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!”