An Awkward Conversation With W. Kamau Bell

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Is W. Kamau Bell seriously funny, or is he a serious guy who happens to be funny? Or maybe he’s both. No matter how you slice it, it’s not easy to talk about race – a subject which invokes deep, traumatic, historical pain, as well as equal amounts of willful ignorance and cognitive dissonance. It’s almost impossible to make a race joke without being insensitive to somebody. Yet Bell regularly navigates those waters without coming off as an agitator. One might expect a toweringly-imposing black man of Bell’s stature – he’s 6’4,” 250 – to be angry and intimidating. But Bell’s persona is more of a gentle giant who damn near gives you the warm fuzzies, despite the statically-charged subject matter. That’s not to say he downplays his own considerable intelligence – just that he’s figured out an effective approach to engage audiences without enraging or upsetting them.

The current host of CNN’s road trip reality TV show “United Shades of America,” everything Bell has done up to this point has prepared him for what he’s doing now.  He first popped up on local radar screens a few years ago as an emerging stand-up comedian. In 2012, he gained a national audience with his short-lived show on the FX network, “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.”

In the series’ debut episode, Bell proclaimed himself a guy with “nappy hair and a TV show” – before going in on beloved sportscaster Bob Costas for a patronizing comment about gymnast Gaby Douglas – which implied that only African American girls could be inspired by the Olympic gold medalist. “Hey, I love Bob Costas, but it ain’t 1968 no more. Everybody can be inspired by Gaby Douglas – white girls, black girls, Asian girls, Latina girls, even me,” Bell riffed, before going in for the punchline: “I back-flipped all the way here.”

WKamauBell_3Costas is hardly a KKK Grand Dragon, but the point isn’t that only extreme bigotry should be addressed. The bit underscored the subtle ways racial attitudes can creep into seemingly-innocuous conversations, and emphasized that unconscious racism is perhaps more prevalent than the overt variety where America is concerned.

In 2015, Bell blogged about being racially-profiled at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café – a reminder that liberal bastions of free speech aren’t always as woke as they seem. That same year, he hosted a live comedy special from SXSW. His profile, and prolificness, continued to trend upward; in 2016, his stand-up act was immortalized in “Semi-Prominent Negro,” appeared in the TV special “the Comedy Club,” and bum-rushed the sets of daytime and evening talk shows all across the television spectrum.

That same year, he launched his CNN series with an eye-opening look at modern-day white supremacists, “The New KKK.” Subsequent episodes have covered everything from community policing in Camden, NJ; “off the grid” communities in North Carolina and Tennessee; gentrifying hipsters in Portland, OR; and Inuits in Alaska whose traditional way of life is threatened by mega-corporations. Oh, and Bell also hosts “Kamau Right Now,” a live radio show originating out of KALW which is syndicated nationally on NPR. And he has two podcasts. Not bad for a nappy-headed semi-prominent negro with a white doctor wife.

Recently, SF Sounds caught up with Bell during a live taping of “United Shades of America” at Oakland’s New Parish. Backstage in the green room, Bell was already in performance mode, talking a mile a minute in a deeply-resonant baritone.

His bio describes him as a “sociopolitical comic and dad.” Asked why he chose to separate the two descriptors, he clarified that “Dad is a really important title to me. I was sort of aware when it happened, things changed… also, it sort of says I’m a human.“

Entertainment bios, he said, “can just be about the ‘bom ba da da da da dad da dad dah,’ and not about, no, I’m a human who does this work…  I feel feelings… For me, it also says, I’m gonna make choices (which are anti- my career, but pro- my family quite regularly. So, don’t be surprised – it said, ‘dad’ in my bio.”

Now that Bell has cleared up that he’s an actual human being and not just an entertainment brand, it seemed
appropriate to ask him about his progression from the FX network to CNN – and if he had anything to say to his former bosses.

Bell just laughs – loudly – before responding, “No. I did appreciate the FX thing. FX didn’t need to give me a job. They basically trusted in Chris Rock and gave me a job. They liked me… it didn’t work out, the blame has to fall on me. Certainly, we went from FX to FXX, and a lot fo people have written about that, how it was hard to go to a startup network a lot of people didn’t have in their cable packages.

WKamauBell_2“One thing I like about CNN is that everybody has it.  If you have cable, you have it, and if you don’t have cable, if you’re in an airport, you have it. So, it feels like it’s a much more consistent megaphone… Even though it’s not necessarily an entertainment network, it doesn’t mean I’m getting comedy fans necessarily, but luckily, the show is bringing comedy fans to the (network), and it’s also getting a very hardcore news base, which I like talking to.”

Next came the question which had to be asked: who’s Afro is better? Bell’s, Boots Riley’s, Questlove’s, or Neal Schon’s, circa 1975-77 (prior to the Journey guitarist headband era)?

Another mighty laugh followed – an actual guffaw, in fact. “It’s funny. I thought you were gonna say Questlove,” he says, before ruminating for a moment. “Huh… Boots, I don’t want to piss off Boots, I’ve been closer to Boots’ Afro more often than I have to Questlove’s Afro. And I do marvel at Boots’ Afro. He’s the one who introduced me to the idea of actually buying a cake cutter, not a pick. So I have more personal stake in Boots’ Afro. So I would say Boots. But Neal Schon is great, I’m a Journey fan… (but) Angela Davis, I would have picked that one over all of them.”

Besides having the biggest Afro on television in 2017, Bell is also active in radio and podcasting, as well as live comedy. He finds something to appreciate about each of these mediums.

“Stand-up is just me, the microphone, and the audience, so it’s the best sort of return for investment: I go on stage, I start talking, people respond. If they don’t, I change what I say. It’s ultimately the thing that got me into show business in the first place. Like, even tonight, I do some stand-up on the show. Before we do the stuff we’ve written, I just do a couple minutes because it’s fun to be on stage in front of an audience… Stand-up is the thing that takes me back to, I’m an only child with weird thoughts in my head. I want to see what you think about them.

“Podcasting requires a few more people involved in it, but still, it’s like, the artform of podcasting is still very undefined. It can be whatever you want it to be… for me, both my podcasts are really sneaky ways for me to talk to my friends I don’t talk to enough… The podcasting experience is an experience I would wanna have anyway, it’s just great you get to share it with people.”

“Kamau Right Now,“ he says, is “a way for me to stay connected to the Bay.” Which is important to him as a frequent traveler. Moreover, he adds, “I like public radio a lot. It’s a great audience for me, and I get to meet people and have conversations with people who live in the Bay who I wouldn’t normally meet or have conversations with, because we’re just all living our separate lives.”

Through these mediums, he notes, he’s able to check in with folks like activist Malkia Cyril and movie director Ryan Coogler, to name two similarly-busy friends.

As a black comedian, Bell carries a tradition whose lineage extends from Redd Foxx to Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock. Yet he inhabits a different creative space than each of these icons. He can be animated and almost-manic in his delivery, yet many of his observations, especially about race, are presented as common sense, and often low-key.

He describes his approach to potentially awkward conversations by relating one lesson he learned from Pryor: vulnerability.

“I don’t have the life he did, so my level of vulnerability is not the same as his,” he prefaces, “but just allowing myself to be confused and wrong, presenting myself as someone who thinks one way and isn’t sure and gets new information, I think that’s the key. If you’re gonna have a really awkward conversation, you have to be vulnerable to being wrong.

“Audiences, especially in the Bay, will regularly fact-check me or push back on things, and I’ll sort of have to push back. People may think, that’s what you’re not supposed to do at a show, but that’s why for me, it’s a different experience. I’m learning why we’re all here.”

His onstage persona, he relates, is “how I am in real life. I ask questions. One of the things I say about women in the Bay is, I’ve learned the value of shutting up, like not trying to talk over everybody. I think a lot of comedians are comedians because they like to talk a lot. I’m a comedian because I like to listen and figure it out in my head… Chris Rock holds a very authoritative position onstage. I hold a very passionate persona onstage, but I don’t always have to be the authority.”

Having exhausted the list of softball questions, it was time for a hard slider: what’s Bell’s take on Trump as president?

Here’s his answer: “Like I said before, I’m a sociopolitical comedian and a dad. As a dad, Donald Trump as president is way more harmful to my life than it is helpful to my act.

If world peace reigned, I would still be a comedian. I would just talk about different things. I would much more prefer world peace and I have to go get a job at Starbucks to support my family than Donald Trump getting away with the things he wants to try to do.”

Bell concedes Trump is a vein to mine for comedy gold, but—pardon the mixed metaphors—also low-hanging fruit. “You know when they over-harvest and they have to throw some crops away? That’s happening right now. (laughs) You can’t keep up with the cycle. The harvest is coming too quickly. A joke you write on Monday, by Tuesday, the thing he’s talked about has been so dissected, that that joke has sort of been done by everybody. You can’t really keep up with it.”

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