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W. Kamau Bell Is A 'Wall-Tearer-Downer' In 'United Shades Of America'

Since 2016, comedian W. Kamau Bell has been traveling the country for his TV show United Shades of America. He asks serious questions, but always with a bit of humor thrown in.

"United Shades of America is just Sesame Street for grown-ups," he says.

The goal of the show is to explore the unique challenges of communities around the United States. The sixth season premieres Sunday on CNN.

Bell takes time to explain issues about race, class and privilege. "I'm going to talk to you about this and assume you don't know," he says. "And if you do know, I'm going to write it in a way that is at least entertaining for you."

He relates to the idea of being a "forever student," he says – always ready to Wikipedia anything he doesn't understand.

As for whether he seems himself building bridges, Bell says he's not sure. "I don't know if I'm a bridge builder or a wall-tearer-downer," he says. "Is that a thing?"

2020 was a crushing year in the United States, but Bell worked through it.

"This is the time when those of us who have a sense of humor really lean into it," he says. "Because how do you get through the world without sort of looking at trying to figure out how to laugh at it? I don't really try to — it's just how my brain works."

Interview Highlights

On whether he struggles to engage with tough issues, day after day

I'm in a very privileged position of being able to think about a lot of this stuff and make content about a lot of it, but not actually being on the front lines of it. So, yeah, I sort of go back and forth between feeling like super lucky and also like, didn't I just want to be a comedian?

On how he thinks of his own role in this time

I see my role as my mother's son and this is how I was raised. And I think there's just a thing that happens — specifically in the Black community, but also other impacted communities — where even if I owned, like, an ice cream shop in town, and was successful as a Black person who owned a business, it'd be my job to sort of also try to create more opportunities and represent the Black community and speak out against injustice just as a Black person who owned ice cream shop.

But because specifically the work I do is actually talking about all these things, then it sort of becomes even more clear that when I talk about them, I have to be clear about what I'm doing, I have to be clear about who I'm putting on the air, how we're framing these things. And be clear with people that I'm invested in this, because I'm not a journalist, which is why I still hold on to "comedian" — I get to have opinions.

On his patience walking people through things

I'm not going to act like I'm immune to [being annoyed when people aren't informed]. But I think for this, in my mind, there's a way to do this where I'm happy to explain this to you — while also feel like [for] the people who already know it, I can sort of go, "Look, now you don't have to explain it to them." Like, I see myself as the go-between. I understand that thing about, like, "I don't want to explain this to you." And so I go, "Well, look, I'll make a piece of content you can send to that person so you don't have to explain it to them. And you can also just get it off your plate."

On his adopted hometown of Oakland

I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue comedy and I didn't have any idea that it would affect my entire life the way it has. ... [I] lived in Oakland, worked in Berkeley, and did comedy in San Francisco. So I got to see a lot of different parts of the Bay Area from the very beginning. And I got to be in a lot of different kinds of conversations because I was in three very different areas. ... I moved when I was 24, but kind of I did grow up in the Bay Area because those conversations grew me up.

On moving around as a kid

My Mom lived mostly back East and up North — Chicago, Indianapolis, Boston. My dad lives in Alabama. So I spent a lot of time in Alabama and I just spent a lot of time moving around as a kid. And then as a comedian, I spent a lot of time traveling around. And I think that has always informed who I am because I'm realizing there are a lot of differences, there's a lot of similarities. But I can also see when I watch Fox News, I know exactly where that's coming from because I've been there. It doesn't seem as foreign to me as it seems to a lot of the people who I know in the Bay Area.

On whether he thinks America's divides are bridgeable

We live in a time when I feel like we have maybe all collectively forgotten that [the attack on the Capitol on] January 6th happened, you know what I mean? ... That was one of the scariest days that I've ever experienced in this country. My kids watched it because it was on TV and we didn't know what was going to happen. ... I think we live in very dangerous times because we are capable of forgetting things like January 6 and capable of sort of like moving on.

We have people in the Congress who encouraged violence on this country and they still are in Congress. ... So for me, I feel like we're at a very dangerous time in this country ... physically dangerous, but also dangerous as like, what happens next?

Will Jarvis and William Troop produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is a host of Morning Edition. Previously, she was the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she drew on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news.
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.