Comedian W. Kamau Bell isn’t ready to embrace the title of Bernie Sanders “surrogate.” But as a Berkeley native, he jokes that he really has no choice but the feel the Bern.
“I can’t rep as hard for anybody as I repped for Obama,” Bell, whose new CNN show United Shades of America premieres this week, tells The Daily Beast in a wide-ranging interview about this major turning point in his career. The most he will say about the Democratic presidential race, the day before New Yorkers cast their votes decisively for Hillary Clinton, is this: “I’m hoping that by the time the primary gets to California that a vote for Bernie Sanders means something.”
Bell says he’s worried that if he does come out too strongly for one of the Democrats, the media will not only call on him to address racism, but also to speak for that candidate. “I’m not ready to be one of the black people he calls when it’s time to explain something,” Bell says of Sanders. “I’m glad the list is getting longer. First it felt like Killer Mike and Killer Mike’s cousin. Now it’s gotten to Rosario Dawson and Spike Lee.”
With his CNN debut on Sunday and a new stand-up special making its Showtime premiere this Friday, Bell’s profile is about to reach a whole new level. He titled the special Semi-Prominent Negro and in it he talks about becoming the guy the media calls when Al Sharpton isn’t available. “Because I’m a somewhat famous person, I get to decide how to end racism in America?” he wonders aloud, laughing.
Ending racism is a tall order for a “semi-prominent” comedian like Bell, who, up until now was best known for his short-lived late-night talk show Totally Biased and an unfortunate incident of real-life discrimination that he turned into a popular This American Life story. But with his CNN show, he is at least trying to remind people that racism still exists.
“I never wanted to be in the late-night talk show wars and I think somehow with Totally Biased I got caught up in all that,” Bell says of his previous show, which was canceled in November 2013. “Suddenly, there are articles about how we finally have a black voice in late-night.”
Totally Biased started off airing once a week and was moderately successful. But when FX moved the show to its new FXX spin-off network and tried to make it air five nights a week, it quickly fell apart. “John Oliver and Samantha Bee have proven that once a week is plenty,” Bell remarks now.
“There were definitely a few ways I could have gone after Totally Biased ended,” he adds. “One of those was getting a job at Starbucks.” But instead, CNN came calling with the idea to add him to its roster of travel reality programs, hosted by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Morgan Spurlock and Lisa Ling. Instead of sampling food from the around the world like Bourdain, Bell would “sample the racism” of America.
Sunday night’s premiere finds Bell traveling down south to confront members of the KKK on camera. In the opening scene, he drives down a dark country road to have a clandestine meeting with the Imperial Wizard of the International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I get out of the car, and I see the gun and then I see a phalanx of Klan members and I think I say, ‘Oh shit,’” Bell recalls. “That was legitimate. It wasn’t me trying to be funny. It was me thinking, ‘This might be a worse idea than I thought.’”
“By the side of the road, there was a sense of—since I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of me—that all of a sudden I could be overwhelmed by a hundred Ku Klux Klan members,” Bell continues. “You don’t know what they’re going to try to pull off. ‘Like, yeah we kind of want to be on CNN, but if we kill this black host, then we’re international news,’” he imagines them thinking. “That image and that costume and that idea has killed a lot of my people.”
“For a lot of Americans, they think the Ku Klux Klan is like the boogey man, they don’t actually think it’s a real thing any more,” Bell says. “For me, I’m excited for people to realize in a big way that this is real, they’re still out there. Just because they’re not in your community, doesn’t meant they’re not in any community,” he adds. “We can’t throw the worst part of racism into the dustbin of history.”
Of course, before Bell got his chance to remind America that the Klan still exists, Donald Trump did it for him. “To me, if there was ever a more cynical moment in electoral politics, I don’t know what it was,” he says of the Republican candidate’s reluctance to disavow David Duke and white supremacy. “You’re actually afraid of alienating the Klan?!”
“In a more sinister way,” Bell says, the Right has been trying to paint the KKK as a fundamentally Leftist organization, as evidenced by a Super Tuesday shouting match on CNN. “That was a long time ago. They have since moved into a new neighborhood called the Republican side of the aisle.”
Throughout the premiere, Bell uses comedy—in person, in voiceover and in taped stand-up bits that interrupt the action—to undercut the Klan’s message of intolerance. But at the same time, he is giving them a platform on the world’s most recognizable news network.
“I am aware that it’s a very volatile image,” he says, adding that he is mostly concerned about how African-American viewers will receive it. “For some black people, it’s going to be a hard thing to watch, to see the Klan in any format. Even if it’s a format that is trying to demystify them and tear down the veil—pun intended.”
He says he has already talked to some who watched the episode and think that he was “making jokes” with Klan members. As if “joking with the Klan” was the same as supporting them. “I knew we were heading into some choppy waters here,” Bell says. “But I just felt like, ‘Is this the kind of thing I’d want to see if I turned on the TV?’ If I turned on the TV and I saw a black comedian hanging out with the Klan, I think I would stop” and watch.
CNN is counting on it, airing United Shades of America immediately following Sunday’s season premiere of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which has been a big ratings winner for the network over the past several years. In Bell, they see the next Bourdain, with the added bonuses of controversy and comedy.
“There’s a lot of power in laughter,” Bell says of the show’s unique approach to difficult subjects. “Whenever I was making the Klan laugh about their own inconsistencies and hypocrisies, there’s power in that.” As an example, he points to a scene in which two KKK members try to convince him that being gay is an “abomination.” When Bell replies by pointing out that the Bible says the same thing about eating shellfish, one of them jokes about going to Red Lobster the night before. And just like that, he says, their “whole thing falls apart.”
“If you tell someone something and they’re not laughing,” Bell says, then you’ll never know whether or not they are actually listening. But if they’re laughing, he adds, “you know they’re listening.”