TV Bell’s show a clash course in probing cultural divides
NEW YORK — “America’s Best Bigots” is not the name of W. Kamau Bell’s new CNN series — “although that would be a great name for a show,” says the popular black comedian who hosts it.
Bell’s series, premiering Sunday, is instead titled “United Shades of America,” and, while it will routinely place him in a culture clash with the week’s chosen groups or subcultures, the point is not to spotlight prejudice.
Bell’s mission is to build a bridge of understanding between him and a racially, ethnically or otherwise divergent sample of his fellow habitants in these United States.
Future episodes of the eight-episode season will feature inmates at San Quentin State Prison; happily disconnected folks who in a Snapchat age opt for living off the grid; retirees and college kids who annually collide in Daytona Beach, Fla., for spring break; and a few of the hipsters gravitating to Portland, Ore., along with longtime residents who weather this assault.
To kick off the series, Bell takes a big swing: He consorts with members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“As a black person, it’s good to know who hates you,” he proposes. And while one might argue that it would have been smarter to film this episode last, not to start with, “I figured if it really goes badly, we only shoot that one episode, and I become a legend.”
He’s joking about that, but he makes a chilling point: “In history, most black guys that get this close to the Klan don’t end up leaving.”
Bell’s secret is his disarming manner. It’s the same cheery style that has helped establish him as a stand-up comic who can defuse uncomfortable truths with insight and a smile.
“You’re always using jokes to explain the world to yourself and then to the audience,” says Bell (whose onstage act will be on display in his first solo stand-up special, “W. Kamau Bell: Semi-Prominent Negro,” premiering Friday on Showtime).
Humor is a big part of the formula on “United Shades of America.”
“But I tried to be very clear, in each case, that we’re here to make fun out of this situation, not to make fun of this situation,” he says.
That’s true even with the Klanners, one of whom is asked about the infamous robes he’s wearing: “We were in Kentucky in the middle of August, so I said, ‘It’s got to be hot under there.’ ”
Bell has no problem being called “a black comic,” an insufficient if literally true label, any more than he objects to being called a black man.
“I’m not trying to be post-racial; I’m not trying to be colorblind,” he says. “I think we should all be able to embrace the parts of our identity we want. Like many people of color, you either have to embrace it or fight it your whole life.”
But there’s more to the picture: His wife, Melissa Hudson Bell, with whom he has two young daughters, is white. She is also a multi-degreed academic, Bell says with obvious pride, “and a lot of the work that I do has been affected by our conversations. We have a racismfeminism think tank at home.”
That news doesn’t please a certain imperial wizard in Arkansas, who advises Bell that the Bible condemns interracial marriage as “an abomination.”
“So, it’s worse than murder?” Bell inquires.
“Yeah,” insists the Klansman who, a moment later, vows “the Klan will go on forever and evolve.”
“One way I hope it evolves,” Bell offers, is for the Klan’s hoods to add mouth holes, “cause sometimes it’s hard to understand you.”
He really does want to understand.
To kick off his new series — “United Shades of America” — W. Kamau Bell meets with members of the Ku Klux Klan.