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Comic W. Kamau Bell On Standing Tall And Finding Humor In America's Racism

W. Kamau Bell describes his new CNN series, <em>United Shades of America,</em> as a travel show that will take him places he is afraid to go.
Courtesy of CNN
W. Kamau Bell describes his new CNN series, United Shades of America, as a travel show that will take him places he is afraid to go.

Comic W. Kamau Bell finds humor in the parts of America that make him uncomfortable. Speaking to Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Bell likens his new CNN series, United Shades of America, to a travel show that takes him "to all sorts of different places that I [am] either afraid to go, or you wouldn't expect me to go."

"I've always been a fan of [Parts Unknown host Anthony] Bourdain," Bell says. "I always thought if I had a show like that, you would replace food with racism. Instead of sampling the food, I would sample the racism or the culture."

On the first few episodes of United Shades of America, Bell, who is black, attends a Ku Klux Klan gathering, spends time at Daytona Beach during spring break and visits a gated retirement community.

Bell says that it is a blend of curiosity and fear that drives him forward in his work. For the episode in which he met up with Klan members in the middle of the night, he says, "I was more curious than I was afraid — until I got there and then ... the fear sort of crept in."

Interview Highlights

On finding humor in his meeting with the Ku Klux Klan

For <em>United Shades Of America,</em> W. Kamau Bell visited a Ku Klux Klan gathering.
/ Courtesy of CNN
Courtesy of CNN
For United Shades Of America, W. Kamau Bell visited a Ku Klux Klan gathering.

The Klan is wrapped up in their mythology and I think they know they're the boogeyman, and I think that they like that side of it. ... There's also a side of it where they're also aware if they're on a bright road wearing those outfits, they're going to attract a lot of unwanted attention. They know those robes are as unpopular as I know those robes are unpopular. ... All the Klan members I met who were dressed like that were on their own property or at night by the side of the road. Nobody was like, "Meet me at a coffee shop in downtown Arkansas and let's get together at the Denny's and talk about this." Nobody wanted that.

On the demise of his former show, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell

I was stranded in New York in an apartment that was way too expensive for a guy who didn't have a job. I had one daughter; she was 3 years old. ... We [had] moved into an apartment that was the budget of a guy with a TV show and then I didn't have a TV show ... and [it] really felt like that was a referendum on me, because I put all of myself into that show.

But at the same time, [I] was happy that it was canceled. We all worked really hard on that show, and when we went to four days a week, we weren't ready for that. Also, I had a lot of friends on that show, and by the end, relationships had changed. People who had been my friends were now not my friends because now I was their boss. ... By the end, I compared it to every Vietnam War movie, where everyone goes in their separate directions. ... There was a real sense of I'm sad this is over, and thank God it's over.

On how he dealt with depression after the end of Totally Biased

I can't slip off the planet. I can't just give into it, so I have to slowly put one foot in front of the other. But there was a real sense if I had been not married with a kid, I would have booked that Dave Chappelle ticket to South Africa. ... I would have disappeared for a while. I don't mean in any sort of dangerous way, but I would have been like, "I think I'm done with whatever this is."

But I couldn't do it. And I slowly realized that the canceling of the show was probably better for my career anyway, because the show was sort of going by in drips and drabs at that point. We weren't getting good ratings, we weren't getting a lot of attention, the wear and tear was seen on my face. My friends who watched the show could see that it was hard for me, and when the show got canceled, it became like Woodstock — more people claimed they were there than who were clearly there.

On having biracial daughters

It's important to me that my daughter learn what I learned, that no matter how you feel you're being treated by black people at any given time, those are your people. My wife knows that those are my daughter's people. ... We had a lot of conversations; she understood that she was having a black daughter. ... It was her parents that had to realize this. ...

My wife told me that at one point her mom came to her — I think while my wife was still pregnant — and said, "So wait, Sammy is going to be black." And my wife was like, "Yes that's true," and her mom was like, "OK."

In that tiny thing, was years of race discussions with my wife and her getting her family into the idea of, "My boyfriend is this black guy; my husband is this black guy." There was a whole "Circle Of Life" that happened in that moment that I wasn't there for, but I was like, "Yaaay."

On the advantages of being tall

As much as they hate a black guy, the 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound black guy is a different thing than maybe the black guy they imagined. So that's a time to stand up taller.

There is nothing bad about being tall. ... When you're tall you sort of get more points, like people think you're better looking. Tall people get paid more money generally; presidents are taller than the average man.

I feel like it's been great for me to be tall because it gives me something in the world that sometimes being black takes away from me ... and when need be, I can use my height and my size to my advantage to get out of difficult situations. For example, with the Klan, those guys are all pretty short. So as much as they hate a black guy, the 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound black guy is a different thing than maybe the black guy they imagined. So that's a time to stand up taller, and to stand over people and go, "Yes, can you tell me about this cross?" ... That's a benefit.

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