Socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell is the host of the new CNN docuseries United Shades of America which premiered last Sunday. And now he has a one hour stand-up comedy special W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro will premiering on Showtime Friday April 29th. The former follows the Kamau Bell as he explores racial subcultures and other micro-societies across the country. The eight-part docuseries takes the comedian from the far corners of Alaska to Florida’s retirement homes to America’s most dangerous prison and beyond including the must-see premiere where he travels to the South to meet with members of the KKK. In the latter, he stars in his first solo stand-up special W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro. Directed by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, Freakonomics) and filmed before a live audience, which we were a part of in Brooklyn, NY, the film features his uniquely insightful and hilarious views on a host of social and political issues such as gentrification, marriage equality, “mixed-race” children and doing Black children’s hair just to name a few. In Semi-Prominent Negro, Bell also confirms his stature as one of the leading cultural critics of our time.
We recently had the opportunity to hang with Bell and pick his brain about United Shades, his new special, and his obsession with travel shows.
I feel like you officially deserve a key to the month of April between your new show on CNN and your new special on Showtime.
Hahaha, Well thank you. I feel like when I go all in, I go all in. Show business and the people get to truly decide what they think of me after this month is over. So if it doesn’t go well, at least I’m sitting at the big boy table going all in right now. This is the end of the movie Rounders, I’m Matt Damon and “showbiz” is the Russian guy played by John Malkovich.
I’ve got to say, that first episode of United Shades of America had me feeling a little uncomfortable. You went right for the jugular, taking on the KKK in episode one.
Well, that was pilot. When we figured out what the show was going to be, I pitched that. At the point that you are shooting a pilot, you don’t know if you are going to get a show or not. So I was aware that the pilot had to be different than other things I was seeing. If we end up doing multiple seasons of this show, eventually we are going to cross paths with Anthony Bourdain or Morgan Spurlock. So it will eventually become about my perspective being different. But for the first show, not only did my perspective have to be different, but the location had to be very different.
It was nice to see that the town of Harrison, AR isn’t at all what it appears to be on the cover. You were able to bring that to the forefront.
Many of the people of Harrison were nervous about CNN coming there because they have been portrayed as a Klan town in lots of media. People don’t say, “There’s a guy who lives outside of town who’s in the Klan.” They say, “This is America’s Klan town.” They act like he’s controlling the whole town and he doesn’t even live there. And it was important for me to show the people who live there saying, “We aren’t with that dude. And saying, “I wish people would stop talking about that dude.” I don’t want anyone to think that I’m doing “gotcha” journalism. Not even the Klan. I showed what you guys do, I certainly have a perspective on it because I’m a black guy. We didn’t edit anything together to make them look any different than how they look.
Well, it’s pretty impressive what you were able to accomplish doing what you did, much respect for that.
I appreciate the compliments, and I hear people say how brave I was to do it. However, from my side, I didn’t feel brave. I just felt that if I’m going to do this, I’ve really got to do this. There was never the sense of being brave. It was, “This is the idea and let’s execute this idea to the best of our ability.” And, “Let’s hope it doesn’t end up with me being executed.” I associate that whole experience with a lot of creepiness and fear. No bravery, haha, no, this is creepy, “Oh hey, it’s getting dark, is everybody cool?”
I’m glad you brought up Morgan Spurlock because he directed your new special Semi-Prominent Negro. It was cool that you brought him out at the end during the taping.
He didn’t know I was going to do that. I was just happy he was there. He’s one of the busiest people on the planet. I’ve never seen someone so engaged in his present surroundings. He’s always on his phone, connecting with a billion other things. Yet somehow when he’s on his phone, he’s still talking to you. I was honored to have him do it. And I certainly wanted people to know that I wasn’t pulling some kind of okey-doke. “Oh, it’s just some guy named Morgan Spurlock, not thee Morgan Spurlock.”
How did you two end up crossing paths?
I think when I had the show Totally Bias, someone had given him my e-mail address. We got in touch and he let me know he was a fan of the show. I asked him to be on it, but unfortunately he was just too busy. I was always a big fan of his work, just like everyone, Super-Size Me was an amazing new way to do a documentary. He took the Michael Moore thing a step further. Not only was he funny with a unique perspective, but he wanted to prove something and make the world a better place. We talked for a bit about setting up a meeting but it never happened. However, when I started to talk to Michele Armour and her production company – her team is behind my new special, she’s worked with Chappelle, Ansari, and more – she was like, “Who is your dream director?” And I didn’t have an answer. Then I woke up early one morning and was like, “Morgan Spurlock!” Haha, it just sort of like hit me. I wrote him an e-mail and said, “Hey, you directed One Direction, so you can direct me right?” He got back to me right away, because he’s always on his phone, and said, “Yes!”. Then the project started to die a little bit and Spurlock took it upon himself and pitched it to Showtime and they said, “Let’s do it.” He really did the heavy lifting. It’s great to have an angel like Chris Rock or Morgan Spurlock to make things happen for you in your career. I really recommend that for people.
I miss Totally Bias, I thought that show was ahead of its time, you had an amazing writing staff, and it unfortunately went away before it had a chance to break-out. What did you learn from doing that show you were able to bring over to your show at CNN?
Doing Totally Bias was like getting an associate’s degree in television, but it happened in front of everybody. I didn’t know the difference between a segment producer, a story producer, a line producer, co-executive producer. I didn’t know what any of that stuff was. And I got to learn, on the job, what it all meant. And having Chris Rock make me an executive producer, it allowed me to be in the decision making room. So to go from basically nowhere to that is a big deal. That rarely happens. It was stressful, but I got to be in all of the rooms. I got to understand how it all works.
The other thing is that Chris [Rock] insisted that I do all of the man-on-the-street stuff. I didn’t walk into that show thinking I was going to do that. Chris was like, “You’ve got to get out on the street and mix it up with people.” The first thing we did was that “stop ‘n frisk” segment. I was like, how does this work? I didn’t want people to think I was making fun of this horrible thing. It caused me to learn how to make fun “out” of something versus making fun “of” something. And I got a lot better at it. Everyone points to that as being their favorite segment from the show that I did. So when the CNN show idea came up it was like, “Oh, let’s make an extension of that idea.” The truth of the matter is. Before I even had Totally Bias, I was a fan of all of the travel shows. I use to watch Bourdain and Mike Rowe. I used to love those shows where you had big personalities talking about smart stuff and being very entertaining. So thanks to that, and all of the experience on Totally Bias, I’m a lot more comfortable with everything across the board.
Speaking specifically to Semi-Prominent Negro, you discuss a lot about mixed-race marriage. It’s something I can directly relate to myself. It’s nice to see someone discussing that on stage these days.
Well, for me as a comedian, I felt that every time interracial dating came up it was the punchline of a joke. Or it’s about how the black man sold out, or how the white girl is obsessed with black guys. It felt like it was a very soft target to hit. I don’t ever hear material that’s positive about it, not even positive, but an honest investigation of it so it’s not putting it down on its face. And I’m very proud of the fact and very excited for the special to come out because I think there are a lot of couple who are proud about their relationships and also feel like they take a lot of sh*t for them. And I wanted to plant a flag in the sand and say, “Hey, all relationships can be sh*tty. This one’s not any more sh*tty than the rest of them.” And now that I have kids, if you want to judge me, you can kiss all of my a$$h*le. I still get pushback on twitter and online from black people saying, “How is this brother going to be all talking about “this” and be married to a white girl?” It use to hurt my feelings, but now I say, I don’t have time for you. I’d rather be a part of bonding and bringing interracial couples together than fighting with the people who don’t think it’s a legitimate relationship. It’s funny, people are like, “I’m fine with gay marriage, but I don’t think black people and white should date.” What are you talking about?!
What can we look forward to with United Shades moving forward?
Well, this weekend we are going to have a very different show. We are going to San Quentin. And it’s funny, because with the Klan show, I really worked hard getting jokes in there. But with this San Quentin show, I really felt like it was about letting the guys who are in prison really talk and be themselves. This episode is more straight forward, there aren’t as many jokes. I was really important to me, because I felt like every time I’ve seen a prison show it’s about how gross it is or how scary the inmates are. I really just wanted to show them as being human. It’s a real tone shift from the first show. And later on, you’ll see an episode that takes place in Portland. It’s one of the funniest in the season. It’s an issue I really care about but Portland is so full of unintentional comedy. And then we go to Alaska and East L.A. We do a lot in just 8 shows. There are a lot of different tones with the show. I don’t want people to go astray thinking every episode is going to be about Kamau almost getting killed by people who hate him, hahaha.
Congrats on everything! And just for the record, you’re as busy as Morgan Spurlock.
Hahaha, always a pleasure!
Be sure to watch United Shades of America every Sunday at 10pm ET/PT and the premiere of Semi-Prominent Negro on Showtime Friday, April 29th at 10pm.