Comedian and social commentator W. Kamau Bell hosts what might be cable TV’s boldest new docuseries. For the uninitiated, Bell travels around the country, exploring various communities that possess “unique” subcultures. In United Shades of America, he aims to put a spotlight on sensitive and controversial issues, bringing a mix of humor and gravitas to each situation.
In episode 7, airing Sunday at 10 p.m. on CNN, Bell takes viewers to the great white, cold north. We talked to him about how the series came to be, and the feedback he’s gotten so far:
TVN: Thanks for taking the time, Kamau. Walk us through the production process for United Shades of America, starting with how you came up with the idea for the show, and how it ended up on CNN.
Bell: After my FXX show Totally Biased was canceled, I took a bunch of general meetings with networks and content providers to try to figure out what was next and if that next thing would be in television. I honestly wasn’t sure if I wanted to do TV again (and especially so soon) after Totally Biased. I definitely needed a break, but also my family needed to eat. I had a general meeting with Jeff Zucker at CNN. Before the meeting I had heard the production company, Objective Media, had pitched CNN a show where a black comedian traveled around the country to “white places.” At that time the show was called “Black Man, White America.” CNN knew I needed a job and suggested that I might be good for it. For years I had been a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain, Morgan Spurlock, and Lisa Ling, so the idea of doing a show like that at CNN… where all of them were now housed sounded great. But I thought only going to “white places” would be limiting. So when I met with CNN and they told me the idea again, I re-pitched it back as me going to places in general (and of any race) where you wouldn’t expect me to go or where you think I absolutely shouldn’t go. They liked that idea, and they told Objective. And Jimmy Fox from Objective called me and said they liked my spin on it, and he told me the new title, United Shades of America, which was clearly a way better title than the other one. And then we kicked around ideas for the pilot but kept pushing the KKK. I knew that with CNN having so many other doc-series that our pilot had to distinguish itself.
TVN: What type of feedback have you been getting, both from CNN and your fans/viewers?
Bell: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m pretty taken aback by it, actually. The cool thing is because of social media I’ve seen many people who I respect (and people I never would have imagined) tweeting positive things about it. People like Ellen Pompeo, Donna Brazile, Bobby Cannavale, Jared Padalecki, India Arie, Charlamagne Tha God. Whoopi Goldberg basically demanded I come back on The View, which was cool. And even some of the critical feedback of the show has been helpful. For example we did an episode in East LA and Boyle Heights, about the Latino communities that live there. We named it “Latino, USA,” but since the episode focused mostly on Mexican-Americans and Chicanos, many Latino people who aren’t in those specific groups, rightfully took umbrage with that title. We should have called it something else. I really appreciate respectful coat-pulling like that. People who watch the show are fully engaged with it, which I appreciate because I am fully engaged in making it. As it says in my Twitter bio, I tell jokes but I’m not kidding.
TVN: This Sunday’s episode explores Alaska, specifically the town of Barrow, which is located over 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where there are no roads in and out of town, and where it’s dark for two months out of the year. Oh, and the series premiere focused on your encounter with the KKK. Do you sometimes wonder “Why the heck am I doing this?”
Bell: HAHA! I think I would think that if I didn’t have a camera crew with me documenting my experiences. I do many things on camera that I would never do off camera. For example if I had stumbled on a guy in the woods, with a bucket of partially leeched acorn mush, and he offered it to me, and there was no cameras around, I’d politely say, “No, thank you.” But when I have the whole film crew there and we’re making the show, I say, “I’d rather not, but guess I’ll try a scoop.”
TVN: I see you live in San Francisco, so you must be a Golden State Warriors guy. Break down this series for the TVNewser readers.
Bell: Warriors in six. Steph (Curry) and Klay (Thompson) are in an historic groove together. They are simultaneously changing the game and ruining every high school coach’s ability to say, “Stop practicing those crazy shots!” When he’s on offense, Draymond Green is going to treat Kevin Love like a he’s a traffic cone and just go around him. And when Kevin Love is on offense, Draymond is going to be in Love’s so head much that he’ll eventually have to pay rent to be there.
LeBron (James) will get frustrated that it’s all not going well for him again, and he’ll turn on his teammates and spend off days in Miami with Dwyane Wade. By game four Kyrie Irving will force Cleveland to trade him to the San Antonio Spurs. And Steve Kerr will sub himself into the line-up in the deciding game and hit the game-winning shot, becoming the first person to be NBA Coach of the Year and Finals MVP in the same season.
TVN: Lastly, what do you want the viewer to take away from United Shades of America?
Bell: I believe in the power of awkward conversations to initiate change. When we can talk with and laugh with (instead of at) each other, then we can slowly figure out ways to make more room for each other’s humanity. I just want the show to initiate new conversations and spur dialogue across ideological lines, socio-economic lines, and also across generations. I have heard from people that whole families watch the show together. I regularly hear from people on Twitter who say things like, “I don’t agree with your views, but I like your show.” I want the audience to feel entertained, but also a little bit (or a lot bit depending on the episode) informed. And if the audience then takes that information to someone in their lives to talk to them about it, then mission accomplished.