W. Kamau Bell Wants to Make “‘Sesame Street’ for Grownups”

W Kamau Bell

Photos by John Nowak

W. Kamau Bell is a powerhouse—an excellent standup who brings up potentially difficult subjects with grace, wit, and intelligence. He’s a TV host; audiences first became familiar with him on FX’s Totally Biased, and he now hosts the CNN show United Shades Of America, the second season of which is slated to air starting in April. He does radio as well: he hosts the talk show Kamau Right Now! on San Francisco’s KALW, and has a podcast with his pal Hari Kondabolu called Politically Re-Active. And he’s now an author, as well.

Given his busy schedule, it was a treat for us to speak with him as he tours colleges in the wake of Trump’s inauguration. He had a good deal to say on free speech, as well as how it feels to be labeled a ‘political comedian’ and the historical role of politics in comedy.

What have you been up to?

This week, I’ve been in the middle of a two-week college tour. I’ve been all over the country: Alabama, San Antonio, and Appalachian State. They’re basically on metaphorical fire.  Or real fire, like Berkeley, my home town.

People are mad?

I would say generally the students of color are like ‘Thank God you’re here! We need your help!’ and some of the white students are like ‘I don’t know what to make of all this,’ and other white students are like ‘Finally.’ They’re starting to do whatever they want. So a lot of the colleges are happy I can show up and sort of reset the boundaries of what is acceptable in 21st century America.

That is quite the expectation to have of one man.

Luckily, I have a vested interest in it, because I have two kids. I can’t say I manage to do it, but I certainly give it my all.

Over the past two years, comment sections came to life. People are putting hate speech online, and are gradually starting to feel empowered enough to say it in public.

In a weird way, when then-candidate Trump was hosting rallies, they were ways for those people to test-market their hatred out loud.  So they would go to those ‘safe spaces’—ironic for people who don’t believe in ‘safe spaces’—and go ‘I’m gonna say that thing about black people out loud,’ and other people would go ‘I’m gonna say it too.’  It was like Comic Con for racists. It has given them permission to say a lot of things that, since the civil rights era, we were slowly phasing out of culture. Now, they’re phasing back in.

Do you think it’s better that this type of speech is out in the open now?

I think if you talk to black people who live in Indiana, or the Deep South, or black people who live any place that’s a mostly white area, they would say it’s mostly been out in the open. To remind us all of that awesome Chris Rock/Dave Chappelle sketch where they’re like, ‘Yeah, we know.’  You’re seeing it for the first time, because it’s getting to a volume level that white people are hearing. But we always knew this was here. So can we have the conversation now that we’ve been trying to have since Martin Luther King and his people took a long walk to Washington?

What do you think of all the talk in California about secession?

A lot of people say that it’s all Russian plants who started it, and I’m like ‘Hey, I’ll take a good idea from a bad person versus a bad idea from a good person’. Also we have to remember that we get caught up in the idea of this country, but if the history of the world has taught us something, it’s that countries are pretty temporary.  Every black person my mom’s age who has a map of Africa has a map of Africa that’s wrong. Those borders shift and things change. Maybe a year ago the idea would have been crazy, but I feel like in a post-Trump world, in a post-truth world, why’s that idea crazy? At this point, America is a giant brainstorming session and there are no bad ideas.

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Do you view United Shades as infotainment to help relieve mental pressure? Or are you trying to get people a bit more activated and informed?

I treat most of my career—it’s like Sesame Street for grownups. I want to entertain and I hope you walk away like, ‘Oh I didn’t know that!’If you look at my entire body of work, that’s something I’m trying to do. Whether I do it or not is up for people to determine. I grew up in the ‘edutainment’ portion of rap music—Public Enemy, KRS-One, Rage Against The Machine. They were just trying to make the songs they wanted to see in the world. I’m just trying to make the stuff that I would like to see in the world. It’s a personal style—the label ‘political comedian’ has never really fit me, which is why I use the term ‘sociopolitical,’ because I talk about my life, and how I see the world, and how I feel the world sees me. I sit down and write the jokes I think are funniest for me to tell, which is what I think every comedian does. The thing that may make it harder for me is that people hearing those jokes who are fans of mine are listening to them with their entire brain and also their sense of humor, so they are going to go ‘um, that’s not actually the correct year,’ and maybe Brian Regan fans aren’t fact checking him in the same way. But in the 21st Century, everybody’s getting fact checked on something. I just want to be clear: it’s hard for all of us to figure out how to write jokes. Jokes are elusive things. Right now, CNN is about to launch The History Of Comedy, and I think the great thing about that series is that it talks about comedy from the brain side of it. About the people who make it and how they make it. I think it’s cool because it shows you that, but it doesn’t take out the funny.  It also shows these people are working. It’s not a game.

What about the people on the right side who say ‘The left have it all wrong. We’re trying to stop a globalist conspiracy! We’re the proletariat.’  Do you have something to say to them?

Yeah – where are all the black people? [laughs] Where are all the women?  You go to those things, and I’ve seen a couple, and I’ve been to one in my life—it’s mostly white dudes. So if you really are for the people, then where are all the people? Whereas when I look at my crowds, if I go to a city and do a comedy show, usually some of everybody is there. If it’s all one group of people, then I’m doing something wrong. Usually when I perform, there’s a mix of ages, ethnicities, religions, races. All sorts of things that make me go, ‘Those are the people I want to be in front of.’ When you look out into the audience and you mostly see white dudes, you can’t claim you’re for ‘the people.’ You’re for the white male people.

What’s your take on the idea that the left is trying shut down free speech, and on what happened in Berkeley recently, the riots caused by Milo Yiannopoulos being scheduled to appear?

I live in Berkeley, but I was on the road—my wife called me when that happened, because she heard helicopters and she was afraid, so I want to make it clear this is a very personal situation to me. When people talk about it, they’re not there. I’m there, and have friends who live there. I’m sure I know people who were at that thing; I have no doubt about that.

If Berkeley were anti-free speech, it would be on fire every day. The Bay Area is known for letting people do whatever they want. There’s all sort of things happening in the Bay Area, and people let them go. It doesn’t mean there’s not a line. Free speech, as people seem to forget, works two ways. He was free to show up. He was free to show up and speak, and we were free to say we’re not interested in that. The government did not come in and shut Milo down, the cops said, ‘This situations out of control, and we can’t let this happen’. Everybody has a line in their life where they say, ‘Things have gone too far.’ Do I think it should end in things being on fire and violence? No. Has that happened regularly in this country when things go too far? Yes. John Yoo, who wrote the ‘Torture Memos,’ teaches at the Berkeley School of Law. Do you know how Berkeley feels about the ‘Torture Memos’? Not that great. But he still teaches. People have this idea that Berkeley is all full of groupthink. It’s full of lots of diversified thinking, because we know that the more diverse the thinking, the stronger you are. But the question is ‘Are you actually thinking? Are you contributing to the dialogue? Or are you trying to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre?’

If the people in the alt-right were saying something where their message was somehow inclusive, and they were just like ‘We want a little more attention paid to us,’ then that would be a different thing. But the fact is their message is divisive, and many of them turn it violent. So it’s the classic Malcolm X quote, the chickens coming home to roost. I go across the country to different college campuses, I talk about racism, I challenge white people about white privilege, I challenge white people to own their part in racism, to really take responsibility for it, to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, and all sorts of things. Nobody’s punching me in the face. I was at Cal Poly the same day Milo was there. We both did shows on the same day. Then he went to Berkeley, and I went to Auburn, Alabama. It’s not like I was in some super-friendly place. But I was allowed to do my show, and I went to the next place. And after the show, there was a white male student who disagreed with me, but we talked for a few minutes until we were done talking. Nothing got set on fire; nobody got punched in the face. Because I was wanting to have a conversation. I didn’t want to shout him down, or tell people I wasn’t going to listen to him. Or I wasn’t shaming other students on campus who didn’t agree with me, the way that happens at some of those Milo shows.

The idea of having a civil conversation—do you think that’s vital? To talk it through?

Everybody is not going to travel around the country to have these conversations, but I do think that everybody in their immediate community, there are conversations you can have even with people that they know very well, family members, about what’s happening in this country. Every white person in this country–no matter how left they are – has a relative who voted for Trump. Everybody in this country works with somebody they disagree with. The country’s proved that the only way we can get to a better place is by having awkward conversations.

How did you keep the Semi-Prominent Negro special evergreen, so it can be watched and listened to in 2017 without feeling dated?

There are political things in there, but my opinion of Trump hasn’t changed. I’m not like, ‘I think this guy’s gonna be good’ now. Like all comedy, eventually it dies on the vine. But it’s also about my life, and my wife and my kids. My kids are a little older now, but they’re basically the same. My wife and I are in the same relationship—she’s still white and I’m still black, so that stuff still works. A lot of stuff is about my life and my family, but I’m talking about some issues, like race and homophobia and trans issues that we’re still working through. It’s not like we’ve solved those. It only becomes not evergreen when peace reigns over the earth and inclusion is the law of the land. And when Donald Trump is a Wal-Mart greeter. That’s when it becomes not relevant anymore.

—Nick Flanagan

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