Seven Questions With W. Kamau Bell

The comedian on the ACLU, 'United Shades of America' and Donald Trump

You were here last month for the ACLU of Nevada’s 50th anniversary celebration. Why did you agree to speak?

I try to do whatever I can for the ACLU, whether it’s spreading the word about causes or supporting it by doing a show. I was honored to be invited. It was a big deal for them. I can’t imagine what it was like 50 years ago in Nevada for the ACLU. They had a reel of the things they are working on now, even a young woman who was kicked out of her school for wearing her hair with an unnatural color, which I’m glad they’re fighting. I bet 50 years ago the issues were like, hey, just stop hitting that lady. I appreciate the fact that while we’re still dealing with the bigger issues of society, we can also get to some more nuanced things.

Have you been to Las Vegas before?

The last time I was in Vegas, I think I was 13. I was tall, but I certainly looked every bit of not-21. We sort of had a very fun, 13-year-old version of The Hangover. I haven’t been back, because as a comedian, the Vegas comedy scene is sort of focused in casinos and things like that. I would certainly like to perform for people in Las Vegas, but I don’t think that I’m the best comedian for, “And now go gamble.” I think some comics very naturally fit into those scenarios. They don’t hit hot-button issues or aren’t explicit or whatever. For me, it’s like, you have to be a comedian who can very easily follow or be followed by a magician—and I’m not that guy. I certainly enjoyed being there. I was staying in the Wynn casino it was just like, in some sense it’s no different than when I was 13. When I was 13, I was overwhelmed by it. Now as a grown man I’m still overwhelmed by it, because Vegas has gotten bigger since I was 13.

Let’s talk about your CNN series, United Shades of America, nominated by the Television Critics Association for Outstanding Achievement in News and Information and an Emmy for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program.

We did eight episodes, each addressing a different community. I was a little worried that the episodes would take too many left turns for people to keep up with or be interested in. The response and the ratings have been good. I’m, hopefully, looking forward to Season 2, and we’re waiting to hear.

Was there any one person or situation particularly scary or problematic?

There was just a creeping sense of danger with the Ku Klux Klan. Some of those guys were weirdly happy to have me there so they could talk about their traditions and their pride. But then there were guys who felt like wing nuts. Like, what if one of these guys just flips out? Or, what if a guy runs out of the forest after me? I use comedy as a defense mechanism to keep people laughing, because when people are laughing with you, they’re not generally trying to kill you.

When I walked into the [San Quentin] prison I felt trepidation, but within about five minutes it was [gone], because I quickly got into the conversations with people.

In the last episode, I went out on a carnival ride that springs up into the air and you just bounce on a bungee cord. That’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t do in my real life. That’s like, Well, that’s a dumb way to die. So I can’t believe that I did it. I would sooner go talk to the Klan again than do that again.

You went to Alaska for one of the episodes. I’m from there and I’m curious to know your take on it?

I went to Barrow, a specific part of Alaska that not even many Alaskans have been to. My perception might be skewed. We spent the night in Anchorage, but I didn’t get to hang out there. Anchorage felt like small-town America, but on the frozen tundra of a small-town America. Barrow feels like a land separate from time a little bit. People told me you might die if you try to take a snow machine. You go to a town that’s like 60 percent Native [Alaskan], and that seems incredible. But you realize that, like, 20, 30 years ago, it was 90 percent Native. You’re like, “Oh.” Even in a town where it’s 60 percent Native, there’s still a little bit of a struggle to maintain their Native traditions and their culture.

Was there a person who was the worst to deal with?

The least open person I think I dealt with through the course of the season was Thomas Rob and his people at his, what I would call a Ku Klux Klan compound, but he calls it a church. They were very protective and guarded about what they would say. In a way, that sort of reveals that you don’t have the integrity of your beliefs—if you’re so careful about how you appear. If you’re not really open and friendly about this, I feel like you’re really on shaky ground.

“… You can’t be white, male and rich and be president. That disconnects you from too many Americans.” – W. Kamau Bell

Who was the most interesting?

I talked to a guy who was a full-on prepper/survivalist in the off-the-grid episode. On the surface you’d be like “this guy is nuts.” We didn’t agree with each other on a lot, but he was able to let his guard down and have an awkward conversation with me. That’s what the show’s about. It’s about modeling how to have productive, awkward conversations.

The news lately is lending itself to more awkward conversations.

Absolutely. The key is to make them productive, not Donald Trump-ian.

What’s your take on Trump?

I think of Trump like a stand-up comedian. He’s winning because he’s a better performer than some of the other candidates. If Hillary [Clinton] said, “I can walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and my poll numbers would go up,” it would be game over. Or if Obama said that, he would be impeached within the day. He could never have the level of unhinged, un-fact-checked bellicose verbosity [that Trump has].

If Hillary gets loud, she becomes “shrill.” Whereas Trump is just “saying what people are afraid to say.” It’s the very definition of white, male privilege—and rich-guy privilege. That’s too many things. You can’t be white, male and rich and be president. That disconnects you from too many Americans. And it’s insane that he’s able to portray himself as some sort of common man. People are supporting Trump the way people who live all over the country like the New York Yankees, even though they’ve never been to New York. They just like the fact that the Yankees are perceived as winners.

What did you think of the woman who tweeted, “I like you and I love your show and I’m an avid supporter of Trump.”?

I was like, “Are you sure you like me and my show? Are you sure you’re not just talking about the commercials for my show?” We live in interesting times, and right now things are getting maybe a little bit too interesting. I encourage people to not only vote for the candidate that they think best reflects the best of themselves, but also I suggest you have some awkward conversations like this woman started with me. Maybe through those conversations you’ll learn something about your candidate that you didn’t know, which might affect your decision. Not the flaming internet conversations and snarky conversations and trolling conversations, but actual conversations.

You have a podcast, Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time PERIOD. What are your top five Washington films or roles?

Because I’ve spent so much time now, over the last year talking about Denzel, my lists change depending on my mood. I’m like a wine connoisseur. I can detect notes in Denzel Washington films that other people can’t even see.

You’re a Denzel Washington sommelier?

Yes. I’m definitely a Denzel Washington sommelier. It’s easy to go with the important films. You can just name them quickly— Malcolm X, The Hurricane, Cry Freedom, Glory, even A Soldier’s Story. But if you go to my list, it’s like Malcolm X, Training Day, The Book of Eli, Inside Man and Out of Time is my No. 5.

There’s something about Denzel. He’s a very familiar presence. For many people,he’s been there for their entire lives. And he inhabits roles. On the podcast we affectionately call this the Old Man Action era, where it’s a fun time for Denzel, who has done all the heavy lifting and all the spiritual lifting and all the racial justice lifting and he’s like 60 years old now and he just wants to have some fun, while at the same time he’s also directing and starring and producing all the August Wilson films.

So he’s still doing some big work, but that work isn’t going to be as commercial as Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven (in theaters Sept. 23). We just want to see Denzel on a horse. And even in his Old Man Action era, he’s taking some big swings. Denzel has a degree of difficulty because he’s a black actor in this country, and black people always … no matter what we’re doing, there’s a high degree of difficulty. But Denzel also takes on The Magnificent Seven, which is regarded as probably in the film canon as one of the greatest movies of all time, and he’s like, “Yeah, let me give it a shot.” That’s another reason why he’s the greatest actor of all time, period. No fear.