Comedy And Journalism With Comedian W. Kamau Bell

W. Kamau Bell
W. Kamau Bell describes his CNN series, United Shades of America, as a travel show that will take him places he is afraid to go. (Courtesy of CNN)
W. Kamau Bell
W. Kamau Bell describes his CNN series, United Shades of America, as a travel show that will take him places he is afraid to go. (Courtesy of CNN)

Comedy And Journalism With Comedian W. Kamau Bell

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W. Kamau Bell is the host of two podcasts, the author of a new book with an exceptionally long title and is about to kick off a new season of his CNN show The United Shades of America.

The show’s second season includes discussions with immigrants and refugees, as well as an interview with white nationalist Richard Spencer.

“Sometimes it’s more challenging to listen than other times,” said Bell, a former resident of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood who graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in 1990. 

Bell spoke with Morning Shift host Jenn White about his current projects and the role comedy plays in the current political environment. Below are a few highlights from their conversation.

On how he felt interviewing a white nationalist

Jenn White: I watched that clip and I can see you listening to him, and I guess it’s a bit of a tell: There’s a tiny muscle in your jaw that’s twitching, like you’re clenching your teeth. Talk about what was going in your head.

W. Kamau Bell: (Laughs) People have pointed that out. People often tell me, “I can’t wait to see you punch him!” And I’m not going to do those things. It’s not that show. But I am there to listen. Sometimes it’s more challenging to listen than other times. My goal is to let these people lay out their arguments and let them tell their stories. My goal is not to interrupt you. My goal is just to let you tell your story in a way that you don’t normally get to tell it.

So Richard Spencer normally finds himself in debate situations. Whereas I (wanted) the situation (to be), “Let’s talk.” And so therefore the most interesting thing he said was that he was bothered by the idea of a black James Bond. And I was like, “That’s ridiculous.” So for me — all the other stuff I already disagree with, I already think it’s nonsense — but I was like, “You’re really hung up over that idea?” So for me it’s the difference between a conversation and a debate. But yes, sometimes it’s hard to listen to others and I have a very prominent jaw muscle. 

On not being a journalist

Bell: There’s not a precedent for this and I think because I’m on CNN, it automatically feels like it’s journalism. Which I’m kinda fine with. That’s OK as long as I still get to be me. A lot of times in journalism, the false-equivalency game gets created and I’m not going to do that. You’re going to know what I think the whole time. 

On people who look to comedians for news

Bell: It’s funny, I used to be the kind of person — when Jon Stewart said, “I’m not a journalist, I’m a comedian” — I’d be like, “Stop it Jon. You know you’re a journalist.” But having been on the inside of it — especially with Totally Biased, the show I had before United Shades — I did learn that in those meetings you’re talking about jokes. If you can’t get a joke to match the story or the point of view, then you don’t do it. John Oliver has really stretched that. He definitely gets into some sort of investigative comedy, but at the end of those long things there’s a joke, cause that’s ultimately what people have shown up for.

The jokes are what support the argument, so I think that as comics we know that if we forget the jokes, the argument is going to start to feel real thin.

On how he felt interviewing inmates at a federal prison

Bell: It’s good to remind myself as I have these conversations (that) I can’t act like, somehow, what so many black people in this country are suffering from, I escaped. It’s really seductive — and this happens when you do interviews sometimes — to get caught up in “I’m one of the good ones. I worked hard. My mom raised me correctly.” …

To get caught up into that narrative and to put that narrative out in the world, and then some of that narrative is used: “W. Jamoca Fudge is one of the good ones. He’s not like the rest.” And I’m just very aware that, talking to the inmates in San Quentin, if you strip away the prison, we’re just two brothers talking. I like you, and I feel like we would be friends. And yes, I know you did something … but you seem self-actualized, intelligent, you have a college degree, I don’t have a college degree — we could use you on the outside. 

So as I sit there talking to them, it’s like, “I’m not better than them.” Many of them I feel like are better than me, because I don’t know that I could go to prison and end up turning my life around the way a lot of those guys did. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button above to hear the entire segment.