Comedian and CNN host W. Kamau Bell poses as he arrives for the Just for Laughs awards show at the annual comedy festival in Montreal, Friday, July 28.
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Imagine being an African-American sitting and watching a cross burn with the Klu Klux Klan. Or sitting alone at a table with white supremacist Richard Spencer as he converses about white privilege and why it wouldn’t make sense to have a black actor play the new James Bond.
Sociopolitical comedian W. Kamau Bell actually places himself in these situations on purpose — but with a television crew on hand.
“I didn't just randomly show up to a cross burning and go, ‘Hey, guys, can we talk about this?’” the 44-year-old recently told The Blade in advance of his Thursday appearance as part of the Authors! Authors! speaker series sponsored by the Toledo Lucas County Public Library and presented by The Blade.
Who: Sociopolitical comedian and author W. Kamau Bell
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd.
Tickets: $15 at authors.toledolibrary.org
On his Emmy Award-winning hit CNN docu-series United Shades of America, Mr. Bell travels the country to “talk with people that I wouldn’t normally talk to” in the attempt to learn about extreme groups and communities and to ultimately discover what connects and divides the United States.
Throughout the series the host is seen hanging out with Chicago gang members talking about the lack of funding in the city’s public school system and sitting with inmates at the country’s largest death row prison, San Quentin in California, listening to them speak about learning career skills to prepare them for life after their release.
There are other episodes where Mr. Bell talks about statistics involving firearms, and he spends time with Muslims living in the Detroit metro area who are striving for the “American Dream.”
“I’m always aware that when I’m sitting with these people it's not just me necessarily arguing my point all the time,” he said. “It's actually just creating a circumstance in which they can talk, and if they will talk respectfully, then my job is to just sort of shut up and let them talk.”
Mr. Bell, who was born in California, grew up in Chicago wanting to be a comedian. He remembers watching his favorite comedians on television like Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live or Jerry Seinfeld as a guest on the Tonight Show. Comedy was a subject often spoken about in his home, as his mother always talked about comedians with her friends.
“I just wanted to be funny,” he said. “I slowly got pulled into this because it was just the stuff I felt the most passionate about. I’ve always described it as the family business. Some families have hardware stores; my family has deconstructing racism.”
His comedic mentality eventually led to his being the host of three podcasts: Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, Politically Re-Active, and Kamau Right Now! He’s also released his first 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. He also hosted the short-lived comedy series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell produced by Chris Rock, who initially encouraged Mr. Bell to talk and listen to people, something he has to remind himself every now and then while filming episodes for United Shades of America. The show’s third season launches in 2018.
“Apparently I have a skill that a lot of people don’t have. I didn't know that listening was a super power, but apparently it is,” he said with a laugh. “There are days where we're about to go and do a shoot, and I’m like, ‘Oh God, I don’t think I can talk to this person. I really don’t want to do this.’ I remind myself, ‘Oh, that’s why it’s worth doing’ because if I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be so easy,’ then that’s probably not worth bringing the whole camera crew.
“The easy conversations aren’t worth filming, so if I have a little thing in the pit of my stomach that’s like, ‘Oh no,’ then that means we should go and do this.”
He prides himself on the fact that the premise of United Shades is to immerse himself in awkward situations. He’s been known to say that not only to The Blade, but to television hosts like Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert. The New York Times even called Mr. Bell “the most promising new talent in political comedy in many years.”
How does he keep his cool while listening to extremists speak in person?
“I’m there as a representative of people who want to listen,” Mr. Bell said. “If you want to listen then watch my show. If you want to hear other stories and find out things you didn’t know or want to hear ... then watch the show. I’m not there to debate people all the time. My job is to get them to talk and make them feel comfortable.
“We get a lot of interviews on United Shades from people you wouldn't expect us to get interviews with because they go, ‘Even though I don’t agree with that guy, he’s going to let me talk.’ ”
Mr. Bell said that establishing a connection with those he wouldn’t normally speak with is something people can do in their own neighborhood, even without a camera crew and a platform such as his.
“You can do that in your own office; you can do that at your school,” he said. “We're all surrounded by people all the time that we don’t talk to or we steer clear of because, ‘I don’t agree with that guy so I’m not even going to try and talk to him.’ You can have your own United Shades in your lunch room at school or a coffee shop. You can figure out ways to connect with people that you wouldn't normally connect with. You don’t have to bring a film crew with you.”
There seems to be common “wants” within groups of people he encounters regardless of their location.
Whether he’s on the south side of Chicago talking about gang violence or in Appalachia learning about coal, people want better jobs, schools, and strong communities, he said.
“We all want the same thing,” Mr. Bell said. “The problem is we live in an era that is the most distracted era in the history of mankind, and the guy who is the president of the country is the head distractor. We get easily distracted by talking about [politics] instead of, like, ‘OK, how do we all get better schools for our kids? How do we all get better health care?’ People want the same things. It's just we're easily distracted.”
Yet, Mr. Bell admitted he’s also distracted in the digital era.
“I’m no different than anyone else,” he said. “I woke up this morning refreshing my phone to find out who's arrested, but ultimately that’s not going to help kids in my community get better public schools. That’s not going to bring manufacturing back to America or set up a different educational sector that actually trains people to do the jobs currently available.
“As much as I get excited about [politics], I have to remind myself what else am I doing today to actually make a difference or to actually help my community or help this country. I’m a comedian; I still want to be funny ... I want everybody to laugh. How do I make these two things [work] together?”
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