W. Kamau Bell
In this episode, comedian and political satirist, W. Kamau Bell sits down to discuss his path to stand-up, and reflects on what he's learned from having tough conversations about race and identity as the host of CNN's Emmy-winning "United Shades of America."
I think the last era of America, uh--heh heh--
that we just went through has in some ways
altered the course of this country's history.
There was still this idea, this narrative
that America's the greatest country in the world.
I think that's a wrap,
and now it becomes up to us--
not that I care about the narrative
of the greatest country in the world,
but do we actually want to live up to those myths,
and right now--to use a sports analogy--
I think it's a jump ball.
It's an enduring American pastime
to talk about America--
what's true of us, what's going wrong,
how we've changed,
but it's unusual to meet someone
who has made it his project to see as much of our country
as W. Kamau Bell has,
first as a kid who moved often with his mother,
then as a standup comedian, working out his ideas
on club stages,
and now as the host and executive producer
of the Emmy-winning docuseries
"The United Shades of America."
W. Kamau Bell has had more conversations
with more people about more deeply uncomfortable topics
than anyone I know.
He's visited school teachers and antiabortion doctors,
farmers and KKK members and Bible belt atheists.
I sat down with Kamau at the Oakland Museum of California
to ask what all that listening and learning has helped
him appreciate about our country,
who we are, and who we might become.
I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More,"
and here is my conversation with comedian
and political provocateur W. Kamau Bell.
So my first question-- Yeah!
Wrong way. It's going this way.
Not used to doing this.
Hi, W. Kamau Bell. Hello!
How are you? Thanks for coming.
Thanks for having me.
So an interesting thing about comedy
and the potential for impact
is that it really depends on who shows up.
So you did this thing that I thought
was so interesting is you would give
a free ticket to someone if they would bring
someone of a different race.
Yeah. So I had a crisis of career at one point.
Like, what am I doing with my life?
What am I doing with comedy?
I decided to, like, basically start over,
and I wrote this show called "The W. Kamau Bell Curve:
Ending Racism in About an Hour,"
which used PowerPoint.
Still in America, the main chunk
of the theater audience is gonna be older white people.
I knew that if I, like, just did a show
in a theater about race, you're gonna get
a lot of older white people show up
who are also going to think that they're not
on trial here--ha ha-- which I was like,
"No. You're on trial here."
Uh-huh. And I also wanted
some of the comedy club audience,
which is more diverse and also more willing to laugh,
but I also wanted a theater audience
that was thinking, so--
and I didn't want to do a show about racism
that was a Black guy talking to a group
of mostly white people. Yeah.
So I was like what can I do
to get a better audience and also
a racially diverse audience?
Well, bring a friend of a different race,
get in two-for-one, and it immediately changed
who was in the audience.
Like, from the very first night of the show,
it was, like, one of the Blackest
and most mixed audiences I'd ever seen in a theater,
and I would say something.
Only the Black people would laugh,
and the white people would look like,
and I'd be like, "White people,
look at the Black people."
Yeah! Ha! "They're laughing,
"so that means that the thing I'm saying
has some level of truth, even if you don't agree."
Or sometimes, what would happen,
everybody would laugh, and you'd point that out.
I mean, it was very clearly-- I was like,
"This is the best work I've ever done.
"It's not even close.
"Like, I don't know where this goes,
but I'm gonna keep doing it."
So cool to force people to either realize
that they don't have any friends of another race.
Yep, which is great.
Or to, like, reach out to that one friend
And it's fun now because there's not really--
the stakes are pretty low.
The stakes are just like did I have a good show?
But I don't think the stakes of what
you're doing are low actually,
so let's talk about "United Shades."
So you just finished season 6.
And that's 47 episodes.
That's 47 locations, and what you do
is you go around and have these painfully awkward,
hopefully productive conversations
with people that we don't know.
Mm-hmm. I don't know
anybody except for you that's going around
doing what you're doing, which is wanting
to know more rather than tell more,
so can you talk about the actual thesis
of the show?
The show was pitched to CNN without talent attached.
The working title was "Black Man, White America,"
so a Black comedian would travel the country
talking to white people.
I said in the meeting I had with CNN, like,
"Yeah, I wouldn't do that," which as it turned--
I'm gonna go on TV and just talk to white people?
Ha ha ha! Like, it just seemed so, like--
something that MTV would have done in the nineties.
Like that moment had passed.
Yeah. That moment had passed,
the moment, of, like, race being about Black and white
was long past, even if the rest of the country
didn't recognize it.
We can't just act like racism is about Black and white.
It blunts the conversation and stymies any progress.
The pilot episode is very Black and white.
It's me talking to the KKK,
which was 100% my idea.
Like, so I Just want to be clear about that.
The guy who doesn't want to just have
the Black and white conversation goes
"Well, if we're gonna have it,
"let's really do it in a way that I haven't seen
on TV before," but I very quickly realized
I don't want to just be the guy who talks
to people who are gonna kill him every week.
A lot of people still think the show is basically that,
and I'm like, "No. I've really gotten
way too much credit for that."
I mean, it was so striking.
I'm sure it looms so large
in everyone's imagination,
but you've talked to, like, um, a couple
of trans kids who are in the Mormon Church.
I thought that was really moving.
Talked to this beautiful older OB-GYN,
antiabortion activist in Mississippi.
And the way that you're talking to them,
I feel like, allows for so much ambiguity
and complexity that actually isn't
at home on a standup stage.
The episode that I learned the most from
was the episode about inmates at San Quentin.
That was the one where I walked in having
a lot of preconceived notions.
I was really aware that I didn't want to make
the thing I'd seen on TV, where it's, like, look
at how scary people in prison are...
Mm-hmm. because I knew
it was gonna be a lot of Black men.
I don't want to accidentally get caught up
in making that.
San Quentin's a lot about rehabilitation.
I didn't really know that, and then you can see
the moment in the episode where I sort of have
this, like, "Oh, this is different than I expected."
The junior warden asked me-- he's like,
"So what do you think about the prison?"
So we had just walked into the prison,
we'd just got to the "yard,"
which is the same as it exists in every movie,
and he goes, "How's it feel so far?"
And I was like, "Well, it kind of feels like
a neighborhood that I'm unfamiliar with,"
which I was really soft-selling,
and then one of the dudes shouts out,
"Love your comedy, bro!"
I was like, "Oh, this is great!"
Yeah! Ha ha!
So in that moment, it made me relax immediately,
and it changed the way the conversations happened.
My name's Kamau. Duck.
Duck. So tell me, uh, what would you say
is the biggest surprise-- what you think
that would surprised people on the outside
about being in San Quentin here?
The name itself is not the characters
that it produces anymore.
Yeah. It actually produces
positive people now, you know what I'm saying?
They make us think that we're still
part of some sort of humanity.
When I went back to screen the episode there,
which is the most intense screening I've ever had--
I've never been that nervous before a screening--
when it was over, they all stood up and clapped
because they'd just never seen themselves on, like--
they'd never seen themselves as they see themselves on TV.
Yeah, so it was like I really walked away
sort of having a very different image
of mass incarceration.
I have never talked to so many adult Black men
about therapy in my life.
They all said they--"I'm here for the thing I did."
Now they will sort of go "I don't know
"if I should be in jail for the rest of my life
over this thing," and they would tell you
the crime, you'd be like,
"Nobody got killed, you didn't have a gun."
"A crime happened, but the rest of your life?"
And I think that, like, you know, San Quentin
does a great job of rehabilitating people,
but unfortunately, California and the country
does not do a great job of recognizing
when people have been rehabilitated
because no politician wants to say,
"I have paroled more people from prison
than any governor in the history of this state."
Like, that's not a talking point,
whether you're a Democrat or a Republican.
Who's the person you wish everybody
in America could sit down and talk to?
Standing Rock did not allow a lot of media in there.
I feel superfortunate that I sat down
with Tara Houska, and she just sort of sat there
lovingly entertaining all the dumb questions
that people have about indigenous folks
in this land, and we laughed
about it a lot.
Like, I feel like that Standing Rock thing
is, like--when I think about it,
I get, like, goose bumps.
Like, it was a specific moment in time,
and the show was able to go there,
and if you watch the show, you will know something
about Standing Rock that you can't get
from just reading about it,
so I think that the thing that I'm able to do
on CNN comes in large part from being an only child
that moved around a lot.
You were raised by this pretty beautiful,
charismatic woman, who took you from Indianapolis
to Boston to Chicago?
But I moved to Alabama, and I stayed for 2 1/2 years
and then went back to Chicago,
but still, like, if there's any one place
in the country that I go back that's home,
So how did your mom orient you in the world?
Like, didn't she used to go to your classes
and give little presentations
about Africa when you would move
to a new school?
She did that in Boston.
Like, she just was very--I mean, we're
talking about--so late seventies, early eighties,
so there's all the talk around, like--
whatever we've gone through in the country
right now of, like, "Black Lives Matter,"
and, "We need the senator, represen"--
there was no such word as representation
unless it was, like, your lawyer,
so my mom would, like, ask, like,
"Well, you know, do you tach Afro-American history?
Do you talk about Africa?"
And when answer was "No, no, no,"
she would just make it her place to, like, go
do those things, and so I have
very big memories of my mom bringing in,
like, a slide projector.
Like, we're talking-- I'm so old.
A slide projector and, like, turning
the lights off, and she's showing slides
of, like, her time-- her trip to Kenya,
and I'm just like, "Oh, this is so embarrassing."
Was it? I mean, did it--
Yeah, it's embarrassing!
Were you, like, the guy with the funny name
whose mom came in and did the slideshow
I guess I was. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
I mean, I definitely--
Are you just realizing that now?
No. I mean, I guess--yeah. I mean, I was.
I mean, our relationship was so close
that I was not the kid who was just generally
embarrassed of his mom.
Like, we were really close.
Like, she was my best friend.
I would have said, "Who's your best friend?"
"My mom's my best friend," so yeah, yeah. Mama's boy.
OK. So you're this mama's boy,
but then you left her to go live in Alabama
with your dad, you big meanie!
That must have broken her heart!
She says that she knew I would be back,
and also, my dad just had very different parameters
of what a kid should do that my mom just didn't have,
so it was very di-- like, you know,
my dad was like, "I don't know about that movie.
Meanwhile, with my mom, I'm watching, like,
"Eddie Murphy Delirious," you know,
so it was just like the-- it was very different.
You're dad's such an interesting guy
because he was kind of unemployed
and then underemployed, and then at 35
or something, he decided that he was gonna
change gears and go work for a bank
at the bottom of the ladder?
He just sort of, like, realized he was going nowhere,
and he was a super--he is a supersmart person
and can work hard, and I think he
probably looked up, and he was a--
and, like, was just like, "Wait. What am I doing
with my life?" and just completely went
from, like, Bohemian Black hippie
and was like, "I need to, like, clean this up,"
and I understand that because I think I did
something like that at a similar time in my life,
but I still stayed in the lane
that I had sort of walked in,
which is the show-biz lane,
and he is now absolutely and has been for 30 years
a pillar of the community in Mobile, Alabama.
He was the insurance commissioner
for the state of Alabama.
OK. So you go to college,
you're super into martial arts and Bruce Lee.
Ha! Yeah! Ha ha ha!
You're gonna major in--
So I go to an Ivy League school.
Ivy League school for East Asian studies,
you're taking Mandarin...
Mm-hmm. and you drop out.
Yes. What happened?
I think I picked the wrong school.
I think that was like-- I was--
Where were you?
University of Pennsylvania,
and really, I should have probably been
at, like, I don't know, Oberlin or something.
One of those places where you get to, like,
design your major.
I think I would have stayed if I'd been
at, like, Reed College, where you're like,
"I give myself an A," you know, so...
uh, yeah, I dropped out of college, came home.
What did Janet think when you dropped out
My mom says she remembers when I talked
about dropping out that she was worried about me.
I said something like, "Things always work out for me."
Ha ha! I was just like, "It's gonna work out somehow."
Do you believe that?
Like, are you that much of an optimist?
I'm not a pessimist, but I am a person
who looks at what's going on and sort of, like,
realistically assesses the situation,
but I do believe I can figure something out.
in any situation
So this takes me to this
really beautiful piece that you wrote
for "Vanity Fair" about what it's like
to move around the world in your body.
Yes. And you said,
"I don't engage in any type of behavior
"that should place me in a cop's crosshairs,
"but the fact that I'm not involved
"in any of that stuff doesn't leave me
"any more confident I won't be killed.
"That's because I've been endowed
"with the triple crown of being killed
for no good reason-- big, black, male."
I mean, literally yesterday, I left my house
to take a walk, and it was raining
a little bit, and I had a hoodie on,
and I started to put the hoodie up,
and I was like, "Mmm."
I had a thought of like-- and it's raining,
and that's sort of the ridiculousness
of this sort of knowing where you fit
in the outside world.
I was like, "Should I just let myself get rained on?
Ha ha ha! "Maybe I should just get rained on."
I'm already cutting a certain path
through the world.
If I put the hood up, that's a different--
that's another layer, so it didn't stop me
from taking a walk,
so it's not like at that level,
but it does make me think about how I move
through the world so that if something
does happen I can sort of hopefully figure out
my way through it because I was at least aware
that it was a possibility.
So you said that comedy is
an art form that's worth our time and attention
in studying, and I totally--
Did I say that? You did!
Did I literally say that?
Oh, yeah. I believe that.
I mean, I think if you look at the history of America
since the modern era of standup comedy,
you can't really think about Black people's experience
in the seventies and the early eighties
without thinking about Richard Pryor.
You know, you can think about, like, Joan Rivers
going on TV pregnant but not being able
to talk about it is saying something about America.
George Carlin logged 50 years of America.
And who were you obsessed with?
You know, Eddie Murphy was 19 on SNL,
and I was, like-- I don't know--
when he was on, I was, like, 8 or 9,
but I felt like we were probably the same age.
So "Tell Me More" has this little segment
that we call Plus One.
It's basically a way for you to give
a shout-out to somebody who's been
superimportant to you or inspiring
or supportive, and it's our way
of reminding everyone that people
don't get where they're going alone
and that we have big effect on one another,
so can you tell us about your friend Dwayne?
Every comedy scene has its playground legends,
so Dwayne is maybe one of the playground legends
Like, many comedians from, like, Chris Rock
and Marc Maron to every open-micer in Chicago go
"That guy's so funny."
I just happened to have met him at a point
where he was getting back into standup.
He came to an open mic in Chicago.
Nobody knew who he was. It's a tiny open mic.
10 performers who were performing
and, like, 12 people in the audience, you know,
and he did this joke about Jesus' bitter brother Steve,
Steve Christ... Oh! Ha ha ha!
Which just, like, leveled the place,
and then he was like, "That's it,"
and he walked offstage.
We're like, "Who the heck is that guy?"
And then we became friends,
and even though I was not funny at all
and I could see the look in people's faces
when Dwayne would show up with me,
Dwayne just sort of like took me under his wing.
This is what he had to say about you.
When I met Kamau, I was getting back into comedy,
and he was two weeks into comedy,
so, you know, at that point, you're still searching.
Heck, I'm still searching, you know, now,
but, um, I just liked the way his mind worked,
just to talk to him, man.
He just has an interesting way of thinking.
I said, "Oh, man. I like this brother."
Just like I say, I liked his manner
and, you know, his nature, and just, yeah,
he just has an interesting way of thinking.
When he first started, man, he had--heh--
he had some funny jokes, but it was just--
they--I won't say fluff or frivolous,
but they were fluffy and frivolous.
This is gonna embarrass him, but he used to have this joke
about this--dating this blow-up doll,
and he said, "Oh, baby, this is gonna be good."
Then him just pumping up this--ha ha ha!
Ha ha ha!
I think, uh, '97 or '98 he left Chicago,
and then he went to--that's when he moved to San Francisco,
and I remember he came back to do a show,
and you could tell, you know, just the nature
of what he's talking about had changed.
He was just starting to talk about some kind of
substantial things, you know,
giving things more gravity, you know.
Moving to San Francisco really helped him develop
as a comedian.
Ha ha ha! He's being very generous.
When I came back a year after to Chicago,
he's right that I moved specifically to San Francisco
because I had learned that's where comedians
find their voices without the pressure
of show business.
And April Fools' Day 2003,
you met Melissa.
How'd it go? Like, tell us your love story.
I met Melissa at the Shelton Theater,
a tiny theater in San Francisco.
Her friend Jill was there to perform her solo show.
She had hired Melissa to do lights and sound.
My friend Bruce Pachtman was, like,
a local independent theater producer
who had, like, produced Jill's show,
and he basically told Jill "You should hire Kamau.
He's a good director."
She would drive me home after tech rehearsal every night
even though it was-- she was going
across the bay to Berkeley, where she lived,
and I lived in the Inner Sunset,
which--so it was like she would drive me home,
and it was completely not convenient even a little bit.
Mm-hmm. So you knew.
And she's a dancer with a doctorate?
She's a Ph.D.?
She's got a Ph.D. in critical dance studies
and an MFA in experimental dance choreography.
She did a lot for me as a performer,
like, as a--because she's a dancer,
so it's a lot about movement,
so she noticed I would, like, sort of shuffle
my feet a lot.
She was like, "Stop shuffling your feet.
Just stand there."
So now when I think about movement,
it's because she was like, "If you're gonna move, move,
but if not, just stand there,"
so I became more serious and more thoughtful
and sort of leaned into the better parts
of myself after I met her.
Oh! That's good. Yeah.
That's a nice tribute to her.
So you live in this bastion
of liberal thought, Berkeley, California.
At the time. At the time.
Ha ha ha!
And you're walking down this, cute, little street,
College Avenue, and you wife is sitting
with some of her buddies having, like,
a salad bowl of latté...
Mm-hmm. at a café,
and you approach.
So pick up the story from there.
It was my birthday. We'd had breakfast
at the café.
My wife went off for a new moms' group meeting.
I went down the street to another café
that I felt more comfortable at
because this one was not-- I didn't feel comfortable
sitting there for hours writing.
It was not that café.
On my way back, there's a bookstore
that attached to the café called "Mrs. Dalloway's."
I see a book in the window about the Loving couple,
a children's book about the Loving couple,
the couple that legalized interracial marriage.
I buy that book for my family
because that's about my family,
and I sort of bop over to the café,
holding my computer in my hand,
holding this book.
There's 5 white-looking women.
They're not all white, but that's
not how whiteness works,
and one of them asks to see the book.
I show the book. All of a sudden,
I hear on the window dun dun dun dun dun!
And I look up, and because
I'm a semi-celebrity in the Bay Area,
I look up like, "Yeah. It's the guy from the TV.
It sure is," and this woman is like...
[Hushed] "Out of here!"
and I was--and I-- immediately confused
and shocked and then realizing
"Oh, this is-- oh, it's racism."
As I'm standing there, Melissa sees me.
She didn't see the woman do this,
but she heard it because it was very loud.
She sees me. She's been around me long enough
to know that racism just went down.
An employee walks out of the café,
sort of giving me, the like, "All right, all right, sir."
"Move it along, sir."
Melissa's like, "This is my husband."
"That's my wife. That's my baby she's holding."
"Oh, we thought you were selling something,"
I stormed off like sort of like--
Melissa's like, "No, no, no. Don't go.
I'm going with you."
We get up, we go to the car,
I take the baby, strap the baby to the car seat,
and Melissa goes back, goes "I have to say something,"
and goes to the employee who walked outside
and just sort of, like, rrllaaaa, rrllaaaa, rrllaaaa
in a way that it is safe for a white woman to do
and it is not safe for a black man to do that,
and this is in the height of, like,
Ferguson, Michael Brown's in the news every day,
so it was like I was very aware that, like, also
I can't make too big a deal about this
because there is real ... happening,
but also if this is happening to me,
it's happening to other people,
So is your just heart pounding?
Like, were you just livid?
Yeah, because, you know, it's an adrenaline dump.
You just feel like it's the fight or flight thing,
and also, I'm totally aware of who I am in the world,
big, Black guy.
These are all little white women,
coffee shop employees.
It's like I was aware that as Melissa was, like,
reading this woman for filth
I can't even stand behind her in support
because I'm the big, black guy
who's lumbering over her,
so I just sort of took our baby to the car
and just sort of strapped her in
and looked at her while it was happening over here.
When the thing happened at the café,
you said it's kind of hard to know
what you want in that moment,
but then you did actually come up with something
that you wanted.
Like, if I knew then what I know now,
I probably would have wanted a different thing,
but in that moment, there was really a sense
of, like, I can't brush this off,
and I can't just make this about me.
I'm not offended as a "famous" person.
Right, right, right.
I'm offended for all the black folks
and Latinx folks and indigenous folks
who don't have a platform.
So what'd you guys do?
It as a public event that was free.
The media caught wind of it. They showed up.
We kept the media out of it.
Again, it was right in the middle
of all the Ferguson things, and it was just like
"I don't want to act like this is the worst thing
that has ever happened to a Black person,"
because it's not the worst thing that happened
to a Black person that day.
But it is a problem in the community.
Right, and it is a teachable moment.
And it's also a problem in a city,
specifically Berkeley, that claims to be
this progressive bastion...
and gets the reputation around the country
as being that when those of us who live
in that area are like, "It ain't that progressive."
One day, me and Sammy, my oldest daughter,
were walking down the street, run into a friend of mine.
Somehow, the Elmwood Café comes up,
which regularly comes up-- and this was
several years later-- and I told her the story,
the kid version of the story.
"Dada got kicked out. Mama was there," da da da,
and she said, "Why?"
And I said, "Racism." Yeah.
And so she's like, "That doesn't make any sense."
I was like, "Yeah. Yeah. You're right."
Anyway, let's get some ice cream.
Do you resent having to have those conversations?
No. I always compare it to, like--
it'd be like a parent not telling your kid
about fire being hot.
Right. It's a requirement.
You're not shielding them. It's a requirement,
and I think that that's another thing.
And it should be a requirement
for white parents, too.
Yes, and white parents often think it's an option.
OK. So we have a speed round
at "Tell Me More." Great.
What's your guilty pleasure?
Watching ridiculous nonsense on YouTube.
I was really into "Dr. Pimple Popper"
for a while.
You just won that question.
Ha ha ha!
No one has a pleasure that they should be
more guilty about than watching
pimples being popped on the Internet.
What's your go-to mantra for hard times?
Whose idea was this?
Ha ha ha!
When was the last time you cried?
So there's an episode of "United Shades"
that is about--a large part about defining
defund the police.
There's a section about a young man
named Elijah McClain, who was walking
down the street in Aurora, Colorado.
Somebody called the cops because he was
a Black guy walking down the street dancing.
He was sort of in his own head.
The cops showed up, restrained him.
He was injected with ketamine,
and then he died in the hospital
3 days later, and it's all--the story
is all about he was just a unique kid dancing
to the beat of his of his own drum,
and I was that kid, and every time I watch it,
even though I made the show,
we put it together, it all came together,
it makes me cry every time, you know?
If your mother wrote a book about you,
what would it be called?
"I Made This." Ha!
Ha ha ha!
Um, and lastly, if you could say 4 words
to anyone, who would you address,
and what would you say?
To my 3 daughters, always believe in yourself.
So if you're pulling way back
and you think about all the books
like "Caste" and Ibram Kendi
and movies and docs and changing statues
and protests and legislation
and voter rights...
Ha ha ha! And reparations and--
Is it working? Like, are we getting anywhere
from your point of view?
I think there is a portion of the country
who doesn't even have their own best interests
at heart, but I think there are people
who feel you cannot try to win these people over.
That's a deeper issue because I'm not trying
to win the hearts and minds of everybody.
I'm trying to be clear about this.
I'm trying to win the hearts and minds
of the people who have good faith in wanting
their hearts and minds won.
Thank you. So good to talk to you.
It's good to talk to you.