Doing Standup and Hanging with the Klan: Kamau Bell’s Strange Few Months
Kamau Bell is about to end April on a high note. The comedian, known for his FX show Totally Biased, returns to cable with his new CNN show United Shades of America, which premieres this coming Sunday at 10pm. On Friday the 29th, his new standup special Semi-Prominent Negro (directed by Morgan Spurlock) airs on Showtime. As Kamau put it at the end of our conversation, “In the next couple months, Hollywood will have a referendum on me.”
Based on both projects, it should be a positive one. The premiere episode of United Shades of America, where Kamau visits several chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, starts with a bang, and his standup remains as poignant and timely as ever. When he wasn’t pausing the interview to take pictures with Mr. Wonderful from Shark Tank, I spoke with Kamau about United Shades of America, Semi-Prominent Negro, and how the power of awkward conversations may have helped him become the black guy in the laundry room from American History X to some of those Klansmen.
How did United Shades of America come about? Did you approach CNN or did they approach you?
So I had a show called Totally Biased briefly. [laughs] So when that show got canceled, once that I got over the fact that I thought my career was over, I started to take some meetings with people who were interested in talking to me. I took a meeting here at CNN, just a general meeting, and they basically pitched me this idea for this show. At that point it was called Black Man White America where a black guy travels around the country to white places. I was like, “Well, it’s not the ’90s anymore. I think you need to have more than just white places because there you can only go to the country club so many times a season.” I wanted to open it up to all different types of races and cultures, and hopefully ethnic minorities to show off all the different types of America. The production company liked that idea and actually changed the title to a better one in United Shades of America, so it was a collaboration. They had ideas, I sort of riffed on ideas, and we just came together on it.
So in the very first episode, you visit and talk to several members of the Ku Klux Klan, which was incredibly captivating.
[laughs] There are definitely funnier ones than that one.
I mean that first meeting, I was on the edge of my seat, thinking to myself, “Are they going to kill him off in the very first scene of the very first episode?”
[laughs] Yeah, the whole thing with this TV show is that I’m actually dead, and then it’s my ghost that sort of investigates my murder.
How did you end up narrowing down and choosing the places you would visit and the people you would interact with?
Well it’s funny, you sort of have to go with who will talk to you when it’s the Klan. So the producers called, I think, 100 or so different Klan outfits. First they said, “Do you want to have a TV crew come and talk to you?” A bunch said no. To the ones that said yes, they added that it’s CNN, and a bunch of them said no. The ones that were left, they said, “What if it’s a black guy?” A bunch of them said no. And finally it was, “It’s a black comedian,” and a bunch of them said no except the people we talked to. It was really a process of elimination, like who wants to talk to a black comedian on CNN.
And for others this season, you go to Alaska, you go to a San Quentin prison — how did you come up with the destinations for the rest of the shows?
So the way I sort of approached it was if this is the only season of this show, these are the places I’d like to go. If there isn’t a season two, I’d like to have some experiences that I can take with me for the rest of my life. Also, [I wanted to] put things on television that I don’t think I’ve seen done in this way. So that was a big thing for me.
Like we did an episode in Portland that when we pitched it, it was “hipsters in Portland” that turned into a focus on hipsters and gentrification in Portland. For me, I had never seen gentrification talked about that way. For me, because I’m a black guy that is also friends with a lot of hipsters, I felt like I get both sides of the argument. I probably get the black side a little more, to be honest, but I’m not mad at these hipsters at face value. But I also understand that if you’re going to do this, you should be sensitive to the communities you’re moving into.
So for me, I’ve never seen an episode address these things in this way. We also did an episode in San Quentin in the prison. That’s one the producers pitched me, I’ve never been to prison in any way. Not bragging, just saying. So I was thinking, what can I do, I don’t want it to be like the prison shows I’ve seen on TV all the time where the whole idea is for people watching to go “Oh they’re so horrible in there. I’m so lucky I’m not in prison.” It was the idea of who are these people, what are they doing in there, and it’s probably my favorite episode of the season, episode two.
As a comedian, you obviously want to be funny when you’re talking to these groups and these different groups of people. But the one moment that stood out to me was when you were talking with the group of klansmen before the burning/lighting.
Yup, let’s be politically correct when talking about the Klan.
And the one klansman referred to “mud races” in front of you. There was even a narration where you said, “There’s got to be a quick comeback for this,” but in the real moment you were just stunned and silent. How often did that kind of thing occur during your travels where your comedic instincts were overpowered by different situations you encountered?
Well, I’m a comedian, so there’s going to be humor in it, but I think more of it is that I’m just sort of myself. I’m not one of those comedians where I’m out there looking for a joke at every opportunity. I’m the guy that’s going to confront you on stuff and then go, “Fuck!” I think for me, the more I allow the show to reflect me and the more people come to the show because they think, “I like Kamau and the stuff he gets into the way that stuff happens with [Anthony] Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock,” then humor is just a part of what I do no matter what I do.
The first day of filming was the cross burning. So, can you imagine a first day on the job where you get to go to a cross burning? It’s like, “What’s your name again? What do you do here? Right, sound guy. Oh, the cross burning just started.” So it’s a lot of that first-day-on-the-job stuff in the first season that we’ve gotten out of the way now, and I love the producers and the crew. We all do stuff together.
Even more than that, humor is a part of it. I’d certainly like the show to be funny, to be funny in ways that you weren’t expecting. But I also don’t feel any pressure to be funny or to add a joke in where it doesn’t fit. It has to be organic. Also, CNN has never done anything that would be billed as comedic. We’re all learning how to do this dance. For me, if I’m just making fun of the cross burning at the cross burning, I’m just ignoring a black part of me that’s like, “People died.” I feel that would cheapen the moment.
I thought there were parts of the episode where the producers thought, “Maybe that was too funny,” and I was like, “No, but I want him to talk about Skittles.” That was crazy when he talked about Skittles. Or when he talked about Red Lobster, like that was a moment when I was purposefully looking for jokes to find humor. But then you play that up against a cross burning, and I don’t think you get those tones in any other kind of show.
You’ve got this quality that allows you to get a lot of different people from really different backgrounds and different belief systems to open up to you in an honest and genuine way. How do you do that with people that you’ve just met while also kind of keeping things light?
I think I really learned those skills on Totally Biased. Chris Rock was a producer on that show, and he had me get out on the street early on to mix it up with people. The stuff that people remember most about Totally Biased that I did was man-on-the-street stuff. I’m not usually a big fan of man on the street, there’s some stuff like Billy on the Street that has done an amazing job with it. But a lot of times it’s you get stopped in the middle of your day and then I make fun of you for allowing me to stop you. And it’s like, “I thought that person was being nice!”
So the thing I learned I had to do was no matter what I thought of their political views, their cultural views, whatever, that I at least respect you for talking to me, you know? Also, I let them talk. I’m not always trying to get a joke in. So then these people can feel like, “Oh, he’s gonna let me talk and get my thing in.” So then it’s like we’re making fun of you, but we’re doing this together instead of me just calling you stupid. So I respect the fact that you are letting me talk to you, and that this isn’t what you thought you were doing when you woke up this morning.
That leads me into my next question, which was what have you taken with you from Totally Biased? I think one thing that caught my attention in season two was you were booking a lot of guests that weren’t necessarily celebrities or comedians, these were people that were activists or the one where you spoke with a sign interpreter for concerts.
The thing I’ve said a lot in my past on Totally Biased, and it came from moving to the Bay Area which I enacted on Totally Biased, was “the power of awkward conversation to initiate change.” I didn’t just want to say I spoke to the Klan. What’s the point of that? Neither one of us is really learning anything. That’s like talk show TV from the ’90s. It’s not me trying to start a fight with them. That’s a situation where I wouldn’t change their mind. But the thing I do know, is that when I left, some of those guys liked me. Whether or not they are not going to be in the Klan anymore, I don’t know their criminal records or their personal information, some of those guys that I met with were definitely like, “Yeah, I think I liked that black guy. Oh my God!” So maybe I will be the black guy in the laundry room to their Ed Norton from American History X. [laughs]
And I’m not really asking for it, but I feel that’s one thing, that power to sit down and have an awkward conversation, and we have a lot of them on the show with different people, is that you have people exchange information and ideas in a way that you don’t normally see on television. I think you see it in podcasting a lot, but I don’t think you get to see it on TV. I just want people to take away the fact that maybe if I have more awkward conversations in my life, the world will be a better place.
And also, we want the show to be funny, because the only reason people pay attention to things are if they are captivating or funny. But yeah, the power of awkward conversation.
And that’s another thing I wanted to touch on, especially because you also have a new standup special coming out the Friday after your new show premieres. You bring up so many issues and topics in a more straightforward way than many comedians would concerning politics and race. And like you said, it’s a great way to open up dialogue about serious topics because they can engage people in a certain way. Case in point, a lot of people like my friends won’t talk to me about politics unless John Oliver broke it down on Last Week Tonight.
How important is comedy to this new generation of young adults and millennials in terms of engaging them politically and socially?
You know, I think the modern era of standup comedy, to get super comedy nerdy, is about that. I think Lenny Bruce especially was known for talking about things people didn’t feel comfortable talking about. The thing that happens in that moment is because he’s able to turn it into jokes, then people are able to talk about those things because there’s a punchline at the end of it. One of my favorite Lenny Bruce bits is “How To Relax Your Colored Friends At Parties.” And it’s just a way to talk about the awkwardness of white people who only know one black person. What it does is it opens up, you can have a conversation like, “Oh, did you hear about that Lenny Bruce bit?” Then, “Yeah, I sure did, let’s talk about our awkward friendship.”
I think that in the modern history of modern standup comedy while there’s a lot of stuff, there’s also Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan and comedians where they talk about certain things, the tradition that I really engage with a lot and what I try to do, I’m not saying I do do it but I try, is of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Lewis Black, Janeane Garofalo, Maria Bamford with the way she does her stuff, sort of like naming the thing no one wants to be and then using jokes to bring it down.
I feel like Chris Rock has the tradition of the things he says as a joke, people tend to use as their way of explaining their opinion. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Well it’s like Chris Rock said: there’s a difference between being rich and wealthy. Shaquille O’Neal is rich; the white man who signs his checks is wealthy.” They use that as their way to explain their conception of how capitalism works. You know what I mean?
Comedy can give people these bite-sized ways to communicate. I don’t think comedy is the change, but it can help people figure out a way to talk about how they want things to change. Currently, Barack Obama is probably the funniest president we’ve ever had? Yeah! Yeah, I don’t know what Garfield was up to, how fresh he was. But in the modern era, that led him to win because this dude’s so comfortable in his skin. When people think you’re funny it’s because you’re comfortable, and he can translate and talk about things in a way that we’re not gonna see again no matter who the next president is. Unless Bernie Sanders puts Killer Mike as his vice president, that’s the only way we’d see that. [laughs]
But I think humor is a great way to cross boundaries, to bridge gaps, and it’s also a great way to talk about how difficult it is to explain things, but the joke isn’t the thing that will enact change. It’s like, Rage Against the Machine is one of my favorite bands, but we don’t want you to think that those songs are the policies. [Laughs] Paul Ryan’s favorite band is Rage Against the Machine, so it’s kinda…
Oh… Yeah, good point.
So yeah, the art of comedy can get people fired up but that can’t really fix anything. I just have to keep it that way for myself. I definitely thought as a younger comic, “I’m going to change this and that in people blah blah.” Then you’re married and have kids and think, “I’m just gonna keep these kids on the planet, get money to feed them, and I hope my jokes don’t make the world worse.” [laughs]
So Semi-Prominent Negro, is this a culmination of the Oh, Everything tour? Did a lot of the material come from that or is this different?
It’s a lot of themes from that tour. There’s a lot of the stuff I was working on and the way I write generally. I thought there would be more stuff from there to bring back, but the way the times change, things with the election, things in my life changed, a lot of the stuff from the tour, maybe that will be a lost album some day. I recorded some stuff around that time, but I still wasn’t happy with it. But the themes, all the stuff about my kids, it’s stuff I was working on around that time in the tour.
How did the special end up at Showtime?
You have Morgan Spurlock to thank for that. I’ve had, in this part of my career, a really good run of finding support from crazy talented people to do things. Chris Rock with Totally Biased. And I met Morgan, we talked before, and I emailed him out of the blue one night and was like, “Would you ever be interested in directing a comedy special?” And I was like, “He directed One Direction, I think he can handle me.” And he was a fan of my work, I’m certainly a fan of his work, and it was something that I don’t think it’s the hardest thing in the world to do and he could bring something else to it. We came together, and I had talked to Showtime before, but he ended up pitching it to Showtime which is how it got there.
One final question I have for you is with everything going on in the US and globally, how much would you want to do a show like Totally Biased in the current climate?
I don’t think I want to do anything that sort of puts me in the late night talk show universe. I think there’s something about that where I feel like Samantha Bee and John Oliver have really broken outside of that, but when I did it I felt like at a meeting people would talk about Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. And that’s not what I was trying to do. In some sense, maybe now the same way Samantha Bee is at TBS where I always liked the once-a-week model was good, but they always thought you needed more or to do more. John Oliver I think has proved that you can do a lot with one a week. It’s something I would talk about again, but I’m at a place in my life where we’re gonna have to film in Berkley! I’m not moving again!
The thing that I’ve done to scratch that itch is I started a semi-regular public radio show on KALW in San Francisco called Kamau Right Now. It’s like an hour-long talk show, and it’s about whatever’s going on right when we tape it. So for me, that’s scratching that same sort of itch but because it’s public radio, there’s just way less cooks in the kitchen. It’s just me, the head of the radio station and the people that we assemble. Instead of sitting in a room with 15 writers, it’s just, “What do I want to talk about in the monologue today?” I think it’s more authentic to my voice than sitting in a room with 15 writers.
Before I let you go, anything else you’d like to mention that would be coming up besides the show and special?
No I’m just trying to raise these kids! [laughs] I mean I’m very excited because I sort of have a lot of things in the works right now, and I think that over the next couple months showbiz will have a referendum on me. So in a couple months maybe we’ll talk again and I’ll be like, “Man, that didn’t work at all did it Ross?” But I’m happy to be working the way I am working, pretty close to the ground, but also doing it with CNN because I wouldn’t be able to, I don’t have the miles to travel anywhere else. Also, if United Shades of America works, there’s much more we could do in season two. We’re really looking forward to exploring that.