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W. Kamau Bell wants America to get awkward

May 26, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
For W. Kamau Bell, awkward situations and challenging conversations can offer the best opportunities to grow as a person. And as a stand-up comedian and host of “United Shades of America,” he does the opposite of running from uncomfortable interactions. Bell, author of “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell,” joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a comic with a sharp edge and an astute take on modern life and politics.

Jeffrey Brown has this latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

W. KAMAU BELL, Author, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell”: Have you heard of the phrase Black Lives Matter.

MAN: Yes.

W. KAMAU BELL: And what do you think about that?

JEFFREY BROWN: Sociopolitical comedy, it’s a way of describing the work of W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN’s “United Shades of America,” in which he does something rather unusual these days, seeking out the America and Americans we don’t know or regularly interact with.

W. KAMAU BELL: Come here. Come here.

WOMAN: Can you say it, because — can you tell me a little bit?

W. KAMAU BELL: No, what you said is true. All lives should matter.

WOMAN: I know that.


W. KAMAU BELL: But right now, but not — right now, lives …

WOMAN: … offensive. Right? It does.


W. KAMAU BELL: Yes. No. Well, to many people it does, because all lives don’t really matter in the same way, and then all lives matter is like an aspirational goal.

White people, learn from her.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now Bell expands on his own view of the world in a new book, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell,” with the subtitle “Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian.”

So, welcome. That says it all pretty much

W. KAMAU BELL: Yes. That’s the whole book.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the book.

W. KAMAU BELL: That’s the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: We don’t have to read the book anymore.



JEFFREY BROWN: “Awkward Thoughts,” though, the title, what does that mean exactly?

W. KAMAU BELL: It comes from the fact that I realize that the best things that have happened to me in life have been friends of mine sitting me down and having awkward talks with me, family members, or reading things that challenge me, that that’s when I feel really like I’m growing as a person, when I’m in an awkward situation.

And a lot of times, in society, we’re trained to run from awkward situations. If things get awkward, you either run from them or yell over them to try to control them. But, for me, when things get awkward, I get quieter and start to listen more.

JEFFREY BROWN: I used that sociopolitical comedy, which I took from the jacket cover of the book, so I assume you approve of that.

W. KAMAU BELL: Oh, yes.

No, I’m the one who started describing myself as that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You started that, but what does that mean?

W. KAMAU BELL: I think I found it somewhere, this idea of sociopolitical.

A lot of times, a comedian like me is a called a political comedian. But I think political comedy in America conjures up a pretty specific image. And I love political comedians, but I think there is a pretty big difference between what I’m doing and what you would think a stand-up political comedian is doing.

I’m talking about — I’m not talking much about politicians. I’m talking about social movements or people who are struggling or oppressed people. It’s not so much about what’s going on in D.C.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the television show and to some extent certainly in the book, this search for the other, right?

W. KAMAU BELL: Mm-hmm.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the premises clearly is we’re all in our own boxes, and we need to get out of them.


The first part, when I was a kid, I just moved around a lot because my mom moved around a lot. So, I think I sort of was already being — I was always being broken out of boxes. My dad lives in Alabama. So we would be somewhere and go to Alabama.

And if you’re in the north or in the west and you go to Alabama, that’s a different box. So, for me, the whole thing has been about like searching for where I belong.

And then, as an adult, as a stand-up comedian, you travel around the country doing stand-up shows. And you go anywhere where they will hire you, so you’re in different places you never would think to go, like Garden City, Kansas, or Appalachian State University.

So, for me, it’s just been a natural thing. And then the TV show sort of takes all that experience and really pushes it forward another step.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it does.

Everything you just said is sort of your personal experience of why you get out of boxes. But then you are extrapolating, I think, to a larger — like, this is what we all need. This is what America needs.



W. KAMAU BELL: Yes, because I travel around, and I talk to people.

And everybody sort of loves their part of America, which is great, but then a lot of times, we think, this is the most America part of America, the part I live in. Like, the people in New York think, this is the most America. People in Alabama think …

JEFFREY BROWN: To the detriment, though, of the culture?

W. KAMAU BELL: Yes, because then you watch the news, and if you’re in New York and they say — they talk about Alabama, you think, ah, that’s not my country, that’s not my people.

And so somehow you condescend to what their experience is, or you think you can actually judge their experience, even though you have never been there. So, you think those people want — like, you look at people in coal country, people who don’t live in coal country go, why do they want to destroy the environment with coal?

But if you go talk to people in coal country, it’s about jobs. We sort of demonize them because we think they love destroying the environment.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talked to the alt-right leader, right, Richard Spencer.


JEFFREY BROWN: But you do it in a gentle, sort of humorous way. It’s not like you’re …

W. KAMAU BELL: Yes, I do it the same way I’m talking to you, yes.


But to what end? You’re not trying to convince them — and you have — and you’re clear about your own left-leaning, where you’re coming from.

W. KAMAU BELL: Yes. It’s not — I’m not pulling a trick on anybody. I sit down as the person I am.

I’m very Googleable, so people can find out everything about me.


W. KAMAU BELL: And they’re not going to be tricked about me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not only are you Googleable. You say it all right on the cover of the book.

W. KAMAU BELL: Yes. I have written it down on paper. It’s forever.

But the idea is like, can we have a conversation? Can we actually get to a different place? And the thing that I’m doing on TV is, like, I know it’s for TV. So, if I talk to you and get you relaxed and make you laugh and I laugh, you’re going to say something that you weren’t expecting to say, because you’re more comfortable.

Richard Spencer normally sits across from people like me, and they’re pushing him and they’re challenging him. And it makes him defensive. And it sort of gets to the same place.

By me sitting down with me, we got to different places than he normally gets with other people, which exposed him in a different way to people who thought they knew everything about him.

JEFFREY BROWN: The election happened, surprised a lot of people.

And there was suddenly a lot of talk about an America that felt left behind, right, or left out. So to the extent you’re clear about where you’re coming from and your politics, what do you think people of your political persuasion should be doing now?

W. KAMAU BELL: I just wrote an op-ed for The New York Times saying people in Berkeley need to go vacation in Alabama.

I think that that is really — if you can, get out of your comfort zone and get out of your immediate area and go someplace you wouldn’t expect to go. You are going to learn more about people.

And I think people in Alabama should go to Berkeley. I travel the country a lot. And you talk to people and they’re like, I have never been to New York City. You have never been to New York City?

Now, I get a lot of that is economic. But some of that is just people think, that’s not for me. And I feel like the best thing you can do in this country is mix it up with other people. Now, if you can’t physically do it, you need to get online. You need to connect with people. You need to try to talk to people, not yelling at people on Facebook and Twitter, but actually really connect with people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just one last thing in thinking about the comedy and the sociopolitical.

Serious issues, you’re dealing with. Is there a line? Is there someplace where you think comedy just can’t go?

W. KAMAU BELL: No, comedy is pretty nonpartisan.

Comedy goes wherever comedy wants to go. Whether or not something is a joke depends on the ability of the person who writes the joke to communicate the punchline. Comedy is not something that — it’s like math. It’s way more like math than people realize.

There’s comedians who are Republicans. There’s comedians who are Democrats. Comedy doesn’t care. Comedy is just there to make people laugh.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell.”

Thank you very much.

W. KAMAU BELL: Thank you.