W. Kamau Bell Has Learned to Be Comfortably Uncomfortable
Kamau Bell has spent a lifetime trying to figure out how he fits into the big picture of things. His new book, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian, is (if you couldn’t guess from the title) a thorough yet conversational examination not only of all the things that make him him but also of all the things that unite him with the rest of society. The book explores a pivotal belief which Bell stands by — that “the more specific you are, the more universal you are.”
In addition to this, Bell is moving into the second season of his CNN show United Shades of America, wherein he ventures into the field to provide a more realistic perspective on aspects of the country that are often only experienced second-hand. In one particular episode of the new season, which airs this Sunday, April 30th at 10:00pm ET, Bell goes to the infamous “Chiraq” to explore what it really is and examine what compels people to apply a label to Chicago’s dangerous neighborhoods that makes it seem like somewhere foreign or un-American. Seemingly fueled by awkward and uncomfortable moments, Bell brings the reality of America to the fore. Bell charts similar territory in his podcast Politically Re-Active with Hari Kondabolu, confronting political topics with his usual, unexpected mixture of grim levity in order to help listeners learn “how to move forward, how to be an active part of the resistance, and how to stay joyful in the face of the unknown.”
I recently talked with Bell over the phone about his typically atypical approach to writing his book, how he’s learned to forge a career that works for him, and why he’s not concerned if Denzel Washington never makes an appearance on his podcast Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor of All Time Period.
So I digested your book in the span of three days.
Sorry about that!
No, I had a great time with it! I think you wrote in a very conversational way that made it comfortable to just sort of binge-read.
Oh, good. Those few last pages, I was writing it frantically, so I’m glad it came out conversational.
What inspired you to put a book together?
You know, I grew up in one of those houses where books were everywhere. Books were important and so I think probably maybe even before I wanted to be a comedian, I just knew that a book was a thing that would be cool to do. Having said that, now that I’ve written a book, I don’t know if my book lives up to the quality of the books on my mom’s shelf. But I think she’ll put it up there anyway. It’s hard to put it between Malcolm X and Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, but maybe on the coffee table.
Have you been working on it for a long time?
Well, after Totally Biased ended, I was unemployed for a bit and I started writing down thoughts about the show because it was, in some sense, a traumatic experience. Like if you get hit by a “good car wreck.” It turns your whole life upside down, but your life is sort of better afterwards, but it’s still turned upside down. So I just started to jot some thoughts down and also, over the last several years, I’ve been writing articles and opinion pieces, and I really enjoy that work. So when I started talking to some people like Dutton and my literary agent about the idea of writing a book, I was like, “I’ve got stuff, I just don’t know if it’s a book,” and luckily they helped me put it together.
There’s also a checkered history of comedian books, and the stakes have been raised by Tina Fey, so I really didn’t want to write a bad one. But I also knew I wasn’t going to write Bossypants, so I’m just doing the best I can.
Yeah, it would have been very controversial if you had just written a book called Bossypants: The Sequel, or something.
[laughs] There we go! Gotta stir the pot. Start a battle with Tina Fey, somebody I’ve never met before!
Did you have anything in mind for how you wanted it to come out? Were there any other books that you looked to for inspiration?
No, I had piles of stuff and documents and things on my computer, and I was sort of writing the memoir-type stuff, but then I also really enjoy writing those sort of pop culture instant response pieces. As a standup comic it’s fun to write those shorter things. So really when we sat down and talked about it, I sort of thought it had to be either this or that, and my editor and my literary agent were like, “Or it could be both,” and I’m a big fan of things that don’t fit into one box cleanly, so I was like, “Great!” I think that my whole career has been about sort of straddling genres or mixing things that you wouldn’t think go together.
Yeah, and there really seems to be a lot in the book that will resonate with people who feel similarly about themselves.
I hope the book can apply to more people than just the people who fit that long list of words on the cover. [laughs] That long list of words on the cover is sort of about how we’re all sort of forced to claim one identity, and if I get to list more than just three words like, “Black, male, American,” then it would be “Here’s more words that I would put on that list.” And I think in some sense the more specific you are the more universal you are, and I think that a lot of people, especially in the current era, feel like they don’t belong or don’t fit in the way they thought they would or should.
Do you feel like standup comedy helped you figure out who you are? Or do you think it was kind of outside of that that you sussed all that out?
In some sense, standup led me to that, but it wasn’t figured out in standup comedy. Early on I read Richard Pryor’s book Pryor Convictions, which was really a big influence on me because he talks about figuring out your comedy voice a lot. I probably read it too early as a standup. I probably should have read it in year ten not year one or two. But I really thought, “Oh yeah, in standup comedy you figure yourself out; it’s an investigation into yourself!” but I didn’t have the tools yet. So when I moved to the Bay Area, I still sort of thought standup comedy was how I’d figure myself out, but it was actually just the friends I met in the Bay Area who helped me figure myself out, and then I took that and applied it to standup comedy. But also, standup comedy is the thing that made me move to the Bay Area in the first place, so it still gets the credit. But yeah, it’s really the time spent not in the clubs, but the time spent with people.
I think the biggest strength I have in my life is just following my nose and thinking like, “Oh, what’s going on over there?” Or if people go, “Come here,” just reacting “Okay!” [laughs] I really just don’t judge things in advance. I just sort of walk into them. I think that’s how I ended up with United Shades of America. I have a very let’s-see-what-happens approach to life.
And I suppose that approach to life really gets to shine with United Shades. Do you feel like the confrontations that you have in the show end up making you more comfortable stretching your boundaries? Or is it kind of more complicated on that front?
I mean, I think it teaches me how to operate when I am uncomfortable. Let’s say, if you looked at season 1 of United Shades, the first thing that we shot was the cross burning, or “cross lighting” as they taught me to say. That’s the first thing that we ever did and I can watch it and go, “That person is uncomfortable in this situation and he’s uncomfortable on camera.” I’m uncomfortable in a lot of ways. But with the second season we go to Richard Spencer’s conference, which is not necessarily the same level of physical threat, but there is a different threat because Trump had just won the election and these people felt emboldened by that in a way that the Klan did not. When I look at myself there, it’s like, I’m uncomfortable but I’m handling it better. So I think that’s what it is.
The more you allow yourself to be in an uncomfortable situation, the better you are at understanding that just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean you always have to run away, and it doesn’t mean that the situation is wrong just because it makes you uncomfortable. Now, sometimes it’s wrong. I didn’t agree with much of Richard Spencer’s conference, but when I was at Standing Rock, I was uncomfortable there too, but that situation certainly wasn’t wrong.
Sure–in your book and in your show and just in general you seem to like drawing the focus back on powering through “awkward” moments.
Yeah, I think, like I said, if I have a super power, that’s it. I’m able to resist awkward moments, and also just accept that when somebody is awkward or when things get awkward. Most of the time it’s a temporary situation, and I think that’s the one thing I’ve learned. And just because it’s awkward now or it feels wrong, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Sometimes “I don’t like this” doesn’t mean necessarily that you have to take it with you as a life lesson.
Definitely, and that’s probably a good skill for most of us to develop right now, given how polarized and strange things seem at the moment.
Yeah, I think that’s one thing. This happened a lot especially after Trump was elected — you could see people pursuing normality like they just wanted things to get back to normal, and even now there’s still people who… I talk to good friends of mine who are like, “Well, I mean basically he’s just another president.” It’s like, “No, no I don’t think so!” That’s the worst thing we could all feel on both sides — if we just thought he was “just another president.”
And also, what does it even mean to be “just another president?” Isn’t that also a problem? So for me it’s really my job and my work is about ringing the bell of “No, we need to actually look at this in the face.” And naturally I’m ringing the bell in a humorous way. I have friends and people I work with who ring the bell in a more activist and organizer way.
Right. And additionally, for a lot of people the places and folks that you meet with just exist in the abstract. In one episode you get up close and personal with the community of the southside of Chicago, and in another you go to Standing Rock and get to know the people protesting and the people who are are directly affected by the circumstances there. Your show is bringing these aspects of the country to life for a lot of us.
Yeah, I mean, for me the Chiraq episode was personal because I went to high school in Chicago and I lived in Chicago after dropping out of college. I have a lot of love for Chicago. My best friend still lives in Oak Park which is right outside Chicago. I remember when I moved to Chicago in the first place from Alabama, my friends in Alabama were like, “They’re going to force you to join a gang!” I’ve heard stuff like that for years — the demonization of Chicago and the fallacy that Chicago is just one thing. That it’s just one city that is riddled with gangs. As if it’s just one unified thing; no city is like that. So first of all: that’s ridiculous. Second of all: all these people who are talking like this have spent no time talking to the people or even seeking out ways to hear the people talk. For me that episode is somewhat like the episode we did the first season about the inmates in San Quentin. It’s like, listen to them talk. Just listen to them talk.
I’m really excited about [the Chicago] episode, because I feel like at the end of it it’s me going, “Yeah, I didn’t need to talk anymore.” Those guys weren’t thinking about me. [laughs] They were having their own experience. I think we sort of started the experience, and pushed them and got the ball rolling, but then very quickly I couldn’t get a word in, and I was like “I don’t think I should even try to.” It’s not about me. That conversation went on for over an hour and when we got there we thought it was going to go for ten or fifteen minutes.
And to that end you’re providing a very necessary platform for people to actually address the world. A lot of times people just imagine what people in these circumstances might say, without actually having any idea at all about who they are and what they’re like.
Yeah. I think there’s this thing too where it’s easy to call someone a “gang member” and take away their humanity instead of realizing, “Oh, this is what they do to survive when they’re here.” They would happily take jobs, do you have jobs? They would happily send their kids to better schools. Can we get better schools? It’s not like they’re like “No, we’d rather have gang affiliation than a better economy, better education, and better health programs.”
Do you feel like you have an idea of what way you’re going in particular now as things are really kind of taking form around you?
I really think I know how I’m supposed to be going along, but I don’t know where that’s going to take me. When they offered Totally Biased five years ago I thought “Oh, that’s how I’m going to get my message out and connect with a new audience and be able to afford to pay for my family!” and five years later, I’m on CNN. The one thing I didn’t hear any comic say when I was coming up in comedy was “I hope to someday get a show on CNN.” Maybe that’s happening now, but it certainly wasn’t happening when I was coming up in comedy, and for me it’s like if I’d had some real fixed idea of what my career was going to be, I would probably be miserable right now, and probably less successful because I was told “You have to move to LA or New York, and you have to audition for stuff, and you have to go up in the comedy clubs and get passed!” and I haven’t done any of that stuff. I’m not saying that those things don’t work — I have friends who that works for very well — but I just knew it wouldn’t work for me.
Sure. It’s important to keep the things that genuinely interest you in mind and to be open to whatever might lead you that way. You mentioned in your book that it didn’t matter to you whether or not Denzel ever actually comes on your podcast, but just out of curiosity, do you have any sort of emergency plan if he does come on?
I think we have our first question, because Terry Gross told us that the first question you ask is about whatever project they’re currently working on. So that’s easy, whatever he’s currently working on — we’ll ask about that. We’ll talk about that because people want to know you’re going to promote their thing. But other than that, again, I know the type of conversation I’d like to have with him, and I would just want to have a good conversation with him. So that’s why I’m really not interested—in any way—in pursuing it if he’s not interested. I know that he knows the podcast exists. I know people he’s worked with have talked to him about it. I also know that it’s very realistic that he might think it’s weird. [laughs] I also know that we haven’t gotten a cease and desist letter. Or at least we haven’t heard from anybody that he wants us to stop doing it. And believe me, if we did hear about that, we would stop doing it immediately. Immediately.
The whole thing the podcast is based in is our love for his work and respect for his humanity. At some point the podcast will end, and you know, we may segue into a new podcast. But I really think that I don’t have any… Maybe at some point I thought that that had to happen, but just doing the podcast has really been great for my life and for my career in lots of small ways, and I certainly don’t want it to be a burden on the dude whose name is in the title.
That’s definitely the most healthy way to approach it. Are there any goals you do have for yourself in the coming year or so?
Hopefully United Shades gets to season 3; I hope it becomes the driving force of my career. I really like the work. I’m working on some digital projects with CNN’s Great Big Story. And my other podcast, Politically Re-Active, just started season 3. I think podcasting is always going to be a big part of my life until podcasting becomes not a thing anymore. But until then, I’m doing that. Certainly I’ll still do standup and I’ll still be going on tour, and I hope to record another special.