On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, comedian, writer, author and podcast host W. Kamau Bell chatted with Peter about the trajectory of his comedy career and why it’s important to him to talk about racism.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at the link above, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me, we’re part of the the Vox Media Podcast Network. I’m here with W. Kamau Bell, who does so many things I cannot list them all. And I have written down here. He is a podcaster, he’s a comedian, he’s on CNN. Oh, he’s written a book. Have I got it all? He’s nodding, he’s so tired he can’t speak.
W. Kamau Bell: Oh no, yes, I just didn’t want to interrupt your flow.
So you’re ...
I’m a dad
You’re a dad. Two kids.
Two kids. Two daughters.
I did my research.
We only make girls.
Rather than me butcher the titles of all your podcasts and all your TV shows, do you want to rattle them off for me?
Yes. I have the one that is currently active. The most active is called Politically Re-Active.
I am sorry, you’ve got two podcasts, right?
I’ve got three.
I’ve got ... One is a radio show and podcast, but I’ve got Politically Re-Active with Hari Kondabolu. Which is a political podcast, so it’s by two comedians.
That’s started up again, second season.
That’s started up again.
That’s why we are here. That’s why your publicist has sent you here.
Yes, then that’s what ... Let’s talk about that.
I never know where I am at.
We’ll talk about all of it.
I came to promote Politically Re-Active. Screw those other podcasts. Yes. So then I have two other podcasts I won’t mention.
Don’t mention those. But people can also see you on CNN.
On CNN, the second season of “United Shades of America” just started. So we have eight episodes this season. Every episode we basically focus on a group that Donald Trump insulted during the campaign. So.
Started with ... immigrants was Episode One. I think by the time this one airs we’ll be two episodes into it.
Oh, then Chicago, which as we all know Donald Trump likes to insult Chicago.
It’s the worst place ever.
We’ll talk about that in a minute. There’s a book out.
Yeah. The book, I don’t even know the whole title. I need to memorize it.
Google “W. Kamau Bell book.”
It’s “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell” tells of a 6-foot-4 African American and there’s a lot of words.
What’s it about?
It’s about how I awkwardly can’t remember the title of my book. It’s about ... It’s really a love letter to the people in my life and the forces in my world that have created, that have taught me that awkward conversations can lead to positive change. And you know like how I feel at this point in America, we need more of those awkward conversations.
And when you’re not writing, you’re not podcasting, you’re not on CNN, you are doing comedy.
Yeah, I have a stand-up comedy tour that starts soon. May 10th, I think, I will be in Colorado Springs and May 11th I’ll be in Boulder, Colorado. Then I’ll be in Eureka, and yeah, I’ll be in lots of places.
Well, you’re awfully busy. Thanks for making time.
Yeah thanks. Thanks for letting me stop by. I’ll check you guys out later.
You’re so busy that when this podcast ends I am going to leave this room and you’re going to record more stuff.
I am, that’s literally happening.
That’s how busy Kamau is.
I know I am busy, because people who are legit busy look at me like, “You’re busy.” I am, like that’s a problem, huh. When you run into Kevin Hart and he’s like, “You’re doing too much.” That didn’t happen.
Let’s start with the reason your publicist sent you here. Talk about the podcast. I want to compare it. Compare and contrast, right? Because you’ve got the CNN show, you’ve got your own podcast, CNN shows paid for by CNN and by Time Warner. The podcast is produced by First Look — this is the group that comes out of, oh my God, I’ve forgot his name. The guy who made all his money at eBay. Pierre Omidyar. Deliberately set up as a lefty response to Fox a few years ago. They fund The Intercept.
The Intercept and their podcast, Intercepted.
So you’ve got two different versions of Kamau, it seems to me, on those two products. Is that fair?
Yeah, I think every ... I have a lot of projects because I think there’s a lot of different versions of me. I was going to say, be in third person when I said that to you. Like a first-round draft pick.
“What does Kamau think?”
Kamau. But yeah, I think the great thing about the current media landscape is that you don’t have to pick one path. You can have as many paths as you have time to execute those paths well and that people appreciate those things. So you know, it comes all the way down from, like, I have a podcast, I will mention Denzel Washington is the greatest actor of all times, period. Which is just about the fact that me and my co-host Kevin Air, we love Denzel Washington and think he is the greatest actor of all times, period.
My other podcast come out right now is a public radio show based out of the Bay Area because it’s a way of me to stay connected to the Bay Area because I travel a lot. So it’s an hour-long live talk show that airs on the radio. And then CNN is like, you know, it’s like I had a TV show before and I got invited to do a pilot for CNN for this show that’s “United Shades of America.” And it was like I thought I was out of TV and I was like, “Well, I’ll try this.” It felt interesting to me. And we’re in our second season and we were nominated for an Emmy, so ...
What I was getting at is the Politically Re-Active one. I remember listening the one you guys did right after the election. This is the second season. You did right after the election. And like many people, you guys were in despair, right?
The morning you had Chris, who’d you have on?
Jake. How we gonna get through this?
And he was doing his, “I still work for CNN so I can’t quite say what I want to say” thing.
Yeah, we were gonna have him back on because I think he’s gotten thoughts now that he’s actually had to swim through this.
But that one, if we’re doing a bell curve right, you’re at that sort of, I don’t know what, you’re left. You’re at the left end of the bell curve. You know, defiantly progressive ...
Talk about who we vote for.
Talking about who you vote for. And talk about race and gender, I think probably in a way that reflects your personality more than ... The CNN one seems like you deliberately staked out ... You’re on the left edge of the spectrum, right, but it seems like it’s deliberately more centrist. Is that fair?
I think for me it’s about the nature of the execution of the thing. Politically Re-Active is based really on friendship between me and Hari, and conversations we would have anyway. And then we invite other people into those conversations. So for me it’s like, if we met those people in a coffee shop, we would have those same conversations. It’s just about, let’s just talk. So there’s a really low barrier for entry, and also it’s like ...
We’re having a conversation and you guys can come listen?
Yeah, keeping it loose. You’re sort of ... And you’ll get frustrated and you’ll go “Argh.” When you put a TV show together there’s so many more people involved and so many more people have opinions and so many more ... And you’re also trying to execute very specific things. Like in a show, you know we may talk to legit, 25 people for an hour show and maybe cut that down to maybe 10 people. And each interview maybe a half hour or longer and we cut those down to two or three minutes. So if you do the hour-long interview with someone it might look like Politically Re-Active, but once you cut it down, what are the best moments, most indicative of this conversation?
So Politically Re-Active ran through the campaign, ended after the election. What’s different, other than the fact Donald Trump’s elected this time around? It sounded at the end of that episode that I listened to, that you guys maybe were thinking you wouldn’t continue?
Well, First Look only really contracted us to do an episode through the election.
So it was a cliffhanger?
Yeah, and then Hillary will be president and we won’t need to talk about politics anymore. I think that’s what everybody was thinking. Nobody’s gonna want political podcasts when Hillary’s president, because we’ll just be dancing in the streets every day.
So I think that when Trump was elected ... And also our podcasts became popular pretty quick, as far as in that space, pretty quickly. And there was a clear hardcore following. That when that happened, it was like, “Oh, well it looks like we could make more episodes, people want more episodes, and also people need more episodes.” Every day that we weren’t back, every day people were like, “When are you coming back? Please come back.” You know?
What do you think the purpose of the podcast is? Again, how it changed from last year to this year. I’m thinking about you and other folks I’ve seen go through this with the Keepin’ it 1600 guys who are now Pod Save America. They were sort of like snarky commentary and now they’re like, “Oh no, we’ve gotta mobilize.” Do you feel the same sense of responsibility? Or it’s still the same podcast, just the circumstances are different?
I do think it is still the same podcast but the stakes have changed. So I do think that our ... I think in all of my, the thing that connects me, that connects all this work is that I feel like in many ways I’m a conduit to the smarter, better people. So for example, I can have a conversation about Black Lives Matter, I can tell jokes onstage about Black Lives Matter, but why don’t we talk to Patrisse Cullors?
Yeah, find the smart person and deliver them to the people.
Yeah. And also, a thing we do, is because we’re comedians we reveal those people in different lights. And we sort of are able to make people relax and be funny who maybe wouldn’t be funny in other situations so you know I think people when they ... Our audience isn’t necessarily going, “Jake Tapper, yay,” they go, “Jake Tapper, huh.”
And the reason they’re saying that, right, is because they think of Jake Tapper as a sellout and mainstream.
And also CNN, and CNN at that point was accused of being responsible for the election.
Still are. Still happening.
Yeah, yeah, still are. And I think many other journalists at CNN understand that and Jeff Zucker’s talked about it and they’re better journalists now. I think they’ve really dug in. I mean, Jake Tapper’s the first one to go all Kellyanne Conway and all these people.
I was gonna save this one, but since you brought it up, there was a Times magazine article in the last month or so where Jeff Zucker basically was, “No, this is entertainment. Quite clearly this is entertainment, these are characters in a show.” I was reading a Marc Maron interview a couple of weeks ago that you did where you said, “The people I work with at CNN are playing characters on TV and they put on a character.” Do you have any hesitation, given your politics, do you have any hesitation about participating in a CNN product?
The thing for me, whatever hesitation I had, CNN invited me in to be a part of the original series thing. I’m 100 percent riding for Anthony Bourdain, I was 100 percent riding for Morgan Spurlock when he was there, Mike Rowe. Like Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs.” Those were things I liked so it’s almost like the news thing was a separate thing for me. And I have my thoughts about CNN news, but I was like, “Do I want to have a show that follows Anthony Bourdain?” Yes I did.
So for me, if those shows hadn’t existed, I think I would have had more thoughts about do I want to be at a news network and do I want to be at CNN? Having said that, the news people have been super supportive of the ... Overall, have been super supportive of the show in ways it feels like they realized that we need to expand this thing. And as much as our shows are original series entertainment, I’m held to the same news ... Maybe I’m being held to a higher standard because I’m a comedian. They fact-check the hell out of this show and really make sure that I’m not gonna get them sued by saying anything. So I feel good about the fact that I work for them because they have the resources to help me fact-check the show.
Before I drop this, when you say that you think some of your co-workers, some of the folks at CNN, are playing characters, is there a kind of character you think they’re playing or do they have different roles?
Yeah, I think if you’re on TV regularly doing a thing, whether it’s an actor in a sitcom, Anthony Anderson in “Blackish” or Don Lemon an hour a night, you have to sort of turn into like, what’s the delivery system through which I deliver the information? So when I say they’re playing a character, I don’t want people to think ... I don’t necessarily mean they are being fake or that they’re somehow selling ... They’re sort of doing something that’s disingenuous.
Because that’s not uncommon on TV.
No, that’s not uncommon.
Especially for news. Especially, any kind of thing where the typical mode is argument / discussion. Right, oftentimes you’ll hear about people saying, “Well you’ve gotta take this stance here because so-and-so’s gonna argue the other way and we can’t have you both agreeing.”
Yes, so I was super nervous about meeting Don Lemon when I first met him. I was super scared to be on his show because my image of Don Lemon was viral clips of people getting mad at Don Lemon and I was afraid that he would be mad at me and I was afraid that I was some sort of ...
How did it go?
Don is excited to have me on the show because I think he feels like he gets to relax. He can actually show a different version of himself. And for me it’s been fun to allow him to do that and also to talk to the guy ... To talk to these people off-camera and they’re like, “Hey man, blah blah blah blah. Hold on ... Tonight ...” You know, that’s a skill. America, whether it’s from Walter Cronkite through now, likes the character of the anchor. You know what I mean, they like the person who’s like, “I’m here to deliver the news.”
Vice is doing a version of this on HBO without an anchor — “this is a weird anachronism, we don’t need it.” And I gotta say, you know that intellectually, and when you see them deliver the news and there’s no person that they come back to, an attractive person saying, “This is what’s happening,” I’m lost.
I’m lost. Who’s pointing me in the right ... You need a sherpa. When I say ... I would say Wolf Blitzer, who I know, seems to be the same on and off. He seems like ...
That’s his guy.
Yeah, that’s his guy. But there’s a lot of them, like, you see them power up. And I’ve seen this in other news channels too. And the thing I’m aware of, the thing I highlighted in my show is, I’m still figuring out how to do that. I know how to be me on “United Shades of America” but I haven’t ... Yesterday I was on CNN three times. I was on at seven thirty in the morning, three thirty in the afternoon and seven thirty at night. And every time I’m having to, “Where’s the power-on switch?” You have three minutes to deliver, to connect ...
What’s different about that than walking onstage and doing comedy? Because there you ... I assume there’s an on and off switch there, right?
Yes, but there is a ... It’s like the difference between watching a pot of water boil and having one of those things in your house where boiling water comes out automatically.
So at CNN when I’m sitting with Ana Cabrera on her show yesterday at seven thirty at night, I just walked up from the hotel, I walked across the street. I was like, “Does someone have coffee?” And I sit down, I better be insta-hot. Onstage — and this is the way I do it — you can sort of watch the pot boil, you can warm into it a little bit. And if you realize that pot’s not boiling, take that off, get another pot of water. There’s a sense ... The pacing is different.
And for me that’s a more natural pacing. And so on “United Shades of America” we talk to Richard Spencer for a half hour and you can sort of go back and forth and a little bit of this. If me and him only had a six-minute interview that we had, it would have been a different interview.
That’s why they have editing.
That’s why they have editing.
We’re gonna let you pause for a second, reflect. Get some energy back. Your energy’s great. And hear from our awesome advertiser.
We’re back here with W. Kamau Bell who has many projects and we’re not gonna list them all again but you should go consume or buy them all.
Yes, because my daughters won’t feed themselves. I mean they literally will but they don’t understand how money works.
Does the podcast make money for you? I guess First Look’s paying you, right?
Yeah, First Look contracted us to do the podcast, which wasn’t the reason I did it because at the time I thought I was already too busy. So when they came to me first and said, “Would you like to do a political podcast?” and I was like, “I don’t have time for that.” And they were like ... We kept having meetings about it and I was like, “Yes, maybe, but I don’t have time.” And they said maybe you could have occasional co-hosts like maybe Hari could be an occasional co-host.
And I said, “Look, if Hari can be my regular co-host you have to go convince him. I’m not gonna convince him, and Hari doesn’t like to do anything. Then I will commit to doing it.” Which was the same reason I wanted to do it, we are really good friends who don’t talk often enough.
There’s more than one podcast in that format. There’s one called Call Your Girlfriend. Same format, “We just want to talk anyway. Why don’t you pay us to do it?”
Yeah. If you’re gonna pay me to talk to one of my best friends. It’s the same thing me and ... The Denzel podcast is based on friendship, for me these are ... That’s what I love about podcasting, it’s a more intimate medium. It’s based on me and Hari’s friendship. So there’s times last season on Politically Re-Active where the audience would be mad at one of us. He revealed that he voted for Jill Stein before the election and you can hear my reaction like, “Why are you tell the audience that?”
Even though we have lot of lefty-lefty [listeners], at that point it felt like, we can’t waste any votes. And he had good reasons for it, he lives in New York, it’s a blue state. But it was like, I had to preface the podcast next time because he got a lot of hate, and I was like look, you people don’t understand, we will end this podcast today. It’s about our friendship, if you don’t like Hari then we’ll just stop it. And if people were like, “You should get a new co-host,” we’ll just stop the whole thing.
Is that the most intense feedback you got? I assume CNN has the biggest reach in terms of number of people who are going to engage with your stuff. I’m guessing the podcast people are the most engaged in terms of getting back to you?
Yeah, the podcast ... because when you’re in their ears and they can’t even see you, they feel like you’re all ... A lot of times they’re going to sleep or they’re on the treadmill. It’s a very intimate experience, so I think the relationship you form with a podcast audience is very different than on TV. Because people on TV don’t think you’re talking to them. On a podcast they think you’re talking to them.
Right, because also, you leave the room, you’re still talking.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
That doesn’t happen, with the podcast they come with you.
You follow them to work and you follow ... And also they put you on in moments when they need a solace, or they need something. People are like, “I’m so glad there was a traffic jam today so I could listen to Politically Re-Active.” They’re using you to really take them away from the thing they don’t really want to deal with.
So for me the idea is it’s a much more intimate [realm], so people will get mad. They’ll fact-check us, they’ll also call us out on things. And sometimes we have to, as I say, we have to blow up on them and say yes, well, maybe you’re right about that, but be nice.
I don’t want to do the full Maron but ...
The full Maron.
The full Maron. Only Marc Maron can do Marc Maron. Have you been doing comedy your entire life?
No, I’ve been doing comedy since 1994, which at this point is, what is it? So more than half my life, I guess, yeah.
So most of your working life, right?
Yeah, oh yeah. So 21 and I’m 44.
And how is your conception of what comedy would be as a profession changed?
I thought when I started comedy, every comedian’s thing was like, you do comedy, you get a late-night spot, you get ... I think Carson was on when I started. No, Carson was off. But it was like, you get on Leno or Letterman.
And Leno was still a big deal.
Leno was still a big deal. You get a couple of late-night spots, you kill, you get an HBO hour. You become one of the biggest stars in the country, you get a sitcom.
You get a holding deal.
You get a holding deal, you get a sitcom, you write a book. And you sort of cruise into syndication. So at that point it was like Seinfeld and Tim Allen.
And that was your aspiration, “I want to do that”?
Yeah, I grew up on sitcoms, I was a big fan of “Seinfeld.” I sort of thought that was like, yeah, that’s the path. So we’re talking pre-internet, pre-podcasting, pre-everything. So for me it was like ... when I started doing comedy for a few years and I realized, well, first of all I’m not a good comedian, I’m really bad, so this is gonna take longer than I thought.
And two, I don’t want to move to L.A. and audition for things. I don’t think I have a five-minute late-night-spot set in me. So how am I gonna get on late-night TV? Certainly I think on HBO, because at that point HBO had less and less spots at a certain point. Also, I wasn’t in line for those spots.
The comedy boom waxes and wanes.
Yeah, the comedy boom died. So it was very rare to get the HBO. They’re now coming back into the comedy game pretty strong, but it was very rare to get an HBO hour.
Shouldn’t you be here promoting your Netflix show?
I know, come on Netflix, call a brother.
How did you retool yourself, though, once you sort of said, “All right, I’m not gonna do that route?”
We are doing ... well, we’re doing the half Maron. The half Maronthon. Once I realized in 2007 that my career of going to comedy clubs and standing at the back of the room waiting to get on and hoping for Hollywood discovery wasn’t going to work, I totally left comedy clubs and started ... Built this show in theaters, which is the “W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.” And sort of basically said ... I asked myself ...
What does Kamau want?
What does Kamau want? I said, “What would I do if I was already famous?” What would be the work I was doing. And I was like, “I would like to have my version of ‘The Daily Show’ but about racism.” Okay, well, how does that look? I don’t have a TV show so I need to go to a theater, I need to get a projector. I don’t have a projector. I need to make one of those PowerPoint things, I don’t know how to do that. But I basically ... That’s what I would do. So I just did it. I put the cart well before the horse.
So here’s a good dumb question for you.
It’s my specialty. Why did you decide, early on in your career, “I want to talk about racism, it’s gonna be the focal point of this hour and my comedy”?
I didn’t really decide it, I really feel like I got pulled into it. And I think I got pulled into because that was the way I grew up. My household was one of those households where my mom was always bringing people in. There was always black people having conversations about everything. So it could be about, “Did you hear that new Temptations song?” And also, “Man this cracker at work blah blah blah blah blah.”
To talking about like when I grew there was only whites, only this, and my mom grew up in Indiana, she was born in 1937, which is basically ... 1937 Indiana is like 1865 New York City, it was really very segregated. So there was just conversations about the struggle. This was post civil rights, but there was still conversations about the movement, or post the civil rights era. So in a sense I thought they were having conversations about the past or that they were complaining.
And I thought, well, Martin Luther King solved racism, I’m not gonna have to deal with that. But then as I became a teenager I started to experience racism. As I became a black teenager who was tall and people started treating you, even though you’re 14, they treat you like you’re 25, and they also think that you’re gonna steal or that you’re a future criminal. When I started doing comedy ... I started doing comedy because I love Staying Alive, Eddie Murphy and the artist formerly known as Bill Cosby. I just liked comedy.
Then, I started doing jokes about racism and the audience would pull back and I’d be like, “Why is that not working?” And I was sort of like a pendulum for years, back and forth between aggressively talking about racism and not talking about racism. And in comedy clubs if you talk about any subject for too long, people just go, “Could you move on?”
“I’ve had enough.”
Yeah. Even for Chris Rock. The perception is that he talks about racism a lot. It’s like 15 percent of my act. It’s people think it’s there when it’s not there. But it’s just stuff I’m known for but it’s not actually the whole thing. So for me, I was just like, “I think I really just want to talk about racism.” And I realized I couldn’t do that in a comedy club. So I really got pulled into it. My mom was often like, “You don’t have to talk about racism, if it’s too hard.”
So you said, this is what I want to talk about, the format doesn’t allow me to, so I’m gonna go and do a format that allows me to do whatever I want to do?
The format and my talent don’t allow me to. If I was better, maybe I would, but really going outside of it I was ... Going to theaters for me was also expanding my creativity, but it was also like going to the gym. Like getting reps that I couldn’t get at the comedy club because I was doing seven-minute sets or 30 minutes. Whereas I’d go to the theater and do the “Bell Curve” show and I’d do 90 minutes and not even realize what had happened.
Do you feel like being a comic who’s known for talking about race, known for talking about politics, is a benefit to you? Because people say, “Oh I know what he does, that’s a thing. I know where to slot him in.” Or do you think it holds you back because people think that’s all you can do and all you do?
It’s funny. I think it’s great. It’s great that people have a sense of what I do. Some people would say, “You always talk about racism.” Then don’t come to the show.
You know what you’re ... Yeah.
For me, every comic ... I think there’s a misconception that people see me and like, “He’s always talking about racism.” Okay, Jim Gaffigan’s always talking about food. These are the things ... Every comic picks the subjects they want to talk about, it’s just because some comics subjects are more on the surface inflammatory or “meaningful” you get a different type of attention. So for me it’s like, every comic needs to pick a subject to talk about and we all ... The weird thing about comedy is that we all end up going to the comedy club expecting the audience to ride for all of our things.
And so for me ... and Chris Rock believes you should be able to get a random comedy club. I believe that, but I also kind of believe ... I understand myself to be sort of a niche product, I’m not for everybody. I like going to the comedy clubs and playing there, but if it doesn’t work there, I don’t think that means it’s broken.
There was this idea that I heard or you heard during the end of the Obama year. You’d hear it from conservative commentators, who I don’t think really believed it, but they were saying it. They’d say, “Racism has gotten worse in this country because of Obama.” Somehow electing a black president has made race relations worse, and I thought, “Well this is just cynical bullshit.” But post Trump, now I have to sort of reassess. Do you think that the people who were saying that were correct and we’ve all just ... Well, I obviously don’t think that Obama made race relations worse, but ... I’m trying to form the right question here, but you know what I’m saying?
I don’t think Obama made race relations, I think people’s response ... Racist people’s response to Obama made race relations worse. I think Obama is pretty ... He’s a centrist with left leanings, but he’s not a dude who came in there going, “We’re gonna make gay marriage legal.”
No, he was middle of the road, Harvard educated.
He was smart, you gotta figure out how to win, and he understood how to lean to the left and cloak himself in progressive values, but at the end of the day he just took four hundred grand for his piece of Wall Street. I’m not surprised, I’m not one of those people who are like, “How can he ...” Well, that’s what he does, he didn’t put those people in jail.
So did you hear from people, well-meaning people who say well maybe you shouldn’t harp on racism too much, because if you’re gonna talk about it constantly, you’re just gonna throw it in people’s faces ... You can do the routine better than I can.
Yeah, I know, I’m pretty sure at this point, like I say, I’ve been doing this most of my life now. I know what I’m here to do. I also know what I can’t do. In the same way that you don’t want to hear and I’m not ... Jerry Seinfeld’s one of the greatest comedians of all time. Nobody’s coming here to hear Jerry Seinfeld talk about racism.
Although he dips into it occasionally. As the cranky old man.
Very yeah, sort of like, not in a way of “I’m here to talk about racism.” He sort of does a thing as a white person who doesn’t know how to speak on it. So in the same way that if you went to see Chris Rock and he was just talking about nothing, socks, the remote control, you’d be like, “What the hell is this?" So I feel like, this is what I do, I feel fortunate to live in a time where what I do there’s more outlets for it.
I think if I was doing this in the ’90s, I would not be as successful career-wise as I am because also, CNN in the ’90s wasn’t putting these kinds of shows on. So for me, I feel very fortunate that I live in the time I live in so that there’s podcasting and there’s docu-series. I think back in the day I would have had a much harder time.
How do you think about timeliness in comedy now? I guess it’s probably always the case, but I was listening to your special you did last year, on the way in, and you’ve got jokes about the Republican primary, so there’s Ben Carson jokes, seems less relevant. The Donald Trump joke seems pretty relevant. I wrote it down here, because I want to quote it correctly. You described him as a “nagging cough that has turned into full-blown AIDS.” You recorded that about a year ago.
That was a year and a half ago. And when I recorded it I was like, “This joke’s gonna be good for longer but I’m just gonna put it ...” I really sort of wish I could still do that joke, so I have to write a better joke than that one.
So do you think, “I gotta work on stuff that’s gonna work for a longer period,” or, “I gotta understand that what I do is gonna go away in a couple of news cycles”?
I gotta understand that whatever I do that I have to write the best joke I can in the moment that I can. If you listen ... And often the comedians that America says are the highest expression of stand-up comedy are comedians who, you put on a Lenny Bruce record right now, we would be sitting here like we were listening to somebody talk about algebra, you know. Not that you ...
Yeah, no no, I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work. You’ve gotta go back and get the Wikipedia up and figure out what he’s talking about.
Yeah, and you gotta be like, “Who’s these actors he’s talking about that everybody’s like ‘oh my God you said that guy?’” He’s making a joke that would basically be like about an actor like William F. Macy.
I was watching one of the Chappelle specials and he was talking about Ebola and like, that was a couple of years ago.
Yeah, I think that there’s different types of comedians. Even somebody like Seinfeld, again, just to go back to him, who you think is timeless, if you look at his act he’s gonna have a joke from 20 years ago, he’s got jokes about probably pagers. You know, there’s just comedians ... I think comedy is always, overall, it loses it’s steam over time. The only joke I can think of from the last century that still stands up is probably “Who’s on First.”
If you put it on, it’s still kinda funny, you know? My daughter would think that was funny, because it’s about word play. Whereas if you put on Bob Hope, America’s greatest comedian at the time, it’s not gonna make any sense. So I think the nature of stand-up comedy is different than music and so I think that’s why people don’t take it as seriously. You put on The Beatles now, The Beatles are always gonna be regarded as some of America’s ... Some of the world’s highest pop music.
But at some point, that George Carlin clip that we’re all still sending around, it’s gonna be like, “I don’t understand, what does he mean a place for our stuff, we don’t have stuff. We don’t have things.”
Explainers are not as fun.
Yeah, when you start to put explainers on comedy it loses ... When you have to go, let me explain, it loses ... So I think that comedy is, in its nature, temporary. That’s why I think it’s funny to think it does make sense that I’d be at a news network, because that’s also temporary, nobody wants “The Greatest Hits of CNN on DVD.
No. Although they did a series last year, like “The ’60s,” “The ’70s,” “The ’80s.”
But see, they’re finding a way to recontextualize news events and cultural events.
Yeah, I was surprised. I saw a bit of one and they were going through ’80s talk show hosts. It was like, “Oh wow, Morton Downey Jr, totally forgot about him.” That was a whole format.
And I think that CNN, the thing that I’m really happy with about CNN is there’s a thing called news, there’s also a thing called relevancy. And I’ve always existed in a place that I feel like I just want to be relevant. And so when I sit down and write a joke, I’m like, “What is this joke about?” If it’s just sort of funny, I probably won’t do it if I can’t find a frame that makes it relevant to my life or now.
You’re a Twitter person, speaking of relevancy, immediacy. Do you workshop jokes on Twitter or is that a different kind of discussion?
No, I mean sometimes ... It’s funny the things where I get the most attention that I do on Twitter are things where I’m really just pointing out problems and telling people to sign up for something. You know, like, “Go here, donate to this.” But no, a lot of times it’s just ... I had a joke the other day I wrote on Twitter that I was like, “I should say this onstage.” And I said it onstage once and we’ll see how it goes, it’s super ... I can tell you because it’s probably not gonna last that long.
I wrote it and I was like, “This might be funny in real life.” And I did it once and it was funny. I hope it’s still funny when I go on tour because I really just love the ... Anyway, it was Jeffrey Lord had said that Donald Trump was the Martin Luther King Jr of health care. And I talked about how Jeffrey Lord is the Kellyanne Conway of Sean Spicers.
You can’t tell because it’s a podcast but I’m making a funny face.
Yeah yeah yeah. Just the idea like, when I wrote it, I just love the way it sounds. He’s the Sean Spicer of Kellyanne Conways, that’s why it’s funny.
Is there a ... Can you transfer a joke that works on Twitter to a joke that works onstage or are they different mediums and different ideas?
Some comics are one-liner comics so they can. Like Aparna Nancherla probably can transfer a lot of her Twitter jokes to onstage jokes. For me usually that’s the premise of a bigger joke. So it’s usually like, if that gets a laugh, that means I need to ... So it’s good to have those jokes as the starter premises. It’s like when you make roux you need the stuff at the bottom.
Oh, you do a cooking class too, that’s great.
It’s like a gumbo, you need the roux, the stuff that powers the gumbo.
The sticky stuff.
The sticky stuff.
I just throw flour in and it usually works, right?
And it’s gotta be dark, the darker it is the better it is. So the more concentrated it is the better.
We got comedy school, we got cooking tips. What else are we gonna learn today?
You know, we learn about ... I’ve got a lot of things, I’m pretty smart and well read.
So go read the book, go listen to the multiple podcasts.
I thought you were telling me to read the book.
No no no. You don’t need to read it. I’m telling the audience. Go consume Kamau Bell however you can consume him. Hopefully pay him money directly, indirectly.
If you see me in the streets, hand me some cash.
Hand him some cash. You can hit him on Twitter. You guys know where to find me because you’re listening to this podcast right now. Thank you for listening.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.