April 25, 2016


Interview: W. Kamau Bell Wants to Start Big Conversations With 'United Shades of America'

John Nowak
John Nowak

The host of CNN's new series United Shades of America concluded his last run on TV in November 2013, when his FX (and then FXX) series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell got canceled. Bell's project was an essential, tragically under-watched one, a late night stealth missile that shot progressive comedy through the most talked-about/insane news of the moment, often pertaining to issues of race, sexuality and gender. Guests included Laverne Cox, Big Freedia, Chris Rock, Melissa Harris-Perry, Hannibal Buress and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

On United Shades of America—premiering tonight, April 24, at 10 p.m. EST on CNN—Bell's premise is to embed in places and situations a black man may not find especially welcoming or safe. He's said it's like Anthony Bourdain's travel series except with racism instead of food. For the first episode, Bell, a Berkeley, Calif. resident and father of two young daughters, sits with a variety of Ku Klux Klan members in two Southern states. They explicate the brutally backward, racist nooks and crannies of their beliefs; Bell keeps it moving and doesn't flinch. By the end, he's standing at a twilight cross burning (a "cross lighting," the KKK corrects Bell), contemplating how few black people have survived such a sight.

In the seven episodes to come, Bell will consider gentrification in Portland, the Latino community in East L.A., spring break in Daytona Beach and inmates at San Quentin State Prison in California. The self-described "socio-political comedian and dad"—who also has a Showtime stand-up special, Semi-Prominent Negro, coming April 29—spoke to Fuse about United Shades of America. First, watch a preview:

FUSE: I watched the San Quentin prison episode and the KKK episode and was knocked on my ass. You did an amazing thing here.
W. KAMAU BELL: Well, thank you. Those are two very opposite ends of the spectrum episodes. I appreciate the fact that you liked them so much, I sort of don't know what's going to happen out there. I know they're both pot-stirring things and I did the best I could. I hope I didn't make it worse for anybody who doesn't need to be made worse for, I hope I didn't make anybody look awesome who doesn't need to look awesome.

Are there people other than the KKK members you're worried about encountering after these episodes air?
Walking around as a black man in America, I have more worry about the police than the KKK [laughs].

CNN's such a big platform. When Totally Biased was getting off the ground, you said the network was trying to get the "most intense audience possible" rather than the biggest one. Do you still feel that? How do you feel about what your audience might be or what you hope it'll be on CNN?
It's such a huge platform. I travel a lot, and it's on in like 80 percent of the airports I'm in. You feel like everybody's gonna get a chance to decide whether they like this thing [laughs]. Which probably at one point would've sounded scary to me, but after going through—and without FX and FXX, we wouldn't be on the phone right now—but after going through that and having so many of my fans go, "I can't find this channel, I don't know where it is," I'm really appreciative of the fact that I'm on one of the biggest megaphones on television, as far as cable goes.

Have you pre-ordered Edible Arrangements for the interns who are gonna have to field the deluge of emails about this show?
That's funny that you said Edible Arrangements, because that is my go-to thank-you product. I have been talking to some of the people at CNN, because I think they're already started to receive emails. I think because of the 21st century, a lot of those emails come to me. They don't waste time with CNN, they just come straight to the source.

I think you're about to go to the top of the suspect corkboard for people who have the term "white genocide" in their life.
I'm about to be a recruiting tool, I think. Although it's funny, and then ironic, in maybe a sad way, but also a weird quirky way: the guy who's in the blue outfit in the first episode, the blue robes, he emailed me the other day like excited and talking about all his career opportunities that've come out of just people knowing he's in the show, documentary opportunities and all sorts of stuff. "I hope you don't make me look bad," is what he said.

That's the show, people laughing together who are reaching across the aisle with each other. That's the thing that makes it feel different.

W. Kamau Bell

The first thing in that episode is you making fun of them onstage. I feel like they're going to lose it.
I sort of feel like...what would they expect? [Laughs] People are like, "Are you worried?" I'm like, "What would they expect that I would say?" And you have to remember, on the other side of this, there's gonna be black people—and I've already had this—who are mad that I did it at all, and that I gave them any time, and that I sat there and smiled and laughed and told jokes. I'm between a rock and a black place.

The last time I remember seeing the KKK on TV and speaking their mind was as a child on Jerry Springer, I think.
Yeah. Other than Dave Chappelle's hall-of-fame comedy sketch, the blind, black white-supremacist, the last time you've sort of seen them interact with people is probably a talk show from the '90s or early aughts. I was trying to make the reverse version of that. Some people have said, "Why didn't you engage with them and argue back and forth?" What would the point of that be? That didn't work when Springer had people do it. This is how I do it, you may do it differently, and I encourage you to go—well, I don't really encourage anybody to go meet with the Klan—but I'm saying this is the way I do it. Some people dig it, some people won't, and some people won't even like the idea of it or the hint of it. Those are gonna be people who are on my side and not on my side. I just have to hope there's a critical mass of people who are like, "Huh. I like that," or "That made me feel a lot of things, and I'm gonna have conversations about that tomorrow when I go to work." That's the goal of anything, to get people talking.

Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

There are a lot of moments of group laughter, no matter what group you're with. Did you notice that?
One thing I definitely brought to the table as a comedian is that when I met with the producers, who'd worked on a lot of these reality-type shows before, I would always encourage to leave in the laughter. Once you get to the end of a scene, you cut to the next scene, but I was like, "No, you're missing the thing I said at the end that made people laugh, or you're missing the thing where the guy made fun of me and then I laughed." I mean, that's the show, people laughing together who are reaching across the aisle with each other. That's the thing that makes it feel different. I'm glad you noticed that, because that's something I had to work to put back in. It's real easy to just tell the story of all these things and leave out some of the more human comedy bits, but that's really what separates the show from the other shows.

The way those laughs come across in the room, there's a lot to think about.
I kinda feel like I should encourage people to watch this show in groups, because maybe watching it by yourself, it might be too much left on the bone for you to figure out, "What do I do with this?" Whereas if you're with a bunch of people, you can immediately have a conversation about, "I think he's wrong and we should get a petition together to get him off TV" [laughs], or, "I like that, let's talk more about it."

This interview has been condensed and edited. Listen to a 15-minute excerpt at the 37:40 mark in the following episode of the Back of the Class podcast: