In honor of the premiere of United Shades of America, we’re re-posting this interview with W. Kamau Bell from The Establishment’s own debut in October. You can catch Kamau “as he explores the far corners of our country and its various groups and subcultures” on CNN tonight at 10 p.m. EST.
Known for his biting social commentary and criminally short-lived TV show Totally Biased, W. Kamau Bell is a comedian based in the Bay Area. Soon to host United Shades of America on CNN, he also co-hosts the “Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period” podcast with fellow comic Kevin Avery.
I sat down with Kamau to talk about his life back on the West Coast and in the stand-up scene, and his hopes for the future of comedy.
Kamau Bell On Twitter
Kamau: I’m not on Twitter much. I’m like, “I don’t have the time to tweet this” — which is a crazy thing to say because it’s 140 characters. But it’s like, I don’t have the time to think of all the possible ramifications of this tweet. You can spend a half hour sitting there trying to figure it out. Then you tweet it, and nobody retweets it, and you’re saying, “Why did I spend all this time?”
And then you tweet, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe vanilla ice cream is tasty?” and it’s “AAHH WHAT ARE YOU SAYING ABOUT VANILLA?”
On Being A Black Comedian In A White, Male Environment
Kamau: Because I live outside of LA and NY, I’m not in that comedy backroom conversation — I’ve been in it, when I came up. But now the only time I feel like I’m in that “oh this is comics being . . . comics” environment is when I’m going to comedy festivals.
For example, I just did the Bentzen Ball in DC, it’s a great festival — those people know what they’re doing. The first night I was there I was not performing and I just went to a show — Tig [Notaro] was hosting, Janeane Garofalo was there, Bill Burr was there, lots of great comedians. So I just started hanging around the thing and I had this weird sense of loneliness.
Sometimes I’m like, “It’s weird that we all have ‘comedian’ on our W2 forms,” because I do feel different from other comedians. In a way I imagine Ani DiFranco and Iggy Azalea; they both say “musician” on their forms but nobody really lumps them together the way we lump comedians together. You don’t go to a show and say, “First I’m gonna see Ani DiFranco and then Iggy Azalea.” I mean, that would be quite a show. And that doesn’t mean either one of them [is better] — you can like who you like. But with comedy, there’s that sense that we can all be together.
The next night I was on the Blaria show, hosted by Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams — they were on stage for five minutes and I was like, “THIS IS THE BEST SHOW I’VE EVER SEEN.” It was speaking to me in a way that comedy doesn’t speak to me that often. It doesn’t mean that what happened the night before was bad, it just means that I was sort of missing that sense of connection, that “we’re all in this and we’re coming at this from the same angle,” in a way that white male comedians feel quite often. They think that’s just comedy. Then when they go “Blah blah blah blah racist, offensive, sexist statement” and somebody goes, “ahem” they go “Well that’s what comedy is!” and I’m like, “No, that’s what your comedy is. I’m not trying to take away your comedy, but let’s just know that your comedy is in a box. It’s not all comedy. It just happens to be a big box, because America. Hashtag white people.”
On The Inherent Adolescence Of Comedy
Kamau: Part of the reason why you become a comedian is because you are living in a bit of arrested development. My daughter right now is four, and if you just take any of her books and swap out all of the real words with “pee pee” and “poo poo,” she’ll be on the floor. I recognize that, and I do it for her, even though my wife’s like, “ugh god,” because it makes me laugh to see her laugh like that. That’s in me, to have that sophomoric humor — that’s what got me into comedy, saying the things that are not supposed to be said.
This is a long way of saying, I’m always gonna laugh at pee and poo jokes. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna tell them. But I might one day tell one good one.
On Bad Comedy In The Age Of Social Media
Kamau: I don’t think we should get rid of bad comedy. I don’t want to ever be put in a position where I’m afraid of making a bad joke, and that can happen sometimes in the 21st century. You don’t want to reveal something about yourself personally that might actually be problematic. Trust that I’m trying to reveal something about myself. And that doesn’t excuse it. You can be offended by what you are offended by. I don’t want to take that away from anyone. Just don’t take away my right to be a bad comedian.
On The Need For Forgiveness For Problematic Comedians
Kamau: I look at my act from like five years ago and 10 years ago and there are things that are on record that I’ve said and done that I wish I could scrub but I can’t. Having said that, part of that was growth. I wasn’t a 42-year-old dude with two kids.
I think that a lot of what happens in stand-up comedy is that the biggest part of the population is dudes in their late twenties without kids or family obligations. So you can step on stage and say all the crazy shit you want because at the end of the day you’re just going to the diner and the bar, and then home to your Xbox. Nobody’s going to look you in the face and say, “You realize now that you said that we can’t pay the mortgage?”
That responsibility doesn’t make you a lesser comedian. The more context you build around comedy, the better it is. Louis CK admitted he got funnier when he had kids. When people see him before that, he was more absurdist.
Ijeoma: I think it’s interesting, because a lot of comedians get backlash for things they’ve said in the past, like if you look at when Trevor Noah was announced for the Daily Show . . .
Kamau: Yeah! And he’s like the best version of a dude who’s in his late twenties. He was a famous dude, but he was also 25, traveling around the world, on his phone, trying to get some.
Ijeoma: Sliding into people’s DMs.
Kamau: <laughs> Yeah, I’m sure, I’m sure there are some people who can tell some stories. But he wasn’t building himself toward the Daily Show. He was building a career and it ended up being the Daily Show. When that happened with Trevor Noah, I was like, “You know, let’s not all pretend that in 2009 we knew that everyone was going to go through all our tweets.” That doesn’t mean you can’t be offended. If you are offended, please be offended and say something about it. But there’s also a context there.
Ijeoma: It seemed like there was a war. There were people who were like, “Trevor Noah is transphobic. Trevor Noah hates women.” Then there were others saying to them, “You are what’s wrong with comedy. You are destroying comedy. Why do you hate freedom?”
Kamau: <laughs> There’s a space in there! There’s a space where we can talk about these things without putting up middle fingers.
Ijeoma: I would love to see more celebrities say like, “Yeah, I said that thing. And it was really fucked up. And I’ve learned, and I don’t say that anymore.” We all have to be able to take responsibility and move forward.
Kamau: Especially if we’re going to keep living on social media. If we’re going to keep doing that, we’re going to have to develop some sort of tiered forgiveness system. Or else we’re going to lose everybody. If you go through everybody’s tweets — especially people like us who went on Twitter when it was like a demilitarized zone! There’s no rules! And suddenly I have a social media profile and these things that tell me what my social media rating is.
With Trevor Noah, I was like, this is just a young person who’s trying to figure this out. And he’ll either figure it out or he won’t. If he reveals himself to continually be transphobic or continually be misogynistic on the show, well, he won’t have a job very long. I do think however, Comedy Central probably should have gone through his tweets before they hired him. But I don’t think that anybody understood at that point that Jon Stewart was the liberal pope, and everybody wanted to have a say in who the successor to the pope was.
If we’re going live in front of each other like this, nobody’s life is clean enough to survive a thorough comb-through. At what point do you have to throw the artist away, or at what point do you have to feel ashamed for liking the artist? Or do you just keep your mouth shut when that person’s name comes up?
Ijeoma: So how do you reconcile that? How do you reconcile that, say, a black woman in the room deserves to feel as safe as a white dude in the room. How do we balance that?
Kamau: I’d say she needs to feel safer. The outsider should feel more welcome than the insider.
Ijeoma: How do we balance that in a role where you’re pushing boundaries?
Kamau: I think these are questions my kids are going to have a better answer for. I feel like we’re in the middle of a sea-change. Maybe we all pull the plug on social media. It’s clear that it’s not actually working the way that it feels like it’s working. Maybe we go, “You know, we’re not mature enough for this yet.”