Socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell is bringing his sharp observations and quick wit to his debut Netflix special, Private School Negro (currently available to stream), which explores his thoughts on the current presidential administration, racism in America and the experience of parenting mixed race daughters. His insight and humor has been evident across three seasons of the thought-provoking CNN series United Shades of America (for which he won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program in 2017), but his comedy special provides non-stop laughs about topics that are both personal and relatable.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, W. Kamau Bell talked about how this Netflix comedy special came about, what rehearsing the show taught him, how he feels about Twitter criticism, always watching and observing the behavior and actions of other people, what he’s learned about the world from his own kids, how United Shades of America has changed him, personally and professionally, how his career compares to what he thought it would be when he started out as a comedian, and what saddens him and gives him hope about the world.
Collider: Thank you so much for talking to me about your Netflix comedy special! We last spoke for Totally Biased while you were at the Television Critics Association (TCA) Press Tour, back in 2013.
W. KAMAU BELL: I hope that you’ve Googled my career since then, or this conversation could get awkward.
I’m actually a big fan of your CNN show, United Shades of America, and I also went to one of the rehearsal shows you did for this comedy special at Largo in Los Angeles.
BELL: Very cool! Well, thank you!
In what ways would you say those rehearsal performances informed the actual special? Were there any things that you changed, modified or cut, as a result of actually getting a response from an audience?
BELL: I think that L.A. might have been the last show, or one of the last shows. Dwayne Kennedy, who was the opener on the show, also used to perform on Totally Biased a lot and he was a writer there, he was one of my comedy mentors, as I started, and he’s a consultant on the special. Me, him, Kevin Avery, who also wrote on Totally Biased, and then on The Jim Jefferies Show, and Owen Smith, who’s a great comedian, went to a Swingers in L.A. and basically broke down the whole hour that I had done at Largo. They were like, “Move this. Change this. I wouldn’t do that. I would do more of this. I wouldn’t do this.” At first, it was like, “I don’t know if I can do this, guys.” There was some pretty major restructuring, between the time you saw it at Largo and the time we did it for Netflix.
When you have other people talking about your material like that, and they’re telling you what you should and shouldn’t change, do you sit there and go, “Oh, my god, what are you doing to me,” or are you open to hearing criticism?
BELL: After the boot camp that was Totally Biased and having Chris Rock, at the top of his voice, scream from across the room about why a joke wasn’t working or what I wasn’t doing correctly, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin about criticism. And after having a show canceled, that you felt like you thought was maybe gonna bring down Chris Rock’s career, I really developed some thick skin tools for this business. So, there was a little bit of ego involved, but once you take the ego out and you really trust that these are funny people who have your best interests at heart and want you to succeed, it was actually a fun process. It’s not like I was saying, “Hey, Twitter, what do you guys think about this?” I don’t think people realize the comradery that comics have, who are friends and who know each other. I didn’t even know Owen that well, but he’s really good friends with Dwayne, so I trusted him. I don’t think people realize that it’s a team effort, which is why Dwayne traveled with me when we were touring. He’s one of the greatest comics in the business, so it was great to have his feedback, and I really appreciate it.
It’s probably easier to listen to criticism from people who are looking out for your best interests, as opposed to people on Twitter, where everyone is a critic.
BELL: Yeah. I employed Dwayne on Totally Biased and he’s a producer on United Shades, so he wants me to keep being employed. It’s not just that he wants the best for me, he wants the best for himself, which is fine.
Are you pretty good, then, at tuning out the criticism on Twitter?
BELL: Yeah, especially with United Shades, I’ve learned. I live tweet the episodes, when they first air, so you really open yourself up to a lot. There are lots of times, when people tell me that I did things wrong or that the show did things wrong, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s true. We probably should have done a better job of that.” And I find that, if you say that to people, they’ll be like, “Oh, okay.” It takes the steam out. And then, the people who are just spewing nonsense, it becomes easy to ignore them or make fun of them, depending upon the mood that I’m in.
How did this comedy special come about? Was this something you were looking to do?
BELL: I really love doing stand-up. With the schedule of United Shades, I can’t do it as much as I used to, but I really love it. And then, all of these comedians started getting Netflix comedy specials. My last special was on Showtime, which was great, but the space to have a special, at one point, was HBO, and then it was Comedy Central. When Netflix was really starting to go into the comedy specials business, I know Robbie Praw, who’s one of the people in comedy at Netflix. He was one of the people who brought me to Montreal in 2005. Suddenly. I was like, “Huh, I wonder if Robbie would let me do a special on Netflix ‘cause I know he’s a big fan of mine, and we’ve stayed in touch.” So, it felt like there might be an opportunity there. The way my career works, I’m a comedian with a show on CNN. I’m not often in a place where every comedian is. But I’d been touring a little bit, and I had this hour of material that I really enjoyed and I thought, “Is this something I wanna leave, as a permanent record, or is this just stuff that I’m doing on stage?” Because it was about all the change between Obama and Trump, and how it affected my family, and I was living in Berkeley, at the time, and it seemed like Berkeley was this national news story, it just felt like I had some stuff to say that I think is unique to me.