- John Novak
W. Kamau Bell could be considered a Renaissance man on the subject of race. He's known for many things: his albums, his activism, and his roles as author, television host and radio and podcast commentator. He pontificates about politics and social issues and is one of the most thoughtful pundits in the nation today. He's also one of the funniest.
As a comedian, Bell sheds light on the indignities and injustices that have permeated our nation's history. Because many of the topics he touches on often expose raw nerves in the country's collective psyche, it's fair to say Bell is a daring and defiant individual, a man who's unafraid of straddling the racial divide. And yet, he never fails to make his audiences laugh, and, in the process, gain a deeper understanding of the topics he tackles.
Still, he does admit that it can be a fine line that divides comedy from commentary. "Comedy is the way I communicate," Bell remarked during a recent phone conversation. "I'm always trying to communicate and share a message. If I'm doing stand-up, I'll lean towards the laughs. If I'm on CNN, I'll lean towards the commentary. For me, I think people relate more towards the comedy, so I feel like I'm walking in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, George Carlin, and the people that inspired me."
Given the state of the nation in 2019, one would think that Bell might be hard-pressed to mine laughter from what's become an increasingly hostile environment, where racial animosity is often approved by those sitting at the highest levels of government. Bell says he's still determined to stay the course.
"I'm always in the moment, so I'd be doing this no matter who is the president or what's going on in the country," he maintains. "Certainly, though, it feels like the work's a little more special when you're living in times like these." But, he adds, he has his three children to keep him grounded.
Because of all the jobs he balances—in particular, the CNN documentary program United Shades of America, for which he garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Host of a Reality Program—he's acquired the need to be an effective multi-tasker. "If you ask my wife, not that well," he responds when asked how he juggles his myriad responsibilities. "In the early part of my career, I was unknown and not working that much. So I have a hard time saying no to things, especially things that I think are important. I want to get as much out of my career as possible. I feel that there's nobody else doing things this way, so I have to take advantage of that. It's my particular spin on things."
That unique spin has led him to record three successful comedy albums, star in a well-received Showtime stand-up special and pen a 2017 autobiography, 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. In addition, he continues to host a variety of podcasts and take part in several think tanks. In 2013, he was named a celebrity ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union, and in 2017, he was tapped to be an artist in residence at Santa Clara University.
It's not surprising he's developed a successful rapport with white audiences that negates any sense of confrontation or hostility, despite the sore subjects that saturate his stand-up. "I think we have to remind ourselves that not all white people are the same," he says with a laugh. "I know it sounds funny to say this, but I've been around white people all my life. So it's not like when I stand before them I don't know how to talk to them. I know how to relate to people. There certainly are individual people who have their own feelings, but we can work our way through that, because I've been doing this for a while now. I know that if an audience is willing to sit in a room with me, then we can figure something out."
Still, it's easy to be angry these days. Bell, however, believes that his methods have allowed him to effectively channel his outrage. "This is the way I process the anger and frustration," he insists. "Comedy is a relief valve."
Maybe, just maybe, Bell is the kind of leader this country needs. Would he ever consider running for office?
"It's funny," he responds. "We need a comedian to run for office? It says more about the current leaders in office then it says about me as a qualified candidate."