Kamau Bell is a 6’4” powerhouse of inquisitive thoughts and humor with a twist of emphatic reality. The comedian is California-born, Chicago-raised and now a ten-year resident of the Bay area. His comedy stand-up specials and tours have packed rooms around the country, and more and more fans are listening to his podcasts–“Politically Re-Active” and “Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period.”
Last year, viewers were treated every week to CNN’s new docuseries, “United Shades of America.” As the host, Bell traveled around the country tackling serious issues among Americans with real points of views. As the Emmy-nominated show gears up for a second season on April 30, Bell will release his new book, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell,” which hits bookshelves on May 2.
Bell takes on various topics as he reflects on his journey from a racially conscious upbringing, finding a unique fit on the competitive comedy circuit, interracial marriage, sexism, law enforcement, the political climate and embracing his Black nerd (Blerd)—all with a major dose of comedic relief.
The Chicago Defender has a candid conversation with the Kenwood Academy high school graduate—laced with much laughter.
Tell me about the new book, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell?
My career has gone through a lot of changes over the last five years from who is this brother to what’s this brother doing? For me it’s a good time to sit down and reflect on my whole life and how the last five years have changed.
It was a good time to reflect on my life and how I got to this point now. I thought maybe this comedy thing wasn’t going to work out. I have better memories of that than I do of the success. Some people think people come from nowhere, they think that you start to do comedy and suddenly you’re a star. That is certainly not the case for me.
You have Chicago ties even though you’ve been around the country. Do you feel that you’ve identified more with Chicago to say, ‘I’m actually from here?’
I have lived in the Bay area for 10 years. Although, I identified myself from Chicago and feel like a Chicagoan. We come back and really miss the city. As much as I hadn’t lived here since ‘97, it still feels like home. Mayor Daley did everything to make sure it doesn’t look like the city I left, but it still feels like home.
I’m glad that I’m from here, I’m glad that I went to high school here. Chicago is one of the world’s greatest cities.
When I would go out to the Bay area and do comedy and I would say, ‘I’m from Chicago’ somebody would cheer from the audience. I ask them, so you’re from Chicago, what part? They would respond, ‘River Forest’. I would be like, ‘No, no…that’s not Chicago’. [he laughs]
As a comedian, how do you make sure to reflect on serious issues with a sense of humor—without offending people?
For one, I just try to be myself and so I’m a person who thinks about serious things and I’m also a comedian. So, I’ll say funny things when I think of them. Also, I learned a lot from my first show “Totally Biased” that was produced by Chris Rock. Chris was really clear about the fact that it doesn’t matter about how serious something is, you can be funny about anything if you do it the right way.
The first season of United Shades of America, I really learned a lot on how to do this.
It’s clear from the second season that I’m more confident. For me it’s about being vulnerable and I really do want to have good conversations with people. One thing is to make them laugh, no matter what you’re talking about; if you make them laugh—that’ll draw a conversation.
What are some of the challenges that you face to make sure that you have that empathic tone in what you do?
Getting people to trust you. It’s an intense thing. Sometimes it involves life and death or trauma and tragedy. When you tell them, a comedian is coming to talk to you about your life—I wouldn’t trust that either. Before we start filming, I start to talk to them and let them know I’m not going to make jokes of them, I’m ready to have a conversation. That work begins before the camera begins to roll. Coming into the room speaking, making sure their comfortable and just letting them know, they’re the star.
Do you practice discretion on political topics during your stand-up routine versus the television show?
I think with the show, you can talk about something that happened early that day. If you’re a comedian onstage and you didn’t say the words, ‘United Airlines’ you weren’t doing your job. With the television show, you must discuss things bigger that are cultural movements that we’ve all observed in this country. It was easier with the second season. We were filming during the election. There were several groups targeted to feel America wasn’t their country and not feeling welcomed. By the time the shows air, those subjects would still be relevant. I felt candidate Trump gave us homework assignments for what shows we should do this season.
What is the best advice that you can share with people who are moving into comedy and the entertainment world?
I think you must be your own worst critic. You don’t want somebody else to be a better critic of yourself than you. You don’t want to keep putting work into the world that isn’t good and you don’t realize it. I find that I put out work into the world and the critics say it isn’t good, I say, ‘yeah, I know.’ But if you feel that you did your best job, that’s different. When you start in stand-up comedy, you must get on stage as much as possible—to find out what works.
Chicago is a great stand up town. [However,] if you’re going into the entertainment industry, if you are not a heterosexual, good looking white male over six feet tall, you’re going to have to be prepared to work harder. You’re not going to be able to [just] show up at auditions. You will have to create the opportunities to get work.
Bell will be signing his new book for fans at The Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois, on May 4 at 7:30pm. For more information, visit BookTable.net