Kicking off the conversation
Comedian W. Kamau Bell’s edgy comedy crafted to incite discussion
Socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell’s latest show is ambitiously titled “Ending Racism in About an Hour,” which he joked isn’t just an idle claim, but a guaranteed outcome.
“Oh yeah, it works every single time,” he said during a recent phone interview. “But it only works with the people who are in the room with me at the time, and only for about an hour or so, until they leave the room.”
The show—which will make a stop at Laxson Auditorium on Sept. 9—is billed as “one part manifesto, one part diatribe, and several parts funny,” and in it Bell tackles hot-button racial issues head-on using plain language, intellectual flair and biting satire, much as he did on the now-defunct FXX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. A longtime stand-up comedian, Bell shared his belief that comedy—especially that of the brutally honest, truth-to-power variety—can be the quickest route to the real core of America’s social problems.
“I think presenting these issues in an entertainment setting can be the best way to get people talking,” said Bell, praising his forebears like Chris Rock, Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. “It’s like when Chris Rock did his famous bit about ‘black people vs. niggers,’ it gives people the right to talk about these things.
“To me, starting a conversation is the most important thing,” Bell said. “One of the best responses I’ve ever seen was in Portland; I overheard two guys walking out and one said, ‘That was the best comedy show I’ve ever seen,’ and his friend said, ‘What? That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.’
“And I can live with that,” he continued. “If 50 percent of the audience love what I say and 50 percent hate it, then I know they’re going to walk out that door and have a conversation.”
The conversation Bell hopes to inspire involves black and white perspectives on racial issues, and the understanding that America has historically been—and largely remains—an intrinsically racist society. Bell noted topics like white privilege and police prejudice against people of color have just risen to mainstream prominence, but that “black people have been talking about these things for a long, long time.
“For many white Americans, discussion of social issues in America is kind of overpowered by this patriotism and pride, and with that pride comes the inability to acknowledge our nation’s shortcomings,” Bell said. “America may very well be the best country in the world to live in, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its flaws. People feel like they have to believe in this either/or version of America.”
Bell’s previous foray into television lasted two seasons, and he has a new show—a race and travel docu-series called The United Shades of America—coming to CNN in 2016. In the meantime, shorter Shades segments will appear as part of CNN’s other programming. The first, which featured Bell interviewing presidential hopefuls, checking out livestock and eating fried foods at the Iowa State Fair, premiered last Tuesday (Aug. 18). It was immediately deemed “racist” by followers of conservative blog Newsbusters.
“Now that is one of the softest and fluffiest pieces I’ve ever done on TV,” Bell fired back on his own blog (at wkamaubell.com). “That ending is positively adorable. But that isn’t stopping the Right Wingnuts from filling up my Twitter feed with accusations of me being racist. The funny thing is that I was actually worried that people would think that the piece was too soft. If this piece was racist then I can’t wait to see how people take the actual show, because it goes way harder than ‘Ku Klux Lambs.’ Waaaaaaaaaay harder. On second thought. I can wait.”