W. Kamau Bell returns to CNN to throw ‘Shades’
The flash of faces across the CNN promo spot is instantly recognizable, a swirl of anchors and reporters ubiquitous in these news-obsessed times.
The last one, however, is not the like the others. It belongs to W. Kamau Bell, a stand-up comic whose previous cable foray was a short-lived late-night show on FX.
“No comedian grows up thinking, ‘I hope one day to have a show on CNN,’” Bell said with affable wryness. “Blitzer, Lemon, Amanpour, Bell. It seems wholly ridiculous, and yet wholly like my career.”
The series, “The United Shades of America,” appears absurd only at first glance. What felt to some like a novelty when it launched last year — a lefty comic exploring controversial topics — soon became as serious as the electoral college. In the first episode, Bell met with KKK members. In the second, he visited inmates at San Quentin State Prison.
When the eight-episode sophomore season kicks off Sunday, “United Shades” will continue its theme of what might be called lighthearted heaviness. Bell heads to the violence-wracked South Side of Chicago and a Maryland town considered one the most diverse in the nation, embarks on a quest to buy a gun (as much moral journey as travelogue) and interviews Richard Spencer at an alt-right conference.
There is much kibitzing with subjects — Bell doesn’t do much more than chuckle amiably as Spencer fires jaw-droppers about white superiority — and humorous voice-over asides.
This season “United Shades” beefs up the observational stand-up that wraps around the segments. (On the difference between immigrants and refugees: “When you move out of your apartment at noon … and when you move out at 2 in the morning.”) But the topics are not laughing matters.
This might seem the wrong time for a Kumbaya show in which a black liberal from the Bay Area seeks dialogue with Trump voters in coal country.
Or, Bell argues, it could be the best moment for it.
“As the left we have to get outside of ourselves,” he said. “It sounds so simple and so corny, but what we need is a real conversation. People in Hollywood can condescend to the way a lot of other people are living. I like living in Berkeley but I know Berkeley’s not the world.”
As he had lunch at a restaurant near CNN headquarters last week, Bell flashed the mix of warmth and snark that makes him, in the network’s eyes, the right person to deliver this message.
“When things aren’t going well for black people they blame the government,” he said in one example, carefully deconstructing motives on both sides of the racial divide. “When things aren’t going well for white people they can’t blame the government because the government is supposed to be for them. So they blame black people.”
He sees economic anxiety as a key driver of racism and believes most people — even KKK members — would be more open-minded if their lives were just going better.
“People may not like this, but I felt empathy for the Klan when we shot that episode,” he said. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’re underemployed, and why is that?’ They bought the myth of white supremacy and now they’re not supreme.”
Bell says the box into which we put many Americans is too small to contain them. Taping a segment in Dearborn, Mich., he met an imam from Yemen who was voting for Trump. He was startled until the imam explained his rationale: the man believed Trump would be the most aggressive toward ISIS.
Bell, 44, has become a showbiz success through DIY means — one-man shows, multiple podcasts, a book. (“The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6' 4", African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian” comes out later this week.) Acting roles are not a priority. “If I’m thinking like a lot of comedians — ‘How do I get that part in the next ‘’Transformers’’?’ — I’m doomed.”
When his FX series “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell” — a blend of wobbly sketches, stand-up and street bits — flopped several years ago, he might have been. (Bell blames both a show runner who pushed him in the wrong direction and himself for not pushing back.) He thought he was done.
“I was going to be big in the Bay and that was it,” he said. “You know, that comedian every city has, the hometown hero who never made it.”
But CNN under Jeff Zucker was seeking a host for a new comedic show that talked issues out on the road. At first the idea was to have Bell exclusively visit white areas, but “that would have gotten old fast. ‘Episode 4: Back at the country club!” So it became about generally going where coastal liberals rarely tread.
Bell is a large man with wild hair and wide eyes. He punctuates many statements with a big laugh, a kind of disarming dorkiness. His easy manner makes potentially hesitant interview subjects — and viewers — less skeptical.
But the criticism in some quarters has been of exactly this friendliness: that he can let subjects off the hook by cracking a joke instead of asking the tough question.
He says such naysaying misses the point.
“I want the person to feel as comfortable as possible, because then they’ll sit in that seat as long as possible,” he said. “The longer they’ll sit there the more they’ll say something I didn’t expect to hear and you didn’t expect to learn.”
Amy Entelis, CNN’s executive vice president for talent and content development, said, “I think Kamau has a way about him that makes a person feel at ease even though it’s very clear how he feels. He doesn’t do a typical journalistic grilling, but the end result is provocative and insightful.”
Bell has a complicated relationship with his race, following pursuits that don’t fit mass preconceptions. Growing up in Chicago, he took more interest in Marvel than Method Man — an only child who, left to his own devices, found comedy and other nerdy hobbies.
“There was a time when I felt bad watching Johnny Carson instead of listening to hip-hop,” he said. “And it’s the same with my career, where I feel bad about not being a more traditional stand-up. But not really.”
He was quiet in high school, with just a few friends and has made his adult life about turning those inward thoughts into gregariousness.
These days, those thoughts come fast and furious. Casually asked about the next leaders of the Democratic Party, he says “we need to hire an NBA scout-person to travel the globe and find new talent in like the hinterland of Africa, because the people we have here aren’t doing it.”
He said that for all his research — not to mention the brand of his current employer — he still resists a tag some might place on him.
“If I woke up and decided to call myself a journalist I’d immediately become one of the world’s worst journalists,” he said, ending the thought with a big laugh. “Fortunately, there are a lot of people doing good journalism so I don’t have to.”
‘United Shades of America’
When: 7 and 10 p.m. Sunday
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter, sent twice a week, for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.