The American election put comedian W. Kamau Bell in the spotlight more than ever this year, and the progressive political comic seemed to be everywhere: hosting original documentary series United States of America on CNN, as well as podcasts Kamau Right Now, Politically Re-Active (with fellow comic Hari Kondabolu) and Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time (with Kevin Avery). His one-man-show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, has been performed since 2007; Bell constantly rewrites and updates the show to reflect the current political climate, something that he's had to do extensively in the last couple of months. His most recent standup comedy album, Semi-Prominent Negro, is out now on Kill Rock Stars.
What are you up to?
I have a five-year-old, a two-year-old, the United States of America, and my comedy album Semi-Prominent Negro. I was gonna say the podcasts, but the season finale of Politically Re-Active came out today, I've taken a little bit of a pause from the Denzel podcast, and my other podcast, Kamau Right Now, we just finished for the year.
What are your current fixations?
Currently I've been watching YouTube videos where the lady pops ingrown pimples. It's a way to relax in the middle of all the craziness — just watch this lady pull out some really dark parts of people's skin and think "that's connected to your soul." I watch a lot of news and politics and I stumbled across one of these one day and I thought "Oh, that's disgusting… Is there another one?"
Why do you live where you do?
I live in Berkeley, CA. I was born in Palo Alto, but I think Northern California just resonates with me. I feel like I can breath. I wish the weather was hotter and we could have better summers, but overall, it's an easy style of living. Also because it's the Bay Area, it's not as bulky as New York, but you get all the great food you can get in New York. I've lived all over the country so I feel like I know whereof I speak.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
I remember seeing Michael Jackson do the Moonwalk on TV for the first time when I was a kid on the Motown anniversary special. [Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever aired in March, 1983.] I can picture watching myself looking at the TV seeing Michael Jackson and thinking "Oh my god! Anything is possible!" Admittedly, I also felt that way the first time I saw David Blaine. I like to believe in magic, even though I know it's not real.
Also, if you can get through the John Coltrane album Intersteller Space — not everyone can — that's definitely a mind-altering work of art,
What was your most inspirational gig you've played or one you attended?
I have a one-man-show called The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. I wrote it in 2007 when Barack Obama was a Senator from Illinois, and I've been rewriting and performing it ever since. I've been doing it for nine years now, but I rewrite it a lot, and I remember the show I did — [Obama] won on Tuesday and on Friday I did the show again. I had to rewrite two-thirds of it to reflect that he'd won the Presidency. It was in a black box theatre, with maybe 70 people there. It was a very revelatory and exciting experience that I got to help people process through, and at the end, we had champagne and a standing ovation, people were hugging. It was a feeling like, while writing it, "How am I gonna explain this thing that just happened, and it's so good and we all feel so good and it's my job to try and translate this for a group of people." To this day I feel like that was one night that no one can take away from me. I was there. We did that. There were only 70 people there, but we all had that experience together.
I did the show the day after the election when Trump won, at a college, and it was mostly just an angry lecture on my part. Then the next day, I did it at this conference for people who work in government on behalf of racial justice — this is all grown-ass adults who are doing racial justice work, who just found out that Trump is President — it was sort of the flip side of the show I did in 2008, where people were anxious but they also needed to laugh to process all of the horrible. It was a moment where you go "Am I the comic I think I am?" and you do the show and say "Yes, I am the comic I think I am." It was a room of 200 racial justice activists who needed to laugh, who needed to feel like things were gonna be okay, who needed help processing and I was there to help them process that. That was just a week ago.
What's the meanest thing that anyone has ever said to you, before, during or after a gig?
"You look like the monkey from Rugrats." She thought she was paying me a compliment. Modesto, CA — I'll never forget it and I'll never go back. The funny thing is, when I tell certain people this story, their takeaway is "There wasn't a monkey on the Rugrats." Not exactly the point of the story, although I appreciate you fact-checking it.
What should everyone shut up about?
There are too many different types of people to say everyone should shut up. I think some people should definitely shut up so that other people can talk some more.
Everyone needs to shut up about their favourite TV show — I don't care what it is, just shut up. Nobody needs to hear anyone talk about their favourite TV show, especially when they're not watching that show. In the 21st century, everyone's a little too excited about their favourite TV show — no matter what that show is. I love Shark Tank but I don't talk about that shit.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
Most like: that I'm pretty hard-headed. I like that a lot. I think if I was less hard-headed I would have quit comedy years ago. Now things are going better for me and I have a family I can support, after years of not even being able to provide for myself, I feel like "It's pretty good that I'm stubborn." Because all evidence was telling me that I should quit.
The trait I least like: I'm king of the procrastinators. I'll be late, but I'll try once I get there.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
It used to be every Sunday until I had kids, but sleeping in with nothing to do.
What advice should you have taken but you didn't?
Invest your money early. My dad is a big believer in investments. That stuff makes me sleepy. "The world's coming to an end! Water's gonna 30 dollars a gallon! Investments won't make any difference!" I'm not the best with practical things.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Free health care. I'm not one of those Americans who feel like I'm gonna move to Canada because of the state of the world, but I do sit back and think, "Man, they figured that out somehow." As an American — who has money to pay for insurance — I can't explain to you how hard to is to get insurance, even if you have a bag of money that you want to hand to an insurance company. It's still incredibly hard. Health care in this country is one of the dumbest and most frustrating systems we have. For years, I was broke and had to figure out how to get health care. Now I'm making money, just give me the good stuff! If there's any sign that America is not the country it claims to be, health care is it.
What's the first album you ever bought with your own money?
I think it was Bob Marley Legend on CD.
What's been your most memorable day job?
I worked at a store in the early '90s, called Condoms Now, and it sold all sorts of condoms and novelties gifts. It was open till 2 a.m. in the nightclub district in Chicago. When you answered the phone, you had to say "Save the human race. Condoms Now." It's a pizza joint now.
How do you spoil yourself?
I travel a lot, and recently I did the thing where I was like "I'm going to rent the Jason Bourne movie here at the hotel even though it's $17.99 and that's stupid, because I've earned it because I work hard" and then I fell asleep at the beginning.
If you weren't a comedian, what would you be doing instead?
I think I'd be one of the people working at one of the last video stores left. They used to be everyone and now there's one left on one side of town, and now it's half video store, half coffee shop, half DJ equipment rental business. I'd be the guy who still had one of those jobs. One of the surly, angry video store guys who thought this was gonna last forever.
What's been your strangest celebrity encounter?
I was waiting to get on a plane and Ice Cube was waiting to get on the same plane. He looked every bit like Ice Cube — his afro was perfect, he was scowling. When I got on the plane, CNN or someone was flying me somewhere, so I was in first class. When Ice Cube got on the plane, he went past first class to the back of the plane. I thought "Oh no! I shouldn't be sitting in first class if Ice Cube isn't!" Something about the nature of the universe seemed wrong to me. One of the pioneers of gangsta rap, a guy whose career went from scaring the hell out of white America to entertaining the hell out of white America — a guy who encompasses all of the black experience in one body — and is still successful and rich and people respect him: he's not in first class? Nothing means anything anymore.
Who'd be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Malcolm X would be a good one. And Zach de la Rocha. We'd have spaghetti and meatballs because my kids will eat that, and I wouldn't want to have two interesting dinner guests over and serve something my kids won't eat.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Moving her out of Bloomington, Indiana to Berkeley so she could be closer to her grandkids.