Sociopolitical comedian W. Kamau Bell is a two-time Emmy Award-winning host and executive producer of CNN’s popular “United Shades of America,” where he has, among other things, attended KKK potlucks as a six-foot-four African-American man.
Bell is an author, a critically-acclaimed podcast host and, if that’s not enough to impress you, check out his new Netflix special, Private School Negro.
Bell visited our fair and dulcet city a year ago when he performed at the Hult Center At that show, the audience experienced what can only be described as a weird-ass experience.
Before things even started, a deranged patron (and his equally out-of-her-gourd spouse) lost their collective marbles, and before anyone could even figure out what was happening, there was a hole the size of a volleyball in the side of the Soreng Theater wall, and Bell was sitting on the edge of the stage, keeping everyone calm.
It was a bonding moment, for all of us, and since my husband and I had been seated right next to the guy throwing punches, I couldn’t wait to catch up with Bell — to let him know what was happening in our audience row while he was onstage, probably figuring, like I was, like we all were, that we might just die that night.
Because this is America now, and who the hell knows anymore?
From his home base in Oakland, Bell recalls:
KB: At the moment that happened, I thought, “If I run off this stage screaming, that probably will start something bad happening.”
EW: So, did Sheila [Kamau’s PR rep] let you know that the guy who punched a hole in the wall was sitting right next to my husband and me?
I do remember that … Yeah, I have a picture of the hole in the wall on my phone. I just wanted to keep a record of, well, this happened. I just remember being onstage and thinking, “Okay, if something really bad is happening, I think we’ll know with enough time to do something about it, but I don’t want to just run at the first sign, because this could just be nonsense, and it turned out to be …”
So, what’s surprising to you about Eugene? What did you notice the last time you came through our fair city? I remember you talked about all the marijuana.
Is that the WOW Center? Is that in Eugene?
The WOW Hall, yeah.
I’ve been at the WOW Hall, so this last visit was my second time. The Hult Center was much more upscale and new than the WOW Hall — WOW Hall is fun, too. About Eugene, I talked about marijuana, but the bit that I wrote in Eugene that night, I think I wrote about the inflatable guy outside the marijuana place …
I don’t think the dispensaries really thought about basic economics. There are just so many here, and they’re all folding.
If everybody’s selling weed — then nobody’s selling weed.
And nobody needs to buy weed, because everybody can grow it.
That’s funny. So I remember that night I talked about the inflatable guy, and that bit ended up turning into one of the big bits for my new Netflix special, about how, when you talk about racism, white people turn into the inflatable guy outside the used car lots. And that bit started in Eugene. I’d never talked about that before, and you know how comedy works, you go, “Oh wait, that inflatable thing — that was fun!”
And it looked great onstage. You were the inflatable guy.
So — Eugene is responsible for that bit.
How did your mind tease that one out?
I wrote that bit that afternoon. You always want to start on something local, let people know you know where you are. And I remember the audience responding well to the physicality. But I was like, “Huh, I can’t talk about Eugene everywhere.” And then at some point, I was onstage and I was talking about how white people — how some white people — don’t stand up to racism, and in the back of your mind, you’re like, [talking like his brain] “That inflatable guy would be a good analogy here.” And then you’re like, “Right, brain!” So, a lot of it for me happens onstage. Like your brain starts to give you ideas that you wouldn’t be able to get if you sat staring at a piece of paper, trying to write comedy all day. So yeah, it’s about being onstage in the moment. I have fond memories of my time in Eugene, because other than the wall being cracked open, I wrote one of the best bits I think I’ve ever written.
You know, you are well loved. When I put on Facebook that I was gonna talk to you, and what should I ask, there were about 50 comments, instantly, and most of them were just, “Tell him I love him.” That’s all —
(Laughs.) You can respond to each of those comments, “I love you, too.”
When we checked in about a year ago, we were just wading into the presidency. Do you feel more of a day-to-day comedy or tragedy? Or farce?
We’re so deep into it, we can’t even see our way through it. And you just, every day, you have the deluge of nonsense. Like what was it this week? Two days ago, we were like, “Oh my god! Bob Woodward has written this book that is a deep-dive!” And then the next day, “Oh my god, this op-ed piece has been written!” And if I’m Bob Woodward, I’m like, “Hey, what about my book everybody? It didn’t even come out yet!” We live in the era where the news is like mixed-tape rappers. There’s always a new song, always a new story, always a new thing to get outraged about. The scary part is it starts to all mean a little bit less. There was a time when Bob Woodward writing a book would have been end of story. Alright. Send the people to the White House to get the president.
I mean it’s Bob Woodward. He was played by Robert Redford in the movie, like, no joke.
Exactly! We’re really just awash in it. So I’ve had to find things to do — focus on positive things, like I’m tweeting a lot about this organization Donors Choose, which helps teachers gets stuff for their kids. Like supplies and books and things. And I have to poke my head out and go, “Hey everybody, let’s buy this teacher some saxophones, so she can teach music.” Because otherwise you’re just awash in the — I want to call it — nonsense is too light a word. I was going to say “shit.”
That’s a fine word for what it is.
You’re just awash in this shit and you get so covered in shit that you forget that it’s shit!
Kamau Bell performs 8 pm Friday, Sept. 14, at the McDonald Theatre; $34.50-$44.50, tickets at mcdonaldtheatre.com.