressing cases against other offshore betting sites, arresting some owners when they were on American soil, and effectively forcing others to live in exile. Bernstein and Intrade’s other founders distanced themselves from management, ceding control to their top Irish executive, an accountant named John Delaney. The new CEO was left to run the ailing shop with minimal interference.

The startup was limping toward a quiet death until it stumbled into an unforeseen bit of luck: the war in Iraq. In the excruciating buildup to the 2003 invasion, the world media discovered a curious website was giving odds on the chances of war. Later that year, for reasons never explained, Intrade’s market for Saddam Hussein’s capture began to move two days before he was actually seized. Economist Justin Wolfers, now at the University of Michigan, was trying to devise a method to predict the reaction to war within financial markets. He examined the site’s trading patterns and was excited by what he found. “That was the start of what became a symbiotic relationship,” says Wolfers, a longhaired Australian with a loquacious social media presence. He became one of Intrade’s most vocal boosters within academia, and used its data to conduct important research on prediction market theory.

During the 2004 election campaign, Intrade vastly outperformed the infamously faulty polling, showing a consistent lead for George Bush and picking every state correctly on the day before the election. For prediction market theorists, the result was precious proof of concept. Their scholarly enthusiasm pointed the way to a potential new business model. The company phased out sports betting, and Delaney declared that “hedging political risk is the next frontier in asset management.” Press coverage of the site’s success brought it to the attention of Dean LeBaron, an eminent Wall Street investor credited with inventing the index fund, who sought out Delaney after a talk at Dartmouth University. “As someone who has been in the investment business for 50 years,” he says, “it never occurred to me that there was any difference between what Intrade was doing and what I was doing, buying and selling securities.”

Eventually, LeBaron became Intrade’s largest single shareholder. “What Intrade was doing,” he says now, “was it really gambling, or was it extracting information?”

The U.S. government offered a hostile answer to LeBaron’s question. In 2005, the federal Commodities Futures Trade Commission brought an action against Intrade for soliciting predictions on financial questions like the future price of gold. (The company paid a fine.) The following year, Congress passed a law further restricting offshore gambling sites. Delaney had become a regular at American academic conferences, often concluding conversations with the enthusiastic economists with the promise of a future Guinness, but after the feds started locking up gaming website proprietors, he abruptly stopped visiting. In early 2007, Delaney appeared via Skype at a Washington conference co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, apologizing for his absence and joking that, as an Irishman, he preferred to be sitting in bars, not behind bars.

“Even though there’s just this tiny, tiny little risk,” Intrade’s chief executive explained, in terms all the economists understood, “because that risk could have big personal costs for me, until things are a little bit clearer, I’m going to stay in Dublin.”

Intrade CEO John Delaney in 2003. Delaney died on May 21, 2011 after coming within 50 yards of the summit of Mount Everest. John Cogill/ Bloomberg / Getty Images

How good were Intrade’s predictions? Though its accuracy varied with its trading volume — the more bets, the more collective wisdom — the site’s predictions appear to have consistently beaten individual pollsters. Sometimes, the market was proved wrong: Intrade gave an 80% chance that the Supreme Court would overturn Obama’s health care law. But as Justin Wolfers grew tired of pointing out to reporters, an 80%-certain prediction should be wrong one out of every five times.

Probably the most exhaustive study of Intrade’s performance was conducted by David Rothschild, an economist with Microsoft Research. He looked at 74 statewide races during the 2008 campaign season, and found that Intrade yielded probabilities that were more accurate than polls, and was particularly good at picking the winner early and in close races. Rothschild found that Intrade was roughly as accurate as the vaunted algorithmic model that Nate Silver used to make predictions on his personal website, FiveThirtyEight, which he later took to the New York Times. But the two systems arrived at their accurate forecasts by different routes.

Silver’s formula was complex, but it fundamentally relied on opinion polls, which typically ask voters which candidate they prefer. Prediction markets were designed to elicit a potentially more revealing opinion: Who is going to win? Although economists disagree about the effect of monetary stakes, they agree that a competitive marketplace — whether over cash, prestige, or the pleasure of saying, “I told you so” — will typically yield more accurate assessments than passive statements of individual preference.

At the most elemental level, Intrade was a useful tool to test one of the most important questions in economics, how markets absorb information. Prediction market proponents argued that, in addition to providing a gauge of the betting public’s sentiment, Intrade also served a second function: what Wolfers calls “information discovery.” Intrade would respond to gossip of clandestine negotiations, or an extramarital affair, or an “oops” moment in a debate. That was why many political journalists watched the site’s twitches. A former Intrade employee told me that, from IP addresses, it was clear that many election season visitors were U.S. government employees. The day before Mitt Romney made his own vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan’s price mysteriously surged, leading traders to presume a leak.

Intrade’s management winked at suggestions of insider trading. “I want to get people who know too much into the market, rather than keep them out, so that their wisdom is reflected in prices,” LeBaron says. Intrade’s message boards were always full of accusations of manipulation, which some took as a perverse sort of endorsement. “That’s a sign of a mature market,” says a hedge fund manager who invested in Intrade as a business. “All big markets have someone thinking about how to manipulate them.”

In the heat of the political moment, though, it was often hard to sort the speculators with an edge from the ideologues. In 2004, there was a deep-pocketed trader who bet a bundle on John Kerry, sparking outrage among conservative bloggers, who inevitably accused George Soros. “During the Obama-McCain contest, a single millionaire tried to pull the market in one direction,” the former employee says. The company would usually contact traders in such situations. “He said, ‘I really want McCain, I really want to buy these for McCain.’ He went on for another eight days, at $150,000 a day, and it didn’t even show up as a blip.” The market had a natural way of punishing the foolish: It took their bets.

By contrast, the market rewarded those who acted quickly on solid information. Ken Fitzpatrick, a former professional poker player who lives in Las Vegas, is proudest of a score he made through intrepid reporting. In 2008, as John McCain prepared to announce his running mate, Fitzpatrick and his fellow trader Joe Schilling were monitoring the movements of all the contenders, calling their press secretaries and checking a flight-tracking website. They noticed a Gulfstream jet from Anchorage, Alaska, bound for the site of a McCain rally, and bought Sarah Palin, a longshot. When the surprise pick was unveiled, Fitzpatrick took home $25,000.

Laurence Lau credits his biggest single profit during the 2012 season to his swift reaction to a friend’s outraged post on Facebook. It related that Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Aikin had claimed that victims of “legitimate rape” seldom become pregnant. “I went against my algorithm,” Lau says, “and because this guy made these idiotic comments, I put money on Claire McCaskill,” the Democrat. By moving quickly, Lau was able to buy McCaskill futures cheap. Not long afterward, he was able to use the strategy again, after Richard Mourdock, a Republican candidate in Indiana, said something similarly offensive about rape. “I made a lot of money on those guys,” Lau says.

Intrade’s prices reflected the impact of these news events faster than any poll could; this is what the academics meant by “information discovery.” And how could anyone be opposed to knowing more information? In 2008, a group of 22 academics called for loosened regulations in an open letter to Science, describing a “virtually limitless” range of applications for government policy, business and public health. Four Nobel laureates were among the signatories, including 2013 economics co-winner Robert Shiller. Yet the reform effort went nowhere. Over time, federal authorities curtailed Intrade’s ability to use PayPal and other financial mechanisms, forcing U.S.-based traders to rely on a cumbersome bank wire system.

For a company that was geared toward American consumers, the restrictions were stifling. For all the press attention the company managed to attract, Intrade always scuffled financially, barely sustaining a small staff. During the 2012 campaign, it claimed to have around 7,000 active account holders who paid a monthly fee of $5 to trade. But the presidential campaigns were a bonanza that only occurred every four years, and in between the political markets went through long periods of dormancy. Even at the height of the presidential races, Intrade’s volume was puny by financial industry standards, and undercard races were often lightly traded, which contributed to the exchange’s price volatility.

“They were the only real-money prediction market around, but they always felt a little bit like a fly-by-night operation,” says Adam Siegel, chief executive of Inkling Markets, a collective intelligence consulting firm. Even some of Intrade’s investors were incredulous about the company’s grandiose claims of predictive powers. “People were attaching quite a lot of value to hundreds of dollars, as indications of what people think,” says one. “There was part of you that was like, ‘Really?’”

In retrospect, it’s easy to say the economists should have recognized that an offshore betting website with a proprietor who joked about ending up in an orange jumpsuit was flirting with disaster. But the prediction experts never saw it coming.

Intrade’s downfall began at the top of Mount Everest. In 2011, John Delaney, an avid climber in his early forties, died about a hundred feet short of short of the summit. He left a wife and three children, including a daughter born just three days before. His body remained on the mountain, making a funeral impossible, so the family held a memorial service, which some of Intrade’s investors attended. A question hung over the tragic affair: How could the master of probabilities have taken the ultimate risk?

“In hindsight, it’s easy to say he calculated wrong in attempting to climb Everest, but especially among prediction market proponents, we know that decisions cannot be evaluated in hindsight,” researcher David Pennock wrote in a blog post. “My guess is that John knew the risks and felt the climb was a gamble worth taking.”

Intrade’s shareholders brought in new management. “We knew something appalling was wrong very, very quickly,” says Patrick Young. Irish courts were pursuing Delaney over personal debts, including unpaid bank loans and cell phone bills, and he had incorporated a number of mysterious companies, including one named after Everest’s height, “29035 Approx Limited.” Meanwhile, Intrade’s books were in disarray. An internal audit found Delaney had redirected millions of dollars to accounts he personally controlled. Delaney had been battling an undisclosed illness that left him alarmingly thin. But he also spent more than $40,000 on the climbing expedition, according his guide Alex Abramov, who now questions whether Delaney concealed the extent of his health problems.

“Sometimes people come to climb Everest,” Abramov says. “Sometimes people come to die.” Dean LeBaron, among others, came to reevaluate Delaney’s gamble: Maybe climbing Everest looked like a win-win proposition if he was already at the end of his rope. A mountaineering friend of Delaney’s dismissed that interpretation, though, questioning Abramov’s preparations. “John Delaney tried to do it on the cheap, he tried to cut corners, and he didn’t have the experience to cut corners, and he died,” he said, adding that his friend was the same way with business. “John was a risk-taker.”

One risk Delaney took was continuing to defy U.S. regulation. Intrade’s investors had always wanted to move the company out of the gray market: At one point they came close to selling to MF Global, then a respected trading firm, and later they negotiated a merger with a commodities exchange in Minneapolis. But Delaney scuttled the deals, which would have exposed Intrade’s books to scrutiny. Instead, he had reintroduced the sort of financial contracts that the company had promised to give up in its prior settlement with the CFTC. To some, it looked like Intrade was thumbing his nose at the authorities.

“You are dealing with people who were essentially flouting U.S. law for a decade,” says Emile Servan-Schreiber. “So at some level, they had to be sort of gangster-like.”

After Delaney’s dubious machinations were discovered, Intrade went through a protracted behind-the-scenes drama, which culminated in co-founder Ron Bernstein’s return as chief executive. The new regime now portrays the dead CEO as a rogue operator who took advantage of a lack of oversight from the company’s absentee investors. But Delaney’s behavior notwithstanding, there was little question that the exchange itself operated, at best, on the furthest fringes of legality. The Dodd-Frank financial reform, signed by President Obama in 2010, specifically bans futures related to terrorism, assassination, gaming, or anything “contrary to the public interest,” and in 2012 the agency advised a Chicago firm that covers elections. Though a CFTC spokesman declined requests for comment about Intrade, Michael Gorham, a former agency official who now teaches at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told me he looked in vain for a way to legalize such exchanges when he headed the agency’s market oversight division. “I don’t see how you can get around the fact that these things are gambling,” he said.

The case against election betting isn’t merely moralistic. Since the 19th century, lawmakers have consistently worried about the corrupting effects of attaching explicit monetary stakes to political decisions. Strumpf says his historical research shows that “the record is rife with accusations that parties tried to boost their candidates” through betting market manipulation. He found little evidence that such ploys had any sustained effect on public opinion. But by making a market for political information, Intrade did create a potential temptation for insiders. After all, someone made a bundle on that Paul Ryan bet.

Christina Lu / BuzzFeed

During the final days of the 2012 election season, Intrade’s message boards were abuzz about an anonymous trader who came to be known as the “Romney Whale.” His motives were mysterious, but his movements were unmistakable, making huge waves through the market. In the two weeks before the election, even as the polls moved in Obama’s favor, the Whale added $3.8 million to his already enormous bet on the Republican.

Sitting in his office at Barnard College, economist Rajiv Sethi was intrigued. According to the efficient markets hypothesis, the price of a Romney contract should have reflected the reality of the race, which seemed to be heading toward a comfortable Obama victory. Nate Silver’s operation for the New York Times, for instance, was putting the president’s chances at better than 90%. But Obama’s Intrade price was holding steady at 70. When Sethi looked closer at the order book that listed all the contracts up for sale, he saw the many thousands of bets offered by the Whale effectively propping up the market.

Sethi thought there had to be a hidden agenda behind the Whale’s seemingly irrational position. But what was it? The Whale never revealed his identity, disappearing from Intrade as soon as the last polls closed. The market immediately corrected, predicting the final outcome in all but one state: Florida. In total, the Whale lost nearly $7 million. “In the end the fog clears and reality asserts itself,” Sethi wrote on his blog. “Or so one hopes.”

The fog that obscured Intrade’s shaky finances began to dissipate immediately after the election. First, the CFTC brought its lawsuit to federal court in Washington, specifically citing Intrade’s decision to go back to offering (comparatively tiny) markets on financial predictions like the future unemployment rate. The evangelists of quantification responded with predictable outrage. “Out of all things the CFTC could be doing to protect consumers and investors,” Nate Silver tweeted, “it chooses to sue Intrade?!?”

Shortly afterward, though, in March 2013, Intrade announced that it was suspending operations, and the less innocent truth began to emerge. Ron Bernstein disclosed a cash shortfall affecting customer accounts. The company managed to avoid insolvency by obtaining a forbearance from customers while it attempted to recover the funds allegedly diverted by John Delaney. In a series of audits publicly filed in Ireland, Intrade disclosed that some $4.2 million was missing from its accounts and those of a related company, and the company sued Delaney’s widow, Orla, in the Irish courts.

As Intrade’s business imploded, Sethi and David Rothschild, his colleague at Microsoft Research, continued to investigate the market’s anomalous behavior during the closing days of the 2012 elections. The Romney Whale’s actions raised a troubling question: How did Intrade actually settle on its prices? Economists sometimes say they know how markets work in practice, but not in theory. According to the prevailing model, the microstructure of the market is broken up between smart traders, who wager based on good information, and lots of little “noise traders,” who decide based on transitory factors like momentum.

But that couldn’t explain the actions of the Whale, who seemed to be taking a manifestly dumb position. Was he a Romney true believer? Some exotic arbitrageur? Sethi and Rothschild eventually settled on the tentative hypothesis that the trader was a manipulator, trying to sustain Republican hopes — and turnout — at a time when all signs pointed to a demoralizing loss. They could only guess, however, as to whether the motives of the strategy were political or financial. “If there is an opportunity there,” Sethi tells me, “it raises the question of how seriously we should take Intrade’s prices.”

When Sethi and Rothschild got a look at all the transactions on Intrade over the final two weeks of the 2012 campaign, what they found didn’t look much like the economists’ clockwork model of the marketplace. Intrade’s contracts could be closed any time, allowing traders to take incremental profits — for instance, buying Romney after his “47%” comments leaked and selling after his victory in the first debate — as prices shifted.

It turned out that few traders followed this strategy. Only 6% of account holders showed a willingness to take either side of the wager. They weren’t willing to bet, however profitably, on a candidate they didn’t like. This was true even of the big fish: The market’s seven largest traders, including the Whale, all bet almost exclusively on one candidate. Inside, it turned out that Intrade didn’t look like a dispassionate machine. It appeared to function a lot like our messy, irrational, uncompromising political system.

Maybe that was the flaw in the theory — the uncontrolled variable of belief. But we’ll probably never know. Since the demise of Intrade, many prediction market proponents have come to the reluctant conclusion that their experiment is finished. However promising the idea of measuring political futures through real prices might be, it’s not likely to be put into large-scale practice again, given the CFTC’s intransigent interpretation of the law. “As an economist,” Koleman Strumpf says, “it’s hard for me to understand.”

Over the years, many prediction market pioneers have given up on the notion of trying to sell their ideas to the general public and skeptical legal authorities. Some, like Servan-Schreiber, have turned to applying the technology within big corporations, allowing employees to, say, bet on the success of products in development for play-money stakes. Research he and Wolfers conducted indicates that prediction markets function even without the promise of financial gain. Wolfers lost a bet on that, and had to buy his French colleague a bottle of Australian wine. “The problem with real-money markets,” Wolfers acknowledges now, “is that some people are dumb but rich.”

Many other academics, including Wolfers and Robin Hanson, are involved in projects that cater to another clientele: the intelligence community. Recently, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, IARPA, the Directorate of National Intelligence’s research wing, sponsored an academic competition meant to “dramatically enhance the accuracy, precision, and timeliness of forecasts.” Teams with names like the Good Judgement Project developed prototype markets for world events, eliciting predictions from a wide range of volunteers. (No money was at stake.) Hanson, who heads an IARPA-funded project called SciCast, said spies could derive an obvious benefit from trading on their collective knowledge through exchanges.

“The mechanisms we already have are plenty good enough to help them,” Hanson said. “It’s just hard for them socially to actually use them.”

Ron Bernstein, meanwhile, is still struggling to prove that Intrade itself has a future. While the company is still fighting the CFTC’s lawsuit, late last year it came to an undisclosed financial settlement with Orla Delaney. Bernstein now talks of “turning the corner from defense to offense.” He has moved the company’s headquarters back to New Jersey, where he lives, and is currently hiring staff to a relaunch a sports betting site, Tradesports.com, in a sense returning to the company’s original business plan. The Tradesports website touts a “new and LEGAL way to play fantasy sports,” structured around close-ended contests that award prize money. Bernstein says he plans to be up and running in time for college basketball’s March Madness.

As for the political markets that made Intrade famous, Bernstein still believes there’s a use for the trading platform technology, but he says the company is done with exploring gray areas. “Prediction markets in the United States for real money are not legal,” he says, emphatically. On a recent appearance Bernstein made on the Fox Business Channel, host John Stossel brought up Predictious, a new Irish-based marketplace that denominates trades in Bitcoin. “We’ve learned from our own experience,” Bernstein replied, “that regulatory avoidance isn’t a good business model.”

A few of the most voracious Intraders have moved on to playing Predictious or one of the handful of competing offshore exchanges. But most now consider themselves retired from politics. Laurence Lau has struck up friendships with some of his former competitors, such as Joe Schilling. “We really operated behind the veil of secrecy,” Schilling says, “but now I’m Twitter buddies with these guys.”

There has been a lot of gossip about Intrade’s corporate intrigue, and half-serious talk of a reunion, or a hedge fund. The traders have also watched with bemusement as Nate Silver has successfully marketed his algorithmic approach to all of life’s compelling pursuits: politics, sports, the weather, even dating and sex, moving his operation from the New York Times Company to Disney, the parent company of ABC and ESPN.

“The thing about Nate Silver is, there are a million other guys just like him,” Lau says. “As information becomes more readily available, it becomes harder to find that edge.” If Intrade was flawed, he and other traders argue, it wasn’t that there were too many dumb whales in the marketplace; it was because there were too many people betting exactly the way that Silver and his statistically minded acolytes told them to. When even the rubes are playing Moneyball, it gets hard to make a buck.

“God bless Nate Silver,” Schilling says, “but he kind of ruined Intrade for a lot of us.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly stated which state Sen. Ron Wyden represents. (h/t to commenter Miguel Arkaitz Arbusto.)

Read more: http://buzzfeed.com/andrewrice/the-fall-of-intrade-and-the-business-of-betting-on-real-life

We get into trouble almost as soon as we take off. The captain’s voice sounds distant and wary over the cabin speakers as he tells me and my fellow passengers that we are heading into a severe thunderstorm, and the quickest way through it is the center.

It starts just seconds later, a rumbling beneath my feet that climbs up into my chair, and then my armrests, which I white-knuckle grip at the first sharp crack of lightning. The person sitting next to me and the person sitting next to him are both telling me that the plane we’re on will crash, and I am going to die, and after that all there will be is blackness. While they speak to me I have to just sit here and be shaken. It’s my only option. Maybe because it’s the only thing I can stand to move, I close my eyes.

But they won’t stop talking. “Can you please open your eyes and face the window?” one of them asks me. I find this request very irritating, but I still do it. “Tell me how it looks outside the plane.”

“Scary, obviously,” I tell him. I want to glare at him from my peripherals, but it’s too hard with this contraption on my head, and anyway, he definitely knows I’m mad.

These are my therapists. In a way they are my pilots too. They’re the ones running the virtual reality program I’m watching via too-tight goggles strapped around my head, clicking what needs to be clicked to make me feel like I’m on a plane flying through a severe thunderstorm in a thick gray-brown haze, then a brief sunny respite, and then, unrealistically suddenly, another terrible storm. It must be nice, in a twisted way, to be them, playing God while I dig my toes into the floor and chew the inside of my mouth. They probably wouldn’t admit as much. But I know.

This is an agreement, at this moment, I feel I should never have made: to (allegedly) cure my debilitating, long-standing fear of flying — a goal that probably has some practical benefits, though I neither remember nor care for them now. Two months ago I promised my employer and these therapists that I’d take two trains, for a total of 36 hours, from my home in Minneapolis all the way out east to Hofstra University in New York, where Ph.D. students in clinical psychology administer phobia treatment using, in part, virtual reality technology.

And for some reason, I also promised that at the end of just three-and-a-half days’ worth of therapy, I’d fly back.

I’m biased, but I think the fear of flying is one of the most rational fears a person can have. There is very little need for explanation: You’re in a little room shaped like no other room you’d ever go in voluntarily, with wings, just floating along in the middle of the sky with no strings or stilts or anything. That is not normal behavior, historically, for a mammal, and because some of us are prone to thinking quite a lot about what does and does not seem normal, we get nervous. People who cite statistics at fearful fliers in order to prove to us that our fear is irrational — so condescendingly, too, as if we’ll suddenly light up, like, “Wait. More people die in cars than in airplanes? You don’t say!” — are only half-right: The evidence does prove that it is very, very unlikely that any given flight on a commercial airline is going to end in peril. But that doesn’t mean the whole thing isn’t still very weird.

Statistics vary, but it’s been estimated that as many as 40% of people have some level of anxiety about flying. These are people who might get a little nervous during turbulence, for example, or who try to block out the flight attendants when they’re talking about water landings, or who might get a pre-flight drink to calm their nerves. But they still fly. Meanwhile, according to that same study, 6.5% of people experience that fear so acutely that it counts as a legitimate phobia (aviophobia, to be specific) — one that keeps them off airplanes altogether.

I don’t know whether I technically qualify as a phobic, and at some point it seems like splitting hairs. A little over five years ago, I flew to Spain and back for a semester of studying abroad in college. I cried for days and days before each of the flights — dramatically, too, covering my face and really wailing, imagining burning wreckage and terror and death — but I went because I knew I had to. The next year, I flew to Washington, D.C., for a conference with a friend, and I squeezed her hand so hard she asked me for breaks. On both trips, I was sedated with a Xanax tab from the small ration prescribed to me by my doctor. I considered those pills the single reason I was able to get on a plane at all — the medication helping only the tiniest amount, carrying me just over the line from hysteria to mere paralysis.

After all that, I pretty much decided I was done. There would be potential trips that came up in the next four years, but I rationalized my way out of all of them, citing “cost” or arguing for what I’d insist was a superior option, like the road trip my friends and I took from Minnesota to the Grand Canyon, which is 27 hours of driving. I’d swear up and down that I sincerely love road trips, and I think that taking the Amtrak is relaxing and thrilling all at once, and that is true, but at some point, at some length of time spent in a car or bus or train, nobody believes there isn’t anything else going on.

That length of time is about 36 hours.

I’d done this train trip to New York before, last summer. I made it a verb: I’m training out and training back. Nobody could believe it. I went with my best friend and we ate in the dining car and didn’t sleep. There were slow parts, but it was fun, and maybe (probably) out of defensiveness, I declared it a perfectly fine and normal way to travel to anyone who would listen. Cheap too. Flying was for snobs. (“It’s like they need to be above everyone else, literally!” I said to my best friend, who isn’t afraid of flying, but who knows that, with me, it is sometimes better just to nod and not say anything.)

This time, though, I am making the trip alone. I still love this train, the dining car, the legroom, and the view out my window. But by hour 30 (or maybe even 28), something feels different. For the first time in a long time, I’m not able to pretend that the biggest reason I’m traveling halfway across the country by train isn’t that I’m too afraid not to. And I hate that.

When it comes to treating phobias, exposure therapy — a form of behavioral therapy that gained traction in the 1950s — is largely considered the most effective route available. The first recorded use in treating anxiety was at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where psychologist James G. Taylor introduced situational exposure and response prevention to treat patients with phobias. It’s a straightforward enough theory: Be exposed to the thing that frightens you and, with time, it will frighten you less. Therapists who utilize this technique attempt to identify a patient’s various emotional and physiological responses to the triggering stimulus and subsequently help the patient break that response pattern through, basically, forcing that person to adapt.

It is Mary Cover Jones, though, who is credited with developing the therapy’s central technique: “desensitization,” or the process by which the body’s response to the triggering stimulus gradually diminishes by repeated exposure. Jones’ most notable work is a 1924 study conducted on a 3-year-old boy named Peter with many phobias, including rats and rabbits. Jones posited that the introduction of a positive stimulus — food — in tandem with the triggering stimulus — a white rabbit — would desensitize Peter to his fear. Jones brought both the rabbit and the food closer and closer to Peter (a simultaneously bizarre and sweet image, if ever there was one) until he was able to touch the rabbit. There will, unfortunately, be no snacks to accompany my exposure therapy — today, it is the repeated exposure to the phobia itself that is considered important. That’s what gets you used to it.

That process is called habituation, which is a nicer, homier, more professional-sounding way to say that the goal here is to increasingly scare the shit out of you, until your body and brain get so tired of being so scared that you calm down. If it sounds overly simplistic and slightly cruel to you then, well, join the club. “Are you sure about this?” I’d ask my therapists, Steve Puliafico and Mike Lent — both third-year students in Hofstra’s clinical psychology Ph.D. program, and, at 24 and 25 respectively, much too young for me to trust — and they’d try explaining it to me all over again. Then I’d say, “It doesn’t sound right, though, does it?” They agreed that it’s a somewhat counterintuitive theory, but promised me that it really does (or at least really can) work. I hoped they were right, so eventually I stopped arguing. For the most part.

There are a number of other aviophobia clinics around the country, which I eliminated one by one as I researched — an $895 weekend group seminar called “MySky” in my own Twin Cities, Minnesota, was too nearby; I knew I’d need to be somewhat stranded in order to get back on a plane. A four-day $450 option in Washington is offered just twice a year, and same with a $1,000 six-meeting workshop called “Freedom to Fly” at the Westchester County Airport. All of the above, too, work largely with groups of patients, and I wanted to do this on my own. I knew that if I were with a group, I’d make a friend in it, and I’d end up asking her to sit by me on the graduation flight at the end of the program. And what I needed and wanted to do was to fly without anyone there to hold my hand. So for its flexibility in scheduling, its one-on-one therapy structure, its unwillingness to coddle, and its location just outside New York City, I chose Hofstra University as the facility that would scare me straight.

The Phobia and Trauma Clinic is one of several clinics housed within Hofstra’s Saltzman Center — they offer family therapy and speech therapy, among others, and it’s also where Hofstra students go for counseling. The clinics themselves are separated out by theory more than physical space; the center looks more or less like a spartan two-story physician’s office, with unmarked rooms and bare walls. I don’t know why exactly I expected to see more in the way of inspirational posters, but I don’t see even one when, on my first morning there, I follow Puliafico and Lent upstairs to the room I’ll come to think of as mine — a cramped office with a desk, two rolling armchairs, and, in the corner on a slightly raised platform, a worn-down navy blue airplane seat, spacey-looking goggles, and headphones hanging on a hook just above it.

Model airplane: The flight simulation rig at Hofstra. Hofstra University department of clinical psychology

The look of the room and the chair and the equipment do little to assuage my growing doubts about this clinic’s capacity to fix me. This is, after all, a training program. Doing it this way cuts cost: A three-day intensive with Ph.D. students runs about $1,000–2,000, whereas an equivalent treatment with a licensed psychologist, like the one in charge at Hofstra, would cost $4,000–$6,000. And though it is a training program backed by substantial experience, education, and guidance — student therapists routinely meet with Program Director Mitchell Schare, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, to discuss technique, concerns, and patient progress — the most that can be said of the people responsible for my therapy is that they are almost doctors.

Still, Puliafico and Lent do this a lot. They see all types of patients, of all ages, with varying degrees of fear, but in the end, of the people who complete their treatment, 96% of them get on a plane and fly, by Schare’s estimation. When I meet him on the afternoon of my first day, all (or, fine, most) of my concerns about his much-younger students are calmed — Schare’s personality is of the kind I find instantly soothing: He’s funny and personable, a straight-shooter with a thick Long Island accent. When asked what makes his program different from the rest, he laughs and says, only partly joking, I think, “Me.”

“As a clinic, we are very adaptable to the patient’s needs,” Schare continues. “A lot of clinics follow a rigid, strict protocol, and I find that simplistic and not particularly helpful to individual people, even if they have similar problems.” There are three major components to the exposure therapy offered in the program: imaginal therapy, or exposing patients to their fears within their own minds; in vivo exposure, or trips to the airport; and virtual reality. Treatment is individualized, with focus shifting from one form to the others if one isn’t working. Most people come in for weekly or twice-weekly sessions over a few months, but there are others, like me, who take an intensive approach, coming in for multi-hour sessions over a shorter period of time. The people who do the best, Puliafico tells me, are simply the ones who keep showing up.

I’m too manners-oriented to skip an appointment, even to do something I know I’ll hate, so I’m somewhat surprised this is a common event until later, when Puliafico describes to me how they treat the claustrophobics. “We have them stand in, like, these huge wooden boxes, and we close them in.” I gape. “Are there…breathing holes?” I ask. “I mean, enough air gets in. Sometimes, though, we wrap the boxes up in chains,” he says. So I don’t blame those patients for occasionally deciding, you know what, I think I’d rather not.

These days, for aviophobes, exposure therapy is largely done a few degrees removed from the actual stimulus. Many fear of flight treatment and support programs used to make more use of in vivo exposure — bringing patients to airports around the country, taking them past security and, sometimes, onto airplanes, turning on the engines and the stale air conditioning, recreating the entire flying experience apart from the flying itself. But tightened security after 9/11 has made this level of exposure impossible, or at least very challenging, for most programs. Instead, therapists use imaginal work. In some places, like the Saltzman Center, therapy might also include virtual reality exposure.

The program used in my therapy comes from a company called Virtually Better, and, in addition to the fear of flying model, they also offer virtual exposure therapy programs for job interviews, fear of heights (bridges or elevators), and combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, among others. Libby Tannenbaum, a clinical psychologist with Virtually Better’s own therapy program for over 10 years, told me the technology started taking hold in the mid-’90s, working first with fear of heights and then spreading as it proved effective in treating other phobias. On Virtually Better’s site you can see a few stills from the fear-of-flying program, though I can’t help but notice this seems to be a fancier model, possibly first-class, than the one I used, which still seems mid-’90s vintage, graphics-wise. Puliafico and Lent, sounding just a little like kids wanting a PlayStation upgrade, tell me they hope to someday be able to use Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset (one with a very nerdy, Transformers-sounding name) that was designed for “immersive gaming,” but which could, potentially, improve virtual reality therapy experiences like mine.

It’s exciting, the first afternoon, when I put the goggles on, or rather have them put on me, as if they might be too expensive for me to touch. I’m not sure what I expected, but “instant cure” probably sums it up pretty well. The idea that I would be wholly transported into an experience just like the worst I’ve ever had falls away quickly — when I notice that the lenses sit a few inches out from my face so that I can see around their edges, when the prerecorded “pilot” skips along in his speech, glitchily repeating the last sentence of his preflight announcement, and maybe especially when I’m told to move myself about the plane using a joystick.

All the while, as they watch my virtual trip on their computer screens, Puliafico and Lent are narrating, saying things like, “You notice the plane is pretty empty, like maybe a bunch of people decided they shouldn’t get on this flight,” and “What was that bump?” I find myself distracted by the graphics, which leave something to be desired — walking through the virtual airport and onto the plane feels a little like playing an especially unnerving version of The Sims or watching a Taiwanese news animation reenacting my worst nightmare.

Scareplane! The virtual reality simulation at Hofstra. Hofstra University department of clinical psychology

It’s hard to say, though, how much a more convincing picture would help; apparently it works for some people — Tannenbaum says, in fact, that they don’t worry a great deal about improving the look of the virtual environments because most patients respond so well as is — but I can’t get over the cognitive dissonance. The things I’m watching in my goggles, the thunder in my ears and the turbulence in my seat; all of these sensations do make me uneasy, but I am also inescapably aware of the fact that I’m not actually on an airplane. When Puliafico reads off a series of alarmist thoughts that might come to me under real-life circumstances like these — exposing me to my fears by speaking them aloud — but aren’t occurring to me now, it mostly gets on my nerves: How stupid do they think I am? He says, “The lightning seems to be getting worse, and the plane could get struck at any moment,” but out of the corners of my eyes I can see Lent lifting a flash bulb into the air to produce that “lightning.” So the process makes me anxious, in a way, but probably not in the way they’d like. It’s more agitation than terror.

Some level of personal frustration is to be expected when you find yourself paying money to spend time with people who, if they do not actively wish you dead, are awfully good at sounding like it. It’s part of the process, and one that’s typically overcome as patient and therapist get to know each other better. “In the weekly sessions you can build a better natural rapport,” says Schare. “[In intensive programs] it isn’t so easy at first, because you’re fearful, in the hot seat, and you don’t really know these people.” Getting along with each other would be nice, but Schare is quick to point out it isn’t everything, either. “Rapport is a helpful element in therapy but it’s not absolute. It’s more important that you deal with your issues.”

I make it through the program on the first day (though, I’m realizing now, I don’t think we actually landed so much as abandoned the plane, ostensibly in midair, after the second thunderstorm), but after a brief, impatient walk through the make-believe airport on day two of my three days of therapy, Puliafico and I decide this isn’t working for me. (He’ll tell me later that the virtual reality program works for more people than it doesn’t — people who, sitting in the goggles, eventually report feeling the same level of fear they’d feel in a real flight. It’s hard to say why my experience was different; my best guess is some combination of self-consciousness and inflexible pragmatism. Schare notes, too, that it often works best for older patients, possibly because their expectations for video graphics are lower than those of younger people who grew up gaming.) I feel almost proud, like I beat the system. Sorry, technology — my phobia and I are too old-fashioned for you. We go too far back.

I was 19 years old, flying with my classmates and professor back from a monthlong trip to China in May of my freshman year in college. I had not yet become afraid of flying on the trip out; our 14-hour flight there had taken us over the North Pole and I’d stood at a little window in the back of the plane gaping at the endless, spectacular ice.

But on the flight home we encountered severe turbulence early on, and it didn’t let up for over an hour. It wasn’t just rumbling, but side-to-side jerks, like someone slamming the side of the plane with a giant palm, waiting a second, and then doing the same thing from the other side. It went into little drops, too, ones that lifted my stomach into my chest, like we were about to fall and not recover. At some point a flight attendant came over the speaker and, sounding terrified, to me, she yelled, “Everyone, get in your seats! NOW!” I think she was just worried that someone would get hurt or thrown to the floor, but you don’t think that through at the time. I became convinced that this was how I was going to die. I didn’t think it, I knew. My life really did flash before my eyes. I had always thought that was a literary device or something, but it happens.

Eventually, though, it stopped. I heard an American woman sitting in the row behind me telling her neighbor that part of the reason we made it out alive was that in China she’d met a monk she’d supposedly recognized from a previous life, and she’d prayed to him on her Buddha beads during the turbulence, and that’s why we were going to be fine. I was too exhausted to roll my eyes.

This is the experience I cite when anyone — including Puliafico and Lent — ask me if I had a traumatic experience that I think contributed to my phobia, but it isn’t really the whole story. It’s just the easier one to explain. On the morning of my second day in therapy, when they ask, “Is there anything else?” I figure I might as well dig deep.

The next time I get on an airplane after China is five months later, in November, when I come out of class to five or six missed calls and voicemails from my dad. When I call him back, he tells me that my mother has had an accident, and when I ask if she’ll be OK, he says he doesn’t know. She fell down some stairs, onto a cement landing, and she’s in a coma in the hospital. He calls what happened a “traumatic brain injury.” I ask him, “What do I do?” He says that I need to fly home — about an hour’s flight from Illinois, where I’m in school — and this part isn’t said, but it’s with the understanding that I need to hurry if I want to make it back before she dies.

I don’t remember that flight at all.

My mom, miraculously, is OK. Not at first — brain injuries require a great deal of wait-and-see, which is impossible until the days keep going by — but eventually, now, she is healthy. But back then, I was living in the hospital with her and my dad for three weeks, sleeping on a couch in a waiting room or else on a cot in a little hotel that sits across the parking lot from the hospital, there for families in situations like ours. Thanksgiving and my 20th birthday both come and go with my mother still in a coma.

It’s decided that I’ll go back to school just for four days, to take my winter finals and then return home. By then my mom is awake, if not altogether present — sometimes she is very much her, asking a nurse for “good coffee,” but other times she is frustrated and confused and thinks that I am her sister, or her sister is me — but still I feel unable to leave her side. I think that if I do, she will die while I am gone.

Someone takes me to the airport anyway, and it’s there, for the first time, that I become acutely aware of this new terror. My plane is going to crash, and when my mom gets better she’ll have to deal not only with what happened to her, but with what happened to me too. I call my dad crying and he tells me I have to go, I have to finish my semester. So I get on the plane. But as soon as they shut the cabin door, I decide I have to get off.

I ask a flight attendant if I can get out, trying to explain as quietly and quickly as possible about my mom. She is kind, but she tells me it’s not possible. I am as anxious as it is possible to be, but I am also someone who typically defers to authority and wishes to avoid making a scene, so I don’t fight her on it. The woman seated next to me — in her fifties, with short gray hair, glasses on a chain — notices that I’m agitated, and when the flight attendant moves further down the aisle, she offers to buy me a drink: “I’ll pretend like it’s for me, but you can have it when nobody’s looking.” Somehow, in spite of this encompassing fear, I find it in myself to consider another: I’m too afraid of getting in trouble with the flight attendants or maybe the captain, so I decline. But now I know she’s on my side.

The woman tells me her name is Mary, and she talks to me, trying to distract me throughout the whole flight, piping up even more when there is turbulence and I close my eyes and grip my armrests. When we finally land, she wishes me well, and I thank her. I don’t see her after we get off the plane. And I — who months earlier thought a woman silly for thinking she and her beads had anything to do with protecting our plane — decide Mary must have been a saint. I figure I only got through it because of her.

It surprises me to realize, when I’m done telling Puliafico and Lent these stories on day two, that maybe I was wrong about which of the two flights affected me most. They tell me it sounds like my anxiety is connected much more to a fear of death than it is to flying itself. It sounds obvious, like something I thought I already knew. But I guess I only sort of did.

I tell them it’s true, that whatever plans I’ve made for later this summer feel almost hypothetical, because they fall on days that come after my flight home. I’ll agree to anything in August — I might not even be around at that point. Booking flights, in that way, feels like I’m suggesting a possible day for my own death: Does this one work for you? It feels like I’m reminding whoever and whatever is or could be responsible for my end that I am here. I have often otherwise been trying to escape notice, living as close to riskless as I possibly can, hiding from mortality at my desk in my room.

Maybe this is why it’s so easy to get angry with anyone who suggests I just get over it: Asking me to overcome my fear of flying feels synonymous, to me, with asking me to accept that I will one day die. Of course I will never agree to that. I’m going to assume that that is not necessarily true until the day it happens.

But for the rest of that day, for nearly two hours, Puliafico and Lent are going to make me imagine it happening, because that is what one does in exposure therapy: Whip up your fear and then sit with it. I keep expecting them to offer some sort of comfort, some statistical support or information about the way turbulence works, or at least some reassurance that I will not die this week — not because I think that’s a part of the therapy, but because they’re two human beings sitting near a third one in distress. But it never comes. It’s their job not to do that. They’d classify all of the above as “avoidance,” or things I could repeat to myself to distract myself from my anxiety. I just have to feel it. I lean back into the battered old airplane seat and close my eyes because they tell me to, and then I walk them through three separate flights and the crashes they end in. It’s strange — they ask me for tiny, seemingly irrelevant details, like, “Who’s in front of you in line to get your boarding pass? What is she wearing?” But what’s stranger still is that I have answers. She’s a young mother wearing a gray sweater and her hair in a ponytail, holding the hand of her son. I don’t know where it all comes from, but I’ve got a full narrative filling out in my brain, and then another.

I know what the people around me will sound like when they start getting nervous that this time, something might actually be wrong. I know that on the final imagined flight of the day, which Puliafico helpfully suggests I make fail by way of faulty landing gear, we’ll hit the ground nose first. I know the floor will peel up in a metal curl like unwinding a soup can, and that anyone sitting in the middle seats will be dragged out, skidding along through the few inches between plane and tarmac. I know the fire will start at the front and move back, and I know how it will smell. I know what I’ll miss out on for the rest of the life I would have had.

When I am done, because after a certain point, there is nothing left to say, my therapists tell me I did a good job today. (Do I say “thank you”?) They are impressed by my details, I guess because it shows I put in effort. I made my mind work hard at this. But I am horrified by how gruesome I made it, embarrassed for being so dramatic and sounding so weak.

The most unexpected thing is that after all that desperation and doom, I also feel, on the whole, calm.

This is the pattern my emotional roller coaster took on each of the first two days of therapy: eager hopefulness in the morning followed, quickly, by irritability and mild aggression toward the two jerks who kept telling me my plane could crash. After that — usually, appropriately, while describing my death — I’d feel anxious and sad, followed by an unfamiliar kind of neutralized acceptance. Throughout the therapy sessions, Puliafico and Lent repeatedly asked me to rate my fear level on a subjective scale from 0 (no anxiety) to 100 (the most anxiety possible). It’s hard to assign a number to something like that, but I guessed that at my most anxious in the clinic I felt about a 50.

When I first met them, I told my therapists that even just being in an airport would put me at around 65-70 on the fear scale, so it’s surprising when on my third and final full day, which we spend walking around John F. Kennedy International Airport, I don’t ever feel more anxious than, say, a 30. It’s not for Puliafico and Lent’s lack of trying — they needle me, asking, “Does looking at the security line make you anxious? That guy looks antsy, does that make you feel anxious? What about the delays on the departure board? What about the rain?” I clench my jaw, not out of fear, but because I want to tell these people to leave me alone, but I know that I can’t. Or, at least, shouldn’t.

In the third terminal we visit (we can’t go past security, so we wander around different entryways instead), no more than an hour into the day, I feel ready to snap. (Is this the goal? I’m still not sure.) We sit three in a row in some black leather chairs to the side of the Delta check-in line. Puliafico, apparently aware of my flagging motivation, tries a new tactic and makes a joke about my plane crashing, and I’m so relieved I could cry. Despite my best efforts to get them to make fun of me with me — because it helps — they’ve been holding out until now, Puliafico explains, because at first they thought I was doing it as an avoidance tactic. They thought that when I joked about flight numbers with two of the same number in them (your 773s, your 442s) being a bad omen, it meant I wasn’t talking about what really scared me. But those stupid little things do scare me. I believe them, and I think the fact I believe them is kind of funny.

So the joking — though it is dark — is welcome. It would be funny, in a way. Not to me, but cosmically. Three full days of intensive therapy for fear of flying followed by a plane crash at the end? “Think how we’d feel,” Puliafico says.

“I hope that if my plane crashes, it ruins the rest of your lives,” I say. “I will come back, and I will haunt you forever.”

Personal motivation is so great a determining factor in the success of exposure therapy that it’s hard not to wonder how much the therapy itself really accomplishes. Are people who decide to come to the clinic — and to keep coming — already nine-tenths of the way there? I wasn’t sure whether I ultimately got on the two planes I took home because the therapy worked, or because I’d already decided beforehand that I would — that this was the time, that 26 was the age I’d stop being so afraid of things.

But deciding something like that is rather grand, and possibly a little unrealistic, and maybe that’s where the therapy comes in — to remind you that it’s work.

“Motivation is the first step. It’s helpful. But just because someone wants to change doesn’t mean they’re ready to change,” Schare tells me over the phone, after I’m home. “Motivation is big, but are you willing to experience some of the pain that goes along with it?” I am sure he must be right. It’s more than just wanting. Throughout the therapy I kept telling Puliafico and Lent that no, really, I could get over this completely, and they kept telling me they doubted it would ever be totally gone.

And they were right, at least so far: I am nervous heading to LaGuardia Airport for my flights — there is, cruelly, a two-hour layover in Chicago — back home to Minneapolis, and a little more so when I meet Puliafico and Lent after checking my bag. We stand around by a floor-to-ceiling window in the lower-level food court, watching planes take off, going over things a few more times — since I’m flying within a few hours, they’ll spare me the most frightening imagery, instead reminding me, simply, that it’s not going to be easy. There’s an air of cautious anticipation between all of us, like we know I’m about to make it. “You’re smiling more than you have all week,” Lent says.

When it gets closer to boarding time, we head back upstairs, standing near the top of the escalator, just outside the security line, maybe putting off the inevitable just a little. Below us I watch a little girl, maybe 5 years old, standing nervously in front of the escalator, refusing to get on it. Her dad sets her on the bottom stair and she wobbles upward for a few seconds before tumbling back down, painlessly, the way little kids do. She stands with her dad again and he counts, “One… Two… Three!” and she jumps back on. At first she stands still, holding the rubber bar, but about halfway up she starts running, stretching her legs to leap up the stairs. She’s ready to be done. Me too.

I say good-bye to Puliafico and Lent and shake their hands. Both are careful not to tell me “good luck,” because earlier I told them not to, since it might make it sound like I needed it. Instead they just say, “OK, let us know when you get there.” Then the therapy is over, and I am on my own.

It is crowded at the airport — it is the Friday of Memorial Day weekend — and outside it’s windy and cloudy, a pre-thunderstorm sky. There are delays spread across every departure board I see. My own flight is pushed back 20 minutes. Before the program (or before this year, all of it together, whatever it is that got me here), these things would have added up like checkmarks off a list in my head and together they would have just about killed me. I would have been looking all around me for more proof that I was meant to run away, to decide it was acceptable and maybe even smart to stay afraid, to keep being the same, to stay safe.

But this time, somehow, my pet omens don’t bother me so much. When it starts to rain I take it in like a fact — one I don’t love, but still an objective, impersonal event — rather than a threat on my life. Something about hearing the worst of my flying-related fears all week — the worst pictures in my mind, the worst refrains about my plane getting lost in the storm — makes the real thing seem less dramatic now. Even though I was pretty sure it wasn’t helping, even though I didn’t want to trust these two young guys, barely out of college, and even though I was a smart-ass of a patient, somewhere along the line — and truly, I am really not sure how — the therapy that didn’t feel like therapy started making a difference. I got to a place where I could sit in an airport experiencing some of my least favorite triggers and accept them all. I can just think: This is just how it’s going to be. I don’t take any of the Xanax sitting in my purse like a safety blanket. I don’t cry, and I don’t call my parents before the flight in hopes they’ll tell me it’s OK if I just take the train back instead. Once we’re in flight, above the clouds in bright sun that shifts over us from left to right, I even look out the window a few times, and it isn’t so scary after all.

On the ground afterward, I feel tired and strong. I did it, but if I want it to stick, I’ll have to do it again. I think it will be fine. I can’t know that it will, but that is something that you and I all have to live with if we ever want to get up and go.

Just before takeoff on that first flight, from New York to Chicago, the lead flight attendant, whom I knew I loved right away, says over the intercom, “Sit back and relax, or lean forward and panic. It’s up to you.” It’s funny, but it’s also true.














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On a drizzly Thursday morning in late August, a celebrated African-American truth teller, an Indian-American academic turned stand-up, an outspoken gay football fanatic, a hoodie-wearing white guy with a tattoo of the singing hamburger from Better Off Dead, and a dozen or so other Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell writers and staffers are watching a One Direction video on YouTube.

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and apparently every celebrity alive felt compelled to mark the occasion by releasing a video describing their own dream. Some were lovely. (Terry Crews, such a sweetheart.) Most were agreeably bland. But a few were… special. For his part, Harry Styles has “a dream that one day hunger will not exist and peace will rule the earth and everyone will just get on.”

Styles’ oblivious delivery and haughty hand gestures earn a few chuckles, but Bell is worried. Making fun of boy bands is, after all, the lowest hanging fruit possible. “Maybe we should not pile on One Direction?” asks Bell, 40, clad in blue jeans and a black T-shirt. Though he’s somewhere between tired and naturally low-key, Bell is an active listener, his eyes not on any of the multiple screens in the room or buried in a notebook, but pointed directly at the various writers pitching their wares.

His staff keeps looking. An earlier clip of Mitt Romney’s MLK-inspired dreams was too generically uplifting to really dig into, so the search is on for something worthy of the group’s ire.

Bell’s Speakeasy Productions office is located on the 10th floor of a midtown Manhattan building. There are two TVs at the front of a long conference table, both connected to laptops. One of the screens shows a color-coded spreadsheet that includes segment titles “Black Batman,” “Morgan Freeman Twerk Definition,” and “Dear Black Jesus, Please Smite George Zimmerman.” The other shows a Huffington Post article about former Illinois congressman and tea party favorite Joe Walsh’s MLK-inspired dream. Walsh is an infamous crackpot, so expectations are high. A producer hits play on an audio clip from Walsh’s radio show.

“I have a dream that black America will take responsibility for improving their own lives,” Walsh spits. “I have a dream that one day black America will cease their dependency on the government plantation, which has enslaved them to lives of poverty, and instead depend on themselves, their families, their churches, and their communities.”

The writer’s room lights up like kids who get to open a few Christmas gifts early. “Blaaaaaacks,” Bell brays, imitating Walsh’s drawl. He pauses for a second. “It’s hard to take responsibility if you take all the blame.”

There’s something in there, but they’ll have to get back to finding just the right skewer for Walsh, because the morning meeting is almost over and they still haven’t answered the most important question: Just how Say Anything are they going to go with Obama’s speech, anyway?

The main gist of the joke is that President Obama’s MLK-commemorating speech was in the uplifting vein of the 2008 Obama that made us forget all about, Bell says, “the boring candidate we were engaged to vote for.” After a few frustrating years with little progress on the environment, drug law reform, and all the other lefty peeves, it seems that the inspiring Obama wants to woo us back. A Photoshop image depicting Barack going full Lloyd Dobler, boombox over the head, is already being worked on by the graphics department. But Bell is firm.

“Lose the rom-com stuff,” he tells the rest of the writers. “Maybe a rom-com joke, but let’s not do a whole rom-com thing.”

Bell starts to riff. “I have a scheme. A meme. A Dream Team,” and then starts in on the idea that people are covering MLK, and that the “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the songs that you just shouldn’t cover. He asks everyone for their suggestions for songs that people shouldn’t cover.

Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You,” known for its intimidatingly high notes, is mentioned. Not bad, but they keep going. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” also comes up, but Bell points out that is a cover. (And yes, I thought of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but I’m merely auditing this class.)

It’s almost 10 a.m. They’ll have to figure this out later. Rehearsal is supposed to start at 4, so everybody needs to start writing. There’s institutional racism to lampoon, jokes to be sharpened, and uncoverable songs to be decided upon. Though tonight’s taping won’t ever air, everyone is treating it like a regular episode. Because in less than a week, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell will return from summer break, literally bigger than ever, and everyone has to get into fighting shape.

Macey J. Foronda / BuzzFeed

Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell debuted on the cable network FX on a Thursday night in August of last year and produced 26 episodes before taking most of this summer off. A mix of one-on-one interviews, man-on-the-street bits, and Bell or one of his writers’ extended riffs on whatever inanity the day offered up, Biased was the only one of the many late-night comedy shows to air last year that featured a balloon drop and dance party while the phrase “Black Comedian Criticized Obama!” flashed across the screen.

Last week Biased returned for its second season. There’ve been a few changes: No longer confined to Thursday, it now airs at 11 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday. It has also been moved, along with the raunchy comedies The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, to FXX, the just launched, younger-skewing offshoot of FX. Though Biased has yet to achieve the pop-cultural traction of the other two shows, by airing on five nights a week it becomes, by default, the most prominent face of the new network. This is really not as stressful as it sounds, apparently.

“On one hand you could look at that as a lot of pressure, but I look at it from the other perspective — you put a fledgling show on a fledgling network and you give them the opportunity to grow together,” says John Landgraf, president of FX. “I don’t expect Kamau to come out of the gate and beat Jimmy Fallon and The Daily Show. They’re both going to be works in progress for some time. And I like that.”

There’s a long story and a short story for how W. Kamau Bell found himself in this unique position. The long version involves hard work, self-discovery, and overcoming internalized, self-limiting beliefs — we’ll get to that. The short version is that Landgraf and Chris Rock had lunch, Rock told Landgraf that W. Kamau Bell should have a show, and Landgraf agreed.

“He has a very distinct presence,” Landgraf says. “He’s very smart, very sharp, but I think there’s kind of a warmth to him. His perspective is unlike anything I see on television, like nothing I’ve seen a late-night show built around.”

Perhaps the even shorter story for how Bell found himself with a late-night show is that Landgraf is widely considered one of the most forward-thinking minds working in television. He nurtured the defiantly uncommercial, boldly experimental Louie into an Emmy-nominated, critically acclaimed hit, and has again and again shown a willingness to bet on raw talent and give it time to grow.

“That’s kind of what’s always been one of the hallmarks of our channel,” he says. “No one had ever heard of Shawn Ryan when he created The Shield. The It’s Always Sunny guys had literally no experience. It took years of patience. What is the challenge of betting on the guy who is the hottest thing in the world, coming off a massive success? The genius is trying to figure out who has the potential to grow into that over time.”

As such, Landgraf has assured Bell that he will have the time and space he needs to make Biased as Biased as it could possibly be. “FX is actively not trying to get the biggest audience possible. They’re going after the most intense audience possible,” Bell says. “Our job is is to think about how we do this show as good as possible so it becomes a thing.”

Macey J. Foronda / BuzzFeed

Growing up, W. Kamau Bell never felt black enough. “I grew up in the era of hip-hop, but that was never my main thing,” he says. “I didn’t come out of the ghetto like a lot of black people are supposed to. I wasn’t athletic, and that frustrated people because I was always tall: ‘Why can’t you play basketball? If I was your height…’”

Sitting in his production office, which is filled with a few partly unpacked boxes and not much else, Bell seems relaxed for a person who will shortly have one of the more relentlessly time-consuming duties in entertainment. But upon closer observation, what seems like a calm demeanor begins to resemble a natural level of reserve, the mark of a person more likely to internalize pressure. He is even taller in person than he appears on television (though based on all evidence I’ve seen, he’s a born sloucher), and even when he’s not mugging to sell a joke, his face has an animated warmth to it. If you didn’t know he was a performer, it would be hard to shake the feeling that he is a man who is probably really good at getting infants to smile.

Walter Kamau Bell was born in Palo Alto, California, and then moved to Indianapolis, then Boston, then Chicago. He then went to live with his dad in Alabama for a while, then went back to live with his mom. “At one point it was like 10 schools in 10 years or something crazy,” he says. “My mom was very concerned about the schools I was going to, so if I went to one for, like, a week or two and she was like, ‘This isn’t it,’ we’d just move. At the time I didn’t realize it was a lot.”

In the mid-’80s, Bell’s mother Janet made her living publishing compendiums of famous African-American quotations. “She self-published back when self-publishing was drive out to the suburbs, find a typesetter. Before that she worked in the textbook industry and she made it her thing to diversify the stories in English textbooks. They didn’t hire her for that but that’s what she decided to do: ‘Why can’t this character be named Juan or Jamal?’ She would go to schools and she’d find out they didn’t teach African-American studies, so she’d be like, ‘Well, I’m coming on Tuesday and I’m bringing my slide projector.’”

But while Bell’s mom wanted him to take pride in who he was, he mostly felt alienated from other African-Americans while growing up. But he was alienated from everyone growing up; after a few years of constantly moving, he began to get sick of constantly saying good-bye, and eventually made little effort to make new friends. “I’ve always gone by Kamau, but I would go to schools and they’d be like, ‘Walter Bell,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, it’s fine. It’s fine. I won’t be here long enough.’” He laughs for a second. “This has become a therapy session.”

An only child and a latchkey kid, Bell spent most of his childhood devouring comic books — Spider-Man and the Hulk, sure, but despite the civil rights analogy at the heart of the series, the X-Men were “too much like a soap opera” — and becoming obsessed with comedy specials like Bill Cosby’s Himself and Eddie Murphy’s Delirious and Raw. “I remember seeing [Jerry] Seinfeld on the Tonight Show: ‘Oh, it’s just a guy standing up there talking.’ I spent a lot of time by myself, and I like spending time by myself. The thing I always hated about team sports is if you dropped the ball, everybody turned on you. Stand-up is the ultimate solo activity. If it goes bad, it’s just my fault.”

He dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania “when I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer” and attended Columbia College Chicago, an open admission art school where he took classes in acting and music appreciation. Eventually, he stumbled into Chicago’s Second City program, one of the most respected improv comedy incubators in America. There’s a shirt, now functioning more as a blanket, that is his proof that he went through the club’s conservatory program. Meanwhile, he was secretly going to and performing at stand-up clubs in town, and realizing that was his calling.

Macey J. Foronda / BuzzFeed

Bell’s parents didn’t agree on much, but they both agreed that they hated Los Angeles. They passed that on to their son. An early visit to New York convinced him that the city was too loud and the buildings were too tall, so by 1997, he eventually found himself in San Francisco. “I was a big fan of the history of stand-up and knew that New York and San Francisco had a lot to say about it. And also the scene at the point — it’s bigger now — was real tight-knit. There wasn’t a lot of in-fighting or gossiping. The clubs there — the Punchline, Cobb’s — really nurtured local talent. Which I find now is really rare.”

But all the nurturing and support in the world couldn’t make audiences actually laugh. “I was really a bad comedian for a long time,” he says. “A lot of my early years were throwing anything I could think of against the wall, and whenever I talked about race, the audience would clam up so I would have to pull away. I would love to be able to write jokes that weren’t always about something. It’d be easier. But I just can’t figure out how to take those onstage and still care about them.”

By 2007, Bell’s frustration reached a breaking point. He was tired of watching other comedians move past him, and he couldn’t stomach the hypocrisy of San Francisco’s supposedly anything-goes culture. (“San Francisco is like 4% black, the country is like 12% black. Why is the most liberal city in the country 4% black?”) Comedy clubs are filled with guys complaining that they’re going to quit any day now. Bell was never that guy until he was.

“Comedy is too hard. It’s too soul-crushing. If you have another option, take it,” he says. “If video stores or comic book shops paid a living wage and came with health insurance, I would have done that.”

He’d been involved with the activism and performance community in San Francisco, so in a last-ditch effort, he rented a theater and wrote his own solo show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.

“If I talk about race and racism in a comedy club, after 10 minutes they’re going to want me to move on,” he says. “But if I go to a theater and put it in the title, they either will like it or they won’t but they won’t be like, ‘Why is he still talking about racism?’ The moment I started doing that it felt like, This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Bell Curve was sort of like his “version of The Daily Show,” and, as such, an embryonic version of Totally Biased. He did it a few times a week, constantly rewriting and updating to include the day’s events, and included clips and up-to-the-minute personal stories, often related to Kamau’s white girlfriend (now wife) Melissa. “It really taught me how to get more personal and also how to really hold the line on things I want to talk about and not let the crowd dictate it.”

If it took Bell a while to find an audience, he was at least making friends, including Janine Brito, 30, an openly gay stand-up he brought with him to Biased. “Ironically, this move to say ‘screw it’ to the industry is what got the industry’s attention,” she says. “It let him lean to a style and point of view so unique and personal to him, they couldn’t ignore him anymore. Also, his Afro’s gotten progressively messier — it’s like, ‘Jesus Christ, dude, get it together.’” She also credits San Francisco for encouraging performers to try bold ideas. “The Bay lets you play. We see old nudists’ saggy balls, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and our friends’ one-woman shows about strap-ons 365 days a year. So we’re down for whatever.”

“I learned a lot more about identity politics,” says Bell, agreeing. “Hanging out with all sorts of different types of people, you start to let go of some things. And then it all naturally bubbled up through my act. The label ‘political’ got put on me eventually — if you’re black and have opinions and those opinions don’t rhyme, then you’re political.”

Bell soon toured the show on college campuses and at diversity events, as well as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “It was very DIY, very punk-rock ethic of pack it up and take it wherever people want you.” One of the people who caught a performance was Chris Rock, who had worked with Bell’s friend Chuck Sklar, now a producer on Totally Biased.

“[Rock] came and saw and then called me a couple of months later, like, ‘I want to help you get a show.’ There were some stops and starts. Me and Chuck got a crew together in San Francisco and put together something to show him. He put his own money into it. And then he took it to FX. Getting the show was easier than anything I ever did in my career. Keeping the show was harder.”

Macey J. Foronda / BuzzFeed

Bell is looking out the window. His glasses are off and he’s rubbing his temples. He’s meeting with a few of his writers, hammering out the MLK bit. The Walsh stuff has been dropped completely, and they’ve decided to focus on the fact that Obama’s anniversary speech talked about the need for equality for women, homosexuals, Asians, and Native Americans. One idea is to riff on other people he could have included in his speech, including “Comic-Con people” and “dykes on bikes,” but Bell isn’t feeling these suggestions. “It took 12 people to write that?”

The writers’ room is a few doors down from the Totally Biased studio. It’s decorated with various props, including a license plate that reads “Not Questlove” and a photo collage from a bit where Bell assembled the dream jury that he wished George Zimmerman had faced in Florida. (It includes Ice Cube, Angela Davis, and four different Samuel L. Jacksons.)

“Barack’s dream includes gays, Native Americans, and Asians. Barack’s dream got waaay freakier,” Bell says. A few minutes later, he adds, “Barack’s dream was like something from Eyes Wide Shut.”

So they have the kicker, but there are a few more things to go over. An idea about Sears having a Martin Luther King Day mattress sale is discarded when it’s pointed out that Stephen Colbert had already done it, and there’s still the matter of what to do about One Direction. At the moment, they’re leaning toward Bell, using an outrageously broad, Absolutely Fabulous-worthy British accent, saying, “I support Marvin Luther King. I’d love to meet him one day.”

Also, could someone please check and make sure that no women spoke at the original March? “At least Wikipedia it, so we don’t get slammed on a blog post.”

Macey J. Foronda / BuzzFeed

A Brief, By No Means Complete List of Noteworthy Comedians Who Hosted a Talk Show For Less Than Two Years: Chevy Chase, Greg Behrendt, Norm Macdonald, D. L. Hughley, Whitney Cummings, Roseanne Barr, David Alan Grier, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Russell Brand, Mo’Nique, George Lopez, Wanda Sykes.

What exactly makes a talk show succeed is difficult to quantify, but it involves some alchemical combination of charm, talent, and ease. The ideal host has to be entertaining enough to catch your interest, but not so desperate for approval that they become off-putting. They need to seem comfortable with themselves, but not like they’re taking your attention for granted. (Unless they’re David Letterman and they’ve earned that right.) There’s no real way to predict what will work (at one point, every name listed above seemed like a good idea to someone), which doesn’t mean that networks won’t try. Usually by copying what went on before.

Earlier this year, NBC decided that after more than two decades and an embarrassing false alarm, Jay Leno would finally retire from the Tonight Show. After fewer than five years hosting Late Night, Jimmy Fallon would take over his seat and Conan O’Brien would (presumably) order a Scotch and sigh deeply. There was much speculation in the press about who would take over. Perhaps, some wishful thinkers offered, it was time for a major network to consider someone other than a heterosexual white man? (No offense to Seth Meyers, who was eventually awarded the gig and should not be held personally accountable for a much larger set of issues.)

“There’s no question to me that Maya Rudolph wouldn’t kick the shit out of a late-night talk show,” says Bell, “but people are so used to laying on their bed with their remote in their hand flipping past white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, that it would take an act of bravery for a network. You’re never going to find out how good a different type of person could be until you try that person.”

Totally Biased’s deep bench includes Brito, Asian-American Kevin Kataoka, and proudly cranky African-American social commentator Dwayne Kennedy. Should Totally Biased find its footing, the second banana most likely to first achieve Carell/Colbert-style breakout success is probably 30-year-old Queens-born writer Hari Kondabolu, a Wesleyan grad with a master’s degree in human rights from the London School of Economics, who Bell met at a 2008 Obama election event.

“When you’re actually trying to be thoughtful about what you’re saying and not wanting to pit oppressions against each other,” Kondabolu says, “there aren’t too many of us who choose that tact. So when you actually see somebody else who happens to be a person of color, it’s an incredible, thrilling moment of like, I’m not alone.” One of the central tenets of Bell and his writers’ room is that everyone’s struggle is worthy of respect, and we’re all in this together. “You have a black heterosexual comic talking about gay rights issues and women’s rights issues, and is funny about it,” Kondabolu continues. “I haven’t seen anything like what we do, which is exciting, but it also means there’s no clear blueprint to follow, because who else has really done this?”

But how much of a market is there for it? Landgraf is a betting man, but he’s not a foolish one, and one of the reasons he’s all in on Totally Biased is because he believes Bell is capable of saying things that other late-night figures can’t or won’t, and thus can reach an audience that other shows don’t try for.

“He reaches a generation of viewers who don’t pretend that race doesn’t exist,” says Landgraf. “They don’t pretend it doesn’t make a difference or that people with different sexual orientations aren’t different. They are able to engage with, understand and talk about, the things that are different from us because they also perceive a commonality of human experience that is different than the generation that preceded them. I think Kamau and his confederate speak to that really well, and differently than others in the late-night space have ever done.”

This is, of course, great. Inspiring, even. But the cold fact of the matter is that for all of Landgraf’s patience, this show will at least have to prove it’s worth holding onto. The second season debuted with decent enough, if not great, numbers, yet the show’s audience has slowly but surely grown over the year. The brass seems happy with that for now. No one expected Biased to become an overnight juggernaut; it’s probably enough that it wasn’t a complete fiasco like the FX’s original mate for Biased, the widely panned ode to onanism Brand X with Russell Brand. (“Every time they re-upped his show, I felt like, OK, there must be a good chance they’re going to re-up ours,” Bell says. “From the first moment, they said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not competing with Russell Brand.’ I was like, ‘Of course not, ‘cause if I were competing with Russell Brand, you would have picked him.’”)

Though this will surely not always be the case, at the moment positive buzz is more important than hard numbers for the program. And to make sure they would be able to transition from writing one show of topical entertainment a week to five, the Biased team spent about a month writing and then the week before the second season debut, shooting several practice episodes.

“We’re testing everything,” says Chuck Sklar. “There’s been a lot of technical issues because we moved from another facility across town. We had an order for six episodes a year ago, and we thought we’d wait around for four months and see if they wanted to do more, but no, right away, another seven, then another 13. Now it’s a big adjustment, because how do we maintain the quality that we established and the tone that Kamau feels he wants to work in, every day?”

Bell is proud of the show, but not blind to what needs to be improved. There are times when it gets a bit too broad, or a well-intentioned joke doesn’t quite land, or he’s not doing anything that Jon Stewart isn’t doing. (He admits it was tough to find their own way of covering the 2012 election.) But he’s come a long way from his first few interviews (an early talk with Tom Morello felt like an outtake from The Chris Farley Show), and to his credit, Totally Biased has never felt like an attempt to get the audience to take their medicine.

“I think as an interviewer I’ve had some good ones and I’ve had some ones that are not so good,” he says. “And a lot of it is about being present, not thinking like, What’s the next question?

Toward the end of the first season, Totally Biased produced the first episode that Bell felt worked all the way through. Kondabolu did a piece on the National Spelling Bee aka the Indian Olympics; Bell visited with preteen thrash metal band Unlocking the Truth and then moderated a debate between comedian Jim Norton and Jezebel writer Lindy West about rape jokes. (This segment went viral, giving the show what Bell jokes is their hit single.)

“If we don’t put that out there, none of this exists anywhere on TV,” Bell says. “And that’s when Totally Biased feels like it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. You look at the early episodes of The Daily Show or Conan, the transition…is amazing. There’s no question that Jon Stewart is one of the greats of all time. You have to grow into that. I feel like I definitely still have room to grow into that.”

Macey J. Foronda / BuzzFeed

Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” plays over the speakers while an audience coordinator assigns people to their seats, careful to make sure that the first two rows are not a sea of white faces — not difficult, given the diverse crowd. Like every TV studio, the space is much smaller than it looks on television, just one brick-wall backdrop (“vandalized” with graffiti tags including “Race Is Not Real,” “I Never Say Mixed,” and “23”) and a smattering of seats.

Bell, now wearing a gray suit and a burgundy dress shirt, runs out, starts introducing the show, and immediately flubs a line. “Hey, everybody, I’m new to show business,” he tells the audience. “I just had a yearlong internship.”

Bell starts running through the day’s news, including the truly baffling statistic that 29% of Louisiana Republicans blame Obama for Hurricane Katrina. (Bell notes there is a margin of error plus or minus “you are out of your goddamn mind.” I’ve seen him do the joke 10 times now through various writing run-throughs and rehearsals, but I never saw him bulge his neck out and smack down the word “mind” quite like this before.)

Eventually we get to the main act of the evening, the “I Have a Dream” bit. The rom-com stuff is cut down to one joke about Obama being afraid of his commitment to education and the environment but now he’s back. Cut to the Obama as Lloyd Dobler Photoshop and Bell singing a bar of “In Your Eyes.” The One Direction joke has been changed to, “Where were you in the ’60s when we needed you, Harry, and why didn’t you and Taylor work out?” Bell is standing up straight for the first time all day, hitting each beat efficiently and drawing out the “waaaaaaaay freakier” part for all the laughs he can milk. He confidently and smoothly makes the argument that we can’t just keep covering Martin Luther King Jr. — we need to start making new songs that reflect where we are today and the struggles we still face. “Otherwise, we’ll end up with this.” Cue video of a Miss America contestant brutalizing the Dreamgirls ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

It’s running somewhat smoothly. During a bit about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, aka the “top contestant on America’s Next Black President,” Bell trips over a line. And then trips over it again. His head writer Kevin Avery starts to read from the prompter, but Bell cuts him off. “I can read, negro!” he yells with mock anger. He smiles, and everyone loses it for a second. And then it’s time to start the whole bit over before taping some FXX promos.

But first Bell turns to the audience and, pretending for a second that it’s just him and them, says that when he was a kid all he wanted to do was stay up late and tell jokes. He shakes his head for a second and shoots the grin that a lot of people hope America will one day find familiar and reassuring. “I didn’t want to work for a living.”

Macey J. Foronda / BuzzFeed










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