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W. Kamau Bell's 'Awkward Thoughts' On Racism And Black Comedy

W. Kamau Bell performs at Vulture Festival Comedy Night in New York City in 2014.
Stephen Lovekin
Getty Images for New York Magazine
W. Kamau Bell performs at Vulture Festival Comedy Night in New York City in 2014.

Comic W. Kamau Bell has spent much of his life feeling awkward. A self-described "tall, rangy black dude," Bell was often mistaken for a basketball player growing up — except that serious asthma and allergies meant he spent the bulk of his childhood indoors watching TV.

He says, "There was this weird sense of guilt about the fact that I wasn't using the physical shell that God had given me, and that I wasn't taking advantage of my physical gifts."

As an adult, he gravitated towards comedy, but he felt conflicted about the fact that he often didn't fit in in black comedy clubs. "When white audiences didn't think I was funny, I was like, Well they didn't think I was funny; but when black audiences didn't think I was funny, it hurt my soul," Bell says.

On his CNN series United Shades of America, now in its second season, Bell celebrates his status as an outsider. It's a travel show in which the comic visits places that make him feel uncomfortable, such as a Ku Klux Klan gathering. Bell's new memoir is The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell.

Interview Highlights

On how audiences reacted to him interviewing white nationalist Richard Spencer on United Shades of America

The No. 1 pushback that I've gotten on social media is, like, "Why are you giving him a platform?" And it was very similar to the pushback I got last year from people with the Klan episode. ...

For me, it's like, platforms aren't always positive things. ... I'm afraid of the impact of his ideas, but I think if you put my ideas next to his ideas, which is what we do on the show, ... it's very clear that the America he's envisioning is not the America most of America wants. I think many people still in the wake of Trump's election aren't really ready to embrace the fact that the seed of the base of President Trump is white supremacy. ...

We have a false notion that people get changed in one conversation. I always blame it on that movie American History X, where Ed Norton's character hangs out with the black guy in the laundry and over the course of a few clothes-folding sessions they end up going, "Man, black people are pretty cool!" I feel like we should know by now that it doesn't happen that quickly.

On how racism in the South compares to racism in the North

I don't know where the phrase comes from — it's just one of those things you hear and it feels like a truism to me: That in the North they don't care how high you get as long as you don't get too close; in the South they don't care about how close you get as long as you don't get too high. The idea being that [in the North] you ... could be a black doctor; but in the South they don't want you to be a doctor, but you can live across the street.

I really do feel like there is a way in which there's a sense of honesty in the South — whether they like you or they don't like you — that is very clear, that I somehow appreciate, that in the North sometimes — and this is true of the West Coast too — you're like, "I don't know if you like me or not. You're being polite, but it doesn't feel that nice."

So I do feel like the one thing I've learned is that the South — because of its history of racism, the history of slavery coming from the South — it's a much better place than most Americans want to give it credit for.

On performing in front of mostly white audiences when he was starting out

I started doing comedy on the North Side of Chicago, which is the whiter side of town. ... In America we don't say "white," we just sort of say regular. So they're white rooms, but they're not broadcast as that. It's just a coffee shop where mostly white people are at, or a bar where mostly white people hang out.

So I find myself in these situations where I go onstage in these white open mics and talk about racism. First of all, I wasn't funny, let's be clear about that. ... So the audience is sort of like, Do I believe his experience? Is this true what he's saying? Is he making this up? So I'm having to fight for the premise, and not fight for the punchline. You have to fight for like, "Can we all agree that these are the facts of the situation?" And that's what a premise of a joke is: You have to get the audience to buy into the facts as you're laying them out. Even if the facts are ridiculous, you have to get them to buy in. But if they don't buy into the premise, the punchline doesn't matter.

On struggling in black comedy rooms

I started stand-up in 1994, so we're talking about the height of Def [Comedy Jam]. ... So black comedy, which had been an underground phenomenon, becomes mainstream on HBO. ... Before that, you've got Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, who were very different, [who] are both considered to be black comedians, but now there's a thing called "black comedy."

So a lot of black comedy rooms open up — rooms that are catering to black audiences, which is great because those audiences didn't have those rooms before. ...

I didn't spend a lot of time in the black comedy clubs, because even walking in there it felt like public school but grown up. It's like, these are the same kids when I was a kid where I felt like I was being made fun of because I wasn't listening to the right music or I wasn't being a black man in the right way. And now they're all adults and they're drinking and they want the show they've seen on HBO. They want the Def Jam show. ...

Anytime I would find myself going onstage in these places it was very clear to me and the audience that you're not doing this the way we want it. ... So I got my feelings hurt quite often. ... Worse than bombing in a comedy club, Terry, people don't realize, is actually just doing mediocre. There's something beautiful about bombing. Mediocre is horrible.

Radio producers Ann Marie Baldonado and Therese Madden and Web producers Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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