W. Kamau Bell Talks About Using Comedy To Step On The Right Toes

In a chilling interview from the second season premiere of CNN’s United Shades of America, which premiered last night, African-American comedian W. Kamau Bell and white supremacist Richard Spencer had a cordial, punch-less conversation about white privilege. As mind-blowing as this may seem, however, the show’s first season made even greater waves with a thought-provoking — and shocking — episode about “The New KKK.” For that, Bell and his crew gained access to the Ku Klux Klan and attended a cross-burning, resulting in one of the most surreal moments on television in recent memory. Bell’s discussion with Spencer was nowhere near as visually striking, though the latter’s recent news clippings likely earned it plenty of eyeballs. Besides, these otherwise diametrically opposed individuals accomplished something most Americans from across the partisan divide often can’t: They talked, even when Spencer told Bell he wanted to “make white privilege great again” to his face. Which, of course, begs the question — how didn’t the comic punch him then and there?

In his new book The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, out May 2nd, Bell says his secret is knowing which toes to step on, when to step on them, and how to go about stepping:

Am I stepping on the right toes, here?” he writes. “It’s very easy to do in comedy, to make fun of the person you hate — like, blah blah blah, Republicans — but then as a part of making fun of Republicans, suddenly… you’re making fun of people who have nothing to do with the original thing you’re talking about, and it both demeans them and diffuses the point you were making.

Bell offers a painfully honest example from an early version of his stage show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About an Hour, in which a joke about his first experience with racism turned into a sexist jab. “It was a very small personal moment that, at the time, didn’t feel like a big political statement,” he tells Uproxx. Reflecting on the moment now is especially relevant for Bell, considering who the President of the United States is. “Realizing Donald Trump was now the president, and thinking about what that means for the country, my family and friends, and where I live, made it feel bigger. Especially during the last draft. I couldn’t help but feel the shadow of Trump over my shoulder when I was writing it.”

Though nowhere near as offensive as Trump’s Access Hollywood comments (and his subsequent defense of so-called “locker room” talk), what Bell did in the show haunted him enough that he dedicated an entire chapter of the book to his “Awkward Sexism.” Describing it as a “process,” he “didn’t completely learn a lesson that night. But [Martha Rynberg] placed an inescapable idea in my head.” Rynberg, who went on to become Bell Curve‘s director, and several friends helped Bell understand he should “only step on the toes of the people who you think need their toes stepped on,” and “figure out a way to include other people who are also in need of help.”

“I feel like you’re supposed to be allowed to grow. Especially as a comedian, you’re supposed to do jokes you regret. It shows you’re becoming a better comedian. No comic comes up fully formed,” Bell explains while recalling a similarly problematic joke about Condoleezza Rice from 2005. He has since apologized for it. “We don’t have a lot of evidence of classic comedians’ younger versions. But now, thanks to the internet, we do. We have lots of evidence of comedians being bad. So the question is, are you allowed to become better? Not just as a person, but as a comedian. If a stand-up goes on stage tonight — even someone you’ve never heard of — and does a joke that’s offensive to enough people, their career may be over.”

“Because my career bridges the internet,” he continues, “most of my bad jokes died in rooms.” Some, like the Rice joke from the final season of Comedy Central’s Premium Blend stand-up series, survive. To overcome bits like these and the ideas that preceded them, the 44-year-old performer has stuck to what he learned from Rynberg’s constructive criticism. These renewed efforts were first put to the test on the national stage with Totally Biased, the FX (and later FXX) series Bell created with executive producer Chris Rock. The show was cancelled in 2013 after two seasons, but three years later Bell was already hard at work on another project that would benefit from what he’d learned.

United Shades screamed onto the scene with its “New KKK” episode (and its images of Bell talking to robed Klansmen) in 2016. However, as he explained to us at the time, well over a year’s worth of work went into that particular story. The show similarly had lots of wiggle room while preparing the first season’s seven other episodes, but with the show’s Parts Unknown-like success at CNN, the swiftly ordered second season’s lead time was much shorter. There was a huge demand for the new program and the man behind it. Yet as Bell puts it, the United Shades team had by then become a well-oiled machine.

“I feel better about this season,” he admits. “I think we figured some things out, made some improvements, and did some creative things we hadn’t done before. I feel like this season is much closer to what I originally wanted than the first, though I still love what we did last year. There’s work there that, I think, will probably be some of the best work I’ve ever done. In that way, I feel like the first season is kind of like the mixtape, and the second is the album.”

In other words, Bell considers the differences between United Shades‘ first and second seasons to be one of preparedness. Now that he, his team and CNN have a better idea about what the show is, or can be, they better know how to approach politically sensitive topics like immigration and gang violence in Chicago. What’s more, Bell is certain he wouldn’t have been able to interview a volatile figure like Richard Spencer had it not been for that rougher first season. “I don’t think I could have pulled off this year’s first two episodes last year,” he says.

“The skills I developed that first season,” Bell continues, “helped me feel comfortable enough to sit across from someone like Richard Spencer. That, or listen to someone like [transgender activist] Ruby Corado of Casa Ruby, a person whose work demands the biggest platform possible. With the first season behind me, I never felt the urge to interrupt her and say, ‘Hi, I’m a comedian so I have to say something funny.’ I knew when to shut up and listen, to not be the scene’s ice breaker and just let her do all the talking. As a result, it’s a really great interview and Ruby gets the funniest line out of it.”

At the same time, Bell knew not to engage Spencer in such a way that their conversation would quickly devolve into the type often seen on his network’s panel-based news programs. United Shades wasn’t designed to be yet another show populated by split screens and talking heads. So even when Spencer smiled while raving about how he wanted to make white privilege great again, Bell the comedian became Bell the conversationalist. He didn’t want to give Spencer the same kind of platform he gave to Corado, of course, but he also wasn’t going to use the interview as an excuse to shout at an unrepentant racist. The ultimate goal was education — if not for Spencer and his supporters, at least for the show’s audience.

Unsurprisingly, many CNN viewers missed this aspect after seeing the first commercials for United Shades featuring Spencer. They were angry, Bell noted in a recent op-ed, because they assumed he was simply giving the alt-right figure a platform. “I put Spencer on TV for the same reason that I put the KKK on TV,” he wrote. “We all need to make sure that we fully understand our country.” Hence why individuals like Corado were featured in the episode as well. So that Bell, through United Shades, could continue doing what Rynberg taught him — step on the right toes while helping those in need of assistance.

“Every comic has the right to tell whatever joke they want to tell, and the proof they can tell it is if the audience lets them. The only responsibility we have is to the audience who supports us,” he tells us. “Jerry Seinfeld won’t swear. Jim Gaffigan often talks about food. We’re all creating operating systems for ourselves and our audience. What I wanted to talk about as a comic became very clear, very fast. Sometimes it happens on accident. Comics don’t really think about it too much, but I think there was a point during which it became suddenly clear.”

Season two of United Shades of America airs Sundays at 10pm ET on CNN. The Awkward Thought of W. Kamau Bell will be available in hard copy and digital editions at Amazon or wherever books are sold on May 2nd.