- Kamau Bell
I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Kamau I think sometimes people think you’re just there to shoot the show and you don’t really care about them as a person. For me, it’s like, “No, no, we’re here because we care about you as a person. I want you to feel like the show is a fun thing to do,” so it’s my job to keep it fun.
Alan: 00:00:00 Kamau, thanks for being on the show this is great.
Kamau: 00:00:04 You don’t know how great this is Mr. Alda. I want to call Mr. Alda. It’s a surreal experience when I heard that you wanted me on your podcast, I know it’s your podcast, but I just have to take a moment to be like I’ve literally been a fan of yours since I watched television. There was no bigger show in my house than M*A*S*H so, and I know that’s taking you back quite away, but I’ve been watching you since I was too young to know what was going on television.
Alan: 00:00:30 You notice, I’m not stopping you.
Kamau: 00:00:31 I noticed.
Alan: 00:00:33 I could have cut in there almost anywhere.
Kamau: 00:00:35 Anywhere but no, no, it’s a huge honor and I’ve of course followed your career since then. You don’t imagine when you start in show business that you’re going to end up sitting across from somebody who literally helped form your idea of what comedy was.
Alan: 00:00:46 Well, that’s really kind thank you and I’ve been following your career for a shorter period of time, but it’s really impressive and it’s made me want to talk to you on the podcast. Because you know we talk about relating and communicating. You’re at like the cutting edge of communicating. Communicating with the whole culture about the culture it’s really a remarkable thing you do. For the people who don’t know, I could describe the show you’re doing; The United Shades of America, but would you describe it?
Kamau: 00:01:25 Yeah, it’s funny I think we just finished our third season just aired on CNN and I think my description of it has changed the deep read into it. It’s really like a conversation with all the different parts of America, talking about what has gone wrong. It’s really like from a comedian’s perspective because I am a stand-up comedian, that’s my core operating system.. When we talk about America a lot of times, we’re thinking very narrowly about who an American is. The whole idea for the show is to really broaden our perspective of like, who is an American and what their stories are.
Alan: 00:02:34 ?You go all over the place. You go to towns that a lot of us never heard of and you talk to all kinds of people. People in Appalachia, and then you suddenly are talking to the KKK. Now, that has to have been a scary and strange experience?
Kamau: 00:03:00 Yeah, I mean it was really multi layered because that was the pilot episode of the show, it was me talking to the Ku Klux Klan.
Alan: 00:03:08 If the show didn’t get picked up you could die, and nobody would care.
Kamau: 00:03:13 At least I’ll have a story, or my descendants will have a story; my next of kin will have a story. “What happened to your dad?” “Well he was trying to get a job real bad.”
Alan: 00:03:22 What impressed you meet this guy on an empty road at night lit only by headlights, and the first thing he says is, “Now you’re disguising my voice right?” Not enough that he’s wearing a full tilt hood from head to toe, but he doesn’t want to … Does that say something about how prepared they are to be open about what they have to say and who they are?
Kamau: 00:03:55 Well it’s funny you know like when you see the what happened with many of the and I know the movement has different names, but commonly called the Alt Right in like the wake of Charlottesville. Those guys went out there without hoods on, and you could see their faces. Many of them went home and find out their jobs didn’t exist anymore for them, they got fired because …
Alan: 00:04:15 I didn’t know that.
Kamau: 00:04:15 A lot of those Alt Right guys who were seen on TV and in footage, in news footage and then pictures like yelling these horrible things, went back to their hometowns and got fired. Because they were like, “You can’t work at the hot dog stand after you did that.” Literally, I’m saying that there was a guy in Berkeley who worked at Top Dog who was photographed in Charlottesville and got fired, like we can’t have you here. It’s like the Klan put on the hoods for a reason, they knew they couldn’t be identified with these ideas as much as they claim to be proud of them. Those hoods and him wanting to disguise their voice was for, “We know this is not appropriate on some level.”
Alan: 00:05:44 What were you aiming for as you talked to that guy for instance? Were you letting him talk and then readying a pertinent question to see how he’d react? Because you seem you seemed kind of forgiving?
Kamau: 00:06:03 Let me clear about this. I’d never had that job before that day. The travel show host goes out and talks to people. There’s also part of this that I tell people, it was also like my first time ever working with that crew. It was like there was all these things happening, like, “I’m I standing in the right place? Does the crew like me? They’re all white; are they secret Klan members?”
Alan: 00:06:26 You are surrounded.
Kamau: 00:06:27 There was a lot going on that when I looked back, I see a guy who’s like, “I also need this job because my wife’s pregnant with our second daughter,” I see all these things. There’s all these things going on, but when I think about what were we were trying to do, as a comedian who’s traveled around, as a person who’s moved who’s lived all over the country. I know that some people know things to be true that other people can’t imagine. The Ku Klux Klan is one of those things that I every …
Alan: 00:06:53 When I said you sounded forgiving, it’s not that I would have preferred you to engage that guy on the dark road that night, in a debate. Part of the whole thing that I’m exploring on this show is to see how people can meet and find one another, find some common place that they can agree on where they see one another’s humanity. You don’t get there I don’t think, by yelling at each other.
Kamau: 00:07:22 No and when people say like, “Why didn’t you hit that person? Or why didn’t you start a fight?” I’m just like, “Didn’t we all see how that worked on Jerry Springer in the ’90s? I thought we had gone through that era of television like that didn’t accomplish anything on Geraldo?” I mean, I lived in Chicago a lot for a long time. I remember when Oprah went, “I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to invite people on my show, just to fight. If you’re going to come on my show, I will give you the respect of letting you speak.”
For me, I know there’s people in this country, many of them white people who had no idea the Ku Klux Klan still existed. I know people in this country many of them black people, like, “Yeah, they’re still out there, and we’re aware of them, and we keep our eye on them.” For me, it was like, and this is true of every episode of the show.
There’s a group of people who are watching the show going, “I know all of this because I’m of this, or I’m concerned about this already.” Then there’s usually a larger group watching the show, they are like, “I had no idea this existed.” That’s true, whether it’s the Ku Klux Klan, or whether it’s the people who follow the Sikh religion, which we did this season. Or whether we’re talking about people living at the border, the larger audience for the show is the people who are like, “I didn’t know about this.” Then the core audience inside of that is people who are like, “This is my life, or this is my experience.” Then their concern is, “I hope he gets this right.”
For me, it’s like those are the two things I have to play with is like making sure the bigger audience understands this new group they haven’t heard about before or thought about. Also making sure that the core audience, people who are affected by this don’t think that I’m screwing it up.
Alan: 00:08:48 I’m wondering to what extent you are able to connect to some of the people who have different backgrounds. Not necessarily people who are antagonistic to you, but just have a completely different background. For instance, when I was on the science program, Scientific American Frontiers, I would spend the whole day with the scientists I was interviewing.
I found I sometimes got closer to them as a person and learned more about their science between the shots, during the setups while the crew was busy getting ready. We’d just be wandering around chatting, did you have any experiences there were something like that?
Kamau: 00:09:37 Yeah, I mean, it’s for me like it’s funny, being the host of the show, which is not even a title I even thought about when I got the show. It starts when that person shows up to do the interview, or when you show up to their house or their place of work to do the interview. That a lot of times, producers want to shield you from that person until it starts, because they want you to keep everything fresh. But for me, it’s super important to walk up to that person say hello, say thank you. Do you need any water? Somebody get this person some water.
Then between the shots just sort of keep them engaged. Because I think sometimes people think you’re just there to shoot the show and you don’t really care about them as a person. For me, it’s like, “No, no, we’re here because we care about you as a person. I want you to feel like the show is a fun thing to do,” so it’s my job to keep it fun.
Alan: 00:12:50 Let me ask you a personal question. What does W stand for?
Kamau: 00:12:57 My dad’s name is Walter Alfred Bell. I am Walter Kamau Bell, there’s some argument and dispute between our parents as to whether or not they wanted me to be a junior. I have a different middle name so I’m not a junior.
Alan: 00:13:42 So where did Kamau come from?
Kamau: 00:13:44 I was born in East Palo Alto or that’s where my parents were when I was born. At that point in the early ’70s, late’ 60s East Palo Alto was calling itself Nairobi, California. Because they wanted to be like Nairobi, Kenya, because Kenya had just kicked out the British people and had independent rule. There was a strong militant black community in Nairobi, California, East Palo Alto that took on Kenyan names. Kamau is a Kikuyu name, and in Kenya, naming your kid Kamau is like naming your kid Michael here. It’s a very common name, and especially around Nairobi.
Alan: 00:14:23 I’m glad I asked you. That’s an interesting derivation of the name. One of the things that struck me in your talking or your writing, maybe it was when you were talking in an interview on the radio. You said that you felt for a long time you weren’t black enough, and that even other black people said you weren’t black enough. What do you think that means? What does it mean to you?
Kamau: 00:14:55 I blame my mom for making us watch so much M*A*S*H as a kid, that wasn’t America’s most popular black show in the ’70s, we should have been watching more Good Times and the Jeffersons.
Alan: 00:15:05 [Then you’d talk 00:15:05] television black.
Kamau: 00:15:06 Yeah, and to be clear, we watched plenty of Jefferson and Good Times. I think that I was an only child we moved around a lot. I think I just sort of developed like, sort of followed my own nose and danced to the beat my own drummer. Then I would show up in places where you know, and also at my age, I’m basically this exact age of hip hop in America. I just wasn’t listening to it as a kid in the same way that felt like every black person around me was. I was really more interested in TV comedians, like, that was my that was my hip-hop.
I would often find myself in conversations where there were references I didn’t get, or things I didn’t know as well. I would get quiet and then sometimes when black people would sort of not confront me, but really directly ask me questions, I had to admit that I didn’t listen to hip-hop or I didn’t know those things.
You are a kid, you’re in elementary school, in high school, it’s the time when kids are trying to define themselves, and a lot of times kids define themselves about that they are better than other people around them. I felt like I wasn’t doing black right as a kid a lot of times up and through probably college, beginning of college.
Alan: 00:16:07 The reason that caught my ear is that the idea of not being black enough sounds to me like there’s the fear of being absorbed too much into the white culture. Yes, your show is about all the cultural attributes we live among, finding a way to get to know one another and absorb one another into one another’s lives. Those two ideas sound a little bit in conflict but maybe it’s stirring the pot and not actual conflict, but doesn’t your show kind of move us toward meeting that other person, that other part of the culture?
Kamau: 00:16:58 I mean, I hope so. Let me be clear to this day there are still black people because I’m on social media a good bit, that think I’m not black enough. Because I’m a black man who’s married to a white woman, and because a lot of the things I do on the show, I’m not always coming from the black perspective. I’m not always, I definitely find myself as a black man, but I’m like, I’m also trying to reach out to, you know, a lot of black people were mad that I put the KKK on TV, you know what I’m saying?
I’m still getting that criticism it’s just it doesn’t hit me in the same way anymore. Because I get as an adult who’s married with three kids and who really believes I’m doing good work in the world, I get to define what black is for me, and I understand that now.
I didn’t understand it then. I also think it is as a person moved around as I’ve said, it’s really important for me to meet lots of different types of people and understand. When I was a kid there was this idea that we were the melting pot, and it was like, no, we’re not trying to melt into each other, we’re just trying to respect each other. If you want to be a sick American over there, that’s great, and I’ll be a black American married to a white woman with three mixed race kids here and that’s fine. It’s good that I know about you so that when I see you, I’m not afraid of you or I’m not suspicious of you, or I understand you. It’s not about us all melting together it’s just about us respecting and creating space for each other.
Alan: 00:18:24 It’s interesting to me you talked at one point about Terry Gross, I think asked you about the head of PR at Netflix, I think who had said the what everybody calls the N word, got fired for it. I think you were interested in how quickly that firing took place. But one of the things that I thought about was how we who are not considered to have color, though it seems to me everybody’s got some color.
Kamau: 00:19:07 Everybody’s got some color but yes.
Alan: 00:19:08 Everybody’s got flesh tone.
Kamau: 00:19:10 Yes, that that peach crayon.
Alan: 00:19:14 We are sort of corralled into not objecting when it happens, and in a way it’s good we’ve reached a point where everybody said immediately, you can’t talk like that so casually. I remember so clearly a moment 50 years ago, when late at night, I parked my car and I saw somebody trying to break into another car, a block later there was a police car. I said, I think there’s somebody down the street trying to break into a car and he said what color is he? I don’t know what term I used black or whatever was the popular term.
Kamau: 00:20:03 At the time yeah.
Alan: 00:20:05 Only because I’d been asked. A little light went off in my head at that. Then the guy gets on the radio. The policeman gets on the radio and said, we’re at the corner of such and such, and there’s a nigger breaking into the car. Now I wasn’t the guy in the boardroom with the Netflix guy who used that word. I’m standing on the street in the middle of the night next to a cop who is carrying a gun. I was like a deer in the headlights. I didn’t know what to say or do, but I was sort of in a way silently coerced into going along with it. I’ve felt bad about that all my life because I would have liked to have had the courage to say something officer we …
Kamau: 00:21:00 We don’t use officer put down your CB radio and let’s talk let’s have a diversity training seminar, while that guy maybe does or doesn’t steal that car.
Alan: 00:21:10 That’s a question that I imagine you have to worry about all the time, is people who believe they are of goodwill and you could say are of goodwill, but don’t stir anything up.
Kamau: 00:21:24 I think that’s I live in the Bay area, which is the probably the good intentions capital of the United States of America. A lot of those good intentions are not actually, you know, leading to action or they’re not being used appropriately. I think it sort of makes sense that I live here because every day I’m sort of like trying to, like sort of correct people’s past, or sort of or learn about other people’s past so I can correct my own path.
It’s a constant thing that I think if I was living where my dad lived in Mobile, Alabama, I would be dealing with there’s just different levels of concern there and different ways in which people the culture move. For me, and I say this to people all time, the important thing isn’t always what you do in that moment. The important thing is what you do in the following moments. Like, yes.
Alan: 00:22:05 Go ahead what do you mean by that? That’s interesting.
Kamau: 00:22:08 There’s times and this just happens all time with black people. Like, if a cop does something that you think is racist, or you think is, you know, sometimes you just want to get out of the situation alive, you know what I mean? You just want to like, let me move out, let me get out of the situation. Then there are multiple things you can do later. You can call the precinct you can write a blog, you can go to the ACLU, there’s all these things.
You can talk to people in the community about it, you can organize a group, there’s all these things you can do later to make up for that moment that you felt like I wasn’t my best self in that moment. I think sometimes people think if I wasn’t my best self in that moment, then the moment’s lost.
Alan: 00:22:43 What can you do? Maybe I’m missing here what can you do in the next moment?
Kamau: 00:22:48 You have an opportunity to connect with people in your community, I don’t know where you were at work, or in Hollywood or wherever to go …
Alan: 00:23:04 I was a poor actor out of work.
Kamau: 00:23:06 Well, there you go. But I’m saying you can if you have a conversation with another poor actor out of work in that community about like, hey, I saw this cop say this thing, and it made me feel this way, what do you think about that? You start to change the conversation, you start to initiate new conversation. It’s not always about like, well, I guess we got to have a boycott and I guess we got to march on Washington. Which I mean, eventually it gets there sometimes, but I think sometimes it’s about like don’t steer clear from those uncomfortable conversations with those people around you.
That I think sometimes we just sort of we bury that stuff inside of ourselves and just, it becomes that story like you said that you felt bad about for 50 years. Let’s say you would talk to cool people in the community let’s say one of them was like you know I know that cop he said something to me like that.
Then you go wait a minute, this is bigger than I thought it was. We need to go to the precinct you know, maybe there’s just any number of things that you can do in those moments. Or also and this is another thing you can do. You can go the next time that happens or anything like that happens, I’m going to do something different. You know what I mean? I think it’s like be prepared.
Alan: 00:24:05 The idea of being prepared for something like that really appeals to me, because it’s too late to start figuring out a strategy during an emergency, and that’s an emergency.
Kamau: 00:24:18 As a stand-up comedian this to me is exactly why I do stand-up comedy. I wish I’d been funnier in the moment, oh I thought of something funny to say later I’ll go say it on stage and pretend like I said that.
Alan: 00:24:30 Who’s going to know?
Kamau: 00:24:34 Who’s going to know that’s what I yeah, I said it.
SET UP CHANGE TO A NOVEL WAY OF DOING COMEDY…
Alan: 00:24:38 Tell me how you did you make a transition from being a conventional stand-up comic, to one with social conscience at the forefront like this?
Kamau: 00:24:52 Yeah, I mean, I did it, but I don’t know that I started it that way. I just I think at the time it was like I was drowning in failure. I was like I need to figure out a way to not drown in failure. It was really like a thing where …
Alan: 00:26:24 What was your material about?
Kamau: 00:27:03 I was just panning for punch lines. I was just like if that’s funny, I’ll say it whether I really care about it or not. What happens is the audience watches you perform even for an hour, they don’t really have a sense of who you are, I could headline a night, but it wasn’t like afterwards anybody cared about what are you doing next? I mean so I had some fans but it there was nothing building and at that point, I was in my early 30s, and I was like, at some point you go is this what I do for living? Am I just an okay comedian?
Alan: 00:27:54 What did you do then? How did you change it?
Kamau: 00:27:59 Basically, after a series of bad shows, I did, I took a month or so off and was like maybe I’m quitting, maybe I don’t want to do this anymore. Then in that space I was like, well if you didn’t quit if you could do anything you wanted to do, in my mind, I was like let’s pretend you’re already famous, what would you be doing?
At that moment, it just sort of came to me, I would want to do a show like John Stewart does on The Daily Show, but I would make it about race and racism. Then you sort of go well you can’t, but you can’t do that because you can’t get a TV show, so what’s the what’s the thing you can do now? I rented a theater I borrowed a friend’s projector I plugged my computer up to it. I started learning how to do keynote and PowerPoint even though I didn’t know how to do it.
The first show we forgot to get a stand for the projector, so my wife sat with the projector in her lap, burning her legs. She was my girlfriend at the time, but I was like, I think I should marry her someday. She could hold a heavy hot thing in her lap for an hour. I just sort of taught myself how to do PowerPoint and taught myself how to make these slides and did it once a month for four months. By the end of that time media in San Francisco suddenly knew my name. The shows were selling out little black box theaters that held like 50, 60 people, but they were selling out and I was aware …
Alan: 00:29:29 You were doing a kind of a funny lecture. It sounds like?
Kamau: 00:29:31 It was like I used to call it a one man show, it was called the W. Kamau Bell curve ending racism in about an hour. If you brought a friend of a different race you got in two for one, which we actually did.
Alan: 00:30:04 It seems that hooking up with getting to know hooking up is not a word you can use anymore.
Kamau: 00:30:10 No, it’s all right.
Alan: 00:30:12 Connecting with another person and finding out about their lives is a good warming up experience for both people, and one that sounds to me like will bring us together. It’s very much what your show is about. It’s not that easy to do. When I was a kid there were jokes about take a black person to lunch, take a Jew to lunch, a program they had.
Kamau: 00:30:46 One of Lenny Bruce’s early great jokes was how to relax your colored friends at parties.
Alan: 00:30:56 I mean, as long as it seems like an excursion to a foreign country that’s not going to get us very far it seems to me.
But I do think that like we are surrounded by more information than we’ve ever been surrounded by in the history of the world, and it’ll be more from … Some of its true yeah, and there’ll be more information tomorrow and some of that will be true. There’s any number of ways for you to get this information without confronting that person on the subway; tell me why you wear that thing on your head? I think that’s not the way to go about it.
Alan: 00:32:05 Probably not.
Kamau: 00:32:07 That that could apply to any number of faiths or lifestyles why you were that thing on your head that could be its own show.
Alan: 00:32:12 When you were talking about all the information that’s coming at us, I was remembering the line I don’t know who wrote this, but I love it; don’t forget that Abraham Lincoln said you can’t trust the internet.
Kamau: 00:32:29 That’s funny.
Alan: 00:32:55 You know we can’t settle on a name. It’s very interesting to me. I wonder what you think of this I think of this every once in a while. We can’t settle on being able to talk about somebody without referring to race, if there’s any trace of what I guess you could call loosely non-white heritage. If somebody someplace in the recent past had a black ancestor, that person is referred to publicly as black. The interesting thing to me about all of this is that we all came out of Africa, all of our ancestors did. Everybody every single person living in America is African American.
Kamau: 00:33:52 I think this all comes down to and I talked about this in my solo show the Bell curve is that race isn’t real, and a lot of people it’s a social construct which is why it changes all the time, because society makes up new rules for what it needs at the time. There was a point at which my daughters who are I’m black, and my daughter’s mom is white, they would have been called Mulatos and that wouldn’t have been an insult, that was just what they were called.
Alan: 00:34:55 So you have three daughters; how do they identify themselves?
Kamau: 00:35:01 Well the oldest one Sammy is seven and she has grown up always sort of understanding that no matter her skin color, and it is sort of changing gotten darker over time that she’s black and mixed race. Even though her mom is white, and her dad is black she understands that she’s black and mixed race. My four-year-old is way lighter than Sammy, she’s not as light as her mom and she’s really, I’ve seen say me try to explain to her that she’s black and [Juno 00:35:28] will just go no I’m not black because she looks at her skin and her skin is very light.
It’s this thing where it’s like we have to just keep having a constant conversation about what you think you are is one thing, how you define yourself is one thing, how the world defines you is another thing, and also how we in our family define ourselves it can be a third thing. I realized with Juno my four-year-old like we have to keep having that conversation because she at some point even if she passes for white as we say in the community
If she is somebody who is lighting enough that white people think she’s white, she will find herself in a position where somebody will challenge her on that once they find out who her parents are. Or once they sort of go wait a minute I don’t know if you look white to me. For me I think parents are often afraid of those conversations, not black parents not parents of color. I feel like with me and my wife we just lean into those conversations because now we have our third daughter who at this point is darker than both our daughters and it’s like well where is she going to settle?
We also know the world will treat them all differently. Juno will have some light skin privilege that Sammy doesn’t have, but then Sammy will still be lighter than me and so she’ll get privileges that I don’t get you know what I mean so it’s like …
Alan: 00:37:38 What about all of their acceptance in the black community?
Kamau: 00:37:42 My wife talks about this all the time that even Juno who’s the lightest of all three of them, when she’s in the world with them that black women will regularly look at Juno and recognize her as black and then look at my wife with like a right on sister. They can see and that’s the thing about Juno, black people can tell she’s black. They will see it in her and black people are used to accepting not that we don’t have color problems and issues of shade. But we still are used to accepting light skinned black people because it’s just the nature of how black people’s experience in this country evolved, is the nicest way I can put it.
Alan: 00:38:18 You reminded me when you talked about your wife out with your daughter what it sounded like a really unusual experience you had, confronting racism when you were with your daughter. What was that on the sidewalk and a white woman came up to you what was that?
Kamau: 00:38:36 It was me and my wife and actually Juno was 13 weeks old and we were my wife was sitting at a sidewalk café with three other white women who had white looking babies. I went to the café to say hello to my wife and meet her friends. This was in Berkeley, California. Again, the best intentions capital of the country and somebody inside the café knocked on the window and basically from inside of the cafe told me to scram, because they thought I was harassing my wife and my daughter and her friends.
Again, my wife’s white, her friends all were white looking the kids were all white looking. I’d been there for a minute talking to them and showing them ironically showing them this book I just bought. A kids book about the loving couple who got the interracial marriage law struck down in the 60s. If it had been a script, you would have said cut that part out that’s too much. That’s too on the nose Kamau.
Alan: 00:39:31 I’m interested now that you set the scene, I’m interested in how you communicated. What did you do? What did you say?
Kamau: 00:39:39 It’s again, it’s very similar to the moment that you had with that cop. If I had woken up that day saying today at 11:30 I’m going to be confronted by a white person with racism, I would have had a whole Denzel Washington speech prepared.
Alan: 00:39:53 The shed piece of the movie.
Kamau: 00:39:55 Yeah exactly. I would have had the clip they played at the Oscars. I’d have been ready to go but, in that moment, I was so, and this happens a lot of times. This happens to people of color it happens to gay people, it happens to trans folks happened to people in disability committee it happens to Jewish people I’m sure. Where you get you are experiencing the hatred that your identity creates, and you get embarrassed or ashamed for a second. There’s this internalized sort of like oppression where you are like, maybe I did do the wrong thing. Have I done something? Have I said something wrong? That for a second it starts to overwhelm your ability to be like, this is not this is bullshit I’m sorry to swear.
Alan: 00:40:33 That’s okay. What did you do after were you able to apply your own advice and think of a strategy for what you’d do next time?
Kamau: 00:40:46 In that moment me and my wife got up and left my wife went back and confronted the worker who had told us to leave. She in that moment did have a Meryl Streep moment I’ll say she’s just a white lady. She got a good Oscar clip out of it. Then we left and then we went home and we first we like tried to contact the café to be like, hey I don’t know what happened, you should know about this, they never got back to us. Then we wrote a blog about it that ended up being picked up by sort of like it became one of those viral stories that goes through on Facebook and local media did stories about it. Then we had a big like a community meeting at this middle school gymnasium, with the owner of the coffee shop, a bunch of activists and academics to talk about micro aggressions, which is a way of saying racism that doesn’t kill you.
We did try to go do the thing I said about what happens next, and sort of try to like, but ultimately the coffee shop as soon as the press passed, the coffee shop, sort of went back to business as usual, and stopped answering my emails. Then in the wake of the Starbucks thing, when those three those two black guys got arrested at Starbucks. I wrote about it again to go hey, it doesn’t matter what Starbucks says they’re going to do now, because I had an experience like this and eventually the coffee shop stopped doing anything. Then the coffee shop got so much bad press that they decided to shut down and then a few weeks later reopen under a new name. The lesson for me is that it’s not about what you do next, it’s about what you do next and then after that, and then after that and then after that.
I’m still sort of engaged in this you can’t just go well we wrapped that up it’s like the march on Washington had to be a huge undertaking the plan. Martin Luther didn’t finish it and go good thing we ended that racism. He was already working on the poor people’s march, and already talking about Vietnam and things like that. It’s not just about the follow up phone call, it’s about all the follow ups you have to do.
Alan: 00:42:39 The idea that we rally around a flag or around a skin color or a way of talking or a philosophy an approach to life. It sounds to me like our identities are defined and I’m just guessing, but it sounds like our identities are defined by a number of things. If we get really good at not being so worried about the color of our skin, we’ll still have things like you’re a conservative and I’m a liberal and that kind of thing.
Kamau: 00:43:16 Well yeah, we’re human beings. As much as we sort of [wrestle 00:43:19] against categories, we all like to create our own identities, you know what I mean? At some point, you become proud, if you work hard enough you become proud of what your identity means, you know what I mean? Alan Alda that’s a brand now, it’s not just you it’s a way in which you describe people how they are in the world. If you say something Alan Alda you should go sensitive and smart and funny. I think that we like having identity and we like defining ourselves the problem is in this country is that, for many people we have been defined by people who are outside of us.
Alan: 00:43:52 In a way we pretty much all are. I have to, and you probably do, have to cope with a public perception of myself, that isn’t when I seem to experience from the inside.
Kamau: 00:44:11 My wife is now like, you’re so funny all the time
Alan: 00:44:14 My wife used to go crazy. People would say is he that funny at home?
Kamau: 00:44:26 Now he’s neurotically looking over scripts, trying to make the show better.
Alan: 00:44:32 This has crossed my mind a few times doing the show where you personally expose yourself to different cultures, different ways of looking at things to different cultural aspects of the whole world we live in, have you found yourself changing in any way toward other people?
Kamau: 00:44:53 Yeah, I mean, I think it’s funny. It’s one of our most popular episodes by ratings, which is interesting because it was more popular than the Ku Klux Klan episode, but it was the episode we did in Appalachia. That was an episode that I went to initially sort of feeling very sort of like it might have a Klan feeling to it. Not that those people are racist like the Klan, but they certainly don’t want to see a big city black guy coming in talking about, tell me about what it’s like to be poor you know what I mean? As I get into my SUV and pull away.
Alan: 00:45:23 What happened between you and them?
Kamau: 00:45:26 It was the height of the …
Alan: 00:45:29 Try it again and we’ll cut that throat clearing out. What happened between you and them on a personal level?
Kamau: 00:45:37 Well it was the height of the election like, so we saw lots of Trump for president signs. Then we saw lots of homemade Hillary for prison signs around. And that was the point at which people like me who had been around the country like I don’t know if this is going to go exactly the way we think it’s going to. Not to say I predicted it, but I just felt like there’s a lot more Trump out here than people in Berkeley believe there is, Trump supporters.
I was sort of afraid that I would go into every conversation have to deal with the Trump the elephant in the room, literally and figuratively. It ended up we just talked about like how they knew coal was a way of the past, they’re like we love the environment here because we hunt, and we like to go out. We like to go outside we like to camp so we don’t want to destroy the environment with our jobs.
We just happen to also need jobs and so the conversation became about things that people like I did an episode with gang members on the south side Chicago the people in Appalachia and South Chicago want the same things. They want better jobs they want higher paying jobs they want better schools for their kids. They want police that effectively protect their communities, but the problem is, is that we get behind the team sport of politics.
I think that’s what I learned a lot is that if we can get away from the team sport nature of politics and our current political system, we can actually we could probably get things done and find out that people Appalachia have a lot more in common with people on the south side of Chicago, then President Trump wants us to believe.
Alan: 00:47:52 It really does seem to come down to that every grand national or international issue really comes down to what are you struggling with in your home town?
Kamau: 00:48:04 It’s really made me focus more in local politics than I did before because I understand it’s why it’s such a big deal now that all these women of color are winning these primaries. Because it’s like for a long-time people of color felt frozen out of a lot of politics. We need to stop saying to little kids you can be the president when you grow up, no be the mayor, be the comptroller. I think that’s where you can really make some big changes.
Alan: 00:48:31 I don’t mean to press you on this, but I’m curious. Can you remember anybody because you show, I’d imagine sort of sets you up for this. Was there anybody that you felt warmly toward that you think about later on, whether or not you make contact with them anymore?
Kamau: 00:48:53 It’s funny, yes, many people. Sometimes I feel like almost like a bad uncle who came through and brought Christmas one year and then didn’t come back. The show makes a big impact on people’s lives, and then after the show airs it makes a big impact on people’s lives. There’s so many people that there’s like, I keep sort of pitching like can we do a follow up episode because I know the only way I’m going to see these people for the most part is if I go back with cameras. I’m not going to just end up in Barrow Alaska again. For me there’s a young woman Maria who in our first episode from the first season we did, we did about East LA in Boyle Heights like about the Mexican mostly Mexican American communities there. Talking about undocumented people and Maria is undocumented and just got into college at SF State.
Now SF state is not that far from me because I’m in the East Bay and that’s in San Francisco and I’m like maybe Maria’s over there. How she doing? It’s been like three years she’s probably a senior now. I think about that a lot about like wishing I could reconnect with these people, but not really, and people think like, people ask me on twitter how’s that person doing? I don’t even have their information most of the time, because the producers have all that stuff. In one way with San Quentin we did an episode about San Quentin in the first season, and I’ve been back to San Quentin three times since we did the episode.
I went back wants to screen the episode. Then I went back again to co-host a talent show with one of the guys who was in the episode. Then I went back for something maybe it was twice, and they keep sending me invites to go back. San Quentin again it’s like a half hour from my house. It’s like, so it’s easy to get to.
I feel like I haven’t been back enough. The guys who I talked to in the episode most of them are still there because they’re in prison for life. It’s like I think about these people a lot, and my schedule is so busy and then you just go I got to figure out a way to carve out some time or figure out a way to reconnect us with those people.
Alan: 00:52:31 Well this has been really great I’ve had a really good time with you. Thank you for being on the show. I want to ask you I don’t know if you know we do this if it’s okay with you, I have seven quick questions hoping to get seven quick answers and they are mostly about communicating in sometimes weird ways are you okay with that?
Kamau: 00:52:52 That sounds good. I’m taking a picture of you right now for Instagram.
Alan: 00:52:57 Number one, first question. What do you wish you really understood?
Kamau: 00:53:03 Spanish.
Alan: 00:53:06 That wasn’t so hard to do.
Kamau: 00:53:08 No, it doesn’t it sounds silly.
Alan: 00:53:10 Number two. What do you wish other people understood about you?
Kamau: 00:53:18 It’s such a selfish thing? What do people wish understood? I just want to be funny. Despite all the things around my career, I actually just I am still a stand-up comedian who wants to get the laughs.
Alan: 00:53:34 What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Kamau: 00:53:38 The strangest question anyone has ever asked me it’s a good question. Somebody asked me one time on Twitter because we did a segment of united shades in Portland where I went to a cuddle spot. Instead of a massage parlor, there was a woman who you cuddle with her for 45 minutes as a way to reconnect yes. And somebody on Twitter was like are you aware you’re committing adultery? I was like, but my wife knew it doesn’t matter. She’s laughing at the episode right now.
Alan: 00:54:23 I’m still getting over that. Here’s the next question how do you stop a compulsive talker?
Kamau: 00:54:32 You actually just stop talking completely and get so quiet that they run out of steam.
Alan: 00:54:38 That’s never worked for me.
Kamau: 00:54:40 I find if you get really you get intentionally quiet like you don’t even say mm-hmm, you completely shut down, you just sort of like a computer who goes to sleep you just completely, and you don’t move at all. I find this because I had interviews like this that eventually they just sort of, because they need to see you reacting you just stop reacting.
Alan: 00:55:04 That’s a very practical answer. Okay here’s number five. Is there anyone you just can’t feel empathy for?
Kamau: 00:55:12 President Donald John Trump there’s not a piece of me that will ever feel any empathy for him or whatever he goes through.
Alan: 00:55:20 Number six How do you like to deliver bad news in person on the phone or by carrier pigeon?
Kamau: 00:55:27 I think if you can how do I like to deliver bad news …
Alan: 00:55:33 How do you like to we know what you’re supposed to do.
Kamau: 00:55:33 Over I got to go to the phone. Let’s go to the phones to sound like an old school AM radio talk show. I go to the phone, I feel like that’s the because if you do it by any other way that’s not the phone, I can’t do it in person. I like to do it over the phone, but you should do it in person.
Alan: 00:55:52 Okay. Final question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Kamau: 00:55:57 What would make me end a friendship? Lack of kindness.
Alan: 00:56:04 Toward you or anybody?
Kamau: 00:56:06 Actually, towards the world. If I really was with somebody who I felt like was just being, I don’t think I could have a friend who’s like I always litter I don’t think I could. Even though that’s not my issue, I would be like we can’t do that, you litter occasionally that’s one thing we can’t do it all the time. I think a lack of …
Alan: 00:56:23 We’ve boiled it down to littering?
Kamau: 00:56:25 Yeah littering don’t litter. That’s my number one issue Allan Alda talks with W. Kamau Bell about littering for a half hour.
Alan: 00:56:34 Thank you so much I needed a trailer for this.
Kamau: 00:56:37 Thank you.
Alan: 00:56:38 It was great talking to you Kamau thank you.
Kamau: 00:56:39 Thank you. Alan before you go, can I bring my mom in here just to say hello to you?
Alan: 00:56:45 That would be great. Thank you.
Kamau: 00:56:49 We moved her out here about three months ago. Last night, I was like, you need to come with me to the recording studio tomorrow. She said, why? I said Alan Alda. She’s like Alan Alda I’ll be there. This is the mom who made me watch M*A*S*H and I loved it. Hold on let me give her the earphones so she can talk to you. Come on mom he’s right here thank you Allan.
Alan: 00:57:09 Thank you so much. Pardon me?
Kamau: 00:57:16 Talk to him. Right here, talk right here, mom.
Alan: 00:57:19 Hi.
Janet: 00:57:20 Hi.
Alan: 00:57:21 It’s so nice to meet you.
Janet: 00:57:23 It’s so nice to meet you.
Alan: 00:57:26 Do you mind being a little surprise guest on the podcast?
Kamau: 00:57:31 She loves it this is her dream.
Janet: 00:57:34 Okay.
Alan: 00:57:36 Well the obvious question was Kamau funny all his life?
Janet: 00:57:41 Absolutely.
Alan: 00:57:45 What kind of things would he do? Would he make the whole family laugh would he entertain the family at holidays and things?
Janet: 00:57:52 No, he would only do funny things with me, and when I tried to get him to do it for other people he absolutely refused. I think even then he decided he wanted to be paid for being funny.
Alan: 00:58:15 When did he first perform in front of other people, and were you there for that?
Janet: 00:58:21 No, as a matter of fact I think he was going to open mics for quite a while before he even told me about it.
Alan: 00:58:31 Why was that? Kamau why didn’t you tell your mom about that
Kamau: 00:58:35 Because didn’t want to suck in front of my mom. I knew she really thought I was funny. She’s always been clear about the fact that she thinks I’m funny, and so she always was like, would let me watch Saturday Night Live when I was a little kid. After M*A*S*H runoff we watched Saturday Night Live, and I just knew that she thought I was funny. So I was like, I can’t have my mom come out and see me bomb because she actually believes I’m funny. I think it was about two months before I let her come and see me perform in a coffee shop that held about 25 people.
Alan: 00:59:06 Most funny people that I’ve known or heard of became funny because they follow the style of somebody in the family, mother or father or an uncle. Who do you think Kamau was following in the footsteps of was it you?
Janet: 00:59:23 That’s what my friends told me because I was always so surprised at how funny Kamau was, and several my friends said Janet he’s just like you. I had no idea I was funny.
Kamau: 00:59:50 My mom says things that hurts people’s feelings and then the people who hear that think it’s very funny. That’s the kind of humor my mom has, it’s a very cutting mean humor that other people … Really, it’s more like Chris Rock is her kid, she’s more like that.
Janet: 01:00:48 I just want to say how much I have admired your feminism over the years.
Alan: 01:00:56 Tanks so much.
Alan: 01:00:56 Long before anybody ever said me too, you were always speaking up for women and I was aware of that and very happy about it.
Alan: 01:01:12 Well, I send you hugs. It was very nice to talk to you both it made me feel good.
Kamau: 01:01:18 Thank you Alan this will certainly go as one of the highlights of my career, I really appreciate it.
Kamau: 01:01:27 Much better than talking to the Klan, thank you