Five Questions for W. Kamau Bell
Photo by John Nowak/CNN
Stand-up comic, podcaster, and host of the Emmy-winning CNN docuseries United Shades of America,
W. Kamau Bell has long made sociopolitical comedy a mainstay of his act. Here, the Berkeley resident discusses comedy, Chris Rock, and how his three young daughters impact his view on life.
Q: How do you balance personal and political material in your work?
A: A lot of comics are doing material about their children, but I am doing very specific material about my kids. It’s not just how cute they are—although they are adorable. It’s about the things they say that I think are interesting because they are framing their political worldview. When my 3-year-old passes Starbucks and says, “That’s the bad place,” I’m like, Wow, you are way more woke than I was at 3.
Q: How does living in Berkeley shape your comedy?
A: Berkeley is where I feel the most at home and able to live the life I want to live. At the same time, I’m glad I get to travel around the country and not think that this is all there is. Some people get caught up thinking their version of America is the perfect version. But I know there are things that aren’t great here; if I am going to enjoy my life, I’m also going to try and correct the problems I see.
Q: You recently made your directorial debut with an episode of A&E’s series Cultureshock, about Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain. What was that experience like?
A: It’s a documentary about Chris Rock’s first [big] HBO special—the one that basically brought him into the national conversation. It was the first time I was working with him that I didn’t feel nervous. I was asking him questions while he was on camera, so I could just relax and have fun with it. … It’s a very inspirational story that I am really excited about. It also got me behind the camera as a director, so I was happy to finally do that and want to do more.
Q: What is something important that your daughters have taught you?
A: That we don’t have to protect kids from the world. Kids will take in the amount of information that they can use, and when it gets to a [certain] point, they will get up and walk away. Setting higher expectations for my children means I set higher expectations for myself and those around me. Kids can handle way more than you think, which means we can all handle more than we think we can.
Q: What do you want to teach them?
A: To help people in our community and give back. If they grow up as people of privilege, I want them to use their privilege for good.
For information about Bell’s many projects, visit wkamaubell.com.