The intersection of politics and comedy has become increasingly fraught, but W. Kamau Bell isn’t afraid to jump into the fray. With his CNN show United Shades Of America and the sociopolitical bend of much of his comedy, Bell is tackling topics in a way that is both accessible and, honestly, uncomfortable. He’s there to make you laugh, but also to make you think about your preconceived ideas.
With the release of his new Netflix special Private School Negro, Bell was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to chat over the phone with Uproxx about his new baby, whether Sean Spicer could ever be a great America hero, and if “American Pie” is the most recognizable song on Earth.
I was going to start off this interview with, “What a week to be releasing a comedy special that talks so extensively about Trump,” but literally any week since 2016 has felt like that. Every day, there’s something new and insane. How do you even keep up with that?
For me, the nervousness is like I’m so happy the special’s finally coming out because there was some fear of what if he’s impeached before the special premiers? Which I would be fine with and happy about and excited about, but also I’d be like “Uh, can we do some edits real quick? Can we do some reshoots like in the Avengers movie?” For me, that was my biggest fear was that what if something major happened. I mean, here’s the thing: I have hope for peace and that the world has a brighter day and every kid gets all the food and education they want, and we stop separating kids at the border and all those things above anything. If it ruins my special, yay.
Having said all that, I was like “well, what if this person is gone now, and turns in state’s evidence, and now this person’s a hero, and in your special, you’re making fun of them?” What is Sean Spicer becomes a true American hero in the interim? That would be like “how do we fix that?” Luckily for me, that didn’t happen.
I think you may be giving too much credence to Sean Spicer.
Yeah! I was trying to pick somebody that I was like, “that’s never going to happen.” I just sort of feel like what if somehow these pieces get shifted around in such a way that it just makes these jokes not make sense anymore. But now, I feel like I’m confident we’re in the window of people understanding if that happens … All comedy dies eventually, or 99% of it. Topical comedy dies first. One of my favorite comedians of all time is Bill Hicks, and it’s sort of amazing to me how much of that stuff’s held up for such a long time, and still kind of holds up, because even though it’s hyper-topical to the moment, the issues in America didn’t change that significantly over the 10 or 15 years after his death. I sort of learned from that. You do the jokes you think are funny, and if the audience laughs at them, if the audience really laughs hard at them, and you think the joke is a really good joke and worth it, then just put it out there and just let the chips fall where they may. Luckily, my special is not an hour of topical material. Most of the special is probably stuff about my family and about my kids and about how I see the world. It’s not just politics. There’s also other stuff in there that people can enjoy if for some reason Sean Spicer turns into a true American hero.
There was an interview with Amy Poehler that was going around Twitter a lot last week, and she was part of a Hollywood Reporter profile on comedy heavy hitters, and there was this fluffy Q&A aspect, and her response was basically “who cares? The world is burning.” I was curious, since some of your comedy is political, how do you sort of hold the idea that “the world is burning, why are we making jokes?” in tension with “the idea of the world is burning, we have to say something?” You know what I mean?
I have so many thoughts about that. One, a big thing is learning that the jokes aren’t all you can do. Also, putting the jokes in the proper context. I think I’m saying it’s fine if the artist writes a joke. Like, if I’m on stage, and I’m doing the joke like “I think this joke is going to change the world,” that’s fine, because I’m performing the hell out of the joke, and I’m writing the hell out of the joke, but if I step offstage and think the world was changed by that joke, I’ve kind of misunderstood what it takes to change the world.
For me, I think it’s fine to be a comedian. It’s fine to do jokes about the political moment, or fine not to, because some people need a break from the political moment, but then, when I step offstage, I’m having conversations with Alicia Garza from Black Lives Matter about political candidates that I should support, and I’m giving some of my money that I made from a Netflix special to the ACLU and Donors Choose and Hollaback!, and I’m also reading books to my kids about Harriet Tubman and watching Doc McStuffins. There are all sorts of levels of how do you change the world. I’m also going with my wife and my mother-in-law to rallies where my mother-in-law is wearing a pussy hat that she knitted, even though two years ago, she never would have thought of wearing a hat that had the word pussy attached to it.
Having said all that, even that’s not enough. All the things I just listed are not necessarily going to change the world, but it’s the idea that these are the things that I can do, and ways in which I can be helpful. Like, if I give a teacher $200 so she can buy chairs so her kids can pay attention when she teaches, that’s changing something. It’s not changing the world, but it is changing a little piece of the world in that classroom.
You talk about Michelle Obama in the special and she’s the one who gave us “when they go low, we go high,” but I’ve been noticing lately that there’s been a bit of pushback against that idea. How can we fight decently when children are being locked in cages? How do you approach that idea?
First of all, I don’t believe that Michelle Obama was talking to comedians.
I get what she’s trying to say, and I do think there’s a way that everybody gets to define what low and high is. She may feel like some of the jokes in the special I did are low, and I would be like, “Well, let me explain to you why I think they’re high.” For me, I think that everybody gets to define that line, and everybody has a different take. Every comic knows this. There are comics who you would think are the cleanest comics in the world who have had audiences walk up to them afterward and go “I’m offended by that joke you did.”Everybody has a different level of where they’re offended at, and I think, at the end of the day, we all have to put our head on the pillow and feel like, especially comedians, “no, I stand by that stuff.” And if we’re wrong, and we think we’re wrong, go “yeah, I was wrong.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with comedians apologizing for making mistakes, as much as some comedians think that’s taboo. Also, we live in an era where a comedy club is not a separate room in the universe from the front page of the New York Times anymore. It used to be that these were in complete separate places, and never the twain shall meet.
Well, now, if I step onstage in a comedy club tonight, and even just say something that is so over the top, it can make it to the front page of the New York Times tomorrow. It probably has to be something bad, but we have to understand as comedians that we’re going through. There’s a shift that is happening, so we can’t expect this right to privacy that we used to have, unless we’re Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, who take everybody’s phones and lock them in a bag, which I don’t think is a bad idea.
I just think that we have to understand that we live in a world where everything we say has the capability to be vetted by people who never heard of us before and didn’t know the context of it, and we have to accept that and own it. I just accept it and own it, and sometimes people go “I didn’t like what you said about this,” and I’m like, “Well, we’re going to have to agree to disagree. Take care.”
One other thing that I really liked about the special is when you talked about expanding your idea of what America is, and I feel like United Shades of America also really digs into that. How do you settle on the subculture that you want to cover?
I mean, as a standup comedian, I don’t really like to take homework assignments from the news. I like to just talk about the things I care about a lot, but with United Shades, often we’re taking homework assignments from the news. In the second season when we were doing United Shades it was like, “Okay, we have to do a Muslim episode because that’s what the news is telling us we have to do.” Before this season, we’re like, “We have to do a border episode, because that’s what the news is telling us to do.”
For me, some of this is the news making it clear what we need to talk about, and then some of this is like me personally going “I’ve always wanted to learn more about this issue” or “I’ve always wanted to talk about this on TV.” Like in the first season, we did an episode about gentrification in Portland. I was like, “I would love to do an episode about gentrification.” Then, now that the show’s been out there, it’s like a man who works for the Sikh Coalition reached out to me on Twitter and was like “you need to do an episode about the Sikh community.” I was like, “Oh, you’re right. I would have never thought to do that. I will do that.” And we did.
How did you settle on “American Pie” as your sort-of theme song for this special?
At some point, I had to tell the producers of the special,”Um, we may need to talk to Don McLean about if it’s okay if I sing ‘American Pie.'” My agent’s like, “You’re probably going to have to cut that out. That’s probably not going to be able to happen.” It’s one of the most famous songs in the history of Earth. And it’s not a song that’s been licensed a lot, so it’s not like he’s given it away to everybody. Also, we didn’t know who owned the rights to it. Turns out, he owns the rights. Turns out, he does not license it a lot. But I wrote a letter…I didn’t talk to him directly, but someone got back to us.
His people go, “Yeah, just do whatever you want to with it,” and charged us a very reasonable rate. Everybody was like, “Blah, blah, blah, it’s going to be the whole budget for this entire special.” I don’t know if Don McLean just makes enough money off that song so he’s cool, but he just us charged a very reasonable rate. Now, it’s this thing that nobody expects. I mean — this is like the only spoiler alert in the special — but the idea that nobody’s expecting that moment when they turn on a special called Private School Negro. Nobody’s expecting that moment. Even if you know me and what I do, you’re not like “oh, here’s that thing that happens in Kamau’s shows all the time.” It’s probably the most alt-comedy thing I’ve ever done, so I enjoyed that.
Private School Negro is now streaming on Netflix. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.