MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's this new show on CNN on Sunday night and it's not exactly about the latest headlines, but then again, maybe it is. It's hosted by standup comic W. Kamau Bell, and he says the show is about quote "a black guy who goes where he shouldn't go or where you wouldn't expect him to go." And if you think that's hype, well, in the very first episode Bell hangs out with Ku Klux Klan members in Kentucky and Arkansas.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't let me sugarcoat anything.
W. KAMAU BELL: No, I understand, you, I mean, it's...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are pro-white - 100%. We only work on our race.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The other mud races - I'm - leave us alone.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's all I got to tell you is just leave us alone.
MARTIN: The show is called "United Shades of America." It premiered on CNN last Sunday. And W. Kamau Bell joins us now from Berkeley, Calif. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
BELL: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So what gave you the idea to do this show?
BELL: I've always been a fan, even before I had my other TV show - the shows that I was the biggest fan of was those travel shows with the big personalities. I used to watch a lot of Bourdain and Mike Rowe and, you know, even Michael Moore. I like stuff that at the end you feel smarter, but you also feel entertained, you know? Thanks to the experience I had on "Totally Biased," I learned how to acquire the skills to go do it.
And the show was actually pitched to CNN by an outside company and then CNN suggested that I would be good. So for me it was like, this is all I wanted. And initially, it was a different - a slightly different pitch, but they - I put my spin on it. And I just knew that they already have a lot of those documentary series on CNN, so the first episode had to be something that none of those other series could do, and that's my idea was the Klan.
MARTIN: You're referencing a show that you had on the FXX's channel called "Totally Biased." It's one of the shows that had a lot of the critics loved, but for some reason had trouble finding an audience wherever it was located. And that show was similar in the sense that it was reality-based, right? It was a talk show - it was a late-night talk show...
BELL: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: ...But it was about stuff that was based in real stuff. And so the idea of kind of taking you out into the field, why is that? Because the talk show thing you figured been there, done that, or you felt this offered more opportunity to do different things? Or...
BELL: When I conceived that show, it never occurred to me that it was a late-night talk show. I just thought it was a show. And so suddenly, it was sort of put into this sort of, like, finally they have a black host in late-night talk. And then I - suddenly having - in meetings about, like, you know, Kimmel has celebrity friends. Do you have celebrity friends? And I was just like, you found me in Oakland, you know what I mean? Like, it's not the same thing.
I just wanted a show and so I think that I'm not - I don't think I would ever be looking to get into the late-night world. I just want to make TV that I want to see.
MARTIN: The Klan - why?
BELL: As a black man, I actually had naturally sort of comedic curiosity about the Klan.
MARTIN: Is that one of the things, like, you're growing up and people say Kamau, what do you want to do when you grow up? And you think wow, I want to be a standup comic and I want to go meet the Klan and make fun of - I mean, was that like part of...
BELL: No, I don't think that was it. That wasn't in my high school yearbook. That was not a - hopes to make fun of the Klan on television. I've certainly used them as a punch line throughout the history of my act. You know, it's always easy to make fun of them on a comedy stage in San Francisco, like, you know, there's no fear that they're going to show up. But for me - again, if I was going to make TV, I really - it's important for me to challenge myself to do something that - not that nobody else is going to do, but I would not do under normal circumstances. I wouldn't have taken a meeting with the Klan had there not been a TV crew there. Let me be clear about that.
MARTIN: OK. Let me play a little bit more from the episode that captures your conversation with the so-called Imperial Klan Wizard, and he's giving a little bit of his philosophy. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We follow the teachings of the Lord, and if the Lord says it's bad then we will say it's bad.
BELL: Now, I know the Bible also says you're not supposed to eat lobster, and I violated that one many times.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I violated it last night at Red Lobster.
BELL: You went to the house of ill-repute.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I went - had the ultimate feast.
BELL: OK, all right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All shellfish.
BELL: So we're all sinners.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So I'm going to hell...
BELL: Yeah, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Going to hell.
MARTIN: What did you take away from that now that you've had a chance to think about it?
BELL: If I have any talent, I think I have an ability to listen to people and also just meet them on their level. So I was able to sort of strip away all the, like, this guy maybe hates me or maybe people here want to kill me and actually connect with this individual and have a conversation.
So when you say the Bible says blah, blah, blah, well, I know the Bible too a little bit. And then you get to this - he volunteers this thing about Red Lobster, and I was like oh my God, this is - it's like when we're - like "Seinfeld" that's gold, Jerry, that's gold. Like, I was sitting there going, this is in the show.
MARTIN: Just overall though, what do you think you got out of this episode and this encounter? And what are you hoping that viewers get out of watching this encounter?
BELL: Certainly, I know there's a big percentage of Americans and that, you know, #whitepeople, who don't believe the Klan still exists. When I would tell people - like, white - my white friends or white people that I was visiting the Klan, they're like, I didn't know there still was a Ku Klux Klan. And some of those people lived in those communities. And we showed some of the people in the episode who don't even understand in their community that there's Klan members. And so for me, it's about waking up America to the whole spectrum of racism that exists in this country, that you can't think that the evil racism is in the past and there's - you know, that still exists.
MARTIN: I want to talk about the next episode airing this Sunday night where you visit San Quentin Prison in California. What's going on with that? What was the idea there?
BELL: This was an idea that the producers had. We actually had an episode fall out where we were going to go hang with (laughter) motorcycle gangs, like, real motorcycle gangs. They got mad about a contract dispute and they said if you show up, it might not be good for you. So we decided not to show up. So we sort of had to scramble for a thing, and we ended up with the San Quentin episode.
And the producers were like, oh, it'll be great, Kamau, go to prison. And I was just like, and - you know, the produces are all white. And I was like I don't know that it's going to be great, and Kamau's not really that excited about spending time in prison. And I think I sort of was, in some sense, just as afraid of the prison as I was of the Klan, just about, like, not wanting to be there and also a little guilty about the fact that I was afraid of it. I felt like it was mixed emotions because a lot of black men are in prison, a lot of black people are in prison.
MARTIN: Well, you know, that's interesting because one of the prisoners actually - there's a moment in the film where one of the people you interviewed asks you how you avoided being a statistic.
BELL: Yeah, no, that was Rahsaan Thomas, and he's a guy I spent a lot of time with. He works at the prison newspaper and just a really great dude, but you can sort of see the light in his eyes is a little bit dim because he doesn't know that he's ever going to get out. And he - so when he asked me that question, I had this overwhelming sense of guilt. And I don't know - you know, just about, like, why am I - how did I stay out of it because I didn't have a good answer for why I wasn't one of the 1 in 3, as he said, black men who had been subsumed by the criminal justice system, many of whom subsumed through no fault of their own, just being at the wrong place at the wrong time. And I had this sense of guilt that I somehow had made it through.
MARTIN: Taking your premise, the idea of where you would not expect a black guy to be - and I just have to ask is that even really a thing in the country as it is now? I know the whole that we have a black president is overplayed thing, but I guess I'm just asking you is that really the frame that you want to tell your stories?
BELL: I mean, America's frame is race and racism until - for the foreseeable future. This is a country that was founded on racism. It was built on racism. It still continues to thrive through wealth disparity and housing disparity is all built on the backs of racism. So as far as I'm concerned, it's a conversation that needs to be had.
And as a traveling comedian, I know that there's places in this country that I'm not expected to be because when I do gigs around the country, there are times when I show up to the venue and they go you must be the comedian. And it's not because they've seen my picture. It's because you don't look like you're from here.
MARTIN: Well, what can we look forward to in future episodes?
BELL: We have an episode in East L.A. to talk about immigration and the growing Latino demographic and the idea of assimilation and what that means in the 21st century. And for me, as a black guy who lives in the Bay Area, I'm around a lot of Latino people, but I don't have those kind of conversations with them regularly. And it's also a big part of that show is about me feeling very aware and uncomfortable with the fact that I don't speak Spanish, and I better learn soon because that's going to be one of America's main languages if it's not already. So, you know, it's not always about my physical jeopardy; sometimes it's about my emotional jeopardy.
MARTIN: What are you hoping will happen as a result of it? Because I definitely feel you do want something happen in either internally or externally. What do you want that to be?
BELL: This show is all about sort of modeling productive conversation and showing the power of awkward conversations to be the initiator of change. It can't be the change, but it can start the change. And I think that's how we all dawn a new day and peace reigns all over the world.
MARTIN: OK (laughter). That's W. Kamau Bell. His new show on CNN is "United Shades Of America." A new episode airs tomorrow night. Kamau, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BELL: Thanks for having me.
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