March 7, 2013

Words With W. Kamau Bell

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On Wednesday, CUPB presented “The W. Kamau Bell Curve — Ending Racism in About an Hour” at Statler Auditorium. Afterward, the FX star and Chris Rock protegé sat down with The Sun to discuss his career, Chris Rock and what it means to dedicate your life to comedy and the arts.

The Sun: I read that you dropped out of college; how did you make that decision?W. Kamau Bell.: Well, I guess technically I dropped out twice, now that I think about it. I went to the University of Pennsylvania — sorry — and realized I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a business man and that’s pretty much all they do there. I mean, for the most part. And it’s also super expensive and I didn’t want to waste any more of the money that I already wasted. So I dropped out and went home to Chicago to Columbia College which is a media arts school … and from there started taking classes at Second City and doing open mic so, I did drop out of college. What was the question? [laughs]

Sun: I think you answered it.W.K.B.: I did drop out of college, yes, twice. Yeah, so, I just knew that what they were teaching me wasn’t something that I was going to try to turn into a job — which I think is the main goal of college. Well, not the main goal, but one of the big goals is to get an education that you can turn into a job. … I mean I still think about going back … I’m not done … It’s this weird thing where people assume I have some sort of political science degree or something and I don’t. I just read stuff.

Sun: Comedy is a creative medium but, for you, you actually bring a lot of analytical stuff in there. You’re talking about current events. It’s almost academic in a way.W.K.B.: Well, yeah … despite the fact that I dropped out of college, I certainly come from a very academic household. You know, my mom was an academic. But she dropped out of Ph.D. school, so you know, [laughs] I come from a long line of drop outs. My dad didn’t get his college degree until he was in his 40s, but they’re intelligent, well-read people. I come from a family of people who all just go different paths. … Whatever grades I had in school didn’t always reflect, necessarily, my intellectual curiosity or the books I was reading. And I went to a really good high school, so by the time I finished high school I felt like, if I want to be a doctor, I’ll go to college, but I certainly feel like my high school education was a good education.

Sun: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists and comedians?W.K.B.: I mean aspiring artists are a bigger thing. Aspiring comedians, maybe. I think the biggest thing is … [that] you have to just be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and what your work is and, unfortunately, there’s a thing about the arts: If you want to sit in your room and create art, you can do that forever, but if you want to try to turn it into a career, then you have to start [asking yourself], “Is my art doing what I want it to do? And if it’s not, can I fix that?” … As an artist, that’s a very hard question to ask. The reason why I wrote this show is because I was a stand up comic and I was not very good at stand up comedy. [laughs] … I felt like the biggest thing I did, was that I was honest with myself with the fact that, I wasn’t bad, but I was kind of mediocre and I was honest with the fact that “I’m mediocre and I think I can be better, but I have to figure out a different way of being better than just doing the same path.”

Sun: So, now, is your art doing what you want it to do?W.K.B.: Well, I do this television show, so on some level yes, but on another level you have to keep resetting — you have to keep resetting goals. Getting a show is one thing, making a good show is another thing, making a hit show is another thing, making the show such a hit that I can then do other projects and help other people is another thing. There are moments when I can be micro and say, “That is what I wanted it to do, and this thing happened and that’s what I wanted.” But in the macro, I could be doing this better. You have to be your own worst critic.

Sun: And there are a lot of critics out there now, from many different channels.W.K.B.: Yeah, there are a lot of critics out there and especially in the 21st century, you have to kind of shut that stuff off. Because I think that, you know, people now are just haters, [laughs] … I feel like the 21st century is very seductive in leading all of us onto a path where we’re not doing anything. … I would say about 90 percent of comics have a Google Alert for their name, because you just want to see if people are talking about you. … You will get feedback … One of the executive producers on my show is Chris Rock. He has lots of things to say, his feedback is really important and he’s pretty honest about what he likes and what he doesn’t like. And that’s plenty. And there are a lot of people on the show. I don’t need to know what someone who’s not connected to [me] and [has] four Twitter followers thinks about my show.

Sun: What’s it like working with Chris Rock?W.K.B.: It’s kind of like working with Spider-Man. It’s sort of like this thing where you don’t think he’s a real person. Because I know [and have] worked with famous comedians, but he’s kind of on a level outside of that. It took me a long time to get over that: Chris Rock is in the room. [laughs] You know because I was in the Bay Area, kind of following my own path, and he came around and was like, “I want to help you get a show,” and I was like, “What does that even mean?!” It took me awhile to get over being starstruck by him. And I am past that now, which is great because I’m working with one of the greatest comedians of all time. How can that be bad? … I call him foul-mouthed Yoda because he’s got a lot of advice, and a lot of little stuff I can’t quote. Forgetting about the show, he’s really, in the big picture, a mentor for my career.

Sun: With all of the discussion we had about race on campus and on our newspaper last month, I just wanted to know what your opinion on Black History Month is.W.K.B.: On some level, that America somehow felt a need to make a Black History Month is an indicator of how fucked up America is. [laughs] Because it’s not like there’s a place called Black History, that we’re like, “What do they do over there?” It’s America. For me, my personal beef with Black History Month is the fact that it’s sad that we sort of still have that month for schools. We should just be having history, you know. But if we need that for elementary schools that’s fine. For me, the issue with Black History Month is the fact that corporate America tries to embrace it in a weird way, and the media tries to talk about it. … If you’re in elementary school, thank god, because your textbook probably doesn’t even include enough black history. But if you’re an adult, maybe just make some black friends.

Sun: And then in the latter case, it’s more under the guise of making people feel like they’re involved or more comfortable.W.K.B.: Well it makes people who feel guilty feel less guilty, which I think is a big problem with the race discussion in this country. It’s a lot just about making people who feel a little guilty feel less guilty. There’s

nothing wrong with feeling guilty, guilt is actually a very cleansing emotion sometimes. You should feel connected to whatever the history in this country is and what your people’s part in it was, because that’s what America’s about, in my opinion. I’m a straight dude; I should feel guilty about a lot of stuff. There’s guilt for everybody. I’m a tall guy, there’s guilt for that. I feel like there’s enough guilt to go around, we should just pick up our version of that guilt. The minute you start to go: “I don’t understand why those people …” that’s when it’s broken. I’ll ostracize and make fun of you. That’s my job

Original Author: Zachary Zahos