W. Kamau Bell Wants to Talk to The People Who Want to Hear From Him
"You Know," a new feature at The Present Age, debuts today!
Hello, dear readers. Parker here. Today is an exciting one!
First Five will be back next week, but I didn’t want to wait another day to launch this segment that’s been in the works. It’s called “You Know,” and the goal is to take writers, actors, YouTubers, comedians, and creatives you may already know from somewhere else and let you know that they’re getting into the newsletter game. There can be a real discoverability challenge in the newsletter world, even for bigger names.
This, just like my recommendations, is going to be platform agnostic, so while I’m sure a great many of these You Know segments will be Substack newsletters, I’m definitely open to interviewing people launching on other platforms, too. If you think you’d be a good fit (or know someone planning to launch a newsletter who would), feel free to send me an email at email@example.com.
You may know my first guest as the award-winning host of the CNN docuseries United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell, the driving force behind Showtime’s We Need To Talk About Cosby, or more recently, the HBO documentary 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed. He’s a New York Times bestselling author, a member of the board of directors at Donors Choose, and the ACLU’s Artist Ambassador for Racial Justice.
And in case the name didn’t give it away, he’s the man behind the brand-newnewsletter, W. Kamau Bell!
Below are some highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. Paid subscribers can listen to the full audio of our conversation at the bottom of the newsletter.
But first, real quick: here’s the part of the newsletter where I ask you to consider signing up for the free version if you’re new here and ask existing free subscribers to consider upgrading to the paid version.
So without further ado…
On where most people recognize him from:
I would say at this point, it's generally United Shades of America. That show was on CNN for seven seasons, which nobody can believe because it was either on all the time or they never saw it. Seven seasons, and CNN, especially when I was on, was sort of everywhere: like doctor's offices, the subway platform, lots of airports.
So even if you didn't know me, you saw my face in lots of places. So a lot of times, people go, “Hey, you're the CNN guy!” I was like, “I don't think I get paid enough to be called the CNN guy. I think that's more of an Anderson Cooper title.”
On whether he has a favorite, most impactful, or most memorable episode of United Shades of America:
It's funny. There's a handful of them that I think that if I was to tell stories about, they would come up. But really, the first one that really impacted me personally was in the first season. We were supposed to do an episode about biker gangs, which shows you how different the show was back then. And the biker gangs basically threatened to beat up one of our producers, so we had to cancel that episode.
And then we sort of pivoted, and we ended up doing an episode about San Quentin prison. And I remember that I'd never been in a prison before. And I remember really being afraid that we were going to do the thing that happens in prison shows, especially back then. MSNBC did a lot of this, like the prison pornography shows, basically, “Look at how crazy and scary and violent and awful these people are.” And as a Black man, I knew I can't go into a prison and do that. And so that episode was not that.
I didn't realize San Quentin was actually one of the best places for rehab in prison. Like not only drugs and alcohol, but also your mind, and inmates learn skills. I became friendly with one of the guys there and stayed in touch and he's out of prison now, his name's Rahsaan Thomas. And so we've become friendly, and I've been back to San Quentin several times. I didn't go during COVID, obviously, but I just went back last year for the first time. It really changed my ideas about how prison can work and really affected my life in a big way.
So that was the first episode that affected me that I was like, “Oh, this is not just me making this show. It actually is going to change my life, too.” And then every season, there were two or three episodes that would be really significant.
On if he had any regrets while making United Shades of America:
Oh yeah, my life is run by regret. From the very first episode, there were regrets about how the production happened and my level of control over it. And so from the first episode to the very last episode, I had to really flex and push in and demand, not a full-on tantrum, but go, “If we do this again, I'm not doing it.” And so from the very first episode, which was famously the KKK episode, I really felt like we could have done that funnier, but the producer at that time was really like, “We want the Klan to look scary.” And I was like, “I think they've already accomplished that on their own.”
The fun is in the fact that I'm making them funnier, like that I'm making fun of them, and I'm in control of this experience, but they really want to do “Grrrrrr, he might get lynched.” So that was that.
And then every episode, I really was always pushing CNN like, “Look, we've shot way more than we can use in 42 minutes. Can we just put stuff up online?” [They’d] already paid for this content.
They didn't really understand content in that way at that point. I don't know if they understand it yet, but I think I was looking ahead to the current era of everything being content and using all of it. Nobody cares if it's out of focus, nobody cares if there's “ums” and “ahs.” And there's a lot of stuff that just sits somewhere on a hard drive that has great content and great conversations. Sometimes we would interview people, and for some reason the show went a different direction. And so whole conversations didn't make the show, that were good conversations, just because they didn't fit in the 42 minutes.
My big regret is that I wasn't able to convince CNN that all of that should have been up online. All of that should be on YouTube.
“I'm really into the idea of talking to the people who want me to talk to them and not just throwing it out into the randomness of social media anymore.”
On what he would do if given the chance to make a 55th episode with an unlimited budget and a worldwide audience:
I would actually do one out of the country. We never really got far out of the country. We went to Canada and Mexico. And Mexico, when we really stepped a foot in and stepped out, we weren't really in, but Canada, we did a whole episode in Canada.
I'm really fascinated right now about Black expats, especially people who have left recently, within the last five years — probably since 2016. I follow people on Instagram; there's just waves of regular Black people, not rich Black people who are just like, “I'm done with America.”
And there's a history of black artists doing that. You know, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, and Josephine Baker. And I'm just curious about people doing it now. I would have loved to have done something about that. And it's an idea I still have, but if they were going to give me an unlimited budget, I would do that specifically.
On why he’s starting a newsletter now:
I mean, I've had one for years. I had an email list back when you would put out a clipboard. So I've had one, and also, the way in which my career worked, when I really started to understand myself as a writer was one year, this is over 10 years ago, my wife was like, “Start a blog and write,” maybe decide to write something. I don't know if it was once a week or every day, but I started regularly writing, and I really found myself as a writer at that point in ways that I just thought of myself as a standup. And then I had this newsletter, and it was sporadic, but I would sometimes send out more, I'd send it out to talk about when United Shades was running; I'd send it out every week. And I really liked that connection to people. And I really like what it does to me as a writer to give me something like, “What would you write about if you had to write today?”
And that's the kind of writing I really enjoy. And it's a way to get ideas out to you that I wouldn't use anywhere else. This week I'm writing about, I think I'm writing about this one about the George Carlin quote-unquote, “AI standup comedy special.” I normally would tweet about it or Instagram about it and call it a day, but there's like, I have a lot of thoughts about it, it turns out.
So, this is an opportunity to use those thoughts in a productive way. I'm really into the idea of talking to the people who want me to talk to them and not just throwing it out into the randomness of social media anymore. I'll still do some of that, but I really want, that's where we got the “Who's With Me” name from. I was like, I want Who's With Me. We can have productive arguments, but I'm not here for the trolling that has become social media.
On what he looks forward to writing about:
2024, as we know, is already a beast of a year, and it's only gonna get more beastial. And like a feral beast, not like a kind beast. The thing that I used to like about Twitter is that you could be more on top of the news. So Trump does something or Biden does something, you can sort of like send out 15 tweets. I don't do that anymore because I don't want to waste my time. This is a way to sort of still put those ideas out in a rapid response way that doesn't just feel like you're just blowing it into the wind.
On where people can keep up with him:
I am still on Instagram. I'm still at Twitter — you might find me on there a little bit, but really like most of my social media-ing happens on Instagram at W. Kamau Bell and, go to Donors Choose, I’m on the board of directors at Donors Choose. If you want to support me, go to Donors Choose and support a teacher out there who needs to help her students get what they need. So that's how you support me.
On his appearances on the upcoming season of ABC’s What Would You Do?
I taped it last August and didn't know when it was coming out. And it's really, it's funny to get a call from your agent or whatever, like, “Hey, do you wanna be on What Would You Do?” And I was like, “Of course, I wanna be on What Would You Do?” It's such a, I never thought that opportunity would be presented to me. John Quiñones, who's the host, who's been the host of that show forever, invited me and Sara Haines in. And the great thing about the episodes I'm in is they were all filmed in and around Alabama, where my dad lives. So for me, it was like, it wasn't just doing like a random episode. It was like, I actually got to go have dinner with my dad every night and actually show off the Alabama that I know, which was cool.
Premium subscribers can listen to the full conversation below: