Comedian W. Kamau Bell uses humor to probe the dark corners of American culture. As host of the CNN show, "United Shades of America," he’s interviewed everyone from inmates in San Quentin prison to members of the Ku Klux Klan, exploring the racial, political, and socioeconomic forces that shape life in America. He also has a new book out, "The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell," hosts three podcasts, and is on a national stand-up comedy tour.
Bell will be performing at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Wednesday night, and he recently spoke with 91.5 KRCC about the power of comedy, the importance of seeking out new perspectives, and the frustrating politics of Twitter.
91.5 KRCC: W. Kamau Bell thank you so much for taking the time.
Bell: Thanks for having me.
91.5 KRCC: The list of your current projects is long. You're on a stand-up tour. You have your new season of "United Shades of America," your first book, three podcasts--the list goes on. First of all, where do you find the time for all these different projects?
Bell: You just make the time for the things that are important to you. And you know, I certainly probably am probably one or two projects more than I need to have, but I've got two daughters. They don't want to work for a living. They want to go to school and have play dates. Me and my wife have to do the work in this household.
And these are hectic times and critical times. There are a lot of opportunities to really get in and try to help rescue the narrative from the nonsense, so I just feel compelled to do that.
91.5 KRCC: Much of your work deals with the complexities of race in America. You've been named an ambassador of racial justice by the ACLU. Why do you think comedy is a useful tool to explore issues of racial inequality and social injustice?
Bell: Comedy was sort of invented as a way to talk about difficult things. Comedy is a way to sort of like pop the bubble of tension. And if you can do that and then you can have a conversation, or you can inform people about things, it's very helpful, because when people are laughing you know at the very least they're paying attention. It doesn't mean they're agreeing with you or that you're being truthful, it just means they're paying attention.
91.5 KRCC: On the subject of uncomfortable conversations, you have a lot of them. Especially in your show "United Shades of America." Is that something you've always gravitated toward? Were you always that guy who was willing to ask an uncomfortable question or delve into a thorny topic?
Bell: I mean, not in my life. I'm certainly, in my life, more conflict averse than I am on the show. But in my adult life, when I moved to the Bay Area, I got put in situations that were uncomfortable to me--like meeting people and hearing ideas--and at some point I learned the value from my friends of just being quiet and listening. Whether you agree or disagree, your brain is being expanded and pulled. You can sort of chew through it later sometimes but, in the moment, if you're hearing something you've never heard before, be quiet and let it keep talking.
91.5 KRCC: On your show, it really does seem like you're kind of modeling that practice--this almost empathic approach to difference and to ideas that you might not agree with, and in some cases, that you definitely don't agree with. Is that something that you think we need more of as a culture, that ability to listen?
Bell: I mean I think we do. You know with everything that happened in the election I think a lot of people on the left and on the right learned that their preconceived notions about the country were not true. And so some of that means you need to check in with people who are also on the left, like, "what's going on with you that I think I know about that I don't know enough about?"
It's also the thing about watching some things that you don't agree with and listening to some people you don't agree with to find out whether there's something about it that I need to know that I'm not aware of because I've sort of turned it all off. Is there something I can go, "Oh this is even worse than I thought it was?"
In "United States of America," I talked to Richard Spencer. Now some people say, "I already know everything I need to know about Richard Spencer and you gave him a platform!" Well, for me, the thing I learned was, the racism was what I expected, but the gender politics was like, "What?! you think women belong in the house? But you seem like such a smart dude, why would you handicap yourself in that way? You're cutting out all the people of color now you going to cut out the women?" So for me, that's something that I didn't know. When we edited the show I was like, we need to put the gender stuff in there, because that's surprising to me.
Now other people think, "you gave him a platform!" But I think it's lazy intellectually to think that you can't handle information that challenges you or that everybody knows exactly what you know.
91.5 KRCC: And we should say that's Richard Spencer, prominent white supremacist. In your show, you look at a lot of problems, but you also hear from people at the grassroots level working to address a lot of these problems, whether it's the criminal justice system, gang violence, racism, or whatever it may be. Has it given you hope for the country? Are you optimistic about the future here, or are you feeling a little bit dark about things?
Bell: It's funny when I go to these places and talk to even somebody like the Klan or Richard Spencer, I also talk to people who are working against the things that those people are working for. Like, the episode Spencer was in, most of that episode is about immigrants and refugees and their beautiful stories of triumph over harrowing circumstances or they're in the middle of circumstances that you hope they can triumph over. I feel optimistic in that moment, I think, "these people will not be defeated."
But then when I go home and live tweet the show on Twitter and I see people's churlish and petty responses to each second of the show they don't agree with, and how they would have done it differently, then I lose all hope. So, if the revolution is mostly going to happen on Twitter, we're doomed. But if the revolution happens face to face in the street, we're going to be fine. Unfortunately it's yet to be decided where the revolution is centered at.
91.5 KRCC: W. Kamau Bell thanks so much for taking the time, and I look forward to seeing you in Colorado Springs.
Bell: Thank you.
Editor's note: The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center merging with Colorado College, which is also 91.5 KRCC's Licensee.