Comedian W. Kamau Bell: 'I'm Playing By My Rules' In A Moment Of Crisis

Jun 8, 2020
Originally published on June 7, 2020 5:26 pm

W. Kamau Bell has spent much of his career managing to squeeze some funny out of holding tough conversations around race, identity and citizenship.

But these days, he's working overtime. With nationwide protests reigniting the debate over police violence and systemic racism, "there's no break from it," he says.

"You know, black people of all jobs get asked to explain racism to white people, whether that's in their job description or not," he says. "Well, it happens to be my job description. So, I accept the fact that one of my jobs is to explain racism to white people."

Bell is a comedian and host of the Emmy Award-winning show United Shades of America, which is about to kick off its fifth season. It's a show that mixes comedy and social commentary, as Bell travels to communities across the nation to explore the unique challenges they face.

In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Bell spoke about how he's tackling comedy in this moment, how he's approached recent appearances on late night comedy shows and the upcoming season of United Shades of America, set to premiere June 28 on CNN.

Interview Highlights

On the role of comedy in this moment

Comedy is to make you laugh. And I think there's just different types of laughter. So, some people right now need comedy that distracts them from all this stuff. And that comedy is perfectly great. And I use that kind of comedy myself.

And then there's a kind of comedy that helps you process what's going on in the world, which is the tradition that I like to sort of be a part of. Like Dick Gregory, Chris Rock, Paul Mooney, Wanda Sykes. But all of that weighs on you, you know. So, even if you're a comic who's trying to write just funny word puzzles, it's harder to write those right now.

On recent late night talk show appearances

A lot of times in those late night shows, you have to sort of play by their rules. And I'm always in this awkward position of like, the work I do isn't that explicitly funny in a short period of time, and I always find myself awkward in those late night talk show settings, trying to play by their rules.

I very much understood with Conan and with Jimmy Fallon — I got called a day before to do both those shows and I'm in my house doing it. I'm playing by my rules.

On his appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon following the resurfacing of a Saturday Night Live sketch showing Fallon in blackface

My job is to talk about what's going on in the world right now. Because that's why I feel like I'm there. I'm not the guy he called to apologize to for blackface. So, I know why I'm here. And in that moment, I am trying to carry with me all of the activists, all the angry black people I know who I talk to regularly, like Alicia Garza, who I'm friends with. And I'm trying to take them with me into that thing and go, what would Alicia Garza want me to do in this moment?

On the new season of United Shades of America

You know, we taped these months ago, we luckily finished taping before COVID-19 hit. But it's going to feel very ripped-from-the-headlines because a lot of things we've worried about in the midst of the pandemic, you know, like what happens with the food system if there's a breakdown in it. Our first episode is about American family farms. And, specifically, there's a segment about black farmers in Oklahoma and black Wall Street from Tulsa, Okla. So, it's going to feel very much like we knew this was coming, but I assure you, we did not.

NPR's Kira Wakeam and Tinbete Ermyas produced this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Protests across the country over the past week and a half have opened up challenging conversations about racism, police violence and white supremacy. Our next guest has spent much of his career having just those kinds of conversations and somehow making them funny. W. Kamau Bell is a comedian and host of "United Shades Of America" on CNN. The show is about to kick off a fifth season of diving into all kinds of issues around race, identity and citizenship. And he is with us now from Oakland.

Kamau, thanks so much for joining us once again.

W KAMAU BELL: Thanks for having me. Good to talk to you again.

MARTIN: And congratulations on the show, on the Emmys, on five seasons. It's no small feat, particularly given the high-wire act that you're trying to pull off there.

BELL: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's - I would normally be more excited to accept your congratulations (laughter). But it just feels like, whew.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. And I wanted to ask you about that because, I mean, these events bring up so many things. I mean, because you're one of the first to point out that you live a lot of lives in that body. I mean, you're 6-foot-4. You're an African American man. You are a thinker. You're a husband. You're a father. So if you could, just as briefly as you can, what are just some of the things that all this has brought up for you?

BELL: I mean, I think that, you know, black people of all jobs get asked to explain racism to white people whether that's in their job description or not. Well, it happens to be my job description. So I accept the fact that one of my jobs is to explain racism to white people.

But right now, there's no break from it. So it's like the job I get paid to do and the job I'm asked to do and then the job I feel compelled to do, which is, like, me right before I go to bed on Twitter just sending out links to Malcolm X speeches and pointing out racism in my own community.

So it's really - there's no break from that job right now. And then, as you said, I'm also a husband and a father. And so when I walk out of my office space in my home, and there's no, like, decompression time from talking about racism all day long to then trying to be with my family.

MARTIN: How would you describe more deeply your work? Because part of your work is being funny, and you do that very well. So how do you think - you know, what is the point of comedy right now? What do you think? What is the work of comedy right now?

BELL: I mean, I think at the end of the day, comedy is to make you laugh. And I think there's just different types of laughter. So some people right now need comedy that distracts them from all this stuff. And that comedy is perfectly great, and I use that kind of comedy myself. And then there's a kind of comedy that helps you process what's going on in the world, which is the tradition that I like to sort of be a part of, like Dick Gregory, Chris Rock, Paul Mooney, Wanda Sykes.

But all of that weighs on you, you know? So even if you're a comic who's trying to write just funny word puzzles, it's harder to write those right now.

MARTIN: You've appeared in a couple of late-night shows this week, including "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon." And you spent a full half-hour with Conan O'Brien talking about white privilege and anti-black racism. I just want to play just a teeny bit of that exchange. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")

CONAN O'BRIEN: People like myself - what can we do to make this situation better in a practical, pragmatic way?

BELL: Well, I mean, I think the - I would - you know, I would - first of all, I want to make clear that when you say we, let's be clear that I feel like you're say white people as we because I feel like black people, brown people, people of color - we have always done this work...

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

BELL: And we've always...

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

BELL: ...Had to figure out what to do in situations where we had very little. I mean, if you - imagine, Conan - I know it's going to be hard to imagine, but imagine being Harriet Tubman, you know what I'm saying? Like...

O'BRIEN: I do that all the time.

BELL: (Laughter) I know you were up for the movie. But...

O'BRIEN: (Laughter) Missed it by that much.

BELL: By that much.

MARTIN: And it goes on. But you get it, and it's - first of all, it's very hilarious. And...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm sorry...

BELL: Imagine being Harriet Tubman is a pretty good line...

MARTIN: Yeah...

BELL: ...To say to Conan O'Brien.

MARTIN: ...Pretty good. But it's also very blunt. I'm just interested in how you decide what you're going to do. I mean, you know, like a lot of state capitals and also the nation's capital has legislative follies. It's like a tradition. And they sort of make fun of themselves, but they always say that their kind of role is to singe but not burn. Do you think that's where you are?

BELL: No, I really don't. I guess in that moment, like, especially this week, a lot of times in those late-night shows, you have to sort of play by their rules. And I'm always in this awkward position of, like, the work I do isn't that explicitly funny in a short period of time. And I always find myself awkward in those late-night talk show settings tried to play by their rules. I very much understood with Conan and with Jimmy Fallon, I got called a day before to do both those shows, and I'm in my house doing it. I'm playing by my rules.

MARTIN: You know, I'm particular interested in Jimmy Fallon because your appearance on the show came after a video of him surfaced appearing in blackface in a skit. And this wasn't, you know, when dinosaurs - yes, it was a long time ago. It isn't when dinosaurs walked the earth.

BELL: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, it was at a point at which that was not cool. And so...

BELL: It was in the year 2000, I think, is the best way...

MARTIN: Yeah.

BELL: ...To sort of go (laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. So your thinking of that moment - how would you kind of describe your approach there in something like that? Because you can see where some people would see you - like, you know, why do you need to go and validate him for something he did that was wrong? On the other hand, he is reaching out to you, both as a human being and as a colleague. So how would you say?

BELL: My job is to talk about what's going on in the world right now because that's why I feel like I'm there. He did not - I'm not the guy you call to apologize to for blackface. So I know I'm here. And in that moment, I am trying to carry with me all of the activists, all the angry black people I know who I talk to regularly, like Alicia Garza, who I'm friends with. And I'm trying to take them with me into that thing and go, what would Alicia Garza want me to do in this moment?

MARTIN: So while I have you, the fifth season premiere is coming up of "United Shades Of America." Do you want to tell us what the season's about?

BELL: You know, we taped these months ago. We luckily finished taping before COVID-19 hit. But it's going to feel very ripped from the headlines because a lot of the things we've worried about in the midst of the pandemic - you know, like what happens with the food system if there's a breakdown in it? Our first episode is about American family farms. And specifically, there's a segment about black farmers in Oklahoma and black Wall Street from Tulsa, Okla. So it's going to feel very much like we knew this was coming. But I assure you we did not.

MARTIN: That's W. Kamau Bell. The latest season of his show, "United Shades Of America," premieres at the end of the month on CNN.

Kamau, thanks so much for talking with us once again.

BELL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.