Comedian W. Kamau Bell had long wondered - from a safe distance - about the Ku Klux Klan, but it took his new CNN show, United Shades of America, which premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday, to get him invited to a cross-burning.
Bell, who's based in Berkeley, Calif., lived in Philadelphia as a student - he dropped out of Penn in his sophomore year - and he was back in town this month to promote his series-opening KKK episode.
He spoke with Ellen Gray about the Klan and about a couple of other forthcoming episodes: one about policing that was filmed in Philadelphia and Camden, and one about rehabilitation at San Quentin. Some excerpts from their talk:
You're a comedian whose new show is on a news network, and, like HBO's John Oliver and TBS' Samantha Bee, you're reporting stories. Is there something about comedy and news that work together?
I think on a very, very basic level, all comedy is about investigation. It just happens to be that some people's topics are [like] that classic Seinfeld bit of what happens to that sock in the dryer. He's investigating the topic.
The history of the modern era of comedy is about investigating really personal, and therefore eventually political, topics. It's Lenny Bruce, it's Mort Sahl, Carlin, Pryor. Jon Stewart's Daily Show showed how comedy could do that on TV. This is the natural extension of that.
I've talked about the Klan in my act for years. I was always like, "I'd like to talk to those guys." But I wasn't going to do it myself. My mom, my wife, my dad wouldn't let me. You just need to extend your curiosity. I think that's what Sam Bee is doing, what Oliver is doing.
Did you find out anything talking to Klan members that would change the way you talk about them?
That first group of guys, who I hung out with most intensely, I felt like this is really just misplaced energy. This is like a men's group gone wrong. Like this should be an Elks Club, or they should play fantasy football.
It's a bunch of guys who are unsatisfied with their station in life and instead of looking inward and saying, "What can I do to change it?" they've decided to blame black people.
So in that sense, I had more empathy for them. Now, having said that, I don't know what they've done. So I'm not saying I forgive them for their Klan behavior. But I have a lot of friends who have misplaced anger.
When I left that cross-burning, I know some of those guys liked me, and I know some of them went to bed going, "I like a black guy now. What do I do with this?"
Was it your idea or the producers' to send you to San Quentin?
That one was sort of a crowd-sourced producer idea. I was really nervous of making the kind of prison documentary-style thing that I'd seen before, which I thought was pretty gross, where the whole point of the show is, "Aren't prisoners gross and disgusting, and aren't you glad you're not there?"
Is that why you didn't ask anything about sex?
It's funny you said that. I didn't have any questions about sex. I think we've covered a lot of that stuff. I live in the Bay Area - your sex life is your own business. Unless you want to talk to me about it, which a lot of people in the Bay Area do.
Your May 15 show takes you to Philadelphia, and across the river to Camden. Why Camden?
They had a reputation for changing the way they were policing the city, community policing. This city clearly has a lot of potential. So the question is: Who's the city going to be for?
I met a lot of great people who have a lot of pride about living in Camden, and they also know that it's in crisis. Somebody's got to have a plan for this.
TV news has come to Camden before. Is there something different you bring to stories like this because you are a comedian?
I always have a side. As a comedian, you're automatically advocating for the laugh. I want you to understand this, because if you understand this, you will hopefully laugh. Comedians know that if people are laughing, they're paying attention.