W. Kamau Bell: Overcoming Fear & Self-Doubt
Hey everybody, how's it going? I'm Chase Jarvis. Welcome to another episode of the Chase Jarvis Live Show here on Creative Live. This show (laughing) is where I sit down with the world's top, uh you fucked me up. (laughing) <v W. Kamau>He literally said do whatever you wanna do. Didn't he say that? Take over the show, do whatever you wanna do.
He did, he did. <v W. Kamau>I've never done that before in my life.
This is where I sit down with the top creators, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders, like this guy who you didn't see, just pretend you didn't see that, and I do my best to unpack actionable and valuable insights with the goal of helping you live your dreams, whether that's a career or hobby, and in life. My guest today is a comedian, clearly. He's the host of a new award winning show. It's kinda new, it's a year and change in it's second season, United Shades of America. My guest is W. Kamau Bell.
What's up, sir? (upbeat music) (audience applauding)
e love you.
That was funny.
You told me.
I know I did, I invited it.
For people who are watching he spent the whole time, do whatever you wanna do.
Yeah, it's like your show.
It's your show.
As much as mine, it's true.
So I just thought I'd do something I've seen other people do that I think is obnoxious.
It was brilliant though. As the host, you host your own show, you know.
Yeah, I know.
Wait a minute.
I don't get off my game very often. That was impressive. New show, actually second season of a new show.
Yeah it hasn't been on the air as long as Seinfeld or Bonanza or the Simpson's, so it's still new.
Right behind those.
Yeah (laughing) right behind.
I believe that the world is familiar with your work, impressive, interesting.
I'm still a niche product. I'm not mainstream or worldwide.
Maybe it's because I've been tracking you and I'm getting retargeted by all the ads for the show.
At CNN people definitely at least see your face.
The great thing about working at CNN, especially in the original series side, is they don't have that many shows at one time.
Clearly, they got the show.
Yes, they got me, they got Bourdain, and they have Soundtracks right now. They only have three shows to advertise. Soundtracks, the Rock is producing it but it's not really his show. He's not hosting it. Bourdain, everybody knows Bourdain. He's great, but you just have to go, he's back, and people go, okay I'll be there. With me they're like, yeah look at this funny commercial. Look at this serious commercial. Look at this batter ad. Look at the billboard. They have to really build the thing out of the way that they don't have to do with Bourdain. Bourdain they just send out one tweet. He's coming back this Sunday.
Excellent, we'll all be there.
Yeah, yeah, we will all be there like we always are every week and have been there for the last 10 years.
I actually heard a comparison. If Bourdain's bouncing around trying different cuisine, it's an incredible show, by the way, he's a great host.
He is the, I mean that's when I would sit at home before I ever had the show, years before, I'd like to have a show like that. He's absolutely, there was a thing called the Travel Show that PBS and lots of stations did, but he put his personality square in the middle of it. Instead of a travel host being like, look at this, that's nice.
It's the Inca Ruins being a hero. It's Bourdain.
It's Bourdain. You just wanna hang out with him. He can go anywhere.
Yeah, that's in the background. I heard you say something, I don't know if this is true, about that being analogous that what you wanna do instead of food and destinations or parts unknown that yours is topics and racism.
Yeah, it's race and culture. For me it's topic focused. It's also about relevancy. If your group is in the news and it's clear that your group is not getting to speak for themselves or getting the shot they need. Or if your group is never in the news and it's like why aren't they ever in the news? I sort of feel like a need to go there and talk to you and see if I can hand the mic to you. It's the same thing we do here. You told me to take over my show. When I sit down with people I go, say whatever you wanna say. I will not interrupt you. I'm gonna make some jokes but they're not gonna be at you. I want you to feel you got your story out.
It's beautiful. Talk to me about the conception of the show. You sit in your room, you started going there. I kinda want a show like Anthony Bourdain or was it a long journey? I know you had a show before that.
It was both a long journey and it sorta fell in my lap. Separate from the United Shades of America or any conception of that, I would sit at my girlfriend's house at the time and hang out with her roommates. We would watch Bourdain's show and Mike Rowe's show Dirty Jobs. We would just sorta sit around and I would watch these shows. I would just be like, and this was way before my first show, Totally Biased, and I would just be like I would like one of those shows but about racism. I thought about sort of going around the country and sampling the racism. That was just my own and then I got Totally Biased, which was like a very traditional late night talk show. Sort of like in The Daily Show, Samantha Bee, John Oliver style, that is now a style but at the time it was just like The Daily Show sort of. That lasted for about a year and when it was over the feedback I got universally my best parts of it weren't the in studio stuff or the interview stuff. It was when I went out into the world and talked to people. Then I met with CNN when I was trying to find a job basically. I met with a bunch of people and CNN had been pitched a show that was basically like it was called Black Man White America. I've told Jamie Foxx who runs the company I wouldn't tell this story again, but I'm telling it one last time.
One last time. This is it. This is the last time.
He's like, that title was so bad. It's called Black Man White America.
Can you say the title one more time?
Black Man White America.
Okay, there you go, we've made that clear. It's on the record.
Or as I call it, Black Man and America. The idea was that you send a black person around or a black comedian around to white places. When they pitched that to me I was like oh. (laughing) I already have white in-laws, I kinda know what that's like. I come from the Bay area. I would wanna go to more than just white places. They kicked it back to Jamie Foxx. He liked that idea better. The title became, he changed the title to United Shades of America, which is a way better title. It's much more unifying, it's not so divisive. So then we sorta got together, put the team together and did the first season.
And it crushed.
Luckily, the thing is about CNN is it's great, you just sorta have to outdraw the news. (laughing) On Sunday nights at 10 o'clock, unless something happened. Unless there's a plane missing, you can outdraw the news. It's a huge platform and yet it's also not like, I'm not like on NBC at eight o'clock on Thursday where it's like you better get 45 billion people or else this is out, you know. For me, and it's also a very dedicated following on CNN. People who watch CNN watch it all the time. Also, like I always say, even if you hate CNN eventually you're sitting in an airport waiting for your flight and it's on the TV.
Yeah, you can't avoid it.
You just can't, and then you see my face. I've gotten all these cool photos of people at airports waiting for their flight and everybody's watching me talk to the Ku Klux Klan, sorta like what is this?
Can you turn the volume up?
I gotta hear this shit.
Cause it's in an airport and you're like ah.
I think the fact that I look like myself. I don't look like a guy who's normally on CNN. The fact that I'm talking to people who maybe you see in small stories on CNN but not for long periods of time. We just did an episode about gang activity in Chicago this past Sunday. You see stories on CNN about gangs but not where you go, here's the mic you talk and I'll just listen.
One more question about CNN. A friend of mine, Casey Neistat.
Just sold his company.
Oh yes, I met him.
Is this a trend for CNN trying to, are they getting after?
First of all, I didn't get that deal. (laughing) I did not get the Casey deal. I read about that, I was like I need to call my agent. I was like what. And he's still showing up to work? I would be out. Maybe they don't have to give me that big check because I would be done. I would be like I'm gonna email you.
He worked really hard for it.
No, he definitely worked hard. But I was definitely like, hold on a second. Hey W. Me, no I mean good for him. I think that the great thing is that maybe CNN, before they had me, all the shows they had were based around people who already had shows. Like Bourdain, Lisa Ling, Morgan Spurlock, Mike Rowe, they were all people who had sort of had these types of shows. Then they signed me and Reza Aslan. He has a show called Believer that also did great this season. His show just aired earlier this year. That was the first time they sort of created shows out of whole cloth. For me, I would like to think that in some way the success of my show and Reza's show made them go, oh maybe we should really look outside of this, of what we even conceived we could do here. I think, no, shout out good job and if he needs a producing partner. (laughing)
How cool is it that, for example, that you hadn't had that or they hadn't done that before? I talk a lot about how it's the first time in history in the world where a lot of the gatekeepers that have been there before are absent or looking to invite new people into the party.
We're on the internet right now. We're on YouTube, right? The whole thing is that there has been the barriers of entry have gotten a lot less barriery. (laughing) Set it up, I mean.
Spoken like a true journalist. Barriery.
That's why I don't claim journalism status. For me, I look at Issa Rae from who starts The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl on YouTube. She never probably would've ever gotten a meeting at HBO if she had said I have this idea about a show about me. Who are you? The people at HBO are great, but they wouldn't have probably conceived that. So she does this show, she proves that it's a thing. She writes a book based on the show and then suddenly HBO's like, can you bring that over here? You have to look at all this stuff as like yes you wanna build your own brand but it's also a constant audition tape for people who have the funds to kick it up another notch.
I love that you said that. I'm gonna do one more dove tail before I shift gears. Do you know Justin Simien, Dear White People?
Yeah, I mean I don't know him, but yeah.
He's also been on the show. His story is very similar. He built and shot the pilot to a show, to a film, that had never been shot, and it was like he had shot it. He made this beautiful thing and then shopped the trailer like he had a film. Then when he got close to the deal he revealed that I ain't got no film. (laughing) He found someone to finance it and it was an amazing release in the theater. They just made a television show about it.
The thing about that you have to realize is this is just the 21st century version of Robert Townsend who's a filmmaker, but in the late 80s, financing his film on credit cards. Back in the day they used to, kids pay attention, they used to just send you credit cards in the mail to get you to sign up for credit cards. So they would send you a credit card, I think that's illegal now. He would just say, huh, and he would use those credit cards to finance Hollywood Shuffle, which is basically, in part, responsible for the show In Living Color, which brings us the Wayans families, which brings us Jim Carrey. The idea is that this is, Spike Lee did that, you know his independent films. You gotta make your own gravy. There used to be a commercial I'd see back when I was a kid about dog food that made it's own gravy. You put water in it, and I was thinking about that. You gotta make your own gravy.
It's beautiful. It's a great line, I'm gonna use that in the promotion of the show. Note, make your own gravy. We got off, I thought it was an interesting little tangent right there, I'm gonna bring it back and make it about you.
It feels like it still is about me.
That's great. That's the thing, those people think it's about them. I think it's about me. You think it's about you. But specifically take us back to what propelled you to pursue a career as a comedian, to pursue a niche where one tenth of one tenth of one tenth of the people who try and make it can make it. What's your motivation?
I think every kid has some sort of initial spark of what they want to be, whether it's a fireman or, honestly at first it was superhero but that's not a job yet. Until they get all that HGH and human growth stuff, til they settle that out. Until they really get that bionic stuff going it's not really a job so I can't do that. Then it was like comic book artist but I couldn't draw that well, but I always loved comedy. I'm right around the same age as Saturday Night Live so I grew up watching Saturday Night Live. I was a little kid my mom said she could make me do anything if she promised to let me watch Saturday Night Live. I'm the person who as a five year old going like, it hasn't been good since the original cast. (laughing)
Seriously, where's Belushi, come on.
I've been hating on Saturday Night Live since before that was cool. Shout out right now Kate McKinnon's amazing. It was just a thing and also that means that Eddie Murphy was on TV when he was 19 or and he looked the same age as me. I mean he was older than me, like 10, 15 years older than me, but this was like my friend that was on this show. Eddie Murphy was like the first superstar that I really cared about. I followed his career. It was just like a thing I want. I love stand-up comedy. I remember seeing Seinfeld on The Tonight Show. Chris Rock Bring The Pain changed my life. I was in my 20s at that point. As an only child I think there was something about being up there by yourself that I really resonated with. You're just up there talking.
You're just hung out to dry.
Everybody has to pay attention. Cause that's the agreement.
Brilliant. Take us from not having any job, take us from wondering how to start. I think that's one of the things that people who are watching this show or listening to it, they are enthusiastic about a thing or becoming something that they're not today, and taking the first step is the hardest. I love to find out. Give us the first couple of steps.
I started in the 90s so there was pre-internet, so how do you start doing stand-up comedy?
Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Yep, right in there. That's my era. Music hasn't been good since the 90s. I'm that guy at this age. A friend of mine who I went to high school with, he's my best friend and knew I wanted to do stand-up comedy. He's like, there's an open mic comedy thing down the street from my apartment. If not for that, I don't know. I was in Chicago at the time, maybe I would've stumbled across some other, but it was him and it was him coming with me. He went with me for like a month and just watched every week. We just watched and I sorta was like I'll go up some week. He just came and hung out. Then I finally went up and he hung out with me. We were really good friends. The first two years I don't think he missed a show I did. Not everybody's gonna get that. First of all you need a support system if you're gonna do something that is really crazy like do stand-up comedy. It's harder to do it if you don't have people who are sort of okay with the craziness of it. My dad wasn't okay with it. I dropped out of college. My mom was just like whatever you wanna do. She supported me, she wasn't like whatever you wanna do. I wanna be clear. She would be upset if I diminished it. Right now I look at back then, if he hadn't told me that, maybe this doesn't exist. Now there's so much information available to you on how to do anything. You have to really take advantage of that. You have to really Google the thing and look it up and figure it out. There's gonna be some website, there's probably a YouTube video, like here's how you start doing stand-up comedy. It's very clear. Then the thing is you gotta jump in with two feet. You gotta really get in there, especially with something like stand-up. If you do it once every now and again you're never gonna find out if you're any good at it or if you love it. Whatever it is you have to really jump in and go, okay I'm gonna really dedicate some time to this. The thing about stand-up especially, stand-up comedy doesn't actually want you to be a stand-up comedian. Stand-up comedy's like, we're full.
It's trying to kick the shit out of you.
Yeah, it's like we don't really need anybody else. It's like those movies about the Shallen Temple. I don't know if they ever existed like that. You just show up and sit outside at stand-up comedy and it's like, we don't need that today can you please move? You have to really go for it because there's a buzz of that pink cloud when you start. I'm on stage and I have new friends and it's a new social scene. I'm starting to get some laughs. Then at that point it's just about being okay with failure. There are some people who come out of the box really strong. Chappelle, I've heard he was like immediately funny. For most of us you have to just sort of be okay with mostly failure for a period of time. For everybody it's a different length of time. You have to be okay with success that isn't really financial success. I had good shows all this week, but I didn't make any money or I made very little money. I still have a day job. You have to be okay with people sort of condescending to what you're doing.
Oh, so you're doing stand-up right? You're gonna make hundreds.
The funny thing that I find is, oh you do stand-up comedy? Where do you perform? If you go, this coffee shop and that bar on Wednesdays, people go, oh so you're not really a stand-up comedian. Whereas nobody really does it with other art forms. Maybe with writers, but you don't have to prove that you're the thing. Then it becomes, oh where do you perform? Oh well I've been on TV. Oh, what station? Comedy Central. Oh, I don't have that channel. Okay well I don't know what to tell you. (laughing) People always want to sort of diminish the thing you're doing. Then you get to the point where you're like okay now I've been on the things, I've been on enough things. I have all the credits. Then people are like, I just don't think you're funny. You just have to be okay with eating and swallowing and sort of passing negativity through you because if you get caught up in it, it's hard. It's important that you are, I think this is true of me, that I'm my hardest critic. You don't want someone else to be a harder critic of you than you. It doesn't mean that there aren't people who are gonna criticize you from angles you weren't thinking about. You have to be open to feedback. You have to be real with yourself. Am I getting better? Was this year better than last year? If it wasn't, what can I do to change that? I moved from the Chicago to the Bay area just because I was like, I'm not getting better. My third year I was like I repeated my second year. So I moved to the Bay area.
So comedy, were you as a kid funny? Oh, you're so funny. Were you going by W then? (laughing)
No I was Kamau. W is, my dad's first name is Walter and my first name's Walter. So he was Walter and I was Kamau. I was funny to my mom and my good friends. I was not the class clown. My dad was totally surprised when I told him I was gonna do stand-up comedy.
He's like, that kid is not funny.
No, he would not describe me as being funny. Lazy, you know, athletically not gifted, things like that. But he would not have described me as funny. I don't think, for most of my family, like my aunts and uncles, and people like that, oh yeah Kamau's really funny. I know those people who are really funny. I've seen them. I was always a little embarrassed to tell people I was a comedian for a long time because no one was like, you're so funny. At some point you sorta do it long enough you realize not everybody was the class clown. A lot of us are comedians because we're trapped in our heads and we're sorta always thinking about things, not because we're dominating the scene.
I think that's really common. The same is true with me. I considered myself a photographer long before I would tell anyone else that I thought of myself as that because they were like, really?
Yeah they always want you to prove that, well where have you been published? I have a camera, I take pictures, they're nice.
I think it's a real thing, again, for the folks who are listening, that playing through that is a really important part of making it, cause maybe you can comment about this. I think stamina is critical. You can make whatever you need to make happen if you just outlast. If you're the only one left in the room.
I remember reading this quote from Harry Rowlands. I don't know if he said it cause it's hard to know, but basically the secret is don't quit. If you keep going something's gonna happen. Like that's the thing I always remember Yeah, just don't quit. If you quit then you're not, you know. Jesse Jackson had that quote years ago running for President. If you run you might lose, if you don't run you're guaranteed to lose. Make an honest effort. Be honest with yourself about the effort you're making. Am I getting better? You may be like oh I'm not really good at stand-up comedy. Maybe it leads you to be a writer or producer or director. Don't quit.
There's actual action behind that. There's so many people that I see get stuck in thinking about doing something and playing Xbox all day as opposed to doing the thing.
Comedy's really seductive. It's really easy to think that your procrastination and your laziness is actually part of the process. I just need to think about things. I know some comedians who still live that way and have made it but I think it's a testament to their talent. For me it was like you better get up early and get to your day job and do that. You don't wanna lose your job. You have to pay your bills. I also said no to a lot of stuff. Looking back, maybe I said no to too many things. I always had a real sense of what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do.
Where did you get that sense?
I think it was my mom. It was like be your own person. Being an only child you are only influenced by your own influences. This is how I feel and I think that's fine because nobody's telling me it's wrong. I don't have that sense of brothers or sisters who are sort of telling you you're not doing the right thing. I was always fine with being my own company. The friend I have who's my best friend, we've been best friends since high school. It's like, no that's enough. I have other friends and I have other good friends. I've always sorta kept a pretty close circle. Being able to be your own counsel is important too. I know everybody thinks I should do this but I don't think I'm gonna do this. Sometimes there's times where, I remember when I took the pilot for the CNN show United Shades of America, my best friend who I've been best friends with since high school was like I don't think you should do that. There was another offer on the table. You should take the other one. To this day he says yeah I was wrong. Even though my best friend was like that's not a good idea I was like I'm gonna do it anyway. So here we are.
Alright I'm totally biased but Totally Biased was a great show.
It was a little engine that could. Without that show I'm not sitting here right now. It was a moment in time and I learned a lot from it. It's taught me a lot about how show business works. Before that I wasn't really in show business.
For the folks at home this is a show previous to United Shades of America.
It was a late night talk show on FX, then FXX. (laughing) Get the FXX outta here. Chris Rock was the executive producer. He was the one who decided to help me get a TV show. I wasn't even aiming that direction. I got to meet him and he was my mentor and still I can call him when I have things. We're working on a project now. I feel like I went to a one year long university course in comedy and show business and Chris Rock was my professor. I always called him Fowl Mouth Yoda. (laughing) He was filled with a lot of wisdom but wasn't always grammatically correct. It was filthy. It was great to have him in my corner. I ran into him recently and I hadn't seen him since the show ended so it's been several years now, like three years or something. We talked for a minute and he's like thanks for making me look like a good judge of talent. When the show got canceled, maybe I sucked. He said, you'll be fine. The fact that my career has gone on and gotten bigger makes him look like he knows what he's doing. I'm happy to be a part of making him look like he knows what he's doing, not that he needs my help. I'm happy to sort of be in the Chris Rock universe.
Let's take up that question for a second. How did you find yourself in the company of Chris Rock, cause that is the dream of so many people out there. Going back to the hard work comment we were just talking about. Oh if I just had a break, if I just had this. My belief in the business is that it's a thousand small breaks. It's usually not one big break. Mentorship is a huge part of the game. How did you land that?
It takes a million little breaks and also it takes things you think are your big breaks that aren't your big breaks.
Isn't that funny, oh I made it, and then wapow.
Did it not air? I thought it was on TV. You know how many times you think, once that airs it's all gonna change. Once this thing happens it's all gonna be different. The Chris Rock thing it was a break that I wasn't really looking for. The other thing in comedy once you're around for a few years and if you have any level of skill and you get any work you're sort of around people of different levels of fame. Chris is super famous but I'd worked with Chappelle a bunch of times at that point on stand-up. I'd opened for him on stand-up. Not to diminish it but you sorta get used to the fact that you can't expect every famous person you meet or work with.
To take you under their wing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Let's go, you and me.
When you start you're like oh I did a week with this person I'm sure we're about to go on the road. It rarely happens. I've worked with a lot of people of different levels of show business. People who could've dould've should've maybe. You stop looking at those people to be like, I can't expect them to make my career. It's good to know them and it's good to work with them. It's good to build relationships and maybe if they need me, well if they need me they'll call me. If they feel like they have something that's for me or a gig that's appropriate, they'll call me. The thing with Chris, I was doing this show that I'm gonna do today, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. I know people who know Chris, again it's like show business is sometimes a small circle. I knew people who knew him. I heard from those people that he thought I was funny but I was like oh cool maybe I'll open for him someday. He had heard about the show. I was in New York one time doing the show and after the show he just sorta floated backstage. It was just like hey man. I had never met him before and I was like what is happening. He talked to me for about five minutes and it was funny he's so famous, and I've seen this happen with him a lot, that people who are in the are just sorta coagulate around him. Or suddenly there's just a camera in his face taking a picture then it moves away. People step in to take a selfie without asking. It's really not something I would want to be a part of. He just keeps going because he's used to it. It was at UCB Theater in New York City, a famous well known place that turns out a lot of talent. He was just like hey man you're funny. Thanks, good to see you, and he disappeared. A couple of months later I got a phone call and he said I wanna help you get a TV show. I was like what does that even mean? Like a year or so later, like 13 months later we were at an FX meeting and a few months after that we had a show. Then a year after that it was over. (laughing)
In there is a nugget, how did you get his attention or how did you find your mentor would maybe be a better more balanced way of asking the question? But the reality is it sounds like you just went to work every day.
I have a lot of mentors and some people know they're my mentors and some people just think they're good friends of mine and some people I've never met who are my mentors. A lot of it is trying to see who else in the business has a career that you like. I was always aware that people had careers that I thought I could have, people who weren't super famous, just people who were doing their thing. Also they were sort of their own industry. People sort of supporting whatever they did. Oh it's a book, it's a live show, it's music, whatever it is I'll just be there. That's the kind of thing I always wanted. That's the kind of career I had. Those people become mentors even though you've never met them. Then there's people where you're just working side by side with people. Some of those people in comedy you may find yourself in a few years next to people who have been around a lot longer than you but you're in the same place in show business. Maybe they had a career that went up then it came down. Maybe this is all they want or this is all they could get. There's a lot of wisdom out there, you just have to keep your ears open. Comics love to talk about the work and the business, and share tales and gossip, so you gotta keep your ears open. One of my best friends is a comedian I met like two weeks into comedy just cause and he's been at all levels of show business. He actually knows Chris too and I got to hire him, his name's Dwayne Kennedy, on my TV show to work on my TV show with Chris. It was this whole circle of life thing.
Beautiful. You said book at one point in there. Talk to me about the book.
Oh yeah, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell.
There's the book right here.
It's got a much longer subtitle, but I don't remember all of it.
I was actually gonna try and remember it but I just said tell me about the book so I didn't have to remember the long ass subtitle.
Tales of a 6' 4", African American, Heterosexual, Left-leaning, Cisgender, Asthmatic, Mama's Boy, this is in the wrong order I know, Black and Proud Blerd, and Dad and Stand-up comedian. I probably messed the words up but that's the whole subtitle, it's somewhere in there.
How did you land there? How did you land on that?
When you put a book together you wanna, again I'm not famous and I like words. I don't believe titles can be too long.
You're good at words.
I just like them. I like looking at them. I like the way they come out of your mouth. I like the way some words sound. I don't believe you should not describe what something is. There's an effort now, especially in podcasting, for just one word like Cereal. Okay that's a great push show but what's it about?
Is it cereal with a C? Like Captain Crunch?
Yeah, well it's about crime. But how would I know that? It's not that that's wrong. It's worked very well for Cereal. My other podcast is Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period. Tada. What is it about? I just believe in the Fiona Apple school of put all the words in, make sure it does everything it says on the tin. It's part memoirs and part essays and ruminations about the current state of my life and how I got here and the current state of America and what we're gonna do next hopefully. It was written in a very quick hectic way because my life was hectic and the world was hectic and it just came out May 2nd.
Let's shift gears into your actual work of the topics that you cover, why those topics. I'd like to talk a little about fear also. Specifically maybe in season one. You travel around the country putting yourself in positions, like you said, trying to tell a story that needs to be told. Sometimes in sort of hairy positions. One episode in particular is you go and interview Ku Klux Klan.
Yes that happened.
Talk about fear and discomfort.
The fear is there. People talk about the Klan episode. I had fear on this season. We did a thing where I rock climbed a wall. It was probably 25 feet high and I got about halfway up and was like I'm done. There's lots of different types of fear. In the first season we went to San Quentin Prison. I had fear to go into a Prison. I'd never been into a prison before. This season we talked to members of the Alt Right at a conference they had in D.C. so it's in D.C. but there's all these people who are like they're not fans of mine. It's white nationalists so it's like the Klan but with suits on. In my life, I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I'm not like Casey. I'm not bungee jumping. I'm not extreme sporting. I'm not going to the protests to start a fight. I'm not that guy. But if it's on TV, I'll bungee jump. I feel like that's the whole point. That's my job on the show, to sort of put myself into uncomfortable situations and to see what happens and challenge myself. Hopefully through that connect with people and find out things that I didn't know and therefore hopefully the people watching at home didn't know. I'm like the surrogate. You shouldn't go to a Klan rally. Nobody should go to a Klan rally, even the Klansmen shouldn't. If I go and I find somebody who will talk to me, maybe they will reveal something about themselves that people watching didn't know. It's not that I'm thinking of finding out why they're racist or try to talk them out of it. Hey we're just two people, let's talk. If you can have that conversation. When people can, they reveal things. We don't agree to agree at the end.
Yeah, good idea.
If they sit down and talk they will expose things about themselves that people will like, I had no idea that they do these things or they believe these things. I think people think they know about things. Some subjects you may know inside and out, but we're still gonna put somebody on the show you've never heard from before. A lot of it is people think they know and then they watch it and then they go I had no idea. That's what the show is all about.
That's part of the beauty of art though. You don't know until you go there and it's the artist's job to go there. How much do you look at that as your role is actually to go there because it's part of your, performance might be a stretch, but
It's what I do best if I do anything good at all. I talk about this in the book, I believe in uncomfortable conversations and uncomfortable situations as a way to sort of push yourself and get to new vistas. I believe in this country we spend a lot of time avoiding those things. It's about, let's just have the conversation. Nothing's gonna change in one conversation, but let's at least have the conversation and maybe we can continue to have the conversation and then things can change. All the social moves in this country that have made America better than it was started with people going, does it make sense that black people have to ride in the back of the bus? (laughing) Does it make sense that women don't have the right to vote? Isn't that kinda weird? Those are all uncomfortable conversations that are had. Then some women go, let's go talk to the men about letting us vote. Hey don't mean to bother you but it seems like we should vote, right? If those guys were like yeah you should alright, but that didn't happen so they had to keep the women's suffragette movement. Same thing with the march on Washington. Like I tried to talk to you fools. So we'll just all go to Washington. That's the beginning of all these things.
Are you an action oriented activist? A person with a vision of wanting to know more and you use comedy to access that? Or are you a comedian who is looking for material and that's welcome material?
I'm a comedian if the world was a beautiful lovely place and peace ran supreme, I'd still be a comedian. That's my job description. It just so happens that, I think because of the parents I came from and the times that we live in, that I feel like this is where my comedy belongs. I'm not saying every comedian has to do it this way, this is where I belong. The best jokes I write are about these things.
Two questions. One, I find that, for myself and for a lot of people that I've talked to that have been on the show, finding your voice is actually the hardest part of creating and you feel like you're faking it for a long time until you kinda stumble into it. So that's the first question. Tell us about that journey. Then I've got a follow up to that. Tell us about the journey of finding your voice, how long did it take you and how much did you suck at it for a long time? I mean literally suck at being you?
I started in 94. I was just at varying levels of mediocrity until about 2000. Some good, people on the scene liked me. I didn't really have a following but I was a good comedian. I wasn't 100% by any stretch. I had really good nights. I was always getting a little bit better but I wasn't taking any sort of leaps and bounds. In 2007, that's 13 years in, I'd been on Comedy Central in 2005, been to Montreal Comedy for the New Faces Showcases, which was supposed to be a big break. That's gonna be the big break. No manager, no agent, no nothing. No auditions, no anything, nothing. I really didn't have a good set so I knew what happened. I dealt with depression around those things. Around 2013 I basically asked myself, what would you do if you were already famous? This isn't working. If you could just get to the famous part. You've seen Chappelle, or Jon Stewart, or Chris Rock, or any number of people, Wanda Sykes, Kathy Griffin, any number of comedians, these people are successful. What would you do if you were one of those people? I would have a TV show like The Daily Show but about racism, and that's the thing I thought to myself.
And did you?
But you can't have a TV show cause you're not working in TV, so what can you do? Rent a black box theater and do a live show and get a projector and create a PowerPoint presentation. Even though I didn't know how to do any of that. And put it on and sell tickets and get a poster. Get my friends to help and my friend's a theater producer and he'll help and I'll borrow a projector or trade for a projector and I had to learn all that stuff on the fly and learn how to write press releases. Things I didn't wanna do cause I was a comedian, I'm working on my video game thinking about the art. Well if you wanna have a show in a theater you need to write a press release or you need to hire somebody. I don't have any money, okay I better learn how to write a press release. You want a projector, you need a projector. My friend has a projector. I'll trade for the projector. But how does the projector work? I have no idea. How does PowerPoint work? I've never opened this thing on my computer before, let me see what happens. My nose sorta took me places and I was like okay. Consequently I sort of ended up places like this where there's a lot of PowerPoint things happening.
Not this but where I'm gonna speak later. Mine does not look like theirs because I didn't come through the PowerPoint world I came through the comedy world. I need this so I need to fix this. We need to get people to sell tickets at the door. How do we get people in the room? You're not famous. It's a show about racism. Bring a friend of a different race, get in two for one. So we did that. First night the show's standing room only. The projector's sitting on my, then girlfriend's, now wife's lap, burning her legs. We didn't know where else to put it because we didn't think that through. The screen is, we do it on the wall but I don't know how to get out of the production screen of PowerPoint so it's all screwed up and we didn't know how to do any of that. It's not working very well. I did like over an hour, even though I'd never done that long on stage before. Suddenly at the end it was the best I'd ever felt as a comedian. Okay I do more of this. Realizing the things I'm doing aren't working. I'm not getting ahead enough. I'm seeing friends of mine pass me by. They should get their success, but I feel like I'm not getting everything out of my talent. I stepped out of the comedy clubs for awhile and went to theaters. That's the show that Chris Rock saw that let to Totally Biased. From 2007 and Chris Rock didn't see it until 2010. Then it went on FX in 2012. We're talking about five years. But really almost 20 years by the time I got the show. Nobody sort of knows that but they see oh you met Chris Rock a year ago and now you have a TV show. How did that happen? The narrative doesn't look as long as it is.
For sure it's the classic tenure overnight success. Then grinding in your parents basement, making shit happen. I'm gonna put some words in your mouth, you can tell me if I'm doing so errantly. You saw what success looked like. You said famous but then you changed it to success. I think that's what you meant. I saw what success looked like and you deconstructed it. You said, oh it's a television show. You said well, I don't got a television show, so what do I got? I got some rubber bands. I got some string.
I got some friends.
Yeah, I got some friends. My friend has a projector. So you're literally mimicking or imitating what you see.
But doing it on a level I can do it.
Right and ironically, and this is the part that I think is beautiful, that becomes, those are your constraints. Your constraints can contribute to your style. What can you do with what you have?
There's lots of things like that. Why are things the way they are? Because that's all the people had at the time to do the thing.
The blues is a great example. I was thinking about food. Black people don't go, let's only eat the feet of the pig. (laughing) That's all we got left, what can we do with it? Let's pickle it, first of all. Now you go into fancy restaurants and they call them trotters. Suddenly that becomes a delicacy. The restraints can actually help you create the art. If you have a completely blank canvas and unlimited funds. Hollywood does that all the time. It doesn't work out that often.
The other point, and that was beautiful thank you. The other point was a little bit around fear, but also about revealing yourself and finding some answers in here and being vulnerable. To that point, what is something about you that people don't know, that if they did know they would be really surprised? (laughing)
That's funny, when did this turn into therapy? We're not broadcasting right? This part's being cut.
This is gonna be your takeaway.
I'm trying to think. There's certain things I hope they never find out cause it's none of their business. There's certain things where it's like that's between me and my wife. As much as I think it's fun to be an open book, and I've tried to be as open about a lot of things as I can be.
You know I'm not trying to pry.
I think I get a lot of credit for being unflappable in these situations. Yet in my mind it's all flaps. Like ah, if I'm talking to my wife I can let it all out. I get scared, I get nervous, I get stupid. I think I'm gonna fail. I think that I made bad choices. The phrase, whose idea is this goes through my head a lot right before I go onstage. I'm gonna do that downstairs cause we're outside. What is this?
In Salt Lake City.
In Salt Lake City. I don't think people realize how much time I spend thinking about failure and the possibility of it happening. A lot of times people go that means you're pessimistic. I don't know. I remember seeing the movie Ghost Dog years ago. It's sort of a modern era samurai movie. Forest Whitaker's in it and he talks about the samurai code, which I don't know if it's true but it was in the movie. The idea that samurai's have to imagine their worst defeat to be prepared for victory. Oh that's what I'm doing. I spend a lot of time in my head sitting with failure. Thinking about failure and anticipating failure. When success comes it's sweeter and you don't get blindsided by things. Oh I didn't cover that angle. I didn't think about that type of failure. Criticism feels like, yeah of course I can be criticized. I've already thought of it. Or oh I didn't think of that angle but I knew I could be criticized. In my mind it's like, people think it's all under control but it's a mess. It's like my room when I was a kid, it's a mess and I'm just constantly searching for things. Where did that go? Why is that here? Whose idea was this? The windows are all open and the doors are all slamming open and shut. It's the middle of a hurricane in my head. When I go upstage I have to sort of get to the eye of the storm.
New season started last month. How you feel about it? What's in store?
Good, I feel like the first season was great. There's gonna be work from the first season that I think about for the rest of my life. I think I'll always associate with and always be proud of. The first season was like the mix tape and this is like the album. The first season a lot of the crew, everybody's trying to figure out what the show is and a lot of times people have different ideas about what the show is. A lot of times there's friction around that. This season we hired so many people who knew what the show was. If we get to a third season then we'll know how to make it really good. I'm really proud of the work this season. I think we're sorta like sculptors. The first season we're just trying to make it look like something.
Is that a head?
The second season it's like I can see it's a man sitting like this. But the third season you're like oh fingernails. Fourth season you're like, get all the hairs. It finally looks like a sculpture of the thinker but still there's more detail to put in. This season we're talking about all the things this country needs to talk about. We're working with some refugees, crime, gang violence in Chicago, we have an episode about Standing Rock and Native issues in this country, and episode about Muslims in America, small town America. An episode about Puerto Rico, cause it's this part of America that we don't think about enough. I have an episode about whether I should buy a gun to protect my family. Things that I'm thinking about and the country's thinking about. We try to put it on CNN, Sundays at 10 o'clock.
Sundays at 10 o'clock. Thank you very, very much for your time.
I appreciate it. I'm gonna be standing in the front row.
Alright, let's do it.
That's kinda weird.
We'll figure it out.
Why are you in Salt Lake City in the front row? Good luck tonight, you're gonna crush it. See you again, probably tomorrow. It's a full circle right there. Bye. (dramatic music)