Comedian W. Kamau Bell is funny, angry, and coming to Providence this Saturday night. Bell’s socially and politically aware comedy has received sophisticated praise from news outlets all over the country. The ACLU recently named Bell an Ambassador of Racial Justice. Bell currently produces a podcast along with comedian Kevin Avery entitled Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of all Time Period. In anticipation of Bell’s visit to Providence, I spoke with him about Ferguson, intersectional progressivism, and his adoration of Denzel Washington.
BlogDH: How did you go from the University of Pennsylvania to stand-up comedy?
WKB: I was there for a year and a half and I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman, so I dropped out. Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to do comedy, so when I realized that I didn’t want to take the path that was laid out for me, I started to put my toes in the waters of comedy. Basically, that’s sort of accelerated ever since.
BlogDH: Were you a funny kid?
WKB: [Laughs] Sounds like a challenge. I thought I was funny, but I wasn’t the class clown, so I didn’t have a large sample size. I was an only child, so I was really only funny to me and the person directly to my right. A lot of times that person was my mom, and she thought I was hilarious. When I first started doing comedy, sometimes I would do a show and the only people that would laugh would be my mom and my friend Jason.
BlogDH: How do you make your comedy appeal to larger audiences?
WKB: To make a clumsy metaphor, it’s like a war of attrition [laughs]. You have to keep showing up. I think Henry Rollins said, “The only way you can succeed is not to quit.” I kept being an honest judge of my work, as opposed to certain people who might give themselves a blue ribbon for showing up. I also think the thing that helped me most was trying not to be like anybody else. I may never be regarded as the funniest comic in the country, but I am going to be regarded as the most me in the country.
BlogDH: How do you see yourself coming across in your comedy?
WKB: I know that behind all the jokes are a pretty intense anger and/or frustration. Sometimes I feel like I’m angrier on stage than people think I am. Chris Rock, who I worked with on [Bell’s TV show] Totally Biased, once said about me, “He can portray anger with a smile.” There’s something about me that says I’m a pretty good dude, even though I’m a big black dude, which is not the most popular version of dudes all the time. So, because people see that that I’m enjoying myself as I talk about really painful things, they’re able to find the humor that I find.
BlogDH: How does your comedy fit into your activism, or vice versa?
WKB: To be honest, I think the activist label got sort of put on me. I certainly work for different groups, like Hollaback, but I think what works best is when people take my act and use it to communicate issues and ideas that they can’t convey in a funny way. So, if you take away my comedy away I’m a pretty shitty activist [laughs]. But comedy is my form of activism.
BlogDH: Do you think comedy can help our society confront important issues?
WKB: For me, the best way to convey any idea is through humor, because if people are laughing, you know they’re paying attention. So if you can take these difficult ideas that can become really dry and make them funny, then you know you’ll be able to communicate them better because people will be laughing. Laughing doesn’t mean you agree with what’s being said, but it shows that you understand what the person is trying to say.
BlogDH: What are you thinking about Ferguson?
WKB: That’s an ongoing conversation that I’m having with every person in front of me and myself. I just wrote a thing for Vanity Fair about my connection to Mike Brown and Ferguson. Mike Brown is regarded as this big black dude and he’s six-foot-four and 290 pounds, and I’m six-foot-four and 250, so I’m also classified as a “black heavyweight.” So despite the fact that I’m not [Mike Brown], I relate to that person, because when I walk through the world I’m very aware that at any moment I could become a statistic or a hashtag on Facebook. It makes me walk through the world in a different way, measure my steps differently. At any point I could turn a corner, bump into the wrong person, and suddenly, it’s “That black guy hit me!” And next thing you know, my mom’s getting a phone call.
One of the things about [Ferguson] that’s frustrating is that people who are defending Mike Brown will call him a “gentle giant” as a way to say that he shouldn’t have been murdered, and as a six-foot-four 250 pound guy myself I’m like, ‘Stop saying that, it makes it seem like it’s unusual to be big, black, and nice.’ So sure, he was a gentle giant, but you know you are allowed to not be a gentle giant when a cop is trying to murder you. That’s when you’re like, ‘Usually I’m a nice guy, but I’m going to drop all decorum to try to save my life.’
BlogDH: What do you think about the The New Yorker labeling your comedy “intersectional progressivism”?
WKB: Yeah buddy, they put that on the poster for the show. That doesn’t move a lot of tickets.
BlogDH: Actually, that would sell a lot of tickets at Brown. We’re all over intersectional progressivism.
WKB: You’re right, I guess we should just call [the Providence show] the Intersectional Progressive Comedy Show [laughs]. The funny thing is that that label helped me understand what I was doing. I just knew that I liked that thing where we all get together and talk about each others’…Oh yeah, intersectional progressivism sounds a lot better.
BlogDH: So before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about Denzel Washington. I heard you’re a pretty big fan.
WKB: I am the biggest fan [laughs]. He’s not like my dad, but he’s like my surrogate dad. He doesn’t know it, we’ve never met, but that’s how I feel about him.
BlogDH: I don’t want to spoil the podcast, but can you tell me why Denzel Washington is the best actor of all time?
WKB: Not the best, the greatest. I think that he has a weight on him that other actors of his caliber don’t have. Tom Hanks doesn’t have to represent the White community in a conscious way. People don’t talk about that when Denzel was coming up, Sydney Poitier basically said, ‘Alright sir, you can take the baton of America’s black hero.’ And now it’s at the point where no one else is really ready to take that baton.