The comedian discusses his CNN docu-series, United Shades Of America and his first solo stand-up special W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro.
Sociopolitical Comedian W. Kamau Bell
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with sociopolitical comedian, W. Kamau Bell, about his new series, “United Shades of America”, and his first solo standup special for Showtime called “W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Mr. Bell coming up right now.
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Tavis: So pleased to welcome W. Kamau Bell to this program. The sociopolitical comedian is the host of the CNN series, “United Shades of America” and also stars in his first solo standup special airing throughout the month of May on Showtime. It’s called “W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro”. I love that [laugh]. Before our conversation, first a look at a scene from his series, “United Shades of America”.
Tavis: When I saw the promotion on CNN for the series, I was glad that you were doing it. I figured it would be something unique, something different in terms of perspective. But how did this come to be?
W. Kamau Bell: After I had a show, “Totally Biased”, on FX and that show got canceled [laugh], I sort of had this moment of like–because I’d sort of come out of nowhere for a lot of people–so I had like this moment of like is it back to zero? But, luckily, some networks reached out to me and they were all news networks, interestingly, who decided to work with me.
And CNN had been pitched the project at that point called “Black Men in America”, and it was about a Black comedian going to just white places. And I was like, “Does this take place in the 60s?” [laugh] because I feel like the America I live in isn’t just Black and white. But if it takes place during the civil rights movement in the 60s, fair enough.
So I said I would only want to do that if I was able to go to places more than just white places because I already got white in-laws. I don’t need to be doing that [laugh[. Luckily, the production company liked it. Then they renamed it “United Shades of America”, which is a much better title and much better premise.
Tavis: I’m gonna jump around here because you just said something that made me think about [laugh] just there’s a piece in your standup where you tell about being married to a white woman. You can tell a little bit of that, I think.
Bell: I mean, there’s a lot of that…[laugh]. There’s about a 30-minute chunk there I didn’t want to fit in.
Tavis: Well, that is true, though. But this whole notion of how people view interracial couples and the commentary that comes along with…
Bell: Married to a white woman.
Tavis: Yeah, but I have a Black kid.
Bell: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: You know the part, yeah.
Bell: People, when you’re married to–I mean, even righteous, forward thinking, progressive, hashtagging Black people look at me like, “Oh, but you’re married to a white woman. Are you gonna do that?” As Becky, as Beyoncé is now announcing to the world.
Tavis: Becky with the good hair? Becky with the good hair?
Bell: Yeah, Becky with the good hair, yeah [laugh]. So you’re married to one of those? I think somehow I’m not keeping it real. So I was always frustrated with that. Then it occurred to me that like I don’t think I’m actually keeping it more real in some sense. Just in this one sense, you know, when I married my wife and we have a kid, our kid is born, our child is considered to be either Black or mixed race. Our kid is not considered to be…
Bell: Exactly. So by having a child with a white person, I’ve taken the possibility of another white person out of the mix [laugh]. That’s revolutionary! As Brother Malcolm said, “By any means necessary.”
Tavis: By any means necessary [laugh].
Bell: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: When I saw that, man, I laughed so hard. Your humor is obviously funny, but I think the best comedians–this goes all the way back to Richard Pryor for me–but the best comedians who are the ones who find a way to make us laugh and make us think, but do so without preaching or proselytizing.
Bell: Yeah. I mean, I’m a fan of all kinds of comedy, but I really do think the comedy that resonated with me–and this comes out of the person of Richard Pryor obviously and George Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory–let’s not forget Dick Gregory who’s still here doing it–you know, just that it’s so fun to laugh and think at the same time.
And it’s so fun to—like Chris Rock is famous for like the things he says as jokes become peoples’ opinion on the matter. And I really just admire that, so that’s the tradition I like to engage in. Like I like as a comedian to use all parts of my brain, the really goofy parts, the silly parts, but also if I want to use a $10 word, I’ll use a $10 word, you know.
Tavis: But how do you, as we say, get in where you fit in? But how do you do that in an era when there doesn’t necessarily seem to be a premium on that? When I say not a premium, I mean that everybody thinks he or she is a comedian now because they can tell a couple of–you got a tight five. I got a tight five. I got a tight five, but I would never call myself a comedian, though.
Bell: Everybody sharing gifs on Facebook and Twitter think they’re funny.
Tavis: Exactly [laugh].
Bell: Look how funny I am. That’s not even your thing! You saw that from the movie, “Malcolm X”. That’s not you!
Bell: So, yeah, I think for me, it’s the ideas that as comics, we have to write faster. We have to be willing to throw stuff away when we see other people doing it or when we see the guy in the office chair and he goes, “Well, I guess that’s done.”
And for me, it’s like as a comic, the more I start treating myself as an individual and not just a comedian, the better it went for me. So when I would go to comedy clubs, sometimes there’s a tendency in comedy clubs to sort of play to the sort of the lowest common denominator in the room.
Like you sort of try to play to the–it’s like being a substitute teacher. Let me just play to everybody and not try to get anybody. I got frustrated doing that because I was like I don’t really find this way fun. I rented a theater in San Francisco where I lived and started doing my own show, my one-man show, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour”.
And it was like whoever comes through the door, you’re just gonna get what I give you. You know, I’m not gonna worry about what you want or there’s no two-drink minimum or “Why you still talking about race?” Because it was on the poster when you came through the door [laugh]. I’m gonna talk about race for an hour. You can’t stop me.
Whereas, in comedy clubs, you talk about race for 10 minutes, even if you curse a lot, people go “Okay, you got anything else?” So I think for me, it’s like I just decided to really treat myself as an individual and not as just a standup comedian.
Tavis: I think Chris has probably talked—at least with comedians of our generation—Chris has probably talked I think the most deeply about it, which is this notion of the difficulty that contemporary comedians have been trying to–my word, not yours–trying to “workshop” their stuff. You know what I’m talking about?
Bell: That is his testify before the Senate issue [laugh]. I think if he ever gets to that place, there’s a lot of things he could talk about, about community, guns. He’s gonna be talking about no more cell phones in comedy clubs.
Tavis: Right. I only raise that because I’m curious as to whether or not—since you and Chris are such good friends—whether or not that has been the journey that you’ve had to navigate as well.
Bell: I mean, maybe I’ll start to navigate it because that really is the thing that, if you are famous, people can blow up your act. You can’t convince them that they’re not doing you a favor. What? I wanted more people to see the show I saw. And really, you’re actually messing with the person’s income. So I do think that I haven’t dealt with that yet.
And there’s also times when stuff goes up and you just have to—like I have seen stuff go up and I just let it go. But, again, I’m not in the same position where, you know, if somebody throws up Chris’s new 15 minutes that he’s working on, it’s gonna get a million views.
So it’s a different level thing, but I do think, as comics, we’re sort of going through–we are as a culture, there’s sort of a sea change happening about how we all deal with technology and how that affects our lives. And as comics, I think the next generation of comics is gonna be doing something–treating it differently than we are now, I think.
Tavis: I’m sure this next comment from me will offend somebody, although I’m not doing it intentionally [laugh]. I apologize in advance.
Bell: Are you worried about me, sir? Are you worried about offending me, Tavis?
Tavis: Not worried about you, just other people. So when I first became aware of you many years ago now, and I saw you for the very first time and I saw you a second time, I immediately had this thought which I now want to confess to you on national television.
I had this thought that I don’t know how far this brother is going to be able to go and I thought to myself, “Self, Brother Bell ain’t gonna make it too far because it is so difficult for the powers that be to know what to do with a smart Black man.
If you jump high and you run fast and you hit hard, they can figure something out.” But when you’re smart and you’re funny–I mean, Chris Rock is–Chris is Chris. But for so many people–I don’t mean just in the realm of comedy–just in life, period.
Bell: In the world, yeah.
Tavis: They don’t always know what to do with a smart Black man. And then you made the joke earlier and maybe you were not being funny, but a couple of shows being canceled. Again, white people get shows canceled, so we ain’t crying about that.
Bell: I was making a joke because it’s hard to deal with personally, but I’m living in the golden life, you know, so, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Of course, yeah. But what about this notion, though–and maybe I’m completely far afield here–but how have you processed trying to build a career and trying to walk a path where oftentimes the powers that be just don’t know what to do with smart Black men?
Bell: You know, for me, it became about like–first of all, I was not trying to do it the way other people are doing it, accepting that once I did that, it was probably not gonna come as quickly as it might come for somebody else who went the traditional path.
So the minute I went to a theater, I’m like I’m sort of deciding that I’m taking the long way around or I’m just gonna be off in the field somewhere and whoever likes it, likes it.
For me, it was about like can I make a living off of this? And if not, there’s no shame in getting a job. You know what I mean? So I just sort of accepted like I’ve had a lot of jobs, but just sort of accepting it like I have friends who moved to L.A. when they have seven good minutes, who audition, who do all the–I don’t do any of that stuff.
I’m in L.A. today because you’ve told me to come [laugh]. And I’ll be leaving again! The car’s running. That’s all I’m saying [laugh]. So I just decided, if I’m gonna do it in the way–this is what I learned from my mom. If you’re gonna do it your way, then you can’t really be surprised when it’s harder.
You can’t be surprised when it’s like, “How come nobody called me to be in ‘Transformers 22’?” Because you’re not down there in the mix. And I have friends who are in the mix, so just not judging myself against other people, judging myself against myself, and then being an honest critic of myself like are you really doing it your own way or are you afraid to try?
Tavis: I want to follow you in now. How do you get comfortable in that space when you see others between the two of us who might be less talented, let’s be honest. You know they’re less talented, but you see other people who take off.
Bell: I feel if everything can work the best it works, then there’s just a comedian for everybody. You know what I mean?
Bell: Everybody doesn’t have to like the same thing. So for me, that was the other thing. Not even engaging in who’s better, and Chris really helped with this too. It’s like let everybody do their thing and worry about yourself. So I really just go, “Good for you and good for you, and good for me?” [laugh] Isn’t it good for me? If everything goes well, we all get to make a living and get what we want in our life.
Tavis: So how did this CNN series then play to your gifts as you see them?
Bell: I think for me, again, I like it smart and I like it funny. And also, the thing about CNN that has been really valuable is that they don’t need it to be funny every few seconds. If I was on a comedy network, they would probably have said something like, “This whole cop really wasn’t as funny as we thought.
We thought you were gonna be making fun of cops and we thought you’d maybe put on a cop uniform, pretend to be…” It’s like CNN’s note is every note they give me is a note I’d be giving myself.
We can make this better, we can make this smarter. “Oh, it can be funny” and I’m like, “Yeah, it can be funny.” So for me, it’s funny like I want to make the kind of stuff that I don’t see on TV. That’s the kind of art I’m always engaged in, trying to make things that I feel like nobody is doing this.
So for me, I feel like, because of “Totally Biased”, because of the career I’ve had, this what I was sort of born into. Like it feels very natural to me to do it. The hard part is in convincing other people that the way I want to do it is the way that it should be done.
Because there’s a version of the show that could be me sort of like being a lot more goofy and sort of like, oh, putting on a cop uniform like “Oh!” There is a slapsticky version of this that, throughout the making of the show, I had to pull against some of the producers wanting to make that version of it.
Tavis: There was nothing slapsticky, to use your word, about the prison piece.
Bell: No, no.
Tavis: There was some funny moments in it, to be sure, but that thing hit home. I mean, it hit home and it hit hard.
Bell: I mean, it’s funny because we talked about this. Like I talked about the making of the show and sometimes there’s like you sort of want to do this thing and you’re trying to do it. But there’s a lot–making TV, you know, this is like we’re not the only two here.
There’s a bunch of people over here, you know. So if that camera guy decides to turn off the camera, you can’t do anything. You know what I mean? It’s like that’s just what happened. So you have to let go of some stuff and just hope it’s gonna work.
But there’s a lot of like internal politics where, I found this too, I’m sort of arguing with people about the show and I realize we’re not arguing about the show or making it. We’re actually arguing about our politics about what we’re making.
So it’s like there would be a sense of the prison show where there was a sense from a lot of people. I call it ghosts in the machine–white producers [laugh]–where there’d be like, “Shouldn’t we present the other side? Shouldn’t we get people who think all prisoners should be in prison?” I was like, “I think we have that. It’s called the news.”
You know, it’s called like those “Lockup” documentaries. I just was like I want to make the anti-version of those “Lockup” documentaries because I walked in there not knowing what to expect and I was so blown away and so changed by it, I want to put that on camera.
We can find people all day who are talking about how lock ’em up and throw away the key. But what am doing? Also, I said if I get the prison show wrong as a Black man–and I was the only Black man working on the show–I can’t leave my house again.
Like if I make it look like with the cop show, at some point they wrote some text for some voiceover that I was always allowed to edit, but even sometimes editing it was painful. Like the first text was like, “Some people in America think cops do a bad job. Some people think they do a good job. This week, I hope to find out.”
I was, “No! I got to be able to leave my house!” [laugh] I can’t be the Black dude on TV going, “I don’t know what to think of police officers in America.” Sometimes I’d be reacting where they’d be like I shouldn’t even have to have this discussion of what I feel like.
Tavis: See, I have this–now I get on my soapbox now which I shouldn’t do. This is your conversation. But I have this pet peeve, though. I think that sometimes there is a penchant that producers have for showing, to your point, both sides of the issue. Let’s be frank. Sometimes there ain’t but one side.
Bell: No. That’s the thing and I’m…
Tavis: Sometimes by trying to show both sides, you end up obscuring the issue, the morality of the issue, that we’re trying to get to.
Bell: And you create one that doesn’t exist.
Bell: I mean, you know, are you talking about a producer here, by the way? Is there somebody here I need to talk to?
Tavis: Oh, no, no [laugh].
Bell: Okay [laugh].
Tavis: Not on my show [laugh]. No, not here, yeah.
Bell: This is what I’m trying to get to. Like the first season of “United Shades of America” is in large part my show, but it’s not as much my show as I want it to be. And I know with this show, you’ve had it for a long time. You probably said, “Get rid of these and get me some new ones.” You know what I mean?
I’m trying to get to that place where it’s like every aspect of the show is either controlled by me or there’s people In place who I trust to know what I’m doing and who are all pulling in the same direction. So I think it is a problem, and I had to remind the producers of the show occasionally like they didn’t hire me to be a journalist.
They actually hired me to be–and I use this still–totally biased. And if ain’t turning something that’ entertaining and totally biased and also smart, they’ll take it. If I turn in something that sort of shows both sides of the issues, but it actually interesting TV, they don’t care. They have a whole news division.
This is not news division, so I had to keep reminding people like, no, I get to own this. So the first episode in the concept, I was like, no, I get to sort of be in here. But there are still things I would do differently and we can do again, but I am happy people are receiving it well.
Tavis: I deliberately don’t want to color this question, so I won’t. But what are you, what have you learned about America as a part of the series so far? Taping the series?
Bell: That there’s not enough–you know, this is probably the wrong word–border crossing. There’s not enough people–people sort of sit in their side of things and they don’t actually…
Tavis: If Donald Trump has his way, there’ll be no more border crossings [laugh].
Bell: Yeah, there’ll be no more border crossings. Yeah, there’ll be more walls. Well, actually, at Berkeley, if he’s president, we’ll build the wall too so he can’t come to Berkeley [laugh]. Oh, you believe me, sir [laugh]. You got a wall, we got a wall. Don’t come to the 510.
Tavis: Don’t come to Berkeley [laugh].
Bell: Don’t come to the 510. Don’t come to Oakland either. We’ll build it around Oakland too [laugh]. You’ll have to go around to get to San Francisco. But, yeah, like for example, in the police episode, to serve and protect, as we call it with a question mark. There is a point at which I was talking to a police officer and he was supposed to be walking the beat.
There was this white police officer and this Black woman and I walked up to her and I was like, “Well, what do you think he can do better?” She kept talking to me because I’m a Black dude, I’m the brother, and I had to be like, “Talk to him.”
Now I get that’s not an unusual thing to happen, but also he sort of stood back too. I had to sort of like, “Get in here” because his job is to do community policing and connect.
But in America, the thing that happens, the more you sort of get locked in your corner of the universe, the more you start to think that your corner of the universe is the universe. And I live in the Bay Area, so every day there’s like, “Whoa, whoa!” So I’m always like aware that there’s more out there that I haven’t taken in yet.
And I feel like in America, the more we sort of look out into other corners of the universe and actually get to know those things and like walk into people and go, “What’s your hair doing?”, not like that, not like that, but actually make concerted efforts to respectfully learn about people and make more space for people, then we’re the country that we could be.
Tavis: And why do you think that television versus the stage or some other medium is a vehicle that’s available to be used in that way?
Bell: I mean, you know, it’s funny. I think there’s something about–I know something about it because I’ve been on FX and I’ve been on FX things. But the thing I’ll say about CNN is it’s a huge megaphone. And at some point in your life, you have been in front of CNN.
Like in an airport or in a hotel or at your house or you just flip past it because I just want to know the news in 10 minutes and they’ll give you the news in 10 minutes.
The thing is, I’ve seen, is that people are wandering into this show who weren’t looking for it. They just sort of like were at the airport or whatever and they got sucked in. So for me, those people aren’t coming to see my show. Those people aren’t watching Showtime. You know, those people are just sort of happening in.
So I get a lot of emails now from people who go, “I don’t agree with anything you said, but I love the show.” [laugh] For me, all that does is create more space for humanity because you don’t got to agree with me, but you got to let me live. You got to let me thrive, you know. You got to not be in my way.
Tavis: So for those who will not or have not as yet seen the Showtime show, what do you hope the takeaway is? What do you hope people are getting when they see you do your standup?
Bell: You know, I think about like me and some friends, we talk about it like we’re like the campfire for the revolution [laugh]. Being a very small group of comedians and…
Tavis: That’s a small campfire [laugh].
Bell: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We sort of always like to think of it as we’re the campfire. We’re not the change, you know, because the song can’t be the change, but the song, “A Change is Gonna Come”, can make people go, “I think I need to make some changes.”
So for me, it’s like I just want people to export discussion. All of my career is about creating more awkward conversations. I believe awkward conversations are the future of change. That’s the beginning of change.
Tavis: And we define awkward how? You define awkward how?
Bell: That you’re learning information that you’ve never heard before, aren’t really comfortable with, but you’re gonna listen to it anyway, that you’re gonna take it in in a way that like, if somebody says that right now in North Carolina or Texas when people are like we’re gonna let people use the bathroom they feel comfortable using, we’ll go, “No, no, no, no. That’s just it. Mm-mm” as opposed to like, “Really? Why? How? What? Gender is fluid? Wait a minute, hold on a second” [laugh].
If you just sit in the information and sit in the conversation, you’ll learn “I guess I really don’t have a strong opinion about this. I think I did. I was just uncomfortable.” I think in America, I can say specifically, but often in the world, a lot of people think if they’re uncomfortable, that means that things they’re comfortable with is wrong.
And I came from that. I grew up in Chicago. I didn’t really meet a gay person until I was in my 20s. Not that I thought it was wrong, but it was just like the thing where I was like, “Huh. So you’re a gay person, huh?” I sort of had to take it in and roll it over my brain. And eventually like now, I live in the Bay Area and it’s not a big deal. So I think, unfortunately, we can’t move everybody to the Bay Area.
Tavis: But Donald Trump, were he here, could say, “Well, Kamau, that’s what I’m doing. I’m ushering America into some awkward conversations” and, and, and your response would be?
Bell: Awkward for the non-white ones [laugh]. Awkward for the white people who don’t like others, yeah, yeah. Make America great again, yes. You remember when it was great back in the day, right? You totally want to go back to the past where you make it great again. No, no, no, no.
Tavis: Since we’re there, how do you see this thing playing itself out now that he is the presumptive Republican nominee?
Bell: I think all of us who align ourselves on the left have to sort of like get the sandbags ready for the fact that this is real possibility. Like it’s not a game. I don’t even know that he really wants to be president, but he might end up being president, which is also worse [laugh]. I think three days in, he’d be like, “Oh, nah. I don’t make enough money, I got too many people talking to me.”
But I think we have to get ready. I live in the Bay Area. I know a lot of people who are activists, who are in the movement. It’s really about–there’s a sort of Hillary-Bernie. A lot of people feel like, “I don’t really, I don’t…neither one of them really holds it for me the way that I want them to.”
So then it’s about going out into the world and doing the work and being able to then put pressure on whoever the president is. You know, you can get things done. Even the presidents agree with you. Putting enough pressure on that president, you can get things done.
So I think it’s about really doubling down on the work. If you can’t figure out a candidate you want, still vote in your local elections that are important. For such a long time, liberals in Berkeley and progressives were like, “I don’t even want to say Donald Trump’s name out loud because I don’t want to give…”
Like that’s not how it works. He’s not Beetlejuice [laugh]. He’s not the Candyman. That’s not how it works. You can’t just not say his name [laugh]. It doesn’t matter how many times you say or don’t say his name, he has a very good shot at being the president.
Tavis: They try and Jedi mind trick us.
Bell: Yeah, yeah. That’s not how it works.
Tavis: It doesn’t work [laugh].
Bell: It doesn’t work that way. So I think it’s a very legitimate possibility because even though right now with all these scandals coming out and all these things, he doesn’t care about his scandals. He’s just gonna be so gross if it’s gonna be him.
Tavis: Oh, it’s gonna be ugly, yeah, yeah, yeah. I keep laughing at people who I keep hearing say, “If he gets elected, I’m moving away. I’m leaving the country.”
Bell: You ain’t going nowhere [laugh]! Here’s the thing people forget. The immigration policies in other countries are pretty difficult too. You can’t just show up in Canada, “Canada, I’m here.” [laugh] You can’t go to New Zealand like you always imagined to raise sheep. They don’t actually let that many people in those countries. Yeah, yeah, no. Not how it works.
Tavis: You got me sweating. So what can you tell me about what’s coming up on CNN? What’s left of your series?
Bell: Well, it’s funny. We have an episode coming up this weekend. It’s all about people living off the grid, which the whole show is sending a Black man places either he wasn’t expecting to go or he shouldn’t go. I don’t want to live off the grid. I don’t think Black people in America need to be off the grid. We need to be on the grid with our phones working at all times in case the stuff hits the fans.
So it’s about living off the grid. But then an episode we have coming up that I’m really excited about is actually in Portland, Oregon. It was initially pitched as the weirdos of Portland, Oregon, the hip to the Portland, Oregon. But I successfully turned it into an episode about gentrification, so I’m quite proud of that and there’s a lot of angry, upset Black people in it which always makes me feel happy.
Tavis: Kamau, you’re doing well. You’re doing great work, man, and I’m honored to have you on the program.
Bell: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.
Tavis: Look forward to doing it again.
Bell: And before I go, my mom’s an IU alum.
Tavis: Your mom is?
Tavis: I knew I liked you [laugh]. I wasn’t sure you were gonna make it, but I knew I liked you [laugh].
Bell: Thank you. I appreciate that, I appreciate that [laugh].
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith [laugh].
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