With a weekly dose of new Netflix specials coming to the platform, each comedian is looking for ways to stand out. Sometimes it’s a new venue, other times it’s an unconventional structure. One solution for W. Kamau Bell was to make sure whoever is watching has just as much opportunity to see the people he’s talking to.
“Some comics don’t ever want to see the audience in shots. I always want to see the audience and I like to see people’s reaction to different jokes,” Bell told IndieWire. “I like people to see who’s in my audience, so you can see, ‘Oh, some of everybody’s there!'”
A conversational style works well for a lot of comedians, but Bell’s perfectly suited for doing a special in the round, as he does in “Private School Negro,” his fourth special and first for the streaming platform. A stage surrounded by an audience has been an occasional part of standup comedy stretching back at least four decades to “George Carlin: Again!” Bell took producer Michelle Caputo and director Shannon Hartman’s idea and ran with it, despite not having performed that way much before.
“I think it’s important for me especially to make my comedy special tapings feel more like a performance and less like, ‘This is the show.'” Bell said. “For me, I’ve never done that before, but it takes it out of being a night at work or being such an important night and turns into ‘Let’s see how this works.'”
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If a career in stand-up hadn’t fully prepared Bell for adapting to unfamiliar situations, hosting the CNN show “United Shades of America” gave him a crash course. The series has given Bell the opportunity to bring attention to overlooked areas and communities across the country.
“I’ve always engaged with the audience, but it’s just on a different level now. I’m just used to talking to strangers now in a different way than before,” Bell said. “So much of ‘United Shades’ is me receiving information and then processing it months later during an edit. Also, just being present for people. Whereas in stand up, as an only child, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I just get to yammer for an hour!’ There’s sort of an adolescent excitement about it. Whatever ideas that I come up with in my head, these people are going to listen to. And I like that because one helps the other.”
As much as it’s only Bell talking for much of the hour that “Private School Negro” runs, he explains that the principles of standup and interviewing subjects for a documentary series have a helpful amount of overlap.
“For me on stage, there’s just as much listening in doing standup as there is in talking to somebody for ‘United Shades.’ It’s the same level of skills,” Bell said. “There are these moments in the special where I’ll focus on one person or you’ll see me high five somebody. It’s because I noticed their reaction was different from the reaction of those around them.”
That attention to the audience is something Bell mirrors in looking at current events. Like many comics who are also politically engaged, crafting an evening of comedy that responds to the current moment and also strives to make something that will have longevity is the constant balancing act.
“Sometimes it’s making sure that this joke isn’t about this day, it’s about the times we live in. Maybe this joke started out feeling topical, but really, it’s an opening into a bigger point about the times we live in,” Bell said. There are jokes in [“Private School Negro”] that I thought were relevant to the date the first day I told them. There’s a joke about Sean Spicer that I thought ‘OK, well after he’s not the press secretary, no one will be able to tell this joke.’ But it just wouldn’t die. That joke kept living on.”
For as much as some of those common themes haven’t really gone away, Bell provides a compelling argument for why it’s so hard to make comedy that endures.
“At the end of the day as a standup comedian, all of it dies on the vine. All standup comedy eventually dies. Even stuff that’s not topical eventually doesn’t work anymore,” Bell said. “The only joke from a long time ago that I think still works is ‘Who’s on First?’ Other than that, the rest of them, you put them on and you’re like, ‘Ah, I get why this is funny.’ And sometimes it’s like, ‘I don’t even get why this is funny.'”
Trying to see the world in a different way, to counteract how much changing circumstances can affect the present, has become a cornerstone of Bell’s work. From across his work as a podcast host to his standup to “United Shades of America,” each of those pursuits takes on new context with extreme changes. One way that’s most evident is in an episode of the CNN show that he keeps coming back to.
“The episode that I think about the most — and there’s any number of episodes I could talk about — I don’t even know that our Puerto Rico episode was particularly great, but what I do know is that we were there before the hurricane, so that episode means something different now,” Bell said. “I think there’s a lot of great stuff in that episode, but I’m also the harshest critic of all the work I do. I’m sure there are places in that episode that we went to, like Loíza, that don’t look the same and maybe will never look the same again. But the fact that we were lucky enough and privileged enough to get there before the hurricane means it becomes one of the things people can look at about what Puerto Rico was like before the hurricane hit.”
For the time being, it’s all about staying true to the foundations of what makes Bell a distinct voice. He kicks off “Private School Negro” with an overview of his recently expanding family. With the recent birth of his third daughter, Bell has yet another opportunity to see what’s happening in the world through a new set of eyes. Without using them as pawns whenever discussion turns to the bad behavior of men, Bell’s comedy is proof that entertainers and public figures can learn from their daughters in different ways.
“You want a really short bio for me? I’ll say ‘he’s a dad and a comedian,'” Bell said. “So I think I talk about it all the time. Uh, so and I’ve also learned that, you know, don’t use your daughters as a shield. I use my daughters as a place to learn and gather material. I’m not gonna use them as a shield to shield me from horrible things. No, it’s like, ‘I’m glad you’re here. Help!'”
For Bell, much like there’s that shared sense of skills in talking with strangers, regardless of where (and in front of whom) it happens, processing the world at large in this context brings together all these ideas.
“The more kids I’m having, it seems the more I’m freaking out about the fact that I got all these daughters and the world is crazy. For me, it’s a very natural connection,” Bell said. “In the special, there’s jokes about my family and jokes about some politics. And for me, that’s all brought together by jokes about my kids talking about politics. For me, these things are not separate. They’re all connected.”
“W. Kamau Bell: Private School Negro” is now available to stream on Netflix.