Now best-known as the host of CNN’s Emmy-nominated docuseries United Shades of America, sociopolitical comedian and community activist W. Kamau Bell wants to make people learn as well as laugh. Himself included.
On United Shades, he has confronted the KKK, discussed the difficulties faced by the expansive Latino population of East Los Angeles, and explored the thin blue line with police in Camden, N.J. But he’s also eaten acorn paste with a man living off the grid in North Carolina, questioned the hipster appeal of Portland, Ore., and even ventured north of the Arctic Circle.
“It’s about me getting smarter and learning in real time,” Bell said. “So a lot of times when you’re watching United Shades of America, you’ll see me having a genuine reaction where I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that!’ I think the more that we can be quiet and listen to other people talk, and the more we can kind of meet different types of people, it just expands your perspective. Nothing bad happens from getting smarter. Nothing bad happens from taking in more information.”
For those who have yet to watch United Shades (which returned for its second season in late April), Bell describes the show as Sesame Street for grownups, in the best way.
“I just think that’s the best way to learn, when you’re enjoying the process and you don’t really realize it’s happening,” he said. “I mean Sesame Street sort of pioneered that … (and) it’s why podcasts are so big. It’s why podcasting on some level eclipses radio, because you get to know people, and you get to feel like you’re in the room with people, and the format has become looser now where it can become more human and more entertaining, instead of just here I am delivering this thing to you.
“For me, that’s how we all take in information better, and it’s better entertainment when it’s like, ‘Oh that was funny, and I just took something with me.’”
Bell currently hosts three popular podcasts: Denzel Washington is The Greatest Actor of All Time Period, Politically Re-Active and Kamau Right Now!, and has been called an innovator of the medium.
Prior to United Shades, Bell earned critical acclaim early on in his career for his one-man show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About An Hour. He was later the host of the Chris Rock-produced FX series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, which received several NAACP Image Award and GLAAD Award nominations during its two-season run.
Bell also has three comedy albums, including his latest, 2016’s Semi-Prominent Negro.
This May, he released his first book: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’ 4”, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian. The comically long title alone is quite an introduction to Bell, and an invitation to engage with his unique humor on a personal level.
“I just want to make art that I believe in and that I can stand behind and provide for my family, and whatever that leaves after that, let the chips fall where they may,” Bell said. “I didn’t expect the Emmy nomination (for United Shades), and I think the best way to go about my life is not expecting things. I think when you start to think you’re owed these things, that’s when you go crazy, and that’s when you become stale because you’re trying to please somebody else.”
W. Kamau Bell
20 Monroe Live, 11 Ottawa Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
June 17, 7 p.m., $30-58
20monroelive.com, (844) 678-5483