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Comic W. Kamau Bell On The 'Shades Of America' And Not Feeling 'Black Enough'

Bell's CNN series is nominated for three 2018 Emmy awards. He talks about his genealogy and why he likes the word "negro" in an excerpt of this 2018 interview with Terry Gross.


Other segments from the episode on August 30, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 30, 2018: Interview with Jake Tapper; Interview with W. Kamau Bell; Interview with Stephen Colbert.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we continue our series with Emmy nominees. You may not think of news shows when you think of Emmys, and maybe that's because there's a separate ceremony for the news and documentary Emmys. We start today's show with Jake Tapper, who's nominated for two of those Emmys - one for his CNN Sunday show "State Of The Union," the other for his live interview with Kellyanne Conway on his weekday show "The Lead," also on CNN. We talked about that interview when I spoke with Tapper in April.

His Kellyanne Conway interview was just one of his challenging encounters with members of the Trump administration in which the interviewee stated falsehoods or evaded his questions. After Trump adviser Stephen Miller evaded Tapper's questions, Tapper terminated the interview, saying that Miller was wasting his audience's time. We talked about that interview, too. When we spoke, his debut novel, "The Hellfire Club," had just been published.


GROSS: Let's talk about your work as a journalist now. And I want to start with a clip from one of your greatest hits, so to speak.


GROSS: And this is your interview with President Trump's senior adviser for policy, Stephen Miller. This is from January 8 of 2018. And you're talking to him about Michael Wolff's then-newly published book "Fire And Fury," which was a behind-the-scenes look of the early days of the Trump White House. So here is an excerpt of that interview. In fact, this is the final part of that interview.


JAKE TAPPER: I want to ask you because you obviously are very offended by the notion that this book "Fire And Fury" paints a picture of President Trump as not mentally up to the job. On Saturday, President Trump put out a series of tweets trying to defend himself on this issue of fitness. And he said, quote, "actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from very successful businessman to top TV star to president of the United States on my first try. I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius, and a very stable genius at that."

Do you think tweets like that help or hurt the cause that the president is stable enough for the job?

STEPHEN MILLER: Not only do I think they help it, but I think in the toxic environment that you've created here and CNN and cable news, which is a real crisis of legitimacy for your network - and we saw it, of course, with the extremely fake news you reported about the Don Jr. and WikiLeaks story that was a huge embarrassment for your network...

TAPPER: Stephen...

MILLER: ...Just like the huge embarrassment you had when you got the Comey testimony wrong.

TAPPER: Stephen...

MILLER: ...Which was never given a proper accounting.

TAPPER: ...I'm trying to get to the issue of the president's fitness, which a lot of people...

MILLER: Well - and I'm getting to the issue of your fitness.

TAPPER: No, you're...

MILLER: But the president's tweets absolutely reaffirmed the plainspoken truth. A self-made billionaire revolutionized reality TV and tapped into something magical that's happening in the heart of this country. The people that you...

TAPPER: The president has an approval rating in the 30s. I don't know what magical you're talking about.

MILLER: The people that you don't connect with and understand - the people whose manufacturing jobs have left, who've been besieged by high-crime communities and who've been affected by a policy of uncontrolled immigration - those voices, those experiences don't get covered on this network. As to why - I mean, to prove the point, I was booked to talk about the very issues I'm just describing, and you're not even asking about them because they're not interesting facts to you.

TAPPER: That's not true. I have plenty of questions on immigration.

MILLER: And there - what some people will recall...

TAPPER: You've attempted to filibuster by talking about your flights with the president.

MILLER: No, I'm not. I'm - no. Hold on a sec.

TAPPER: I want to ask you a question because...

MILLER: No, don't be condescending.

TAPPER: I'm...

MILLER: Jake, Jake...

TAPPER: Stephen, the president and the White House...

MILLER: Jake, the reason - no, the reason why I want to talk about...

TAPPER: The president and the White House...

MILLER: Jake, the reason why I want to talk about the president's experiences, what I've seen with him traveling to meet dozens of foreign leaders with his incredible work on major...

TAPPER: OK. You're not answering the questions.


TAPPER: I understand...

MILLER: You have 24 hours a day of anti-Trump material...

TAPPER: Stephen, you're being...

MILLER: ...And you're not going to give three minutes for the American people...

TAPPER: I get it.

MILLER: ...To hear the real experience...

TAPPER: You're...

MILLER: ...Of Donald Trump.

TAPPER: There's one viewer that you care about right now. And you're being obsequious. You're being a factotum...

MILLER: No, no 'cause you're being...

TAPPER: ...In order to please him. OK?


TAPPER: And I think I've wasted...

MILLER: You know who I care about?

TAPPER: I think I've wasted enough of my viewers' time.

MILLER: You know who I care about?

TAPPER: Thank you, Stephen.

MILLER: Hey, Jake...

TAPPER: As Republican lawmakers call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, in a major reversal, Democrats are now coming to his defense. What changed? We'll ask the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee next.


GROSS: Wow (laughter). So that was Jake Tapper with Stephen Miller.

TAPPER: I haven't listened to that since that happened.

GROSS: Oh, what'd you think listening back to it?

TAPPER: He's even worse than I remember.

GROSS: (Laughter). I remember seeing that as it happened on a Sunday morning. And I thought, oh, wow. Have you ever done that before, ended an interview by saying the guest was wasting your audience's time?

TAPPER: No. But I mean, I'd never had an interview like that before. I mean, that's - it's just appalling behavior. I read a tweet to him and asked him if he thought that that helped or hurt the president's cause. It's a pretty - I mean, it's the president's tweet, the president's statement. It's not that difficult a question. And it's pretty obvious that I was going to ask about it. It was the very stable genius tweet, which remains fairly notorious - or famous, depending on your point of view - to this day. And to, like, go through a litany of attacks on my network, on me personally, saying false - I mean, saying that I don't care about manufacturing jobs, that I don't care about real people - it's just a lie. And it's just - I should have cut him off earlier.

GROSS: It seems to me what he's doing there is a strategy, you know, a deflection strategy. Instead of answering the question, he's criticizing you. He's criticizing CNN. He's criticizing fake news. And he's not answering the question at all. Do you think of that as a strategy of just, like, deflecting - trying to make you and your network seem like you're the problem?

TAPPER: Right. Obviously, yes. I mean, a hundred percent. But then also, just the notion that a toxic environment has been created by CNN is - it's just not true. I mean - see; this is what he - this is what they want to do, is they want people like me to then get into the gutter and talk about who's guilty or who's not guilty.

But I'll just say this, it's very clear that there are basic standards of truth and decency that have nothing to do with partisan politics that this president and his minions regularly violate and regularly abuse and cross - whether the president is deriding a former aide, making light of his struggles with drug and alcohol dependency or mimicking a reporter who has a disability or claiming that Ted Cruz's dad has some connection to the Kennedy assassination and on and on.

It's just very clear that, regardless of your position on trade or immigration or terrorism or taxes, positions that I do not make a judgment about one way or the other, there's a whole policy level of the Trump administration that we just try to discuss and debate in the way that we would discuss and debate any policy. But then there's these lines that are crossed.

GROSS: As an interviewer, I'm interested in how you handle this, when the guest won't let you speak - 'cause I think another tactic that Stephen Miller was using in that interview was to not stop talking...


GROSS: ...To not allow you to get in a question, to not allow you to insist - in an audible way, 'cause he's talking over you - to insist that he answer the question that you asked as opposed to just hurling insults at you and your network and the media. So what goes through your mind when that's happening - about how soon to jump in, how much to try to talk over him?

TAPPER: Well, first of all, what was going through my mind is, I have known Stephen Miller for years.

GROSS: Oh, you have?

TAPPER: Yeah. He was a press secretary on Capitol Hill. And until that morning, I had a fine relationship with him. I mean, I have his number. I have his email. I had even defended him a few times on Twitter and places like that when there were things that I thought had gone too far - like calling him a Nazi I think is a bit too far considering that he's Jewish.

So I was surprised 'cause Trump's going to leave someday. Maybe it will be a full two terms, maybe it won't. But I'm going to be here, and Stephen Miller is going to be here. So I'm always surprised when people, on a professional level, throw away a relationship. But then beyond that, it was just an eruption of indecency that I just wasn't expecting.

GROSS: Now, I've read that Stephen Miller refused to leave the set after the interview and had to be escorted out by security. What did happen?

TAPPER: He kept talking during the commercial break.

GROSS: Talking to you?


GROSS: Trying to make what point?

TAPPER: Just the same attacks on me and CNN and, I mean, just basically what you heard on camera he said, but he was saying off camera. And eventually, you know, we were ticking down. And I said, OK, you have to go. And he wouldn't go. And it got heated. And eventually, before we came back from commercial break, he had to be escorted out. And then he went on Fox and denied it the next day, which is also odd because, you know, one thing that we have in abundance at a TV studio is cameras filming things. So (laughter) it was odd to hear him deny that. But these people lie about everything. So why wouldn't he lie about that?

GROSS: Did you release the tape of him being escorted out?

TAPPER: No, because I don't want to be the story. I don't like being the story. And, I mean, he knows the truth. He knows that a guard escorted him out of the studio, down the elevator, through the lobby, out the door. I mean, he knows that that happened. He didn't pose a threat to me. But he was not leaving the studio, and we were coming back from commercial break on a live TV show.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded in April with Jake Tapper. He's nominated for two news and documentary Emmys, one of them is for his live interview with Kellyanne Conway. We'll play an excerpt of that interview and hear what Tapper had to say about it after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jake Tapper, the anchor of CNN's weekday afternoon show "The Lead" and Sunday show "State Of The Union." He's nominated for two news and documentary Emmys. One of them is for his live interview with Kellyanne Conway.


GROSS: So there was a period, I think, when CNN or you in particular - you can tell me which - had decided not to book Kellyanne Conway from the Trump administration because - because why? Like, tell us that story of the brief period when she was not booked on the network.

TAPPER: I don't remember it that clearly. As I recall right now, it seemed as though there was a period where there were a number of Trump administration - Trump White House guests going out and just lying and saying things that just were demonstrably not true and attacking the press. This is early, early in the administration. And this was also around a time - this is January or February of 2017. And, you know, there was just a lot of - just falsehoods, a lot of lies being told. The media doesn't cover terrorism. This story's fake news. That story's fake news - stories that have been proven to be 100 percent true.

And as I recall - and I might be remembering this wrong. But as I recall, Kellyanne Conway was in the middle of that. And we decided not to book her one Sunday. But it wasn't like we were never going to book her. It was more just like we weren't going to do it one time. Or maybe there was a period that we weren't doing it. But it wasn't like a hard and fast don't ever book her again.


TAPPER: And then, you know, and then I ended up booking her on "The Lead" in February, 2017, anyway. And we had a very, very long interview about all the lies that President Trump was telling. But, you know, it is always a balance between booking people from the Trump administration - or any administration. But we can't pretend that the Trump administration is normal.

GROSS: So I want to play an interview that you did do with Kellyanne Conway. This was right after the period that we're talking about - February 7, 2017. And Kellyanne Conway is counselor to the president, who's also one of his main spokespeople on talk shows. And so earlier in this interview, you're talking about how the president had accused the press of not covering terrorism. And then you show a collage of CNN reporters from around the world covering terrorist attacks. And then you talk about the murder rates and how he's misrepresented that. So this is an excerpt of your February 7, 2017, interview with Kellyanne Conway. So this is Jake Tapper with Kellyanne Conway.


TAPPER: I guess what I'm getting at here is there is a larger campaign being waged by President Trump and by the White House to undermine the credibility of everybody in the news media except for certain supportive outlets. And for instance, earlier today, President Trump made a quote about the murder rate being at the highest level it's ever been in 47 years. He said that. And he said nobody in the media reports on that.

There's a reason that nobody in the media reports on that. It's not true. The murder rate is not at the highest rate it's been in 47 years. It spiked a little. It went up a little. But it's still much, much lower. It's 4.9 people per 100,000. That's dwarfed by the murder rates in the 1990s and before that in the 1980s. Facts are stubborn things. And to say that we're not reporting something that happens not to be true, therefore, we're not to be trusted, that's a problem.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Well, Jake, if I can take that broader issue of our relationship with the media, I mean, I'm among if not the most open press person in the White House. I'm now being attacked by the media, including networks that are familiar to you. And I'm just going to keep soldiering on. I mean, I came to this White House to serve this president who's serving people.

I have in my portfolio here veterans. I have women and children. I have opioid use. And we're working on all of that. I sat in on the sheriffs' roundtable today. I sat in on the Veterans Affairs. And I know that that's something near and dear to your heart because I see you often give voice and visibility...


CONWAY: ...Lend your considerable platform to our fallen soldiers and to our brave men and women in uniform. On that, we agree. And if we can find areas of agreement, give me a call because I sat in on that. I sat in on a similar meeting in Mar-a-Lago over the holidays - a working session. We had some of the top minds - the top minds and leaders in health care here to the White House today, so they can advise specifically on Veterans Affairs.

TAPPER: You're not...

CONWAY: Not a single person there said, oh, you know, President Obama didn't - nobody said that. It was basically, how do we move forward so that the structure is better, the responsiveness is better? I can't imagine anybody disagrees with President Trump when he says, if we don't take care of our veterans, who are we really as a nation? So if we can find areas of agreement...

TAPPER: It's not addressing what I just talked about. What we're talking about is the fact that the White House is waging war on people who are providing information - sometimes risking their lives to do so - saying that nothing we say is true. All of it is fake. I would much rather be talking to you about veterans' issues.

In fact, I would - when it comes to the Trump administration, I would be much rather covering immigration. I would much rather be covering trade. And I would much rather be covering draining the swamp and counterterrorism. But instead, every day there are these sprays of attack and sprays of falsehoods coming from the White House. It would be better if they were not coming from the White House for me and for you.

CONWAY: Agreed. And let me just say it has to go both ways. I mean, I do, Jake. I sincerely...

GROSS: Well, she goes on after that. But anyway...


TAPPER: Agreed, agreed. I mean, she conceded the point.

GROSS: So I hear you trying to be very respectful during that interview and just like letting her talk and then at some point saying this can't go - this is my interpretation - hearing you say, at some point in your mind, she's trying to play out the clock, and I have to get her back on point. She's not answering the question.

TAPPER: Right.

GROSS: So again, like, the strategy of how long do you let somebody talk before reminding them that they're totally avoiding the question.

TAPPER: I mean, it's completely subjective. Kellyanne Conway wanted to make a point about what she would rather be talking about. Obviously, she didn't want to talk about the fact that the president was attacking the press for not covering something that wasn't true. And I don't blame her. I mean, look. It's a subjective thing when to stop somebody - when to cut them off. I mean, you don't want to lose the viewer. You don't want the viewer to think you're rude. You don't - there's a - to be completely candid, there is a gender dynamic of a man telling a woman to stop talking.

GROSS: Oh, that's really true. That's a good point.

TAPPER: You don't want the viewer to think you're a jerk. You're not letting the person talk. I mean, you know, you want to let the person give an answer. But at a certain point, you have to steer them back. You know, I don't know that I do it perfectly. I don't - you know, when I - when you play these clips back to me, I think, wow, I let them talk for too long. But I'm sure at the time I was thinking, God, I'm going to jump in as soon as I can here. But, you know, it's so subjective. And it's live TV. It's not on tape.

GROSS: Absolutely, absolutely.


GROSS: Yeah.

TAPPER: But fundamentally, I mean, I just think that what we need to remember here is that Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway and how they behave and how they act is completely a manifestation of how the president of the United States behaves.

GROSS: The interview with Kellyanne Conway was supposed to last six minutes, it went for nearly 25.


GROSS: What was happening in your headphones during that interview? 'Cause one of the things I had to tell you is like, we're not going to commercial.

TAPPER: Yeah. We're not taking commercial breaks. Jeff Zucker was in the control room. He just happened to be in the control room in Washington, D.C., that day. So my executive producer was telling me just - we're going to keep going. Don't worry about the time - 'cause he had been told that by Zucker, the president of CNN.

GROSS: So after your interview with Kellyanne Conway, "Saturday Night Live" did a sketch with Beck Bennett as you and Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway. And it's a kind of "Fatal Attraction" spoof.


GROSS: So she's in the Glenn Close role. So you walk in the door after a day on the set at CNN. You turn on the light. And there she is waiting for you, angry that you've cut off communication with her. So first she tries to seduce you into taking her back and talking with her. When you brush her off, she takes out a kitchen knife and comes at you with the knife. Did you see the sketch in real time?

TAPPER: I did not because I do "State Of The Union" on Sunday mornings.

GROSS: Oh, of course.

TAPPER: So I go to bed relatively early. My wife stays up late and watches "Saturday Night Live." And Beck Bennett had been doing the Jake Tapper role all season, which was - independent of the "Fatal Attraction" skit - a huge honor. So the idea of being spoofed on screen live - especially considering I pretty much got away scot-free in terms of how harsh they were to me, as opposed to, say, Sean Spicer - you know, it was an honor.

Now that skit, that was a different thing because it was - my introduction to it was from my wife, who normally does not wake up when I wake up Sunday morning at 6 in the morning. But when my alarm went off, she was right there awake and told me, you have to see this. And I said, what? They did you again "Saturday Night Live" last night. And I'm like, oh, were they mean? That's always my first consideration - were they mean? - because even though I'm 49 years old, you know, I have the soul of a gentle 8-year-old.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAPPER: So I - she goes, no, but you have to watch it. You have to watch it. So the first thing I noticed was that they were less generous about my hairline than they had been in the past, which I guess, you know, I had that coming. But then my wife thought it was sexist. She is a very strong and proud feminist, and she thought it was sexist. Why is Kellyanne Conway being sexualized?

GROSS: Yeah, and I should say Kellyanne Conway's wearing like seductive lingerie in it because first she does try to seduce you into taking her back, yeah.

TAPPER: Also it's weird when it's you and somebody you interact with professionally, and like all of sudden they're doing a skit where it's like sexual. And, you know, I mean, it's just kind of odd (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TAPPER: ...You know, in a way. But, I mean, that skit was not a huge hit in the Tapper household. But generally speaking, I think they're very funny.

GROSS: Jake Tapper recorded in April after the publication of his debut novel "The Hellfire Club." He's nominated for two news and documentary Emmys. After we take a short break, we'll hear from two more Emmy nominees - Stephen Colbert, host of "The Late Show" on CBS, and comic W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN's "United Shades Of America." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's continue our series of Emmy nominees with comic W. Kamau Bell. His CNN series "United Shades Of America" is nominated for three Emmys, including one for Bell as outstanding host for a reality or reality competition program. Last year, the show won for oustanding unstructured reality program. In "United Shades Of America," Bell travels to communities around America talking to people about the challenges they face. He's also gone to places you wouldn't expect an African-American to go like a Ku Klux Klan rally. When I spoke with him in June, "United Shades Of America" was in its third season.


GROSS: Kamau, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations. You just had your third baby 16 days ago. Whoa.

W KAMAU BELL: Yeah, yeah.


GROSS: (Laughter) So this is a good time to talk about the genealogy series that you did since you have a new child now. So this is a kind of, like, adjunct to your CNN series. And in order to trace your genealogy, you brought your parents together. Your parents separated when you were a toddler. They were never married, and they hadn't seen each other for nine years since your wedding. What was it like for you to bring them together and to see them together? What's it like for you to see your parents who were so briefly together reunite because of this project?

BELL: I mean, you know, looking back, that's the best thing I got out of it was seeing my parents together in a situation that didn't cause them anxiety. Like, my wedding was kind of a nightmare for them (laughter). Like, I just think that, like, I don't know that they felt like it was a nightmare, but for me, it was, like, they really clearly had a hard time being in the same room together. This was an opportunity for them to come together when they didn't have any anxiety. They were happy to see their grandkids because they were around for the shoot. And, you know, they both were just sort of, like, having fun being on camera, too. So, like, it was really beautiful.

GROSS: So getting back to your Ancestry search, your father and his family had made an assumption about a white man within the family tree. And this man was your father's great-grandfather, your great-great-grandfather. So he was a white man who fathered children with your great-great-grandmother. And the assumption was he was a slave owner - that he probably owned your great-great-grandmother and that's why she bore his children. But what did you actually...

BELL: What we found out was that according to Ancestry, there's no records of him ever owning anybody. He was listed at various points as a carpenter or as a farmer. He was also many years older than my great-great-grandmother and that they - all we know is that they had 13 kids together. They lived together at one point. But he was never - he never owned her, and their first kid was born while she was still enslaved. Like, there were still two more years before slavery ended. And so it's a very - we don't know any of the details, but all of my life, it's been like this slave owner had sex with his slave who's your - who was your great-great-grandmother. And that's where the Bell family tree starts.

And his last name is Dockery, and her last name was Bell. And I was like, why are their names different? And so now we're finding out that, like, she was probably owned by the Bell plantation, but he's just this dude Dockery who somehow comes across Francis and has a kid who is during slavery but then has 12 more kids after that. So they clearly had a relationship. They lived together at one point. And then at one point, they weren't living together, but they were apparently, according to Ancestry, living on adjacent plots of land, so maybe they were still technically living together. But after - but once, like, slavery ends and for a while things get a little bit better weirdly in the South, but then it gets worse that maybe they felt like they couldn't stay in the same house.

GROSS: And they certainly couldn't have been married because it wouldn't have been legal.

BELL: No, no, no, no.

GROSS: And so what was it like for you to see that document?

BELL: The documents that really hit me were the ones where members of our family were being counted as property. And they were sort of tick marks on a piece of paper - not with their names attached, but like we know through the records that this person owned your family members. And this tick mark here accounts for one of your - like your great, great grandmother. That's the stuff that really shook me because they call it the African-American brick wall because you can't really get much further past slavery because nobody's names are attached to them. They're just, again, they're just property.

And so for me, that's the stuff that really just sort of sickened my stomach. It's like, you know, my wife, who is white - and as I've talked about a lot - you know, can trace her heritage back as far to like the old countries like Italy and Portugal and, you know, Ireland and England. Whereas mine, for the most part, is going to end in the South. You know, we're not going to be able to get much further back than that other than the DNA telling you where your DNA comes from.

GROSS: What about the DNA? Did you find out your DNA and was it meaningful for you?

BELL: Yeah. For me, it's weird. For my dad and my mom, finding out the family stories was the stuff that they were really interested in because these are names they've had their whole lives and ideas of how people lived that have been formed in their head for a long time. But for me, the DNA was the fascinating stuff because it's just sort of like, on one level, I was always sort of weirdly afraid of finding out about the DNA because I feel like I'd seen so many black people like flip out when they found out they were more European than they expected they were, like, you know, what does that mean?

And so for me, I was just like, I know I'm black. You know, the DNA can say I'm 100 percent Chinese, but it's not going to change my lived experience. But once I sat there and saw it and you see like a map of Africa and you see all the different places that your DNA pops up and then you also see something that says that 1 percent Scandinavian, you're like, what? Who? Like, where did that come from?

I just - it just feels - it's super interesting to me and, you know, also funny to me because apparently, most black people in the country are 75 percent, you know, from Africa. And according to my DNA, I'm like 73 percent from Africa. And it's funny to me because all my life I've been - I have felt like I wasn't black enough and been told by other black people that I wasn't black enough. And I'm like, I'm literally not black enough. I'm less black than most black people. So to me, that felt a little bit like, oh, that makes sense.

GROSS: No. I'm going to say it's the margin of error.

BELL: Yeah (laughter). I want to go with my not-black-enough theory. It sort of supports my whole narrative of life at this point.

GROSS: So on your mother's side, there was something I thought was really interesting which is that your great, great uncle enlisted when he was 18 in 1864 to fight for the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War to fight to end slavery. That's an interesting fact.

BELL: Yeah. And this is something that there was no knowledge on my mom's side of the family about that. And so that was really interesting because, you know, we went to this church that my mom's mom had gone to as a kid. And it's in Kentucky. And we went to this church. And in the church, they had all these family records. And you could sort of see that the church for the African-American community is where basically the census records are kept because there we were always people, you know.

There was like a piece of paper on the wall that sort of listed all the original members of the church. And we could see how many of those people were our family members. And so it really sort of struck me that like the black church has been basically the government for black people in this country because that's where you were a person. But we didn't know what these people did or what their jobs were. And so when Ancestry found this record that, you know, that he had enlisted to fight for the Union, you know, it makes you feel proud, you know.

I mean, you know, we like to think of ourselves and my family - especially my mom's side of the family - as people who are actively in the world trying to make the world a better place. And at that point in history, as an enslaved black man, that's how you were going to actively make the world a better place. And it just feels like, you know, again, that's not in your DNA but it feels like that's, again, part of our family DNA.

GROSS: My guest is comic W. Kamau Bell. His CNN series "United Shades Of America" is nominated for three Emmys. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my latest interview with W. Kamau Bell. He's a comic whose CNN series "United Shades Of America" is nominated for three Emmys. His Netflix standup special is called "Private School Negro." When I interviewed him in June, we talked about the impact of the #MeToo movement on the comedy scene.


GROSS: We've talked before about a friend of yours who called you out for one of your jokes that she thought was just like, you know...

BELL: Sexist and dumb.

GROSS: Sexist and dumb, that's what I was looking for.


GROSS: And at first, you bristled. And then you changed the joke - or took it out, yeah.

BELL: Yeah, my friend Martha Rynberg, who's actually got a consultant credit on my new Netflix special because that's how powerful she is.

GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. So anyways, your thoughts on how the #MeToo movement and the insistence on a level of respect, you know, when it comes to what you say - you know, what a comic is saying and how they are living.

BELL: I think every comic has the right of freedom of speech to say whatever they want to say on stage. And then it's up to the audience to decide what they do with it. So first of all, I just want to say that. There's comics that I think are very funny who I would not vote for if they were running for mayor of my city. So I just want to be clear that that's one thing. It's funny. During filming of Season 3 of "United Shades," me and Donny Jackson and my friend Dwayne Kennedy, who also has a consultant credit on my Netflix special - who's a comic, great guy - we would talk about this a lot. And there's was a lot of talk amongst - and we have women on the crew - but amongst the dudes because, like, there was - that was during the time where every day like two or three people - it seemed like two or three dudes were going down.

And me and Dwayne talked one time about it. We were just having - like, man, did read about this? Did you see this? And did you see this? And Dwayne would just go, they're coming for everybody. And he wasn't saying that in like some sort of a witch-hunt-y (ph) way, which I think some dudes are saying. He was just saying, like, all of our behavior is suspect. All of our - dudes, there's just a way in which we are raised and a way in which we are encouraged to be in the world. And I see it with little boys at the park - where we were just raised to, for the most part, take up a lot of space and just sort of play to our baser instincts. That's just how we were sort of encouraged to be.

I don't think - maybe some of it is some sort of biology thing. But I don't think - I think society encourages it - whatever it is when it starts out inside your biology. And the thing that sucks is even if you raise a dude who's not that way - like my mom wasn't trying to raise me that way - eventually I and other dudes who were raised to be sort of nicer people - or whatever you want to say - or more sensitive or are allowed to play into your sensitive states - you are around other dudes who aren't. And you sort of feel, like, invited into being like that - or feel pressured into being like that. And so you will find yourself in situations where you're like, I don't know why I said that, or I don't know. It's just - we're not doing - and I'm not taking responsibility off the dudes who were going down in the #MeToo movement. I'm just saying that there's a way in which men are raised - boys are raised into men that I think is not good and encourages the worst aspects of us.

And then you combine that with show business, where basically it's an industry of people who didn't want to get up early in the morning and who wanted to stay out all night and drink and smoke and sort of be - sort of, like, the late-night crowd who's doing things - that are saying things on stage that you shouldn't say. And there is just this sort of like permanent state of adolescence that I think exists in a lot of stand-up comedy. And I'm not necessarily criticizing it. I just think that, like, that's the case - that you're allowed to sort of be outside of regular society. And we call people who aren't comedians civilians because we think we're really the - we're going to war. And so I think there's a lot of that that encourages bad behavior.

And then you also bring in stardom into that. So like the story of what - of Louis, you know, masturbating in front of the woman in Aspen. I knew that story. And I don't even - I've met Louie once, twice maybe. And I knew that story. But it was never told as assault. It was told as like this crazy thing that happened. And so I hear some men talk about like, "this is a witch hunt," quote, not quoting - you know, basically sounding like our president. And I sort of feel like, yeah, and we're going to find some witches (laughter).

Like I just feel like - and none of our behavior is above reproach if we've been in this industry, and we've seen things. So we all have to be able to stand up to an audit. And it's going to take down some people who absolutely deserve to get take down. But it's also just going to take down some people who - we should have said more. We should have done something differently. And we weren't bad people, but we were just - we were in bad situations. And we didn't do the right things.

And so I just think that there's going to be a generation of men who is properly taken down by this and a generation of men who are sort of caught up in the shrapnel by this. And it's just the way it's going to be. And hopefully, it'll mean that we raise the next generation of men and boys in a different way. But I say that as a guy who's got three daughters and looks at little boys right now, going, it hasn't started yet.

GROSS: So your new special is called "Private School Negro." Your previous special is called "Semi-Prominent Negro." Why do you like the word Negro?

BELL: It reminds me of a time when black people were - were, like, angry and doing something about it. It's like - for me, it takes me right back to the height of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X and, you know, all the people who were like those were Negroes (laughter). They were not African-Americans. They were the people who said, stop calling us colored. Stop calling us [expletive]. We are Negro. It was like sort of the time that black people politically chose a word that was like, this is how we want to be called. And we're going to fight for it. So for me, it just feels like a very - I mean, some people may be offended by it. But to me, it just feels very, like, classically, importantly black.

GROSS: My interview with W. Kamau Bell was recorded in June. His CNN series, "United Shades of America," is nominated for three Emmys. "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" is also nominated for three Emmys. We'll hear an except of my latest interview with Colbert after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. This week, we're featuring interviews with Emmy nominees. The CBS show "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" is nominated for three Emmys - Outstanding Variety Talk Series, Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series and Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series. Colbert has won nine Emmys so far, six for his previous show "The Colbert Report" and three as a writer on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. We're going to hear an excerpt of the interview we recorded November 3, 2016, just a few days before the election. Colbert was preparing for a live election night special. If you watched that special, you probably remember how stunned he was when Trump was declared the winner.

When Colbert first took over "The Late Show" in 2015 following David Letterman's retirement, his opening monologue wasn't as political as it later became. Here's an excerpt from his monologue the day jury selection began on the Paul Manafort trial.


STEPHEN COLBERT: Now, Manafort's - he's a tough guy. He seems like a tough guy. But I'm sure he's a little worried. One person who's apparently not worried about Mueller's investigation is Donald Trump. For over a year now, his catchphrase has been, no collusion.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There was no collusion at all.

No collusion, no nothing.

No collusion, no nothing.

No collusion.

No collusion.

No collusion.

No collusion.

COLBERT: He uses it for every occasion. It's...


COLBERT: It's like his aloha.


COLBERT: It means both hello and I'm guilty.


COLBERT: But he - aloha, aloha. But he and his team have recently rebranded and are using a new phrase that Trump tweeted out this morning. Collusion is not a crime.


COLBERT: But that doesn't matter because there was no collusion except by crooked Hillary and the Democrats.


COLBERT: OK, so collusion isn't a crime, but it doesn't matter because he didn't do it anyway. Hillary did. It's really going to complicate the chants at his rallies. Lock her up, but collusion's not a crime. So what are we locking her up for? I am confused. We're living in a web of lies. But...


COLBERT: Woo, woo, woo.


GROSS: When you started doing "The Late Show" as opposed to "The Colbert Report" and you were able to drop "The Colbert Report" persona, did you know what your authentic voice was going to be, you know, what your voice is - like, the actual Stephen Colbert was going to be - 'cause you still have to have, like, a bit of a persona as an entertainer onstage.

COLBERT: I don't think so. I knew that it would be a little bit of a public discovery. You know, what's the - it's somebody else's joke, but life is like learning to play the violin in public. You don't know what you're doing until you do it. And I knew that there'd be a learning curve that had to happen in public on air. I would say that what I didn't anticipate was how much I would overcorrect for not doing the character.

GROSS: What do you mean?

COLBERT: I think - well, because I was not talking about politics. I wasn't doing a monologue on the day's events when we first started. I mean, I would still talk about what was happening, but it wasn't highly focused. It wasn't - it did not have intention. And I wasn't speaking all that honestly because I was attempting to do something different than I had done before. And the overcorrect, I would say, is that not realizing that through the character I was actually speaking very honestly. And you were hearing my voice a lot of the time. You know...

GROSS: I felt that way as a viewer.

COLBERT: There's a - yeah, there's a confessional aspect to wearing a mask - you know, the same reason why it's easier to confess behind a screen to a priest than face to face. And so by - the character was a 10-year confession perhaps of, you know, indulging ego and appetite through the person of this character. Then you go on stage as yourself, and you're responsible for everything you say.

And there's a natural - I think there's a natural inclination to pull your punch because you have to be responsible for what you're saying. You cannot hide behind the mask and also that if you talk about politics all the time, well, isn't that what that other guy did? Why would I - or talk about the news all the time. Well, isn't that - then how am I changing in any way? And it took me - oh, gosh, I would say it took me almost half a year to realize that those two aren't mutually exclusive, that you can have a highly opinionated, highly topical show as yourself and not essentially fall back into the basket of "The Colbert Report."

And now I have no qualms about being sharp and satirical and highly opinionated and saying whatever's on my mind as quickly as I can and not worrying about that I was - I'm playing the same game. I know I'm not playing the same game. But it took me a little while to realize that the character was not in danger of re-emerging.

GROSS: Yeah, I was really glad when you added more political satire at the top of the show.

COLBERT: Yeah, me too. It's much more enjoyable. It's more honest, actually, 'cause it's what I consume all day.

GROSS: It seems to me one of the hard parts of doing an opening monologue is what to do when the audience is laughing.

COLBERT: What to do when the audience is laughing?

GROSS: Yeah. Like, do you say something?

COLBERT: Oh, my gosh.

GROSS: Do you repeat the punchline? Do you just keep your hands in your pockets? Do you...

COLBERT: Hide your erection?


COLBERT: Yeah, what do you do? What do I do while the audience is laughing? That is the hardest part of the job. What will I do...

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: ...While the audience is laughing? It's such a challenge, you know? How was the show last night? It was so hard. Why? The audience laughed so much. I didn't know what to do with myself, oh.

GROSS: No, but really, you got to do something.

COLBERT: What do you do?

GROSS: You do have to do something.

COLBERT: Levitate. Nail your feet to the floor because you'll just fly up into the rafters.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: What do you do? You lean into it like it's a wind. It's the greatest feeling in the world. What do you do? That's the easiest part of the job. You smile, and you're happy that they're happy. That's it. And then you, like - oh, you know what the biggest challenge is?

GROSS: What?

COLBERT: It's, where do you jump back in to get to the next joke?

GROSS: Right, OK.

COLBERT: How do you ride that energy to the next joke? How then can I use what they've just given me to give them a better rhythm, a better joke the next time around? How can I slide down the front face of their wave to give them better energy back? It's like, how can I make this a reciprocal relationship? How can I make this good - this moment feel as good for them as it's feeling for me right now? What can I give back to them? And because comedy's about rhythm, it's, like, where you jump in on their laughter is really maybe the only decision you're making. And if you really feeling it, it's not a decision at all. So there's nothing to worry about while the audience is laughing.

GROSS: So you used to come in and make the nightly stage entrance doing a kick dance with your band leader, Jon Batiste. It was very manic.


GROSS: And you've taken that...


GROSS: ...Down a notch. And you're not doing the kick dance anymore.


GROSS: Can you talk about changing that?

COLBERT: Yeah. When the show first started, I thought, well, it's a giant space. It's a Broadway stage. What kind of energy - what level of energy do I need to fill this space that is then sort of captured by the camera? I used to very much do a show that was for the camera that the audience got to witness. I feel like now I'm doing the show for the room that the cameras witness.

GROSS: That's a really big difference.

COLBERT: Yeah. And you really feel it when you're doing it. My first choice was, well, err on the side of energy. And then at a certain point I realized, well, that actually doesn't translate over the camera, and the audience is just as energetic whether I do that or not. And so I started eliminating things and said, what's left? What's left is you walking on a stage and doing jokes.

It was just erring on the side of giving the audience more, giving more energy, knowing I had enough energy for that room because it's a Broadway stage. It's a big house. And it's even bigger than when Dave was there because the room had been choked down. I think a long time - maybe even in Ed Sullivan's days, they choked the whole room down with huge sound sails and baffles. And you couldn't even tell you were in a theater. It was all so choked down.

We've opened it up. It's a restored 1927 theater now. And it's an amazing space to be in. And you feel a great need to fill it. But what you learn eventually - and this is something I knew sort of intellectually but I had forgotten instinctually - is that you actually don't need high energy to fill a large space. You need your own sense of presence and focus. You know, you can bend an entire room by bending a paperclip if you've got the focus of the room. And to accept that the audience - you know, that you are their focus, you don't need to do high kicks. You just need to be there, present for them and then you fill the entire room.

GROSS: So one more question. I have taken up a lot of...

COLBERT: Whatever you want.

GROSS: ...Your time this morning.

COLBERT: Whatever you want.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: No, I really (laughter)...

GROSS: No, no, that's part of my question. That's part of my question.

COLBERT: OK, yeah.

GROSS: It's - we're recording this in the morning. You have a lot of work to do before your show airs, so...

COLBERT: It's 11:21 recording time...


COLBERT: ...Where I am.

GROSS: So what do you have to do to compensate for the fact that you were generous enough to give us this interview?

COLBERT: Breath deeply...

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLBERT: ...And trust my staff. And I am capable of both. And then I'm ready for whatever the fresh wave of stress is because you got to like - you got to kind of like the stress, too. I don't know how to attach a positive feeling to stress and pressure, but there is one. There's a bulletproof feeling that comes over you, and that's - it's really a pleasant one. And you kind of have to like that.

But to do one of these jobs, you got to kind of learn to love the flaming toboggan ride of it. You got to like it because everybody else is in the toboggan with you. You're doing it together. That's the joy. Everybody's going it together. At the end of it when - hey, we survived - pretty good show; let's do it again tomorrow. And that's it. It's the movement forward because it never stops. You've got to love the downhill hurdle. There's no finish line. You've got to just love missing all those trees that you could have hit today.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert recorded in 2016 just before the election. "Late Night With Stephen Colbert" is nominated for three Emmys. If you'd like to hear all the current nominees featured in our Emmy week series, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews.


GROSS: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. On interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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