Comic W. Kamau Bell has spent much of his life feeling awkward. A self-described "tall, rangy black dude," Bell was often mistaken for a basketball player growing up — except that serious asthma and allergies meant he spent the bulk of his childhood indoors watching TV.
He says, "There was this weird sense of guilt about the fact that I wasn't using the physical shell that God had given me, and that I wasn't taking advantage of my physical gifts."
As an adult, he gravitated towards comedy, but he felt conflicted about the fact that he often didn't fit in in black comedy clubs. "When white audiences didn't think I was funny, I was like, Well they didn't think I was funny; but when black audiences didn't think I was funny, it hurt my soul," Bell says.
On his CNN series United Shades of America, now in its second season, Bell celebrates his status as an outsider. It's a travel show in which the comic visits places that make him feel uncomfortable, such as a Ku Klux Klan gathering. Bell's new memoir is The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell.
On how audiences reacted to him interviewing white nationalist Richard Spencer on United Shades of America
The No. 1 pushback that I've gotten on social media is, like, "Why are you giving him a platform?" And it was very similar to the pushback I got last year from people with the Klan episode. ...
For me, it's like, platforms aren't always positive things. ... I'm afraid of the impact of his ideas, but I think if you put my ideas next to his ideas, which is what we do on the show, ... it's very clear that the America he's envisioning is not the America most of America wants. I think many people still in the wake of Trump's election aren't really ready to embrace the fact that the seed of the base of President Trump is white supremacy. ...
We have a false notion that people get changed in one conversation. I always blame it on that movie American History X, where Ed Norton's character hangs out with the black guy in the laundry and over the course of a few clothes-folding sessions they end up going, "Man, black people are pretty cool!" I feel like we should know by now that it doesn't happen that quickly.
On how racism in the South compares to racism in the North
I don't know where the phrase comes from — it's just one of those things you hear and it feels like a truism to me: That in the North they don't care how high you get as long as you don't get too close; in the South they don't care about how close you get as long as you don't get too high. The idea being that [in the North] you ... could be a black doctor; but in the South they don't want you to be a doctor, but you can live across the street.
I really do feel like there is a way in which there's a sense of honesty in the South — whether they like you or they don't like you — that is very clear, that I somehow appreciate, that in the North sometimes — and this is true of the West Coast too — you're like, "I don't know if you like me or not. You're being polite, but it doesn't feel that nice."
So I do feel like the one thing I've learned is that the South — because of its history of racism, the history of slavery coming from the South — it's a much better place than most Americans want to give it credit for.
On performing in front of mostly white audiences when he was starting out
I started doing comedy on the North Side of Chicago, which is the whiter side of town. ... In America we don't say "white," we just sort of say regular. So they're white rooms, but they're not broadcast as that. It's just a coffee shop where mostly white people are at, or a bar where mostly white people hang out.
So I find myself in these situations where I go onstage in these white open mics and talk about racism. First of all, I wasn't funny, let's be clear about that. ... So the audience is sort of like, Do I believe his experience? Is this true what he's saying? Is he making this up? So I'm having to fight for the premise, and not fight for the punchline. You have to fight for like, "Can we all agree that these are the facts of the situation?" And that's what a premise of a joke is: You have to get the audience to buy into the facts as you're laying them out. Even if the facts are ridiculous, you have to get them to buy in. But if they don't buy into the premise, the punchline doesn't matter.
On struggling in black comedy rooms
I started stand-up in 1994, so we're talking about the height of Def [Comedy Jam]. ... So black comedy, which had been an underground phenomenon, becomes mainstream on HBO. ... Before that, you've got Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, who were very different, [who] are both considered to be black comedians, but now there's a thing called "black comedy."
So a lot of black comedy rooms open up — rooms that are catering to black audiences, which is great because those audiences didn't have those rooms before. ...
I didn't spend a lot of time in the black comedy clubs, because even walking in there it felt like public school but grown up. It's like, these are the same kids when I was a kid where I felt like I was being made fun of because I wasn't listening to the right music or I wasn't being a black man in the right way. And now they're all adults and they're drinking and they want the show they've seen on HBO. They want the Def Jam show. ...
Anytime I would find myself going onstage in these places it was very clear to me and the audience that you're not doing this the way we want it. ... So I got my feelings hurt quite often. ... Worse than bombing in a comedy club, Terry, people don't realize, is actually just doing mediocre. There's something beautiful about bombing. Mediocre is horrible.
Radio producers Ann Marie Baldonado and Therese Madden and Web producers Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper contributed to this story.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After my guest, comic W. Kamau Bell, felt that he wasn't finding his audience in either black or white comedy clubs, he went his own way doing his show in theaters talking about race and politics and his life as a black man married to a white woman. They now have two children.
Chris Rock liked his act and helped him get a show of political satire on FX called "Totally Biased." Last year, Bell got his own series on CNN called "United Shades Of America." Now he has a new memoir called "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell." The book is about a lifetime of feeling like he doesn't fit in, perhaps that was especially true when he was a child trying to fit in each time he moved to a different city.
Let's start with a clip from "United Shades of America," which just started its second season yesterday. It's kind of a travel show in which Bell sometimes goes to places he probably shouldn't go or you wouldn't expect him to go. Last season, he went to a KKK rally.
This season, in an episode about immigrants, one of the interviews is with Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and co-editor of altright.com. Spencer opposes immigration and thinks our country should be run by white men. Here's a clip from that interview, which took place at a convention in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Spencer's group the National Policy Institute.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA")
W. KAMAU BELL: What does it mean to you to be alt-right?
RICHARD SPENCER: If you were to sum it up into one word, I would say it's identity and that identity's the foundation of everything. And also I put forth this mantra - race is real, race matters and race is the foundation of identity. So if I were to ask you, who are you? Just don't think about it, just answer. Who are you?
BELL: Oh, no, no, no, I would say I'm a black man.
BELL: I would put those two - those two come back to back.
SPENCER: But if you ask a white person...
SPENCER: ...Would they say I'm a white man? No.
SPENCER: Like in a way, we want to be as smart as African-Americans about identity.
BELL: We're happy to help you. (Laughter) So I think white people do need to talk about their whiteness more, and we're here doing it.
SPENCER: Yeah. We're here to talk about white privilege. We want to bring it back, make white privilege great again.
BELL: (Laughter) So you're a fan of white privilege?
SPENCER: Oh, yeah. I love it.
BELL: I mean, and what do you love about white privilege?
SPENCER: Oh, it looks great. Like, you know, I mean, the people are good looking and, you know, nice suits, great literature. Like, yeah, I just want to bathe in white privilege, the greatest, most awesome thing.
BELL: (Laughter) It's working out for you.
SPENCER: Well, yeah, I want to expand white privilege. We live in a world where every spring Google and Facebook and Apple release these diversity numbers. And they'll be like it's amazing guys, we hired less white men this year. We think that it's inherently wonderful for white people to have less power.
GROSS: Well, that's Richard Spencer being interviewed by W. Kamau Bell. Kamau, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the new season of your CNN series and on your new memoir. So the last time you were on our show, it was during the first season of your CNN show, "United Shades Of America."
And I played an excerpt of your interview with a Klansman because you did an episode about the Klan. You talked to Klansmen. You went to a cross burning or a cross lighting, as they like to call it. And it was so interesting to compare the Klan interviews with the Spencer interview.
And one of the things that stuck out to me is that, you know, this is kind of like postmodern racism because, like, Richard Spencer is - he's ironic when he wants to be. He made jokes when he was talking to you. And in a part when we didn't hear, when you introduce yourself, he says to you, good to see you, my man. What's up?
GROSS: Does that strike you, like, the difference between, like, new school and old school, you know, racism?
BELL: Yeah. I think the thing is is that Richard Spencer is smart about the fact that he's got it - he's trying to be a star. He's got to be seductive, and that means being able to speak to a person like me. And then I think on some level, Richard Spencer wants to be liked, even by a black guy. And so when he sat down for that interview - he'd been doing a lot of media interviews that day with people who I think he felt like he had to be more confrontational with.
And my whole energy is like let's sit down and talk, man. (Laughter) Then he said - then he's like, OK, my man. You know? So I think he was really - it's funny. I was really - we were really aware that when it was over, he turned to, like, his people and my people like that was good, right? That was good - in a way that you would not expect the Klan to do that.
GROSS: So what's your reaction to that? I mean, I know you don't want to give him like a podium just to promote himself, so like what outcome were you hoping for when you talked with him?
BELL: Yeah. The number one pushback we've gotten - the show hasn't even aired yet, but the number of pushback that I've gotten on social media is like why are you giving him a platform? And it was very similar to the pushback I got last year from people on - with the Klan episode. Why are you giving them a platform? And for me it's like platforms aren't always positive things. You know? The platform sort of is just there to be given to you, and then it's about how you're framed on the platform, what you do with the platform.
And I feel like when people say why are you giving him a platform for his ideas? I feel like what you're saying is you're afraid his ideas are better and more convincing than your ideas. And I'm not afraid of his ideas. I'm afraid of the impact of his ideas, but I think if you put my ideas next to his ideas which is what we do on the show and the ideas of other people, it's very clear that the America he's envisioning is not the America most of America wants. But I think many people still even in the wake of Trump's election aren't really ready to embrace the fact that at the seed of the base of President Trump is white supremacy.
And Richard Spencer's proof that that is the seed of that because he's, you know, Steve Bannon's in the White House, Richard Spencer's alt-right. Steve Bannon's alt-right. And so for me it's like I think people who are hashtag #woke, as we say, forget that most people are not hashtag #woke at all. And so what I hear when I put him out there when we did the Klan episode, where we do this episode, I believe you hear from a lot of people going I had no idea. And so I feel like that's what the episode is for people who still have no idea.
GROSS: Which did you feel more threatened by, you know, the Richard Spencer ironic, you know, like good to see you, my man, kind of racism or the Klan cross-burning kind of racism? And the other thing about it is, like you said, Richard Spencer wants to be a star. The Klan's people are hidden under robes. They don't want you to know who they really are. It's just an interesting contrast.
BELL: No, I would say it's very easy to make that choice. I was 100 percent more threatened by the Klan, but ironically I was more uncomfortable at the Richard Spencer conference.
BELL: The Klan - there was this sense of like there were like a core of the guys who were there who sort of were like, again, kind of like Richard Spencer were like excited to finally be able to talk about the Klan in some sort of way. They were like I finally get to talk about this. And one guy who was sort of - it was clear we sort of have a good back and forth, but there was all this sort of people surrounding the Klan where I was like we're in a forest somewhere in the middle of Kentucky. I don't know what the plan is.
You know, I kept envisioning that scene from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" where the black guitar player sort of is dragged to the Klan meeting. And I felt like I don't know if there's something else here that I'm unaware of. So I think the whole time I was there I was aware of the fact that something could go left really quickly because the core group of three or four guys who were talking to me are fine, but there's all these other dudes who are here, and some women who I feel like hate me. And so I don't know if they're going to suddenly like freak out. And then the other side of this is that I was also very aware of the weight of the Ku Klux Klan and the history of this country and the history specifically with my people, so that there was a - even though these people weren't necessarily the ones who lynched black people, people like these lynched black people.
And so there was this historical weight I carried the whole time with me when I was there. Richard Spencer was more uncomfortable because this was connected directly to the White House suddenly or directly to electoral politics. You know, when we did the Klan episode, there was a sense of like we went and found them. With Richard Spencer, he was in D.C. at the Ronald Reagan Building. You know, he was sort of claiming his space in the national discussion. And when we booked him, he wasn't really that known. It was like, oh, there's this guy Richard Spencer. By the time we went and filmed with him, he had become more known. And then after we filmed, he's even become more known.
So it's like I feel very excited in some sense to get his ideas out there so that other people who think they have a sense of who Richard Spencer is will get a better sense of it. But, ultimately, I didn't feel physically threatened in the - at Richard Spencer conference, I would say. (Laughter) Like, I felt like, you know, the room probably had 200 people in it. And I kind of felt like if things go bad, I could pretty much Neo my way out of this. Like, it's like a thousand Agent Smiths and I'll be Neo sort of like punching the White Supremacist while I walked to the door.
GROSS: So there's - the show is premised in part that if people meet to - face to face, they'll understand each other better. Do you think anyone from the Klan or that Spencer walked away from your interviews thinking he was such a kind of big-hearted, nice, smart, black man, gosh, I've been wrong all along, black people are OK?
BELL: (Laughter) I think we have sort of a false notion that people get changed in one conversation. You know, I always blame it on that movie "American History X" where Ed Norton's character hangs out with the black guy in the laundry. And over the course of a few clothes-folding sessions...
BELL: ...They end up, you know, going, man, black people are pretty cool. (Laughter) Like I feel that, like, we should know by now that it doesn't happen that quickly, so I definitely know that when I went into conversations with people, they walked out thinking differently about me, whether they thought differently about black people than they walked in. Like, I think some of them thought they were going to come and get one over on me or intimidate me. And then they walked in going, yeah, I didn't really intimidate that guy.
And I also pushed people. Like there's a woman in the episode who talks about, you know, the - I think the biggest surprise I had about the Richard Spencer conference was that there weren't that many women there and they kind of were OK with that. Like, they were very open about the fact that white men rule America and white men's place is at the front of the movement.
I talked to a woman there about it. And she was like, OK. And then she was just like, white women - she's like, women aren't really the leaders of political movements. And I was like, well, in my people's history, the civil rights movement is filled with women leading the movement. And she said, well, I'll have to look into that. And I felt like...
BELL: ...Oh, good. Go look into that (laughter). Can I talk to you about - does the name Harriet Tubman mean anything to you? So for me, it was like, that was the things I was sort of surprised about. And I think that - you know, for me, the racism stuff I was prepared for. The sexism I was totally shocked by.
GROSS: You've lived in lots of different parts of America over the years. You spent most of your formative years in the North. But summers you'd spend with your father in Mobile, Ala. And then you spent about two years living with him after you and your mother had moved to Chicago and you didn't much like it there. So I'm wondering if racism had a kind of different flavor in the North than it did for the South and if coded language was different in the North than it was in the South - for you - you know, for your experiences.
BELL: You know, there was a - there's a - I don't know where the phrase comes from. It's just one of those things you hear. And I felt like it's pretty much - it sort of feels like a truism to me (laughter). It's like that in the North, they don't care how high you get as long as you don't get too close. In the South, they don't care how close you get as long you don't get too high. The idea being that in the North, you can be - you know, this is - and this comes out of, like, you know, Reconstruction America and civil rights America.
In the North, you could be a black doctor. But in the South, they didn't want to be a doctor, but you could live across the street, you know. So it - and I really do feel like there's just a real sense of honesty in the South, whether they like you or they don't like you, that is just very clear, that I somehow appreciate. Then in the North, sometimes you're like - and this is true of the West Coast, too - I don't know if you like me or not. You're being polite, but it doesn't feel that nice, you know.
So I do feel like that the one thing I learned is that the South, because of its history of racism, the history of slavery coming from the South, it's a much better place than most Americans want to give it credit for. It certainly feels like its growth has been stunted because of racism and slavery and, you know, things like - and also the image - they have to feel like - the South feels it has to defend itself to the rest of the country all the time.
But, you know, like, my dad still lives in Mobile. We - he vacations on Orange Beach in Mobile, Ala., and I like vacationing in Orange Beach, Ala., even though when I do vacation in Orange Beach, Ala., I have to know that sometimes somebody's going to be like - where are you from? - and I go, the Bay Area. And they go, oh, they got a lot of Chinese people out there. You're like, what does that mean?
GROSS: (Laughter) What do you say?
BELL: You know, in those moments, you sort of sort of go, yeah, there are, and it's great. (Laughter) You sort of slowly - like, it's the thing about you're seeing in the hot tub trying to relax. Do I really want to get into a whole conversation with this person? But I also - I do try to make sure that I leave the impression of like - yeah, there are a lot of Chinese people out there. I love it out there. It's great. Have you ever been out there? Oh, you should really go. - you know, sort of leaving the impression of, like, whatever you mean by that, I'm going to let you know what I mean by that. You know, I'm going to let you know how I feel about it.
GROSS: I'll tell you what - let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He's written a new memoir called "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell." And his CNN series "United Shades Of America" just started its second season Sunday night. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He's written a new memoir called "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell." And his CNN series "United Shades Of America" has just started its second season. It's on Sunday nights.
The private school that you went to was predominantly white. I don't know what the racial makeup of the public school was, but I wonder what impact it had on your - you know, in the Richard Spencer part, you identify yourself as a black man. So what impact did it have on your identity as a black boy - because you were a child at the time in school - to be in this private school that was predominantly white and then switch over to a public school that was probably more racially mixed?
BELL: Yeah. The public schools were certainly more racially mixed, and sometimes they were mostly black. So I would say that. I feel like the - there's sort of two things that happened. Like, I remember being - at The Park School, I think there was only - in my class, there was me and one other black kid. I may be misremembering. But the kid I remember - there was a black kid I talk about in the book named Dana Jackson who was, like - I felt like - I write about in the book - like, it was like meeting Will Smith when he was 12. Like, it was like he was a cool black dude - like, had, like, abs and, like, chest muscles and, you know, was taller than everybody, had like a mustache at 11.
And I remember feeling like this weird, like, I'm not Dana Jackson - like that I wish - like, why does he have to be here? Like, if I (laughter) - I could - that there's some sense that we're almost competing with each other because we're the only two black people around. And I happened to be going to this private school with one of the - what seems to be one of the coolest black people on the planet. And there was sort of - I was somewhat frustrated by that at the time.
And then when I would go to the public school, there was this group pressure that I felt. Suddenly, it became very clear to me that the culture I consumed - the movies I watched, the fact that I stayed up late night to watch late-night talk shows just so I could see comedy, the fact that I wasn't listening to hip-hop and R&B like all my - that suddenly I felt like I wasn't doing blackness the right way, that in the private school there wasn't - I didn't feel the same, like, sense of, like, how - like, an expectation of how to be black.
I really felt it more when I was in the school with around mostly black people - about, like, because there's this sort of, like - you know, we're talking about when I was in school Michael Jackson is huge. You know, the hip-hop is really - the birth of hip-hop is really happening in a major way. It's going mainstream. And I was a big fan of Michael Jackson. You know, you couldn't be 11 in 1984 like I was and not know all the songs on "Thriller," but he wasn't my favorite thing, you know.
And so for me, it was like suddenly being in the schools where it's mostly black kids, I suddenly felt this pressure of, like, I'm not - I mean, I didn't have this thought process. But I just felt like, I'm not being black correctly. I better just be quiet. So when people start talking about hip-hop, I better just shut up and nod along. I'm not going to try to pretend like I know - although sometimes I did. But, like (laughter), you know, sort of like - 'cause I'm not taking this stuff in. It doesn't hit me the same way.
GROSS: You have asthma. And...
BELL: Yes (laughter).
GROSS: And I...
BELL: It's the first time I've ever been asked about asthma in an interview. Yes, I have asthma.
GROSS: Well, yeah. Well, you mention it in the book. It's even in your subtitle. I mean, the subtitle is "Tales Of A 6'4", African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning Asthmatic, Black And Proud Blerd, Mama's Boy, Dad, And Stand-Up Comedian." So asthma seems to be a part of your identity. And I imagine it's part of what set you apart from other kids when you were growing up. And I'm always interested in the kind of physical issues that make people who they are. And so I guess I'm wondering if having asthma made you feel, like, vulnerable in a way that other kids might not have felt.
BELL: Yeah. I think there was something about having asthma. And I had pretty serious asthma was a kid. I was, like, taking medicine two or three times a day. I always had a rescue inhaler on me. I was in the hosp (ph) - you know, I spent like a couple - I had, like, two or three times I went to the hospital and stayed for a few days because my asthma got so bad that I had to, like, you know, be medicated. And, you know, so, like, had to be checked into the hospital for a few days.
So as - well, probably, as a kid, I probably would have said, I'm a black, asthmatic male. Like, I would have put asthmatic between black and male. So yes, asthma is a big part of my - and it was really important to me to put that in the title because it is a big part of my life. And it sort of made me feel like I was - and this is not true. There are plenty of people who this is not true about. But it made me feel like I'm not going to be an athlete. Like, I'm not going to be - because my asthma is so serious, I'm not going to be an athlete, which was the problem was, I was a tall, rangy black dude.
So everybody thought I was a basketball player - thought I should be a baseball player. And people would express regret about the fact that I wasn't a basketball player. If I had your body, I would blah, blah, blah, you know. So there was this weird sense of feeling guilt about the fact that I wasn't using the physical shell that God had given me and that I wasn't taking advantage of my physical gifts that I felt bad for. It's just a weird thing for people to put on you.
But yeah, having asthma sort of made me feel like - more in my body than I think more people - I didn't feel that free. I didn't feel free to run or free to jump. And also because - along with asthma came allergies, so I became, you know - I think I naturally sort of gravitated to being an indoor kid not an outdoor kid. You know, that's a battle me and my wife to this day. She's an outdoor person, and I'm like, let's just stay inside. So it sort of formed - it helped formed who I am as a kid. Like, I was a TV kid. I stayed inside and watched TV all day. I didn't - outside wasn't a place to feel, like, fun and exciting. It was a place to get the sniffles and have hay fever.
GROSS: I'm wondering if - like when you were in public school, if there was a certain, like, bravado that a lot of kids had that you didn't in part because of the asthma.
BELL: Yeah. I mean, I think that the - sort of the strange thing was, like, I was pretty - I wasn't always the biggest kid, but I was always one of the taller kids. And yet, I think because of the - how I carried myself - and this is, you know, to this day to some extent - I was kind of a target for bullies at various points in my life because there was a sense of, like - I was like a big target that could clearly be taken down. Like, I was, like, - it was just clearly like - you're like - you're a big kid, so if I bully you, I'm going to look more impressive to the other kids.
It's really why I pursued such a fervent interest in the martial arts for so many years because I felt like I needed some backup. I needed to feel safe inside my body, and I needed to feel like my body was on my side in a way that, growing up, I didn't because of the asthma. So you know, that was - you know, started going in through Bruce Lee movies and then taking martial arts. And in high school, that was my thing but also not telling everybody else that I was taking martial arts because somehow it felt geeky or nerdy to be into martial arts at that point, so it was like a secret I had for a long time.
But yeah. For - certainly, the taking martial arts, feeling like I could learn how to defend myself made me feel like I could be more in my body and more comfortable in my surroundings in a way that I didn't feel like when I was a kid. I felt like I was probably - you know, a stiff breeze would blow me over. And never - and again, this is also, like, not being a kid who's listening to the right music or not watching the right TV shows, you know. What? We're not all - all black kids don't watch "Cheers"? What? That's just me?
BELL: We're not all watching "Dallas" on Friday nights with their mom? No? (Unintelligible).
BELL: You know, so, like, like feeling like there's nothing I do right. I can't - I'm not - I have this giant black man body, but I can't dunk a basketball. I'm not listening to the right music. I'm not watching TV shows. Yes, I definitely felt like, you know - there's many parts of my life I - not only did I feel invisible, I knew I was invisible, you know. There was sort of a - I knew I could get in and out of places pretty easily because I just - the way I moved around the world, I wasn't really making a big - I wasn't, like, claiming a lot of space. I could get out of places really easily. I was famous for, like - did Kamau leave? I would just be able to leave places even though I was the tallest person in the room because nobody knew.
GROSS: My guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He has a new memoir, and his CNN series, "United Shades Of America," started its second season last night. After a break, we'll talk about starting his career by not getting many laughs in either black clubs or white clubs. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with comic W. Kamau Bell. The full title of his new memoir is "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell: Tales Of A 6'4", African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic Comic" (ph). His CNN series, "United States Of America," started its second season last night.
So let's talk about comedy. Like, you knew you wanted to be - you loved comedy when you were a kid. You kind of wanted to be a comic. You had no idea how to get there from here. So you went to the University of Pennsylvania. You dropped out, moved back to Chicago, lived with your mother for a while and then started doing open-mic sessions in Chicago. And this was after, I think, she had - your mother had enrolled you at Second City which is a pretty cool thing for a mother to do.
BELL: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: That's pretty smart, right?
BELL: Yeah. No, I have the greatest mom of all time period to steal the title from my Denzel Washington podcast, yes. My mom is definitely, you know - she's on the Mount Rushmore of moms, and other people who meet her put - like, yeah, I wish I had your mom. So, yes, she enrolled me. She knew I loved "Saturday Night Live." She knew people from "SNL" came out to Second City.
We were in Chicago. It's on the north side of town, just take the bus there. I've enrolled you in classes at Second City. And it was sort of like a, oh - and I was in the middle of - I just dropped out of college. I'm watching like, you know, the LA riots on TV. I'm feeling like what am I doing with my life? And it's just like, OK. It was like get a job and go to class at Second City. I'm like - it was just like the two things I had to do. Yeah.
GROSS: So when you started doing open mic nights, you were doing them at predominantly white comedy clubs and predominantly black comedy clubs, which as you point out in your memoir had really different styles in addition to really different audiences. Can you compare what was happening at both of those clubs - both of those kinds of clubs?
BELL: Yeah. I started stand-up in 1994, so we're talking about the height of "Def Jam" comedy, like the "Def Jam" movement from HBO, Russell Simmons HBO's "Def Comedy Jam." And so black comedy which had been an underground phenomenon becomes mainstream on HBO, and it becomes the thing that, like, all these black clubs open up. And it becomes a thing that now we can - as a mainstream culture - we can identify a thing that's called black comedy.
You know, before that, you're talking about, you know, you got Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby who are very different, but they're sort of both considered to be black comedians. But now there's a thing that's called black comedy. And so a lot of black comedy rooms open up, rooms that are catering to black audiences which is great because those audiences didn't have those rooms before. So in Chicago, a club opens called All Jokes Aside which is a black comedy club.
But I started doing comedy in the north of Chicago which is the white, whiter side of town. And it's just - it's not even that they were like - it's, again, in America we don't say white. We just sort of say regular like so these are just - they're white rooms, but they're not broadcast as that. It's just a - it's a coffee shop where mostly white people are at or a bar where mostly white people hang out. So you - I find myself in these situations where if I go onstage in these white open mics and talk about racism. First of all, I wasn't funny. Let's be clear about that. But I could just feel the fact...
BELL: ...That there was a little bit - yeah. I always want to put it like it's not like I was too edgy for the room. Well, part of it, but also I was not funny. So there's a sense of like the audience is sort of like do I believe his experience? Is this true what he's saying? Is he making this up? And then - so it's like and I'm like - and so I'm having to sort of fight for what I'm sort of trying to say this is the truth. I'm having to fight for the premise and not fight for the punchline. But then when I...
GROSS: Oh, that's an interesting way of putting it. Yeah.
BELL: Yeah. You have to fight for like can we all agree that these are the facts of the situation? And that's what a premise of a joke is. You have to get the audience to buy into the facts as you're laying them out, even if the facts are ridiculous, you have to get them to buy in. But if they don't buy the premise, the punchline doesn't matter. The punchline can't be big enough if they don't buy the premise.
And so then I would go to - I would - I didn't spend a lot of time in the black comedy club because even walking in there, it felt like - it's like a little bit like public school on - you know, but grown-up. Like, it's like these are the same kids who when I was a kid were sort of like - I felt like I was being made fun of because I wasn't listening to the right music or I wasn't acting, you know, I wasn't being a black man in the right way. And now they're all adults, and they're drinking. And they want the show they've seen on HBO. They want the "Def Jam" show.
And I would watch their shows, and let's be clear - those shows are amazing, and they're powerful. And the performers really give it all to the audience. They don't leave anything on the floor. It's a very athletic experience, whereas in the white comedy clubs, a lot of times you can just stand behind the mic and not move. You can't really get away with that, especially at that point in black comedy. You couldn't really get away with that. And so any time I would sort of find myself going onstage in these places, it was just very clear to me that, like - it was very clear to me and the audience that, like, that you're not doing this the way we want it. And I'm not going to say right or wrong, but you're not doing this the way we want it.
And so I sort of got my - I got my feelings hurt quite often in a way that I didn't get my feelings hurt when white audiences didn't think I was funny. I was like, well, they didn't think I was funny. But when black people didn't think I was funny, it was like it hurt my soul. Like, it really like - it just - so it became a thing where I was like, well, I'm just not going to go over there. And then it feels weird that you can't perform in front of black people or you're afraid of it or you turn down gigs that every other black comic you know is doing. And it just feels like - and then - or me - and then I would meet other black comedians who felt the same way, but it was like a secret. Like, I struggle in black comedy rooms, too. It was like an AA meeting, a black comedy meeting like...
BELL: You know, hi, my name's Kamau, and I struggle at All Jokes Aside. Hi, Kamau. We love you.
BELL: And then as I got sort of - as I moved to the Bay Area and I started working different things, I would sort of just really start to go it's OK that I can't do those rooms. And any time I would do them, you know, the worst - worst than bombing in a comedy club, Terry, people don't realize is actually just doing mediocre. There's something beautiful about bombing. Mediocre is horrible. (Laughter). Like, it's like - people will tell the story of a comic who bombed big enough, you know, but, you know, it's like - but when you just do sort of kind of OK, nobody tells that story.
GROSS: Right. Because it means people are kind of indifferent to you.
BELL: Yeah. They're just totally different. They just like - the big thing it's like, you know, sort of people think the scariest thing is being heckled. No, the scariest thing is when people just turn to the people at their table and go, anyway, what do you want to talk about? - while you're onstage, which I had happen on many occasions.
And, you know, so it's like - and, again, it was like I would struggle with like, well, this just isn't my room and also it hurts my soul that I don't - that I can't connect with my people. And so ultimately I had to go find - I went to go find my audience. And now there are black people in my audience, but they sort of came to me specifically as opposed to just, you know, walking into a black comedy club.
GROSS: So a lot of like white comedy and a lot of like "Def Jam" comedy was about sex - or is about sex. And you write in your book so I feel OK bringing this up...
BELL: I think I know where we're going. My hands...
GROSS: Yeah - that you lost your virginity when you were 21, which is, you know, kind of old by modern standards. So...
BELL: Terry, why you got to tell everybody that?
GROSS: I'm sorry (laughter). So I'm wondering what it was like for you to be in these comedy clubs, you know, both the black ones and the white ones where so much of the material was about sex, and, you know, the mechanics of it, and, like, all of that, and, like, you hadn't experienced it yet.
GROSS: Is this an awful thing to ask?
BELL: You're really making a big deal out of this, Terry. You're really making a big - you really had no experience at all with (laughter). You'd never even seen a naked person before. I had a Playboy magazine subscription.
BELL: True facts. So that is a part of it, too - a part of it is that I don't even - I'm not even talking about the subjects that people talk about, and I think in comedy clubs generally because of the way the environments are built, they're sort of lend - they lend to the sort of the most sort of salacious topics. And sex is the easiest and most salacious topic out there, so I often find myself not being - like that's a part of the stereotypes of black comedy is how filthy it is or how dirty it is, and not - that's not true of every comedian.
But there is a sense of, like, you know, really getting quite like sort of really getting explicit. And I just wasn't generally an explicit person. And so what I would find in those situations is I would take my regular jokes about, you know, how come there weren't black people in "The Flintstones?" And I would swear more like (laughter) you know? Like, I would just - to try to, like, match the level of, like, the explicit nature of the language. And so - and, you know, me and a friend of mine, Kevin Avery, have talked about this how you sort of end up in a black comedy room like, you know - and I'm not going to swear now - but how come there's no mother F - blah, blah, blah, you know, like - and you're like about "The Flintstones?" You're this angry?
And it just - and then the audience is really - that's one of these - they just go you're not - it's like they're actually doing the right thing by telling you you're not being authentic right now. That's not how you are (laughter). Like, that's not your - you're putting this on, and it does not work. So, yeah, I - for me, I think the best thing that happened for me in comedy is age. I think growing up, having more life experiences, starting to care more about the world, having kids is the best thing, I think, really for all comedians, but specifically for my - for me as a comedian. Like growing up and being - having things to talk about and having a deeper connection to the world and really feeling more sense of the stakes of what is going on in the world was better for me.
I think there was no way like - you know, Dave Chappelle at 21 was amazing because of just how he was in the world and his take on the world. I was never - there was no way I was going to be amazing at 21. Like, there was - it's not - I'm very aware that was like, you know, it's not you, it's me. Like, it's - I'm, you know - I spent a lot of years just trying to figure out how to be funny. And then once I figured that out, like, why I wanted to be funny was the next thing. So...
GROSS: And that happened in your 30s?
BELL: Yeah, that happened in my 30s, yeah.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And then - and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He has a new memoir called "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell," and his CNN series, "United Shades Of America" just started its second season. We'll be back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He has a new memoir called "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell." And his CNN series, "United Shades Of America" has just started its second season. It's on Sunday nights.
You give an example in your book about getting called out for a joke you told about Condoleezza Rice when she was...
GROSS: ...National security adviser or secretary of state. I'm not sure which position she was in at the time you told the joke. This was in the Bush administration era. So why don't you describe that conversation that you had with your comic friend.
BELL: "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell," live on FRESH AIR with Terry Gross. Yeah, this was a really - I felt like it was really important for me personally to write this part of the book. I'm not saying it's important in and of itself. But it felt like it was really important for me to, like, sort of - I'd just sort of been asked about this a little bit throughout my career. It also felt like - it's really important to me that, you know, it's very easy for people to take the work I do and sort of make it, like, make me into this perfect person who sort of, like, lives some sort of, like - like, he lives this intersectional life. And I want to be clear about the fact, no, I'm struggling. And I will struggle again. And I will make a mistake again. And that's part of the thing.
So it felt like I'd never really written directly to this thing, and I'd often thought about it. So basically, my - one of my best friends, a woman named Martha Rynberg, who I met outside of stand up comedy - we met through a class I taught in solo performance - she - we became really good friends. We became really fast friends. Martha is a white woman from Maine, who at the time had one black child, her and her wife - her white wife, Mary had adopted. And, you know, she - Martha's a little bit younger than me. But in many ways, she was more grown up than I was. She had a kid. She wasn't coming to the club.
So I sent her the clip of me on Comedy Central that I did. I did "Premium Blend" in 2005. And I sent her the clip of me on Comedy Central. And it was my big success thing. I'd been on Comedy Central. And it was actually the clip where I did the joke about Barack Obama, what they credit as the first Barack Obama joke. So I was really proud of the clip because it has this joke about Barack Obama. And I felt like, look at this thing I did, Martha. Isn't it cool? And I never heard from her. Like, I emailed it to her. I sent it to her and never heard from her. And so finally, I was at her house. And I realized, she hasn't said something for a reason. And so I sort of, like - sort of started a conversation, like, hey, what did you think about that joke? That Barack Obama joke is still good, right? And she's sort of, like, all right, let's do this. (Laughter). She sort of said - she focused on the other joke that was in the clip, which was about Condoleezza Rice. And the joke is a joke that, ostensibly, the premise is about calling Condoleezza Rice evil for her - for working with the Bush administration. That's - not that that's even a great premise, but that was the premise of the joke, is that she was - that she's evil, you know.
And again, these are, like - I look back at the joke, the premise is flawed. I own that now. So it's about, she - she's this evil person because she works with the Bush administration. And this was during the height of everybody - of the left really being frustrated with the Bush administration and angry. So I felt like I was on solid ground. And it was also me beginning to be political onstage. So it was like - I was really, like - and part of being political, I thought, was being, like - taking big, like, aggressive swings at things. And so I can't just - I can't be nuanced about it. She's evil. But along the way of proving that she's evil, the joke is about her looks. And the joke is about me calling her unattractive. To be clear, I called her ugly onstage. And the audience has this big reaction of, like, whoa. Like, it's a very, like, sort of sophomorically provocative joke. And sometimes it did really well, and sometimes it would do not so well. And when it would not do well, I'd be like, 'cause I'm too edgy. They just can't handle it.
And Martha sits me down and goes, Condoleezza Rice looks like my daughter. Is Olive ugly? And it was just in this moment of, like - like, first of all, I got defensive, like, what are you talking about? She doesn't look like your daughter. But it's like, my daughter is a dark-skinned, African-American young girl with very sort of black features, the way Condoleezza - you know, and I'm not - I don't want to quote Martha directly. So if anybody's offended by how I'm saying this, I'm saying she was just saying that they have classic black features. And this is - and so when you - when you call Condoleezza Rice ugly, you're calling my daughter ugly. And as a black man who is - who's partnered with - at the time I wasn't married - with a white woman, how could you call a black woman ugly? Like, what is that doing for you? You're saying - I mean, you can date whoever you want to date. You can love whoever you want to love. Again, Martha's a lesbian. She gets that. But - but why would you want to be included with black men who are sort of, like, looked at as actively choosing white women over black women? Why would you want - because it's like, that's not why - you're not with Melissa because she's white, right?
And I was like, no, I'm with her because I love her. Yeah, but when you do that, you're suddenly putting yourself in league with black men who are getting accused of rejecting black women. And, you know - and at the time, I argued for the fact, well, it's edgy. And maybe - Martha, you don't know how comedy clubs work. And you can't - but she was very patient. And she was very clear. And it was very clear that, like, we were - I'm not - you're not going to talk me into your side of this argument, Kamau. You can keep doing the joke if you want to. But that's what, you know - but that's what it is. And it was heartbreaking.
GROSS: So how did that change you?
BELL: You know, it's funny as I talk about it now. It's, like - makes my stomach hurt. Martha was my friend. She was one of my best friends. And me and Martha had a very fast, good friendship. And I knew that Martha not only had my best interests at heart, but was actually making me a smarter, better person 'cause we were working collaboratively on a lot of things. And so in that moment, it changed me 'cause I was, like, it got super awkward. I wanted to run away from the conversation. But I also wanted to maintain my friendship with Martha.
And so in that moment, instead of running away, I sort of, like, just sat in the awkwardness and leaned into it, and then eventually, could very clearly hear that she was right. And despite the fact I thought, but it's going to make me less funny or it's going to make me not be as cool with my comedy friends or whatever, I'm not going to look as - I'm not going to be edgy. It was very clear to me that, like, if I want to maintain this friendship, I have to take this note because this note is real. And she was right.
She was 100 percent right, and it changed the course of my career. And I'm not saying I've been perfect about any of these issues. But it does make - but I'm very quick - when people call me out about things and I look at - I'm able to sort of sit in them and sort of go, OK, is this real? Is this a thing that I believe? And if they're right, then I say they're right. And I try to do better. So it's - you know, people on Twitter will sometimes be, like, you messed this up. And I'll be, like, oh, yeah. You're right, I did. Sorry about that. We'll try better next time.
GROSS: You know, some people say, well, you can't analyze humor like that. A joke is a joke. It's either funny or it's not.
BELL: But that - I mean, but that's that's also not true (laughter). Every comedian is analyzing the hell out of every joke they write. They're trying it. They're retrying it. They're changing the end. They're getting a new tag. They're asking their friends for funny parts. They're testing it. It's all about analyzing the humor. We're trying to pretend like these jokes come out of thin air. And I think that's the - we want jokes to be magic. But it's really math.
And so for me, it's like - it's about math about how you construct the jokes. But it's about communication. What do you want to communicate to the audience? And is the joke communicating that thing to the audience? And so it becomes clear to me the joke should be about politics. The punchline is not communicating politics. The punchline is communicating hatred and misogyny and sexism and anti-blackism (ph), you know so - and self-hatingism (ph). Like, it's just like - it's so - for me, it's, like, that's not what the joke was about. So then let's cut that part off. And so, you know, I think that we both want - we want to believe the comedians are just sort of onstage, extemporaneously talking. And there may be a few that are. But this is work.
And so for me, we don't want to show the work. I think that's the thing. It's, like, you don't - and, you know, a lot of comics don't want to sit around and talk about the craft because you don't want - you want to believe - you want people to believe it's magic. It's actually exactly like magic. It requires a lot of practice and a lot of work to make it look easy. So you - I think you can analyze a joke. And I kind of think that as a society, we don't take comedy seriously enough as a whole to analyze it. I think we should be analyzing it more. I think it's right - the stand-up comedy in America is as an important American art form as jazz. And jazz gets analyzed all the time. And it doesn't make it any less fun or any less good. It actually makes it deeper for those of us who want to know what's really going on with it.
GROSS: Well, I think we should take another break here. And then we'll be back. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. His new memoir is called "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell." He also has the second season of his CNN series "United Shades Of America" that just started Sunday nights. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. He has a new memoir called "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell." And his CNN series "United Shades Of America" just started its second season. It's on Sunday nights. So we've talked before about what it's been like for you to have a white girlfriend, who is now your wife and to have a child and now two children. So - and there's just, like, so many misunderstandings from strangers...
GROSS: ...You know, that have this, you know, kind of like beneath the surface, racist assumption behind it. So I know you've been through a lot of awkward stuff. I wonder as your children get older, how are your concerns about what they're facing changing? 'Cause, like, when your child is an infant, your child isn't out in the world by themselves. And they don't have to have, like, an identity (laughter). As they get a little bit older, they have to deal with that kind of stuff. So how old are they now?
GROSS: So how old are they now?
BELL: My oldest daughter is seconds away from being 6 years old. I mean, not literally, but she'll be 6 very soon. And my youngest daughter is 2 and a half.
GROSS: OK. So your youngest daughter isn't really dealing with that kind of stuff yet.
BELL: No, but she's still in the world, and she's still dealing with stuff, whether she realizes it's happening. I see her having to deal with the fact that she doesn't look as much like me as people think a daughter should look like their dad. And so I feel like - I'm always aware. Like, I don't know what's sort of soaking into her head that she's going to one day sort of manifest. You know what I'm saying?
BELL: So I'm aware of the fact that she's experiencing racism. She just can't name it yet. And, you know, I was talking about in airports she likes to run in airports, so she'll just run. And she'll get, like, you know, if it's just me and her hanging out together, she'll get like 20 feet in front of me. And people will see this 2 and a half year old running, and then they'll look around for the parent. And they don't see the parent.
GROSS: Right. That's interesting. Yeah.
BELL: Yeah, and so because I'm a comedian, I have fun with it. And I look around like, yeah, I wonder where the parent is.
BELL: Like, my God, this 2 and a half year old is running, and we have to really do something. And so I have fun watching people's reactions as they're like why is that 2 and a half year old by herself in the airport? Having said that, nobody's ever really made a big deal about it. They just go I guess she's got to catch her flight.
BELL: But, like, I'm very aware - on that level, it's like I don't think racism starts when you're able to name it. Racism starts way before that.
GROSS: So how are your concerns changing as your children get a little bit older?
BELL: You know, my daughter Sammy just started kindergarten. And, you know, now we're in this place of like, you know, she's in a private school. And one - and it's a school that is very racially mixed. There's a - they, you know, they give you the percentages of the kids who identify as being not white. So it's - there's a lot of kids of color. There's not, you know, for my money, there's not enough black kids, but that's just how I feel (laughter). You know, it's like - so when she started school, my daughter has what I would say is classic mixed girl hair with like that huge, like giant, like sort of light brown afro.
And she when she wears it out, she looks, you know, it's like this huge, like sort of sculpture of hair. And it's amazing, and it's fun. And so she would wear it out, and then she came home one day and said to my wife Melissa I don't want to wear my hair out anymore. And Melissa said why? She said because everybody touches it when it's out. And I know that that's racism. Like, that's - because I've had it. When I had dreadlocks, I had a similar experience. People think they have access to touch you without asking, and that's racism. And now it is little kid racism, but it's still parents not teaching their kids not to touch other kids without asking. You know I'm saying? And so she's just sort of experiencing like being standing around with her friends and somebody just suddenly grabbing her hair. And she doesn't like it.
And part of me wants to sit her down and go, Sami, this is racism. That's what you're experiencing. But she's not ready for that. So what I did was like I sort of swallowed hard and was like all right, Sami, if you don't want to wear your hair out, you don't have to wear your hair out. But just so you know, me and Melissa both said this - your hair is beautiful, we love it when it's out, and when you're ready to wear it out again, you can - we will - you can wear it out. So, you know, allowing her to have the agency to make her decision and then over the course of several months, she wore it down. And then one day she's like I want to wear it - I want to wear my hair out again.
And it, to me, just felt like allowing her to make that decision in her own time and also not sort of, you know - there's a part of us - there's a part of me was like, no, you're wearing your hair out tomorrow and every day because we're going to teach these kids that's ridiculous, sort of allowing her to make those decisions while at the same time feeling like a gut punch that like she's 5 and she's already experiencing the beginning strains of like - she's already being affected by racism in a way that it's making her change her behavior.
GROSS: Kamau, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
BELL: Thank you, Terry. It's always great. It's an honor to be back.
GROSS: W. Kamau Bell's new memoir is called "The Awkward Thoughts Of W. Kamau Bell." His CNN series "United Shades Of America" started its second season last night. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Ford who's written a new memoir about his parents, what shaped them, how they shaped him and how his arrival relatively late in their lives affected their marriage. He writes (reading) entering the past is a precarious business.
True enough, but we'll go there anyways. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.