In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
W. Kamau Bell doesn’t have a problem with putting himself in hairy situations. The onetime host of Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell has stepped back in front of the TV cameras with United Shades Of America, a CNN series that finds the comedian chatting up everyone from inmates at San Quentin to members of the Ku Klux Klan, all in an attempt to figure out what really makes America tick. It’s an interesting and in-depth look at different lives—especially ones we might not see represented on TV all that often—and Bell’s openness to experience even the weirdest sit-downs with an open heart and a bit of humor makes the show amazingly compelling.
Bell also co-hosts a podcast, Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period, as well as a radio show, Kamau Right Now!, on San Francisco’s KALW.
W. Kamau Bell: Why were you such a big fan of Bruce Lee when you were in high school?
The A.V. Club: Why were you?
WKB: That leads into a whole, big conversation. We won’t have time for the other 10 questions.
When I was in high school, I was a scrawny, unpopular, uncoordinated kid, and I also was just living with my mom because my dad lived in Alabama. I was a big fan of kung fu Sunday movies, like every town had like kung fu Saturday or Black Belt Sunday where they would play old school Hong Kong kung fu movies on TV. When I finally stumbled onto Bruce Lee, who was like the leader and the guy who sort of spawned that whole thing, it was like I found a surrogate dad.
Every Bruce Lee movie is about a guy who feels like he doesn’t belong and feels uncool and doesn’t want people to push him around, and I felt very pushed around. Finally he’s like, “Okay I’m going to finally fight,” and he spends the next hour killing everybody. So I walked around with a lot of closeted anger feeling like, “please don’t make me fight,” but Bruce Lee made me feel like if I did fight I’d have to kill everybody. Then I took a lot of martial arts because of my fandom of Bruce Lee.
So he was like my surrogate dad so when I was in high school and also I had a lot of half-naked Bruce Lee pictures on my wall, which I’m sure has affected me somehow, deeply, but Bruce Lee is the best. Now Bruce gets a lot of respect from T-shirts, but back then I had to go to Chinatown to get iron-ons put on white T-shirts because he wasn’t a big deal yet.
AVC: Do you have a martial-arts belt?
WKB: I took tae kwon do so I had a green belt at one point, but it’s been quite a long time since I took a tae kwon do class. I guess you could say, “W. Kamau Bell is a green belt in tae kwon do,” which is like the third belt. It’s like white belt, yellow belt, green belt. So I feel like I can claim my green-belt status without seeing if somebody is going to fight me.
I also took this style of martial arts called wing chun, which is the original style of martial arts Bruce Lee took when he was a teenager in Hong Kong. I found a school in Chicago that taught it and for a while I thought I was going to be a martial-arts teacher.
In most kung fu there’s not really belts. It’s just like, “Are you good or are you not good?” They don’t do the whole belt thing. “Can I beat you up? You’re not very good. Oh, I can’t beat you up? You’re really good!”
AVC: Were you also into Brandon Lee? Did you watch The Crow a lot?
WKB: By the time Brandon Lee came around I was like at an age where like, I did go to The Crow but I wasn’t a guy— I had a roommate who watched The Crow every night before she went to bed and I was not that level of Brandon Lee fan. Certainly I think it’s weird that he passed away like his dad and there’s a whole weird connection there. Both of their graves are next to each other in Seattle, and the only time I’ve ever visited a gravesite was Bruce Lee’s gravesite.
2. If you could ride a giant version of an animal to work every day, what kind of animal would it be?
WKB: For some reason I’m thinking a dragon. That’s just what popped into my head. Like, it’s got to be a dragon.
AVC: What kind of dragon? How big is it?
WKB: The size of a city bus. And I would just be riding on the back of it. I think my daughter would like that, too. I have two daughters and I can see my older daughter being like, “Can we take the dragon to school?” I can see her being excited about that.
AVC: Is it fire-breathing? Is it a nice dragon?
WKB: It’s friendly. It’s like a Bruce Lee dragon. He’s friendly, but don’t fuck with him. I mean, not saying you, but people in general. He’d be a friendly dragon but he’d also be like, “I can breathe fire.”
WKB: Rocky II.
AVC: Why Rocky II?
WKB: Because Rocky II is the greatest movie of all time. I mean, there are probably movies that are right up there, but I feel like Rocky II, in the last half of my life, has been a pretty consistent force. I grew up in the era of Rocky movies where they were big deals in the movie theaters, and for some reason I always return to Rocky II.
I think it’s because, one, in Rocky I he doesn’t win, whereas in Rocky II he wins, and two, people forget that a lot of the Rocky movies were love stories, and so there’s a really sweet love story of a man who’s sort of at the end of his rope and the woman in his life who is helping him get through and she believes in him against all odds. There’s the whole scene in the hospital with the coma, and the Rocky music is the best. So it’s the best Rocky movie and has the best Rocky story.
Apollo Creed is one of the best, most complicated written African American characters of all time, so it’s very much a black movie too even though you don’t realize it. It’s just one of those movies that if I’m about to leave my house and it’s on, like, “Okay, I’m going to be late.” On our podcast we call them day-changers. Movies that changed the rest of your day.
AVC: Sometimes those aren’t the best movies, but that doesn’t mean you won’t watch them over and over.
WKB: I believe that the movies you’ve seen the most are your favorite movies. When you ask people what their favorite movies are, everybody likes to be cute and go, “well, you know, you probably haven’t heard of these directors, but…” You know everybody wants to think of obscure shit, like “It’s early Paul Thomas Anderson, not later when he sold out.” People like to really get important. But to me it’s the movies that when you turn on your TV and TNT says, “Guess what’s on? You’ve Got Mail,” and you go, “Okay,” that’s your favorite movie.
AVC: You’ll sit through all the commercials. You’ll really suffer for it.
WKB: Yeah. And I’ll be late. I’ll call somebody and tell them I got sick.
Your favorite movies are the ones that you can’t not watch, not the ones that you think make you sound smart.
WKB: That Jimi Hendrix was a white guy. I found out when I was in high school but I remember my friends who were both white looking at me like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I wasn’t really a music guy in high school. I was mostly just a TV and comedy nerd before there was such a thing as a comedy nerd. One day my friends were talking about Jimi Hendrix and I had this sort of vague knowledge that Jimi Hendrix was the best electric guitar player ever, and in my mind, white guys played guitar, black guys didn’t play guitar. This was pre-Lenny Kravitz and just pre- my knowledge of the band Living Colour. I didn’t know about Fishbone.
Even when Jimi Hendrix played rock guitar he was one of the few big time black rock guitar players. There’s the Isley Brothers and stuff but as far as rock electric guitar, it was him. There weren’t a bunch of black guys who followed him that were big stars. Certainly a lot of black guys were actually playing electric guitar, but in my mind, electric guitar players were like Eddie Van Halen and all those bands like Whitesnake and Warrant. I just assumed, “Well the best guy ever from that has to be a white guy.”
Hendrix doesn’t sound like a black name. It’s not like his name was James Johnson. You know like, “I’m a black guy.”
I remember in high school my friend Rob and my best friend Jason, who’s still my best friend, I think they were talking about Jimi Hendrix and said something about him being black and I was like, “He’s black?!” They looked at me like, “Oh, you have let us all down. And you’ve let your people down.” I stopped believing it in high school, but that was pretty late to think that Jimi Hendrix was a white guy.
AVC: It’s understandable, though.
WKB: It’s racism. Internalized racism and a culture that doesn’t like it when black guys play guitar so they don’t get promoted to positions of strength, mostly.
WKB: I just went to my Wikipedia page. I was trying to Google my dad, and my name comes up, obviously. And I found my Wikipedia page and I could see that it had been changed. Like everybody with a Wikipedia page I’ve never edited my own Wikipedia page, but I just like to see where people have it at, but like it was super wrong for a long time.
There was a common narrative on my Wikipedia page for a while, and it’s been quoted back to me: “So, you dropped out of college to pursue a career in comedy?” Which is like, who does that?! No! I dropped out of college because college was hard. And I went back to my mom’s in Chicago and I laid in bed all day and I watched the L.A. riots happen and I felt sad, and then eventually my mom signed me up for classes at Second City and 25 years later here we are. It sounds somehow noble or heroic to say I dropped out of college to pursue a career in comedy. I dropped out of college to get the hell out of college and then I eventually started doing comedy. But it was not a career for a very long time.
WKB: Shooting United Shades Of America, we did a thing where we hung out with this guy who lives off the grid. He lives in a house he’s built himself, like a shack on the side of a hill, and he drinks water out of a stream. When I was with him, he had… was it hazelnuts? I think it was acorns that he would eat, just like acorn mush. Apparently you have to let it sit in water for a while to sort of soak the poison out of it. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a whole process it goes through.
He was like “Well this is still good, this is fine,” and so I just reached into an old paint bucket that had been cleaned out that had acorn mush that had been sitting in water in it, and I just sort of dipped my hand into it and got a handful of acorn mush. It tasted like a corrugated box ground down. There was no distinct taste other than the sadness of eating this.
AVC: Was it just room temperature?
WKB: It was like outside cold water temperature. He just had it outside by the river, so it was served a little cold. Like a cardboard mush. And not really edible.
AVC: Is that what he ate?
WKB: Yeah. He said sometimes he makes it a little fancier but he’s one of those people who’s like, “Oh, I’m hungry, I should eat. I’m not hungry anymore.” He’s like that.
AVC: It doesn’t matter what he actually eats. It’s just fuel.
WKB: His life is not about pleasure in that way. He was very zen. He was a very smart and intelligent guy but I was like, “Get me back to the grid, please.”
AVC: “Can we distill some salt out of rain or something and add it to this?”
WKB: Yeah. “Can we turn this into a muffin? We could probably turn this into a muffin of some sort.”
WKB: This again is because of my friend Rob who’s the guy who explained to me that Jimi Hendrix was black. I wasn’t a big music guy, like I said, but I went to concerts with Rob, so I saw a lot of bands I never would’ve seen and that people think it’s funny that I did see.
I think the first concert I saw was Tom Petty. Like every black guy. [Laughs.]
It was just because Rob was like, “Come with me to these concerts.” And it was Tom Petty and then maybe Bob Dylan, like a weird back to back of like, “This is what concerts are.”
At Tom Petty I remember being very aware of how I didn’t know I knew any Tom Petty songs but I seemed to be able to sing along to all of them.
AVC: They’re just in the air.
WKB: Exactly. You’re sitting there going, “Oh, yeah, the waiting is the hardest part. Good point, Tom Petty.”
AVC: Those are also sort of weird concerts for a young guy to go to.
WKB: Yeah. Rob was a music nerd and so he didn’t spend a lot of time listening to the music of his era.
It’s great because Rob is the reason why I listen to John Coltrane and why I was the guy who wasn’t listening to hip-hop. I was listening to avant-garde jazz and Todd Rundgren in high school. There was a stretch where I saw Todd Rundgren with Rob six or seven times. Not for a long time, but every time he came through, I saw Todd Rundgren.
Basically when I went to college I was like, “Okay, what music do I like?” And that’s when I started getting into Fishbone and Living Colour and Rage Against The Machine… bands like that.
WKB: Through my podcast, Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor of All Time Period, we got to interview Spike Lee—me and Kevin, my co-host. That was the time when Chiraq was about to come out, and Spike was like, “You guys want to come and see a screening of Chiraq?” after we got done with the podcast. We’re like, “Sure,” and then we ended up—we thought we were going to some sort of screening at a theater. But he ended up taking us to the edit bay where he was editing the movie, and we went into a room and he set up wine and cheese and charcuterie, and we sat there, me and Kevin, on this big plush couch next to each other, two people in the room and a couple editors behind us watching the final edit of Chiraq. Me and Kevin just kept turning to each other like, [whispering] “What the fuck is happening?” Like you’re sort of watching the movie but you can’t help but watch yourself and you already want to tell the story. You’re like, “Can this be over so I can go tell everybody that this happened?” [Laughs.]
Me and Kevin started the podcast as a way to celebrate our love of Denzel Washington, and so we thought it would be great to talk to Spike Lee and we talked to him and that was great. If Spike Lee had said “See you later,” we would’ve been like, “Aw, that was the best thing ever!” And then we ended up at this edit bay watching Chiraq. And it just felt like, you know, my career could end today but I did this. If I never get booked again, I did this. This proves that I had a career. You don’t get into this room without having a career.
AVC: Sure. You’re accepted, and you’re cool. Spike Lee must have thought you were an okay dude to let you in there.
WKB: Yeah. Me and Kevin. He had to think we’re not going to go in there and take our pants off and throw wine glasses at the screen, and we’re also not going to walk out and tell TMZ we heard some secret. We just went in there, sat and watched, and went home.
The A.V. Club: Maybe your phase was Bruce Lee.
WKB: That wasn’t embarrassing. Why do you have to make that embarrassing? Although I did dress weird.
It’s all been trying to find your look. There’s always the whole thing about trying to find what your best look is. There was a part of high school and young adulthood where I was still trying to find a look, and there was a point because of Bruce Lee that I was wearing kung fu jackets and those black shoes that you see in the movies. Those black slip-on shoes. That wasn’t good.
I remember when I moved to San Francisco I was still wearing the kung fu jacket where you roll it up and the cuffs are white, and I was walking through the Richmond district which is like—well, Chinatown in San Francisco we think of as Chinatown, but the Richmond district is just as Chinese, it’s just not filled with tourists. I was walking through the Richmond district with my kung fu jacket on right after we got here, and I remember looking around at all the Chinese people and realizing nobody else had a black kung fu jacket on and nobody else wore those things in real life. I remember going home and throwing the jacket away, being like, “I can never, ever, ever wear this jacket again. I look like a complete asshole walking through Chinatown wearing a Chinese kung fu jacket. I can’t do this. I can’t be the black guy walking through Chinatown going ‘Look, I’m wearing your jacket! We’re the same!’”
AVC: “I get you guys!”
WKB: “I totally get you guys! I dress just like you guys.”
WKB: I haven’t done this in a long time because I now recognize the idiocy of this, but I’ve been the person where, if you ever go somewhere and somebody, and they go, “That’s $10,” and you hand them your $20 bill and they give you your change back and there’s a $20 in there? I’ve walked away going, “I just won! Cha-ching!” I’ve done that. Like you won a jackpot. At some point I’d worked enough retail to know they’re going to get totally screwed. Somebody’s going to lose their job over me getting 15 extra dollars I wasn’t supposed to get. So I certainly in my life have done that, but now I’m the kind of person who goes, “You gave me too much change.” Still, there was a point in my life where I thought that was the poor man’s lottery, getting back incorrect change in retail sales situations.
And I’ll be clear: There are other stealing situations, but I just think that’s a pretty interesting one because it’s a very moral question. Like I’m not meaning to steal. You talk yourself out of thinking that’s stealing, but it is stealing.
WKB: As a comic, if you’re in comedy long enough you start to meet the famous comedians. So I’ve worked with Chris Rock, I’ve opened for Dave Chappelle. Those are certainly two super-famous people.
Spike Lee is super famous. I’m trying to think, is there anybody else?
AVC: You haven’t met Denzel yet?
WKB: No, I haven’t met Denzel.
Here’s something. I was opening actually for Dave Chappelle, and I didn’t technically meet this person but I feel like this is close enough. Dave Chappelle used to play San Francisco a lot, and San Francisco has its share of celebrities who come through for various reasons. One night I opened for Dave Chappelle, and at the end of the show while Dave Chappelle was still on stage, a guy walked past me and said, “That was awesome.” And it was Elijah Wood. Lord Of The Rings-era Elijah Wood. And I was thinking, “I didn’t even know you were a real person. I just thought you were in those movies.” So I’ve always remembered that as like, one day I’ll meet him again and be like, “Remember…? Oh, you don’t remember? Okay, never mind.”
I didn’t meet him but he watched me on stage for 20 minutes and did look in my face and tell me that what I did was awesome, so I’m going to go ahead and say that was the most famous person I’ve ever met.
AVC: The 12th question is from Veep’s Sam Richardson:
WKB: Oh, who is he on Veep? I like Veep.
AVC: He’s Richard. He’s the bumbling young guy that’s in charge of the Nevada recount.
WKB: Is he the black guy?
AVC: Yeah, he is.
WKB: That guy’s great! The guy who smiles all the time. He’s amazing. That’s one of those black roles where you’re like, “Good for them.” I’m sure it wasn’t written for a black guy but he’s owning that.
AVC: His question is, “What are you going to do for yourself as a gift today?”
WKB: This is going to sound super cheesy, but this is how it is. I’m a dad and that’s really important to me and I realize now that I’m a dad that it’s a major part of my identity. So anytime I can go pick up my daughter from school—my oldest daughter, because she always likes it when I pick her up from school—if I have to sort of stop working early and pick her up from school, I do that. We love hanging out with each other and she loves to see me, but I travel a lot so I don’t get a chance to do that. So this morning she was like, “Dada, can you come pick me up from school?” And I was like, “I don’t know, I’ve got to work,” but I think I’m going to go pick my daughter up from school.
AVC: What do you want to ask the next person?
WKB: What do you need to forgive yourself for?
AVC: That’s a deep one.
WKB: I know. I wouldn’t want to answer that question.