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W. Kamau Bell says almost everyone on CNN is playing a character

On the latest Recode Media, Bell reveals the only person at CNN who’s the same on- and off-camera.

TCA Turner Winter Press Tour 2017 Green Room John Sciulli/Getty Images for Turner

W. Kamau Bell is a lot of things to a lot of people, including a podcaster, a stand-up comic and the host of CNN’s “United Shades of America.” On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, he said all those different platforms require him to be a slightly different version of himself.

“It’s like the difference between watching a pot of water boil and one of those things in your house where boiling water comes out automatically,” Bell said. “At CNN, when I’m sitting with Ana Cabrera on her show yesterday, I sit down, I better be insta-hot. On stage, you can sort of watch the pot boil, you can warm into it a little bit. There’s a sense that the pacing is different.”

He said TV viewers expect, and almost every on-air personality at CNN plays, a kind of “character,” though he stressed that that doesn’t mean they’re being fake.

“If you’re on TV regularly, doing a thing regularly, whether you’re Anthony Anderson on Black-ish or Don Lemon, an hour a night, you have to turn into, ‘What’s the delivery system through which I can deliver information?’” he explained. “I don’t mean they are being fake or that they are doing something that’s disingenuous.”

He praised the ability of some anchors, like Lemon, who can quickly switch between casual and serious. He said there’s only one person at CNN who “seems to be the same on and off”: Wolf Blitzer.

“To talk to these people off-camera, they’re like, ‘Hey man! Blah blah blah ... hold on. Tonight! ...’” Bell said. “That’s a skill. And America, whether it’s Walter Cronkite through now, likes the character of the anchor: ‘I’m the person who’s here to deliver the news.”

You can listen to the new podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify (mobile only), TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

On the new podcast, Bell also talked about how his political podcast “Politically Re-Active,” which he co-hosts with his comedian friend Hari Kondabolu, differs from “United Shades of America.” Even though both touch on race and politics, the former is loose and dependent on his and Kondabolu’s friendship, while the latter is tethered to the confines of TV.

“When you put a TV show together, there’s so many more people involved,” Bell said. “So many more people have opinions and you’re also trying to execute really specific things. We may legit try to talk to 25 people for an hour show, cut that down to 10 people. Each interview may be a half hour or longer, we cut that down to two or three minutes. If you saw the hour-long interview I had with somebody, it might look more like ‘Politically Re-Active.’”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Peter. Tune in next Thursday for another episode of Recode Media!

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