When comedian W. Kamau Bell’s Chris Rock-produced FX show, Totally Biased went off the air in November 2013, his fans were left to wonder about his next move. Would he find another outlet on television, or spend more time honing his stand-up on stage? Turns out Bell did both, for while he popped up as a guest panelist on numerous comedy and politically-themed programs in 2014 and 2015, the comic spent most of the time working on something else. Several somethings that audiences wouldn’t see until now.
The first is Bell’s new original show on CNN, United Shades of America. Like network colleague Anthony Bourdain, the comedian serves as the viewer’s connection to several stories that he and his producers focus on for each episode. Things like the Klu Klux Klan’s presence in the American South, for which he talked on camera to several Klansmen and witnessed a cross burning. The second is Bell’s first solo stand-up special on Showtime, Semi-Prominent Negro, which was recorded in Brooklyn and directed by Morgan Spurlock.
Ahead of the special’s premiere on Friday, April 29 at 10 p.m. ET, and United Shades‘ second episode on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, Bell chatted with Uproxx about what it was like to shoot the sh*t with a bunch of white supremacists. He’s even traded emails with some of them.
Has there been any followup from the Klan since the first episode aired?
I sort off turned off a lot of that stuff. It got pretty overwhelming because I live-tweeted the first episode the night it aired, so I’ve been on Twitter a lot but that’s it. Emails have come in, but they’ve come in at such a rate that I’m afraid to sort through them because I have to focus on the next episode. I did get another email from one guy who was worried his kid might see it, and he’s since sent me a long series of emails with all of his thoughts. None of it has been threatening to me in any way. It’s just his thoughts about this whole situation, being in the Klan and what it means to him. Maybe it made him look at himself, so mission accomplished.
The image of you standing before and watching a cross burning is very powerful. However, I was struck by the exchange you had with Billy Roper on the playground, when you asked him if your daughter could play on the equipment were she there. That was devastating.
It’s interesting you bring that up, because we’d already done the whole interview with him before we shot that. The producer said we had everything we needed, but I wanted to ask him one more question. The whole time we were standing there I was thinking about that playground. Once I asked Roper that question, the producer said, “Oh that was great. Good thing you asked that.” To me, you can talk about all this stuff about race in an abstract, you people/my people, Africa/America, white country way, but when you make it personal that’s when it becomes meaningful. I think he revealed himself to be a very twisted person in that moment in a way he probably didn’t think he was revealing himself to be. I just let him do that, then we went off to film other stuff.
I think it makes the episode.
We were looking for those moments. I’m a comedian and we’re hosting a show that’s ostensibly going to be a comedy show. For me there will be moments of humor in here, but it’s not a comedy show. That’s one of the great things about being at CNN. This coming week we have San Quentin, and I’m not really funny in a lot of it, but me and the men are laughing a lot. I think that lets the audience see them in a different light. It’s a more impactful episode, but I’m always bracing for people to go, “Why isn’t this funnier?” Well, that’s just how I do it. [Laughs.] Which is why I’m glad my comedy special comes out at around the same time so I can say, “Look I can be funny too!”
I’ve seen comparisons to your old FX show, Totally Biased, but United Shades spends more time and energy on specific subjects. It doesn’t seem like you’re trying to be newsy or viral.
It’s more about being relevant that being topical. We shot the Klan episode in August of 2014. A lot of people have asked me how many Donald Trump or “Make America Great Again!” signs I saw at the Klan rallies. He wasn’t a thing at that point. He was just a billionaire with a reality show. I feel like if we went and shot it now, we would be talking about Trump, but it still felt relevant because he made the Klan relevant by not wanting to alienate them.
“I don’t know anything about David Duke.”
That’s right. So for me, it’s the same with the show as it is with my career. You’re really a political comic when you’re focused on the individual, day-to-day issues. That stuff can grow stale really quickly. It can be powerful in the moment, but it doesn’t last as long. If you’re talking about cultural movement — pop culture, big cultural movements, social movements and -isms — that stuff can last longer. My favorite comic of all time is Bill Hicks. A lot of his stuff is about the first Iraq War, but ultimately it’s about the government, who controls us and philosophy. That stuff stays.
The pilot was filmed in August 2014. How long has United Shades been in production?
We didn’t deliver that pilot to the network until that fall, then we found out in January that they wanted the show. We shot the rest of it spring of last year, and finished editing it in the summer. Because CNN doesn’t need to populate their schedule with a ton of stuff, they only have a few slots every quarter for their original content. They liked the show a lot, and said they wanted to wait until they could put it after Anthony Bourdain. That’s a very big show. They were very… I had a dinner meeting with Jeff Zucker and he said, “So we’re going to put you after Bourdain, but if you don’t like that slot we can give it to somebody else. A lot of people would like that spot.” [Laughs.] I said, “No no no, I’ll take it!”
I guess that’s how those meetings tend to go.
He was being funny, but I think he just wanted me to know that that was a big deal. I knew it was a big deal. It was pretty clear. At CNN, there’s a handful of rock stars — Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon and Anthony Bourdain.
How much time was spent pitching and developing the show before you shot the pilot?
By the time I came into it… This is the luck I’ve had with my career. I’ve been a part of two television shows that both got on, but I also had extra help. Chris Rock pitched Totally Biased, and that’s a good ace of spades to have in your back pocket. With this show, it was actually pitched to CNN before I was involved by the production company. They pitched it as a show called Black Man, White America, and a black comedian would go around to white places and talk to people. CNN mentioned me as a possible host since Totally Biased had been canceled, so they brought it to me and I liked the idea, but I wanted it to be about more than just white places. I live in the Bay Area, and I think there’s lots of different stories that need to be told about this country — not just white stories. The production company liked that and changed the name of the show to United Shades of America. But I didn’t really have to do any of the pitching. I just had to say yes.
I’m curious about the format. Instead of basing it in a studio and showing clips, most of the show is you out in the field cut with your stand-up. Is that from previous stand-up, or did you shoot that just for United Shades?
It was shot just for this. We got an audience, showed them clips from the show, explained the ideas behind the pieces and then I told some jokes based on that information. It was shot pretty quickly and cheaply, because it was the last idea we had. I think if we get to season two, we might get to blow it up in a bigger way.
Whose idea was it?
It was the producers’ idea. At the time, I felt like it was making the show seem less than what it was without it. I thought there was enough in there. But the producers were very aware — and this is a smart idea — that the stand-up would let those in the audience who don’t know who I am, which is like 99 percent of them, know that I’m a comedian. So viewers wouldn’t think they were watching some journalist be disrespectful to and laugh at the people he was interviewing. I think it really helps to frame the idea that this is a comedian-led show. By the time Bourdain, Morgan Spurlock, Lisa Ling and Mike Rowe got to CNN, they were already big personalities that people knew. Whereas I’m still a “semi-prominent negro.” If we go into season two, will we still do that? I don’t know. First we have to get there.
That might be a good thing, seeing as how journalists aren’t always the smartest people in the room.
Yeah, though I think what’s revealed in the show is I have a stake in and opinion about these things. That doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind or learn new information. I think it’s clear that I care about this, I wear my heart on my sleeve a lot, and there’s hugging. For me, the thing I like about being on CNN as opposed to a comedy channel is I don’t feel the need to be funny at inappropriate times, or to make things more funny than I think they are. The next episode is San Quentin, which is actually way less funny than the Klan episode. I think there’s less opportunity for jokes in there, but I also think it’s a more meaningful episode. You get to see me and those guys laugh together.
That’s one of the more striking things, especially in the Klan episode when you were shooting the sh*t with guys wearing Klansmen robes.
I’m trying to make television I’ve never seen before, or a version of it I’ve never seen before.
At the beginning of Semi-Prominent Negro, you tell the audience you’ve never performed at that venue before. Most comics tend to record specials at venues they know or like. Why’d you choose Brooklyn?
For me, it was really important to shoot in Brooklyn. I live in the Bay Area, I’m in Oakland a lot, but I know I can’t shoot here because I’ve been here too many times. Everybody’s heard these jokes before, so I had to figure out where to go. Brooklyn and Oakland have a natural connection that people talk about a lot. Having lived in New York, and in Brooklyn a little bit when I was there, I was very aware of how to talk to those people and just be there. So it was very important to me that we film in Brooklyn, and at that point picking the venue was just a matter of finding something in that area. An appropriate place where the people who came would feel comfortable. The day I walked in there was the first day I’d ever been in there. I wasn’t able to scout it personally since I live on the west coast. At one point I was walking around and asking, “Is there a shower in here? Am I about to do a comedy special without having showered?” Luckily we found a shower in a back corner.
How’d you get Morgan Spurlock to direct?
When I was at Totally Biased, we connected through email. We talked about meeting. I was a big fan of his work and he was interested in what I was doing. After the show was canceled, one of the people who ended up producing the special, Michele Armour, asked me who I wanted to direct it. She asked me for a “dream list,” which I’d never thought about, and at some point I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and exclaimed “Morgan Spurlock!” So I emailed and said, “If you can direct One Direction, would you like to direct me doing stand-up comedy?” He immediately got back to me and said yes. And since Morgan is a very self-actualized, professional person, he went to Showtime and negotiated the deal. That’s what he does for a living, so he really made it come together.
You have an amazing rapport with your audience, which was very diverse.
That’s how it was that night. It just felt like I was doing a show. I didn’t feel like I was taping an important thing. So I was able to relax, go out to the crowd and give that one woman a hug.
Your stand-up is very smart, but not in a highbrow kind of way. Like when you drop the Malcolm X quote during the bit about having mixed-race kids.
My favorite comedians are the ones who play from the top and the bottom of their intelligence, and equal measure whenever they feel the need to do both. You’re not writing a smart joke, you’re writing a joke the way the joke needs to be written. So you can do a fart joke, but you might throw a literary reference in there because it’s more fun that way. It’s not because you’re trying to make jokes smart or dumb. You’re using all the tools in your tool box. For me, that’s comedians like Bill Hicks, Marc Maron and Greg Proops. These people who use all of their brain. Some people might call it smart, but it’s just how I like to write the jokes. Even with the Malcolm X quote, I’m pretending to have sex on stage. I’m giving you the full complement of my comedic skills. I like things when they’re making my brain work on a lot of different levels. The idea of turning an interracial marriage relationship into a revolutionary act makes me laugh.
United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell airs Sundays at 10 p.m ET on CNN.
W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro premieres Friday, April 29 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. Until then, here’s a preview…