After W. Kamau Bell’s first stand-up special on Comedy Central, the comedian said he made changes to his routine when a friend pointed out the sexism in his act.
“At the time, I tried to claim stand-up comedy is a different space,” Bell said on WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast.
But Bell, who was hosting a show at that time called “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About An Hour,” said his friend told him he can’t end racism by making sexism worse. “And it was one of those things like a grenade, where someone tosses you a grenade and you’re like ‘Hey, what’s this?’ and then BOOM.”
Bell is now the host of CNN’s United Shades of America. He’s also the author of a new book, The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell.
Nerdette host Tricia Bobeda talked with Bell about why awkwardness and comedy go hand in hand, what it’s like to be a blerd (a black nerd) and why the TV show Shark Tank is so quintessentially American. Nerdette also talked to Hanna Rosin, a co-host on the NPR podcast Invisibilia.
Tricia Bobeda: The complete title of your book is 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. Why did you want to throw all that out there as a list? Are you poking fun at the idea that we label ourselves so much? Or are you just trying to put out there all the things that are important to you about who you are?
W. Kamau Bell: We normally have to narrowly label ourselves. We normally have to say, “Give me your three words.” And for me, over my life, it’s been about adding more labels. I think I get “black” and ”male” as soon as I come out of the womb. Like, that’s what you are. Then, as you get older, I think you just naturally – if you’re evolving and meeting new people having new conversations – you add more labels.
And then it became fun, about how many labels I do have, that I feel like I could totally claim. There’s things that I didn’t put in there, where I thought, “I don’t think I can totally claim that or want to claim that,” even though I think that’s a part of who I am…
Feminist is not in there. I’ve been told I’m a feminist, and I’m happy to be that. But I also feel like, as a man, labeling yourself as a feminist is kind of like giving yourself a black belt in karate. I don’t think it’s my job to give myself the label of feminist.
Bobeda: Speaking of feminism, you have a chapter of the book called “My Awkward Sexism” where you talk about coming to terms with some of the stuff you used to say or had in your stand-up act. Talk a little about that realization that you felt like some of the jokes you were making weren’t great for all audiences.
Bell: It’s funny you bring that up, because that really wasn’t my realization. That was my friend sort of taking my head and going, “Realize this!” Shaking me ...
I sent my friend Martha a clip of me on Comedy Central. It was the first time I was ever on TV and I was sending it to my new friend to impress her. And I didn't hear back from her about it, so when I was at her house I was like, “Did you see the clip? It was good, right?”
And then she pointed out the sexism. And at the time, I tried to claim, “Well, stand-up comedy is a different space. You don’t understand, you’re from Maine. In the big city here, we use words we shouldn’t use and we say thing we shouldn't say because that's sort of edgy and it makes it funnier.”
And she was like, “Well, if you have this goal of ending racism” – which at the time I was doing a show about ending racism – “you can’t make sexism worse.”
It was one of those things like a grenade, where someone tosses you a grenade and you’re like “Hey, what’s this?” and then BOOM. And it sort of blew up in my head over the course of that talk. We kept going back to this to the point where I was like, “Who am I doing this for?” I want to be a stand up comedian or I want to be funny because I like being funny. But, ultimately, it was to make the people in my life laugh – my mom, or my best friend Jason, or now my friend Martha – if I’m not funny to them, I’m not doing the thing I want to do.
Bobeda: Are there distinctive characteristics for a “blerd” compared to. a “nerd”? What makes something more blerd than nerd?
Bell: “Blerd” is short for “black nerd,” and I didn’t invent that word. Somebody called me that and I was like, “What are you callin’ me? Oh...yeah, I’ll own that.”
To me, there’s something about black nerdism that is more wide ranging than nerdism. Nerdism is related to pop culture, or a really specific kind of pop culture, like superhero movies and comic books.
But blerd is like, “I’m the black guy who listens to Van Halen.” You know what I mean? There’s just something about it that is crossing boundaries that you’re not supposed to cross, in a different way than just liking superhero movies.
It feels more inclusive of the kind of blackness that I associate with myself with when I grew up, that I felt like I couldn't talk about. Like, if someone asked me what I did this weekend, I’d say “Oh, I went with my two Jewish friends to go see Tom Petty,” which is what I did in high school, and I felt weird talking about it.
But if I’d had the term “blerd,” I could have been like. “Well, I’m a blerd, I did a blerd thing. I went with two white guys to see Tom Petty.”
So, for me, it’s about the boundary crossing toplaces we’re supposed to go into or not expected to go into.
Bobeda: We hear that you’re a fan of the show Black-ish. Why do you love it?
Bell: I was slow to adopt Black-ish. I really didn’t like the title at first, and I was not alone in that camp. There’s something about “black-ish” — I felt like it was everything I had run away from. I’m black, not black-ish. Don’t tell me because of how I dress or how I talk or what music I listen to I’m black-ish.
It wasn’t until I heard from people that they did an episode that referenced Denzel Washington a bunch of times that I was like “Okay, Black-ish, you win. I’m gonna sit down and watch an episode because you’re talking about Denzel Washington who, according to my podcast, is the greatest actor of all time, period.”
I was blown away by the specificity of it, and by how they were being both specific and broad at the same time. There’s really broad comedy in Black-ish, like somebody falling. But it also specifically addresses the black experience.
Because of the way they built the show, every character in the house is living a very authentic black experience that we forget all can be in the same house. We don’’t connect angry old grandmother and blerd who wears capes everywhere as being in the same house. But of course they’re in the same house. And so, if I had this show when I was a teeenager, I would’ve moved along quicker in my life. I wouldn’t have felt so embarrassed about who I was or felt so weird about the thoughts I had.
I’m so happy that this show exists. I hope it’s around long enough that my daughters can catch wind of it. I have a six year-old, so she’s not going to be watching it any time soon, but to me it feels like she’s gonna think it’s normal, whereas for me, it’s totally revelatory.
Bobeda: You’re also obsessed with Shark Tank. Is there a Shark Tank invention you would bring to the show?
Bell: I think an attachment to baby strollers for tall people. You just clip it on.
I would pitch it to Mark Cuban because he owns the Dallas Mavericks, which means he’s around a lot of tall people. We could get Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks’ power forward, to be our pitch man. I would get Dirk Nowitzki to come in with me — you know, that thing where they bring in a celebrity and say, “Oh, Dirk Nowitzki's here!”
He’d be like “Hi, Mark.”
“Hey, Dirk, what’re you doing here?”
And I’d be like: "Dirk, isn’t it annoying when you’re pushing your baby stroller and because you’re so tall? It hurts your back, and you can’t play in the game!”
I’m working on it. I just haven’t gone into my backyard to make it yet.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Click the 'play' button above to listen to the entire segment.'
Bobeda quizzed Bell on just how deep his Shark Tank knowledge goes. Think you can beat Kamau’s score? Play the quiz to find out.