There’s Hollywood courage, and then there’s real world courage. Here’s an example of real world courage: Comedian W. Kamau Bell, in the first episode of his new CNN documentary series “United Shades of America,” decided to go hang out with the KKK. Given that Bell is black, this could have gone quite badly for him. While, as seen in the first episode of the series, he didn’t experience any physical harm, these sorts of experiences have emotional costs.
Via phone, Bell told Indiewire about how he got involved with this new series, how his life as a touring stand-up comedian and podcaster fit into the process and what it was like to premiere it at the Sundance Film Festival. An edited transcript follows.
It premiered at Sundance, right?
We screened the first episode at Sundance. And Anderson Cooper was there and did a Q&A with me so that was #lifegoals. [Editor’s note: He actually did say “hashtag lifegoals.”]
That’s like peak CNN.
Yeah. It was, like, “CNN’s serious about this. They sent Anderson Cooper here.”
Talk to me about how the project came together.
After “Totally Biased” went off the air, I got super depressed and thought my career was over. Then I got invited to some meetings with CNN. An outside production company had pitched them this show, but the version they pitched was slightly different. At that point, it was just called “Black Man, White America.” It was me traveling around the country to white places and I was like, “That’s good, but what do we do after the fourth episode?” And so I spun it into this idea where it was a whole bunch of different places where I wouldn’t be welcome or comfortable. Then the production company came up with a much better name, which was “United Shades of America.” Luckily, having come from “Totally Biased” and having the benefit of being an executive producer on that show, now I can go in these situations where I get to be an executive producer and not just an on-camera presence. So you get a lot more power. Ultimately that’s how you solve the “Oscars so white” problem.
Are you saying the production company pitched you? Like, were you attached, or were they just like, “It’d be funny to get Kamau to go out into the woods”?
They said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we got a black comedian to do this?” And then CNN, they look at the waiver wire — “Oh, there’s a black comedian available.” I think with CNN having a very specific brand, me being a topical guy, talking about politics, they thought I’d be a good fit. Luckily, the production company thought so too. Kevin Hart can’t get every job.
What was the initial reaction? Was there a part of you that thought, “This is a great way to get myself killed?”
First of all, I’m the one who pitched the first episode [with the Ku Klux Klan]. I was looking for ways… If I go through with it and it works, it’s probably a good show. If I get killed, it’s a really good show. I was the one who pitched that idea because there are already these shows on TV. CNN had these shows, with Anthony Bourdain and Mike Rowe and Lisa Lang. I had to separate myself from them in the pilot. What can I do to separate myself from them? If I do that show, it’s automatically different than if Mike Rowe does it.
It also sets up the idea that even in America, there’s a lot to explore. You don’t need to travel too far to find weird exotic cultures.
That’s the whole thing. It’s the United States of America. I travel a lot as a comedian, and what I’ve seen is that we are probably 50 different countries, at least. As far as doing stand-up and doing college shows — if you go to Garden City, Kansas from the Bay Area, it feels like you stepped through a wormhole to a different universe.
Are there episodes coming up that are tougher? Or was this the height of what you could do?
We only had eight episodes in the first season, so it was important to us to make every episode as different as possible. It’s not like we are doing this week the Klan, next week the neo-Nazis. The show is about the diversity of America. The show that follows the KKK episode is about San Quentin, so we are talking to inmates in prison. So we are talking to a lot of black men, which automatically makes it a different kind of show. And then we have a show about cops in Camden, New Jersey and we have a show about Latino Americans in East LA. We have a show about Alaska and a show about retirees and spring breakers in Florida and a show about gentrification in Portland. So each show is about something different, which is very important to us. You don’t want to repeat yourself. There were situations where I felt jeopardy, but it was emotional jeopardy and not physical jeopardy.
What’s an example of emotional jeopardy?
Going into San Quentin brings up feelings of incarceration in this country. All the people I talk to are around the same age as I am and most of them are black men. You can’t help but go, “There but for the grace of God go I.” You don’t have to have committed a horrible crime in this country, or any crime, to go to prison for life or worse. I was just very aware of the fact that I get to go home to my family and they stay here. We don’t, unlike some countries, place value on rehabilitation and the rehabilitated. I don’t think a politician in this country wants to go, “I’ve paroled more prisoners than any politician in the history of this state.” That’s not a successful platform because we like to focus on the punishment part and not the rehabilitation part. So hopefully, in that episode, I can shine some light on the rehabilitation part.
Bringing in incarceration, that’s also a major class issue as well as a race issue.
It can be. Although I may not come from the same neighborhood as those dudes, I can end up in a bad situation with the criminal justice system at any time.
With the structure of the show, was the idea always to incorporate your stand-up with it?
That was something we came to later. It’s easy to get caught up in the way these shows are always done. With this show, we’ve tried to come up with a way to put a new spin on it. Because I’m a comedian we had this idea, instead of just narration — which is in there — having a more direct connection so that in talking about the Ku Klux Klan, I’m talking to them but I’m also in a nightclub talking to a bunch of black people about my experience.
In general, it makes it feel like something very different for CNN.
It’s only a few years ago when they said they were going to have Bourdain on and everyone was like, “How’s that gonna work?” Well, according to the Emmy committee, it’s worked excellently. I’m just a part of CNN trying to further extend that idea, while still staying true to the brand of relevant television. I put that responsibility on myself, of how can I keep extending that? How can I feel like this is my show instead of just another version of the shows that were already on?
How many days of shooting was the stand-up portion?
We shot this a long time ago, and it’s all kind of a whirlwind. I think we shot them over four or five days. I think we are really trying to throw it all against the wall right now. I’m really excited and nervous for April 24 because then we get to see what sticks. Thanks to Twitter, I’ll know immediately what’s working and what is not working. Which is exciting and terrifying. It’s excitifying.
What’s your relationship with Twitter?
My relationship with Twitter is always the same. You buy a pitbull for your house for protection and the dog claims it loves you but at any point it might turn on you. That’s how I feel about Twitter. Sometimes new dogs come through the window and you are like, “You don’t even live here.” That’s where I’m at with Twitter right now.
You mentioned the word relevant, but this was shot a long time ago… That said, while I’m assuming you are tackling issues in a way that is relevant because certain things aren’t going away, was that ever a concern?
It’s certainly a concern. Even with “Totally Biased.” We’d write it the day and air it that day, a lot of times. We shot it and I was concerned, “What if this goes stale?” Weirdly when we shot [“United Shades”] we were talking about the Klan when no one was talking about the Klan. Thanks to future President Trump, not knowing much about the Klan or having to Google the Klan was in the news again. It became this thing where suddenly it was a lot more relevant again. The same is true of the San Quentin episode. A couple months [after shooting], Obama went and visited a federal prison. It was like, “Dammit Obama, you scooped me.” But also people were talking about this issue.
With a potential Season 2, do you have ideas for where you’d want to go?
I think we’ve only scratched the surface. I also think once Season 1 goes up, if we get a Season 2, people will have a better idea of what the show is. It will open some doors up. It was hard to go to anybody, even people I wanted to talk to. It was CNN and it’s a black comedian you’ve never heard of and he wants to do jokes about you. A lot of times people are suspicious about the whole thing. So I’m hoping when the show comes out people dig it and we get a Season 2.
In the meantime, what’s keeping you busy?
I got two kids, they don’t seem to want to feed themselves. [laughs] I also have a comedy special coming out on Showtime on April 29th. It’s called “Semi-Prominent Negro.” I’m also working on a podcast I’ve been working on for a while called “Denzel Washington is the Best Actor of all Time. Period.” It’s a podcast about… well you heard the title and I have been able to do that podcast and interviewed Spike Lee and Ryan Coogler and Jesse Williams from “Grey’s Anatomy” so we are building a coalition of people who agree with us. I also have a public radio show on KLAW San Francisco called “Come Out Right Now” which is a public affairs show kinda like “Totally Biased” but public radio. Like a neavu relevant talk show.
With the Denzel podcast, when do you get Denzel?
We had Spike Lee. He said he would send Denzel a link to his episode. Denzel is kind of like Santa Claus. Is he real? I’ve never seen him. I don’t know. We are just making good episodes, hoping it goes high enough in the food chain where he will want to do it. He has a movie coming out in September, “The Magnificent Seven,” so we will do everything we can to aim our podcast his way. But if he never comes on the show, it doesn’t make me and Kevin, my co-host, love him any less. He’s a busy man and not the kind of celebrity who does a lot of nonsense. So if he sees us as nonsense, we understand.
Your approach, like for a lot of different comedians, seems to be to be on as many different platforms as possible.
As the prophet Drake said, “What a time to be alive.” I think we live in an era where you can manifest your ideas in a much easier way than you could 30 years ago. Back then all the equipment was expensive, how do you get the thing you want? Now you come up with an idea for a podcast and you can record it on your phone and release it instantly. You can buy the bandwidth, build the website. Like a lot of comedians, I’m doing the projects I’m interested in and have time for. It’s fun to know some people only know me because of the Denzel podcast and some people are meeting me because of CNN publicity. I have multiple interests, and I like to be able to scratch all those itches.
“United Shades of America” airs Sundays at 10pm.
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