Comedian, author, podcaster, talk show host, radio show host and author W. Kamau Bell may have a lot of titles and gigs to go with them, but this week the focus is on his job title of stand up comedian. He has a brand new hour stand up special out today on Netflix. It’s his second hour special and his first with the streaming giant. W. Kamau Bell: Private School Negro is a terrific hour focusing on all pictures big and small ranging from gigantic social-political issues like race, Trump, and freedom of speech, to his own micro-universe with great relatable stories about his wife and kids. The two aren’t mutually exclusive of course, issues of race and politics pervade his family stories as well. Bell is a wonderful storyteller, particularly when talking about his two daughters and his racially blended family. He also has thoughtful political and cultural insight, and an innate ability to boil complex issues down to their essence, but perhaps more importantly, he’s never far away from finding the joke inside every issue he takes on. This special is funny first.
I talked with Kamau about the new hour, and how being on Netflix differs from doing a special for other platforms.
I also got his reaction to Sarah Huckabee Sanders getting asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant this week because of her politics. You may remember that in 2015, Bell was asked to leave a breakfast spot in Berkeley California, because they mistakenly assumed he was harassing customers when he stopped by the cafe to say hello to his (white) wife who was dining at the restaurant. He explained why the two incidents were markedly different, and told me he supports the right of the Red Hen cafe or any other establishment to refuse to serve Sarah Sanders or anyone else for that matter if their reason for rejecting that person that isn’t related to their membership in a group. We also talked about “Permit Patty”, the woman who said she was calling the police on an eight year old girl selling water, and the executive who was fired from Netflix this week for saying the N-word.
Make sure you check out W. Kamau Bell: Private School Negro, streaming on Netflix now.
The Interrobang: Where did you tape the special?
W. Kamau Bell: In a place in Manhattan, in Chinatown, this place called Capital, it used to be a bank building. When we were looking for a location, I worked with Art and Industry and Shannon and Michelle, and we were all excited in a place that isn’t usually used for specials, because there’s a lot of specials now, as you may have heard. There’s nothing wrong with doing it in a place where they’ve been done before, but I was excited about doing something a little bit different and they were too. Also, I wanted to do something in Manhattan, because I felt it was a good location to talk about Trump with people who had been dealing with Trump since the 70s. Manhattan’s anger goes deep with Trump. And then they found this building, it’s an old bank building, then at some point, they were like, “What if we did it in the Round?” And I have not performed in the Round, but I’m a big fan of comedy and the history of stand-up comedy, it takes me back to George Carlin’s first HBO special, which was in the Round. So I was like, “Yeah, let’s give it a shot,” even though I’ve never done it before.
The Interrobang: Obviously there’s a lot of political discussion in the special. Were you a political comedian from jump, right when you started your career?
W. Kamau Bell: No. I was around a lot of political people, my mom is a very political person. But really we didn’t know anything about politics, we were just talking about racism. And at that point, racism didn’t really become political. Until Barack Obama. When I was a kid, it was just racism, and I just heard my mom in the house always talking about race and racism, and talking about white people, and all this stuff. And I didn’t think of it as political.
And then in high school, my best friend was a big political nerd and was always talking about de-nuclearization. But he was just my best friend, I didn’t really think about it. It wasn’t basically until I started doing comedy that the wallpaper of my life had been discussions about race and racism. And then as I got older, I started to care a little bit more, and then Barack Obama became president. And then I had kids, and it was like, it just all pulled in this direction. I started to care a lot more. But I think it definitely came from the fact that as a kid, I was hearing this stuff all the time. My mom was very active in the civil rights movement, so it was the nature of the conversations in my house. And as an only child, I was around adults a lot and heard a lot of adult conversation.
The Interrobang: I think anyone listening to you perform knows that there’s anger behind what you’re saying. But you’re not communicating in an angry way. Does that come naturally or is it something you have to work at?
W. Kamau Bell: It’s funny. When I did Totally Biased, my first show with Chris Rock, we were doing an interview together. And somebody asked him, “What do you like about Kamau?” Which I was excited to go, “Yeah, what do you like about me?” Because he’s not effusive with the compliments. And he sort of offhandedly said, “He can portray anger with a smile,” and I was like, “Oh, is that what I’m doing?” I didn’t really think of that, I’m just performing. And I feel very angry a lot about it, I feel super angry about a lot of this stuff, but it’s just the gear that I’m in, that I do it with a smile. I don’t go on stage trying to smile, there’s a sort of, I’m super angry about this, it’s also fun to tell jokes about it. That’s why I’m a comedian, I think, because my brain naturally tries to take intense situations and turn them into humor.
The Interrobang: Besides touring all over the place, you’ve also lived in a lot of different regions of the country. Is there any part of the country–with all of these issues, with racism, with all that’s going on in politics and just being a human being– do you feel like there’s any pocket that’s doing things better than the others?
W. Kamau Bell: I don’t know. Walking through the streets of New York, I hear the most foul, awful things. Racist, sexist, homophobic. So it’s always funny to me when people are like, “They live in a bubble.” I felt like, get me out of this bubble. Here’s the thing. I live in the Bay Area. I could say we do it better, but we just had a white woman call the cops on a 9-year-old black girl selling water on the streets without a permit. We also have our share of cops who kill unarmed people of color. So for me, what it is, is where do I feel like personally, I can deal with the racism the best? So I find, I like the flavor of the racism in the Bay Area better than the flavor of racism in New York, or Alabama. And I’ve been to those places, I’ve lived in both those places. So for me, it’s like, where do you feel like you can get through the day and live your life?
And also, then once you’re there, I feel like it’s important for me to actually try to help the situation out and make it better. So I speak out about Bay Area things regularly and call people out, or make my stance and points known. Because I feel like, it’s not just enough to live here. Also you have to try to make the place better for people who don’t have the same privileges you do. So for me, Portland might say they’re better than us and I go to Portland and go “Eugh!” Some people say, “I’ve been to DC, and I think DC is great.” And I feel like I could live in DC, but someone else is like, “No.” So I think it’s really about, where do you feel like, as a person of color or person who deals with oppression regularly, like openly gay people or trans people, what’s the flavor of oppression you can live with? Is really the question.
The Interrobang: Free speech vs offensive speech is an issue that comes up in the special, and it’s also a concept you’ve been wrestling around with a little bit. Do you find that that’s still evolving for you, or do you think you know where that line should be?
W. Kamau Bell: No, no. I’m 100 percent pro-free speech. I’m just also– free speech comes with consequences. That’s exactly where the line is. So say whatever you want to say, and then deal with the consequences. There’s the restaurant, the Red Hen restaurant that asked Sarah Sanders and her party to leave after they comped their meal, which is a very nice way to ask somebody to leave, or comped whatever they had ordered. That’s their freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Now they have to deal with the consequences of that freedom of expression, and the next night the restaurant was closed, and who knows what’s gonna happen? Maybe they’ll have to shut the whole place down and people will lose their jobs.
I feel bad for them about that, but I also support that person’s right to have that freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It’s just dealing with the consequences, I think that’s the thing people always want to shy away from. You can say whatever you want to say, but you have to deal with the consequences. Unless you’re the president of the United States and your name is Donald Trump, then apparently there’s no consequences ever. Yaaaay.
The Interrobang: I hadn’t drawn the connection to what happened with Sarah Huckabee Sanders and your own experience. You experienced similar treatment, but for a different reason, when you were asked to leave a restaurant. Are there any parallels there, or are these two situations as different as [no pun intended] black and white?
W. Kamau Bell: No, it’s funny. I thought of this a good bit yesterday, because anytime somebody gets asked to leave from a restaurant or a coffee shop, or anytime somebody gets the cops called on them for no reason, like the little girl who got the cops called on her for selling water without a permit, I go, how does this relate to my experience? So for me, there’s a big difference between, “We don’t want your kind of person in here,” which is what happened to me at the Berkeley coffee shop, “We don’t think you are the kind of person we want in our establishment,” and “We don’t like you personally, because we Googled you and we’ve read about you and we watch you on TV all the time.”
I think I would’ve felt very differently about if they had come to me at the coffee shop in Berkeley, the Elmwood Café, and said, “Kamau, we’re not fans of your comedy, can you please leave?” I would’ve been like, “Thank you for being honest about it, yes, I’ll leave.” I might’ve talked about it on stage because it was funny, but I wouldn’t have made the same big deal about it. Because at the time I realized, “Wait, they’re kicking me out because they don’t want a black guy here talking to white people,” which means they kicked out other black people from this place or made them feel uncomfortable.
That’s an issue that needs my attention. If they were like, “We’re not a fan of the United Shades episode you did about Spring Break so get out of here,” oh, okay. That’s a very different situation than what happened to me.
The Interrobang: Another thing happened this week that fits right into the “consequences for speech” topic. A Netflix executive was fired for saying the N-word in a discussion about offensive words. And of course, we don’t know the exact circumstances, there are no transcripts. But he was fired for it. Is this the greatest thing ever that corporations are going to come in and say, “We’re not gonna tolerate certain behavior,” or is it a little bit scary? Or we don’t know yet what to think about this?
W. Kamau Bell: I think we haven’t settled on the new reality. We’re still fairly new into this social media thing. I think in 50 years … and I think I really put this on them firing the Netflix executive over basically, “What if this gets out? Somebody in this meeting’s gonna tell somebody, and somebody’s gonna tweet about it, and then it’s gonna be all over everywhere.” I feel like 10 years ago– and this is not about Netflix, this is about corporations. People can say ‘nigger,’ which I say, because I say it in my special and Netflix said it’s okay. I feel like I can get away with it. In corporations in general, people were saying horrible things, and people just put their heads down like, “Jesus.” Whereas now, and this is connected to the black woman who videos the white woman who called the cops on the little girl in San Francisco for selling water without a permit. The story can get out much quicker. So now, knowing that the story can get out much quicker, it’s a challenge to everybody to go, what do I want to be told about my participation when the story gets out? So Netflix was like, “Okay, what do we want to look like when the story gets out?” And they clearly … the land speed record on that must’ve been broken, because that’s the fastest I’ve heard of somebody getting fired over that. Because it was like, who knows what else is going on? But wow, he said it twice. They’re like, “That’s enough. You gotta go.” So for me it’s like, I don’t know, in 50 years when my daughters are grown up … not 50 years, we’ll say in 20 years and my daughters are grown up, my three daughters. I think they’re gonna look back and go, “Man, you guys really didn’t know what you were doing with that social media stuff, did you?”
I think right now, we’re like the cavemen who discovered fire, we don’t exactly know how to deal with it, we’re just trying not to get burned. So there’s necessary losses and casualties of this. Me and my friend Dwayne, who’s actually one of the consultants on the special, he also works on United Shades, we had all these conversations about the #MeToo movement. I’m like, “Yeah, there’s no telling what’s going to come out about some man’s past that might end up in the middle of the #MeToo movement because we’re just a generation of dudes who didn’t know what the fuck we were doing.”
Some of us are criminals, but some of us were just inappropriate too often. So we have to be prepared that at some point it might be like, “Kamau, what did you say?” It’s the nature of the game, that we’re living in a time where there are going to be casualties. And it’s about, how do you live through that moment and what do you do once your name is up on that screen?
The Interrobang: You have so many outlets for your thoughts: radio, podcast, standup, TV, books. Is that by design or is that by opportunity that that’s worked out?
W. Kamau Bell: No, I think it’s by design. The one thing I learned when I had my first, Totally Biased, is that I didn’t ever again want to have one project that had to be responsible for all my creative desires. As an only child, I was allowed to live in my head a lot, and I skipped from thing to thing based on what I was interested in. The great thing about United Shades– Totally Biased was five shows a week. United Shades is eight shows a year. So for me, it could be just a full-time job, I could just do that and not do other things. But it leaves a lot more time for me to do other things like podcasting, writing a book, doing standup, and college dates, and writing op-eds. Which is the way I want to be, because I find especially, there’s different audiences for all those things. The other day, these two older people came up to me and were like, “We love United Shades of America, it’s our favorite show, can we get a picture?” And I said sure. And their daughter took the picture and she goes, “I don’t have cable. But I like your podcast.” And I sort of like to give as many people as many different ways to get to me as possible.
The Interrobang: It feels like you, and probably the entire industry, is working faster than ever. I know your last special wasn’t that long ago. How do you know when it’s time to put out the next piece?
W. Kamau Bell: I like that in the UK they do it a lot more. Comics do one hour a year. And if I had the time, if I could just do standup, I think I could do a new hour a year I believe. Because I think I write fast enough, and I’m paying attention to enough things, and enjoy doing it enough. But I don’t have the time to do that. So certainly I think, if I could get to that one every two years thing, I think certainly there’s enough happening in the world, and enough happening in my life, that it would be pretty easy to fill up an hour every two years.
So for me, you say it seems like it wasn’t that long ago. And it was such a long time ago since my last special, is how I feel about it. But the thing that I think is so great about it is, this is the first time as a standup comic that I’m releasing standup comedy in the place that is known to be the place for standup comedy, which is Netflix.
My last special was on Showtime. Which, Showtime is great, but it wasn’t known as the destination for standup. And when HBO was known as the destination for standup, I was not getting offers from HBO. So for me, the thing that’s exciting about this is, I’m doing material about the current moment, in the place where everybody’s going for standup. So it feels like, at least if you hate me, you’re gonna get a real honest shot to deciding you hate me, this time.