It’s not like W. Kamau Bell aspired to be at the forefront of political comedy and social commentary when he was growing up. He just really liked comedy as a kid. He watched “Saturday Night Live” religiously at a very young age and one day hoped to make it on that stage. In fact, political comedy wasn’t really in his “wheelhouse” at first. And yet, because of his Chicago upbringing, it just sort of happened that way.
“I come from a household where, while I wouldn’t say we were ‘political,’ we always talked about race and racism, and issues like it, and where every month was Black History month,” said Bell, with a slight chuckle. “And when I started doing comedy, I talked about a lot of stuff. As a comic, when you’re first starting out, you want to talk about anything that’s funny, but then it just sort of kicked in where I was talking about race and racism, and I felt like I couldn’t really talk about it in comedy clubs like I wanted to.
“So I started developing my own one-person show, ‘The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About an Hour,’ and that led to ‘Totally Bias’ with Chris Rock, and then that show got cancelled.”
While 2012’s “Totally Bias” quickly became a hit in certain circles and is missed by many fans, Bell adapted an even bigger idea into a new show on CNN called “United Shades of America.” It’s a show that’s sure to push the envelope, and of course, some buttons as well.
“[‘United Shades of America’] is a show about a black guy going to places he’s never been before, places where you wouldn’t expect a black guy to go, or places that a black guy absolutely shouldn’t go at all,” said the Bay-area comic. Bell was always a big fan of those “big personality travel shows” like Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservation,” “Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe” and Morgan Spurlock’s film and television endeavors.
“But when I met with CNN, someone had already pitched them the idea for a show called ‘Black Man, White America,’ where a black comedian travels around the country and talks to white people. I don’t want to just talk to white people,” he said with a hearty, bellowing laugh. “I’ve already covered that!”
Instead, Bell played spade with prisoners, rode along with police officers, sipped coffee with hipsters and, in the bold pilot, met members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I want to talk to a lot of other people I’ve never talked to before, and luckily, the production company, Objective Media, was okay with it, and we renamed it ‘United Shades of America,’ and we made the pilot with the Klan, and now the rest is history,” said Bell, referencing the controversy that circled the episode. Following the filming of the pilot, Bell was flooded with emails from members of the Klan for various reasons, ranging from them being afraid that their faces would be shown on TV to one member even showing his excitement for the airing of the episode, as it had led to many more press opportunities for him.
While Bell has been busy with his television endeavors, he still finds the time to do the “normal” things comedians do, like touring and taping specials. The UCLS graduate released his newest special, “Semi-Prominent Negro,” on Showtime in April, an hour-long live film directed by Morgan Spurlock—yes, the “Super-Size Me” guy—a friend of Bell’s. Bell didn’t feel pressured about working with one of the most prominent documentarists of our time. But he did want to make something enjoyable, especially for himself.
Bell actually sought Spurlock for the opportunity. “I thought ‘if he can direct One Direction,’ he can probably handle me,’ and I reached out to him, and he wrote me right back and was totally up to doing it,” said Bell. “The pressure was really on me wanting to do it right, make something I liked and to make something that Morgan would be proud of and want to put on a resume,” he said with a laugh.
“He’s one of the greatest of all time in what he does, and I feel good that it’s gotten good reviews, because I would feel bad if it turned out to be something that Morgan didn’t want to talk about at meetings.”
Like many of the great black comics before him—Dick Gregory, Eddie Murphy, Bernie Mac and, arguably the greatest comedian of all-time, Richard Pryor, to name a few—Bell understands what he’s up against following in such legendary footsteps.
“America is already critical of black people in general, so I have that going for me my whole life,” said Bell. “Then to become a comedian, it brings it to a whole new level of difficulty to succeed. There are comedians who are way better than me that haven’t found the mainstream success they deserve, so I wouldn’t feel right saying that my road has been harder than theirs,” he continued. “But when you talk about oppression and racism and sexism, and all kinds of other isms, it sort of turns you into a niche product.”
On an episode of “United Shades of America,” Bell took a trip to San Quentin State Prison, and what stuck with him the most throughout and after his visit wasn’t some filtered view of the inmates as terrible, disgusting people, but rather almost the exact opposite.
“To spend time inside the walls of a prison, and to talk to so many people who seem like great, interesting, self-actualizing, respectful and self-reflective people all in one place, many of whom have no chance of getting out and who are in jail for nonviolent crimes or for crimes that were really violent but happened over 20 years ago, giving them time to really work on themselves, it blew me away,” said Bell. “Our prison system is set up in some way, because it’s a for-profit system, that we essentially have to throw people away,” he continued. “Black people are 12 percent of America’s population, but 40 percent of America’s prison population, and that alone blows my mind.”
When it comes to the justice system outside the walls of San Quentin, namely the George Zimmerman murder trial and Zimmerman’s subsequent “stardom,” Bell tells it like it is. He sees a shift in the way people like Zimmerman, who recently sold the gun he used to shoot and kill Trayvon Martin for almost $140,000, are handled in the limelight.
“First off, if you’re putting stock into thinking that Zimmerman would do anything that would be considered humane, you’ve put stock in the wrong place,” said Bell. “It’s not a surprise that he’s brought it to a whole new level of ‘a—holery,’ and you almost wind up feeling bad for him because he just can’t figure it out,” he continued. “Think about every other person who killed an unarmed black youth, you never see them again after the trial, they just disappear, but even those people, like the officer who killed Michael Brown, did a few press interviews and then he was gone. But Zimmerman… is trying to create a brand new career.”
Ultimately, Bell sees comedians and artists as catalysts for a better future, and in a way, the most important piece of the puzzle to bring about social change.
“Comedy is on a mission to initiate awkward conversation. Art will be the initiator of big change. It can’t be the big change, because that has to be us. But if, for example, you didn’t have the cultural movements of the 1960s we wouldn’t have had the 1960s. You need Dylan, you need Hendrix, you need Joan Baez, you need all the people who are looking to a better future, so that we too can look to a better future. But… you also need elected officials to follow the will of the people to make the world a better and safer place.”
Catch “United Shades of America” on CNN, Sundays @ 10 p.m. ET. “Semi-Prominent Negro” is also available to stream on Showtime and on Amazon Video.