January 1, 2013
Guests: Jack Black â W. Kamau Bell
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. Today, we conclude our series featuring a few of our favorite interviews from 2012. We'll start today's show with the interview I recorded with Jack Black last April. He's best known for his roles in "High Fidelity," "School of Rock," "Shallow Hal," "Tropic Thunder," "Nacho Libre," and the animated film "Kung Fu Panda." He's also known for his satiric, hard rock-heavy metal band Tenacious D, a duo with Kyle Gass.
In 2012, Tenacious D had a new album; Black starred this year in the movie "Bernie"; and he ended the year by presenting Led Zeppelin with a Kennedy Center honor, calling them the best band ever.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So there's a new Tenacious D album. I'm going to ask you to describe the band Tenacious D.
JACK BLACK: Tenacious D is comedy folk-rock, is what I would say.
GROSS: Folk rock?
BLACK: And the only reason I say folk is because we're two acoustic guitars. At our core, it's just me and Kyle on acoustic guitars and singing - you know, kind of like Simon and Garfunkel. But then, we're most heavily influenced by heavy metal bands of the '80s.
We used to make fun of the devil because the devil's influence on '80s metal was so prevalent. And now, it just seems so ridiculous and hilarious. But this new album is more about redemption. It's a comeback-themed album.
GROSS: Which leads me into the title track, which I'd like to play, if it's OK with you.
GROSS: Yeah, so this is "Rize of the Fenix," the title track, and it's the story of your band, Tenacious D, making its big comeback. And it's a tribute to, you know, a lot of heavy metal music of the '80s. Do you want to say anything else to introduce it?
BLACK: No, I think it speaks for itself. We're - it's in reference to our last album, which was a soundtrack to our movie "The Pick of Destiny." And it didn't do well in the box office scores, and it didn't do well with the critics. And this is our triumphant comeback to say, you know, you can't kill us.
GROSS: OK, so here's Jack Black and his band, Tenacious D.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIZE OF THE FENIX")
BLACK: (Singing) When "The Pick of Destiny" was released, it was a bomb. And all the critics said that the D was done. The sun had set, and the chapter had closed, but one thing no one thought about was the D would rise again, just like the phoenix will rise again.
(Singing) 'Cause the fiery heart of a champion cannot be squelched by a failure or an embarrassment; no way, no. And the critics all agreed it was a stinky pile of cheese, but that does not mean that our hearts are not strong. Just like the phoenix, we'll rise again. Just like the phoenix, we'll rise again.
(Singing) Sunshine, it's a hell of a day...
GROSS: That's Jack Black's band, Tenacious D. What are some of your favorite things about heavy metal voices and the things that they - you know, like the really like, big, dramatic flourishes?
BLACK: Well, in general, in the vocals department, what I appreciate is glory.
BLACK: I was thinking about this the other day. And it's not just heavy metal but, you know, hard rock in general. I like to include my brothers from The Who and Led Zeppelin. But if they can take me on a journey through the clouds - I don't have any real spirituality in my life; I'm kind of an atheist. But when music can take me to the highest heights, it's almost like a spiritual feeling. It fills that void for me.
GROSS: But what about like, certain - just - like, vocal flourishes, like the - excuse me for embarrassing myself here - like the rise again thing.
BLACK: Oh, that.
BLACK: That was just me showing off. I wanted to show that I've got the chops, and I wanted to take my voice on a rollercoaster ride.
You know, that's just flexing in the mirror; vocal flex.
GROSS: So is that one of the things you love about, like, hard rock - is that, you know, the bigness of it?
BLACK: I do love the bigness. And it feels almost primal. It feels like we're Native Americans around the fire. Before there was - big buildings and cars and civilization, there was just the power of a voice singing to the heavens.
GROSS: One of the tracks, "To Be the Best," is almost like a parody of "Flashdance" - of the songs from "Flashdance."
BLACK: It is. I mean, that was a song that we did almost - that was the last song that we added to the album because we felt we needed one more song that fit the theme - which was, you know, the rise of the phoenix; the comeback. And we needed a song that sounded like something that would inspire you to do push-ups and sit-ups, and run around like Rocky.
BLACK: You know, like "Eye of the Tiger" and all those great, '80s rock things - you can do it if you believe in yourself. There's something so funny about that now. No one's really doing that kind of particular brand of cheese.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE THE BEST")
BLACK: (Singing) To be the best, we've got to pass the test. We gotta make it all the way to the top of the mountain. We can do it again. To feel the high, we've got to learn to fly. We've got to take it to the sky on the wings of an eagle. You're the best in the world.
(Singing) You are the best, but you say you don't know. You got the touch, now come on let it show. You call the shots, but you know that you gots to believe in the things that you're dreaming. Your search for the meaning is very revealing. The power of being is what you're feeling. You gotta believe that you're simply the best.
GROSS: That's Jack Black and his band, Tenacious D. So when you were, say, a teenager, who did you fantasize - yourself - as being like? If you could've been in any band, which band would it have been?
BLACK: Well, I had two sides of myself. There was the yin and yang of my musical tastes. I had Van Halen on one side, and then I had Bobby McFerrin on the other side - the hard rock, and then the jazz. Both of them had a certain type of cheese to them. And when I mixed them together in my laboratory, that's sort of what I became - a mixture of the vocal stylings of the jazz-scat master, with the bombast and power of the hard rocker.
GROSS: Who else was in your jazz side?
BLACK: OK, now you're going to reveal me to be not that deep on the jazz.
GROSS: Was Bobby McFerrin out there all by himself?
BLACK: OK, he was all by himself.
GROSS: But nevertheless influential.
BLACK: Yeah. But I was obsessed with him, I would go so far as to say, because I had always imagined myself going out on stage by myself, and blowing people's minds just with the power of my singing voice. Now, I'm revealing too much about my ambitions, but...
GROSS: No, and Bobby McFerrin was probably most famous - was definitely most famous for "Don't Worry, Be Happy." But because he could do different voices when he sang - he could, like, back himself up - it almost sounded like he did several voices at the same time. But he could sing different parts. He could sing in different voices. So it was kind of like having a whole vocal group in this, like, one man.
BLACK: Yeah. Long before "Don't Worry, Be Happy," he was blowing people's minds with incredible covers of, like, Beatles songs. He did an unbelievable version of "Blackbird."
GROSS: Right. Didn't he do, like, percussion by tapping on himself, too?
BLACK: Yes. He would slap on his chest, and that would sound like the drums. But it would also affect his voice. (Vocalizing and tapping) I'm not going to do it justice so I won't even try now, but there was a time...
GROSS: I can just tell by that, that you - you were - you did him in your room.
BLACK: Whenever he came to town - oh, yeah. Whenever he came to town, I would be there. I would be at the concerts. And whenever he asked for volunteers from the audience, I would be running as fast as I could to the stage.
GROSS: Did you make it onstage?
BLACK: I did. I did make it onstage, and I think I was a little too aggressive with my enthusiasm because he did, one time, tell me to tone it down - not with words, but just with a look in his eye and a little shake of his head. I knew that I had crossed the line, and I wasn't supposed to be slapping my chest. That's his job.
BLACK: I was just going to do what he told me.
GROSS: You said one time as if, like, you did this many times - running onstage and performing with him.
BLACK: I've been onstage with McFerrin more than once. He wouldn't remember. I was just one of the thousands that have been on the stage, you know. I did want to be part of his Voicestra.
GROSS: I can't help be reminded of your movie "School of Rock," listening to this, in which you play a musician who is kicked out of his own rock band because he's so annoying, and then you end up being a substitute teacher and you want your students to like, love rock, so you're teaching them all about rock. And you want them to form a rock band that you will lead. And you're trying to give them like, an education about rock, you're trying to teach them how to channel their anger into like, writing songs and performing songs. So let's hear a clip of that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SCHOOL OF ROCK")
GROSS: (as Dewey Finn) All right. Now, is everyone nice and pissed off?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (as characters) Yeah.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) Good. Time to write a rock song. Now, what makes you mad more than anything in the world? Billy.
BRIAN FALDUTO: (as Billy) You.
BLACK: Billy, we've already told me off. Let's move on.
FALDUTO: (as Billy) You're tacky, and I hate you.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) OK, you see me after class. You, Gordon.
ZACHARY INFANTE: (as Gordon) No allowance.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) I didn't get no allowance today. So now I'm really ticked off.
(as Dewey Finn) You know what I mean? What else makes you mad? Michelle?
JORDAN-CLAIRE GREEN: (as Michelle) Chores.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) I had to do my chores today. So I am really ticked off.
(as Dewey Finn) What else?
JOEY GAYDOS: (as Zack) Bullies.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) All you bullies get out of my way because I am really ticked off.
(as Dewey Finn) So what would you say to a bully? Zack?
GAYDOS: (as Zack) I don't know.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) No, come on. If someone was right up in your grill, what would you say?
GAYDOS: (as Zack) I don't know.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) If someone was pushing you around, telling you what to do, what would you say?
GAYDOS: (as Zack) Step off?
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) Step off! Step off! Step off! Step off! - everybody.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (as characters) (Singing) Step off! Step off! Step off!
GROSS: That's great. That's Jack Black in "School of Rock." I love your heavy metal falsetto. It's such a key part of those bands.
BLACK: I look forward to, someday, my Vegas show - where I do excerpts of all the highlights of my career. I will definitely do a "Step Off." I can see it, in my golden years.
GROSS: Now, you know how in the scene of "School of Rock" that we've just heard, you were telling the kids to basically channel their anger and frustration, and turn it into music; did you do that when you were a teenager - you know, like, try to channel your anger and frustration into music?
BLACK: I did use music as an outlet. And I did like to sing and make music into my four-track. I had a four-track recorder in like, 10th grade, I got my first one. My Tascam Porta 05 - anybody out there that remembers those machines.
And I loved just to sing as hard and as loud as I could - and harmony. It was like a release. It was kind of like a form of therapy. It's like scream therapy.
GROSS: What about acting in high school?
BLACK: Yeah. I was real involved in the theater program in high school, and I was in a lot of musical theater. And that's, I guess, where my music and my acting started to mix.
GROSS: So what was your favorite role that you played in a musical?
BLACK: Well, it's got to be "Pippin." That was my best one. But we also did a production of a Bertolt Brecht play called "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." And I played Azdak, the kind of anarchistic judge in a land that was sort of in turmoil. That was a kind of a heavy play to do in high school. It was pretty advanced.
But I had a blast, and I overcame a lot of fears. I remember I was so scared opening night, when we were supposed to do our first performance for all the parents, that I just called my teacher and said, I'm not doing the play. And he said, just come meet me at the diner. And so I met him at the diner that day.
And he talked me into it, said don't worry about failing; it's going to be fine. You know, it is what it is. It's an experience. You're going to learn from it. I was like, OK. And I did it. And I was so filled with fear and adrenaline that I gave probably my best performance of my life that day.
And it's a lesson that I've carried with me - that just because I'm terrified doesn't mean that I shouldn't do it. You know, and a lot of times I'll want to turn down a role or something because I'm scared of what it is, or that I won't do it well, and people will judge me. And then I have to say, eh, remember high school? You were scared of Azdak.
And I'll - more often than not - do it if I think that the fear is based in just cowardice as opposed to something that I really shouldn't do.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with actor and musician Jack Black. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded with actor and musician Jack Black last April. Your breakout role was "High Fidelity." And "High Fidelity," based on the novel by Nick Hornby, is set in a record store. You're one of the guys who works in the store. And you judge everybody - customers, your fellow workers - based on their taste in music. How did you get the role?
BLACK: Well, John Cusack was a friend from the Actors' Gang Theater Company - because he and Tim Robbins were tight buddies. And they were real...
GROSS: This is the theater company that you first worked in, when you were getting started. Yeah.
BLACK: That's right. Out of - yeah, out of college. Actually, as far back as my senior year in high school, I was aware of them. So John had seen my work at the Actors' Gang, and then he saw me do Tenacious D. And he said: I want him to play Barry in "High Fidelity." And I wrestled with it for a while; I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it.
BLACK: Because I was afraid. I was afraid people were going to judge me. But yes, but I was coming up with other reasons. I was like yeah, man, no, I'm not going to talk about music like that. That's not cool. You don't just talk about Kurt Cobain.
And you know, there was a few lines in the script that ruffled my feathers because, you know, there were certain things that you just don't name; you don't say those words out loud. They're too cool to be spoken out loud. But then once I got over the fact that it wasn't really the lines in the script but the fact that, you know, I was going to be on a bigger stage than usual and that I would be judged, I realized that I had to face my demons and go into the battle.
And I had that same kind of fear, adrenaline, going like I did in high school, in my first play. And I just acted my butt off. It was a transforming experience.
GROSS: Well, Stephen Frears directed that film. He's a very good director - I mean, judging as a viewer. Did he help you through your fear?
BLACK: Stephen was a great director, and he didn't tell me very much. He was very sparing with his praise. Like, I would try my hardest, and I was just doing anything to try to get his approval. You know, it was almost like a father figure. I wanted him to love me and love my performance.
So I was just diving through hoops and setting myself on fire and doing everything I could to wow him. And he wouldn't say anything. He would just say, all right, that's good; let's go to the next scene. And there was something about that that drove me crazy and sent me to higher heights. There's something to be said for the denial of praise - sometimes, that's the best kind of direction.
GROSS: And you know, your character in "High Fidelity" is very - kind of belligerent and crude. And at the end, he's going to perform and everyone who knows him thinks, like, this is going to be really embarrassing. And you end up being great. You perform Marvin Gaye's "Let Get It On" and just sing it really soulfully and with genuine feeling, which nobody knows - nobody knew you had.
BLACK: Yeah. They wanted me to sing a different song, initially. They wanted me to do a Marvin Gaye song - you know that one...
(Singing) I used to go out to parties, dance till dawn. Can't we get to something...
I can't remember the name of the song, but it didn't have the punch that "Let's Get it On" had. And I was like, guys, let me just rock "Let's Get It On." I can really sink my teeth into that one. And they were like, OK, sure. But then when it came time to do it, I kind of froze up. I got a little scared.
And we did it, and I sang it. And I was a little tentative, and it was not rocking. It just - everyone was aware that oh, this is how we're going to end the movie. Ew. And Stephen Frears came out and started yelling, but not at me. He was yelling at everyone else in the audience for not rocking more. You know, why aren't you enjoying this music more?
BLACK: And then he said, fine, Jack. Let's do it again. So he didn't yell at me - but I felt like it was all at me. And then when he said action the next time, I just, you know, I took it to another level. And then that was the take that he used in the movie.
GROSS: Jack Black, it's really been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much.
BLACK: The pleasure was mine.
GROSS: Jack Black, recorded last April. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET IT ON")
BLACK: (as Barry) (Singing) I've been really trying, baby, to hold onto this feeling for so long. And if you feel like I feel, sugar, come on. Wow, come on. Ooh. Let's get it on. Let's get it on. Let's love, sugar. Let's get it on. Sugar, let's get it on. Ooh. Fa-la-da-da-da-da. We are all sensitive people with so much to give...
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to end our holiday week series with an interview that I recorded with comic W. Kamau Bell last September. In 2012, he launched a new FX series, called "Totally Biased." Its second season begins January 17th.
"Totally Biased" is a show of largely political humor that mixes standup, brief sketches and an interview. The idea for the show was proposed by Chris Rock, who serves as its executive producer. He became Bell's champion after seeing his solo show "The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour."
As an African-American, Bell has always made racism and social issues part of a standup act. He told me that when he's doing political satire, he tries to find a new angle on stories in the news.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So in talking about how you look for your angle on a joke, after Congressman Todd Akin talked about how if a woman is the victim of legitimate rape, her body has a mechanism to shut down and prevent pregnancy - I mean, there's comic gold there, but everybody had done their jokes by the time your night came around, which is Thursday night. So how did you decide what you were going to do with that?
W. KAMAU BELL: Well, I think one of the things I have on my side is because I'm, you know - you know, even just looking at me, I don't look the same as the people who are on late-night TV doing those jokes. And I don't - which means I don't have the same life experience, which means when I look to sit down and create these pieces with the writers, I'm trying to find an angle in it that's more personal to me.
And also I really like the fact that our show has a little bit more of - has a little bit of my own biography in it in ways that maybe some of the other shows don't have. Like it's funny to think that I have a late-night talk show, because that's something I aspire to. I just think of it as I have a late-night comedy show.
And my solo show and my comedy is always a little bit personal about my life. So for me, when Akin says, you know, that the body has a way to shut that down in legitimate rape, my brain goes to slavery, you know. And so - and then through that, like, that's like, you know, that's clearly not true because - and so from that is where we had the opening line of the show.
GROSS: Which was?
BELL: Which was: Todd Akin, if there's no such thing as legitimate rape, then how come there's so many light-skinned people walking around Alabama?
GROSS: I thought that was really funny.
BELL: Yeah, we - I mean, we really - you know, and that was a line that, you know, we have this writing staff, and we come up with these things, and sometimes we write these things in the room, and somebody goes: Can we say that? And we go: I think we can.
BELL: Like, and part of it is really FX allowing us to sort of do what we want to do. All the feedback they've given us about the show has sort of been do the show you want to do. And when they do give us critical feedback, generally I agree with them. You know, I think they want the show to be as specific as possible, and so we really have a good time sort of, like, surprising ourselves and seeing if we get to say it on air.
GROSS: Being an African-American comic during the period when America has its first African-American president?
BELL: Nobody considered my act political until America got a black president. I talked about race a lot, and it just became that once Barack started running for president, I started to care a lot about the presidency in a way that I hadn't cared before. So I started - because every day on TV, I saw this black guy who was, you know, under a microscope, and I felt like there was some percentage of me in that guy that I didn't see in, say, George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton, despite the fact that they insisted he was the black president.
And I sort of became engaged in news in a way that I hadn't been engaged before. And also, I think, as a facet of getting older, caring about the world around me in a different way. And so my act really - I got labeled a political comedian. I didn't - that wasn't my - that wasn't the thing I was trying to do.
GROSS: Being an African-American comic during the period when America has its first African-American president, have you noticed racial things and things about how he's treated, that have made you think about race in ways you hadn't thought about it before?
BELL: Well, yes, I think that's why my act has gone in such a political direction because I see the ways in which Obama's treated, you know, across the spectrum, as things that are connected to his race for me, that I can't help but separate them. I mean, you know, and it - and sometimes those things are good things, and sometimes those things are bad things.
Like very recently, you know, Obama's in Florida, and he meets the owner of that pizza restaurant, and the guy picks him up and gives him a bear hug. And there's a part of me that goes that guy likes him, and he's excited to see Obama, and he loves Obama, so he picks him up.
But the other part of me is like I've never seen that happen to a president before.
GROSS: I know. I thought, like, really that seems very kind of, you know, adorable on one hand, but it's crazy. You're not supposed to touch a president unless he extends his hand to shake hands with you.
BELL: It's adorable, and it's also frightening to me. I mean, there's a side of it that, like - you know, and there's an interesting part because Obama gets picked up, and you see his arms go out, and he looks to his right, and I feel like he's looking at the Secret Service, going like hey guys, uh, still the president over here.
BELL: For at least the next few months. And then when he comes down, he looks at the guy in the face, and Obama looks ashen. And nobody's really talked about that. He looks like a guy who's like - for a minute I thought maybe this was over. And, you know, I'm sure he's away of the responsibility and how, you know, nobody's ever picked him up like that. And then - you know, and yet I connect that in some way...
And I'm not mad at that guy. I think he had no bad intentions. But again, I've never seen anybody do that to a president before. And then you look at Jan Brewer, you sticks her finger in the president's face a few years ago, and that's another thing. That doesn't happen to presidents, where a governor would stick their finger in a president's face. And to me that's very much connected to race.
GROSS: So let's talk about your background. Where did you grow up?
BELL: I grew up all over, but I went to high school in Chicago. And then I moved from Chicago to San Francisco 15 years ago. But I was born in Palo Alto, lived in Indianapolis, lived in Boston. My dad's from Alabama, so I spent a lot of time in Alabama.
GROSS: How come you moved so much?
BELL: I had one of those moms who eventually would get fed up with a place and go: We're moving.
BELL: It was just me and her, and she would eventually just be like that's enough of this. And so she just had a real wandering spirit, which is a part of me, which is why I think I sort of feel free to get up and go, too.
GROSS: So you've said that when you move to the Bay Area, it kind of changed you. That was about 15 years ago. What changed?
BELL: In Chicago I would have identified myself as a Democrat. When you go to the Bay Area, you realize that's not far enough, you know. And the thing about the Bay Area is that you're surrounded by so many different types of people, and you can choose to just stay with your group and not engage with those different types of people, but I think very naturally I chose to sort of engage with lots of different types of people.
And many of the prejudices that you didn't even realize you have start to sort of melt naturally. And then the other thing is people in the Bay Area will call you on your prejudice, if you hang out with the crew I did, in ways that you didn't realize that you were prejudice.
Like when I started doing my solo show, one of my good friends Martha(ph) said to me, she's like Kamau, you can't end racism and make sexism worse. And I was like: What do you mean by that? And she went through my solo show and pointed all the different parts of it that she felt were sexist. And that's a good friend, a friend who will tell you that in a way that you can hear. And that was a real revelation for me is that you can't sort of pick your issue over other people's issue, that if you want to sort of end the ignorance of something, you have to end all the ignorances or at least not make some of the ignorances worse.
GROSS: If you don't mind my saying, I'm really glad she said that.
GROSS: I think that's the kind of thing that really needs to be said.
BELL: I'm really glad Martha said a lot of things.
GROSS: Yeah, so what did you have to extract from your show?
BELL: There were just ways in which I talk about women. Like it's sort of funny because whenever I start talking about this, there's - a lot of the comedy community would think I'm being oversensitive or too politically correct. But this is really who I am and who I want to be. And we - all comics set down rules for themselves, and these are just the rules I set down for myself, but I still have to get the big, healthy gut laughs everybody else does. So I'm not trying to claim that I have some high degree of difficulty.
But, you know, just even referring to women as girls for no reason, you know, and also, like, she said this to me, which had a big impact on me. She's like, you know, on my show I would say the word bitch a couple times. And she said Kamau, you know, every time you say that word, you're in some way connected to every black man who ever says that word because that's a word that through hip-hop and popular culture, black men are identified with.
And even though you're not saying it in the same context, you're connecting yourself to that in some way, and you have to ask yourself how badly do you want to use that word. And she said if you want to use it, fine, but just be aware of that. And for it became like, yeah, I don't think I need to use that word then. And it just doesn't - and it doesn't mean that anybody else is necessarily doing it wrong, it just means that's how I choose to be.
GROSS: What else changed about you from being in San Francisco?
BELL: You know, it's funny. I, you know, I wouldn't have described myself as a homophobe either, but to be in San Francisco and to hang out with the sort of the multiculty crew that comes across all lines, including sexuality, I hang out with a lot of people of a lot of different sexualities. And so I really feel in some way not threatened by that in any way, I don't think. And so I'm comfortable joking about it and I'm also comfortable using my comfort with it to sort of make other people sort of think about their comfort level with it.
Like one of the things we did on the show which I'm really proud of was the if gay marriage was mandatory, who would you gay marry?
GROSS: Right. Yeah.
BELL: And for me that was a really fun piece to do and also in some ways a sort of a very lightly - I don't know, I really enjoyed doing it because what it said is like forget what you think about yourself. If you had to put yourself in a different body and you were gay, how would you be in that body? And, you know, and it was a fun game to play with people and it's fun to be in that space and not be threatened that somehow somebody is going to think I'm gay or somebody is going to - or they're going to think the wrong thing about me. And also, though, who cares about what people think about me. And also I realized as a black man, black people a lot of times get the bad end of the stick. We are sometimes thought of being the most homophobic group of people, which I think is ridiculous. But I'm also aware of the fact that as a black man on TV who is talking about gayness in a way that's not threatened by it, I think that's kind of a cool thing.
GROSS: My guest is comic W. Kamau Bell, host of the FX series "Totally Biased." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded in September with W. Kamau Bell, the host of the political comedy series "Totally Biased which begins its second season January 17th on FX.
Now what kind of race consciousness did you brought with, because from what I've read your mother was really into like African-American studies and, you know, talking about equality.
BELL: Yeah. My mom was actually working on her PhD at Stanford in African-American literature but they wouldn't let her finish it because at that time in the '70s Stanford did not believe African-American literature was a valid field of study. So from that point forward, my mom just sort of said I'm not going to do this and she went her own way and she worked in the textbook industry and she self-published her own books of famous black quotations, because in the '80s there were no compendiums of books of African-American quotations. There are now, she - because of her example, and she sold like 50,000 copies from our car, you know, basically, because this was before the Internet when you had to just sort of go hat in hand to places and sell your product. And so she was always a self-starter. And because we moved a lot, every time we went to a new city and she would always try to put me in private schools, she'd go to the school and be like, do you teach African-American studies here? And they'd be like, no. And she'd be like, well, you do now.
BELL: And she would come in one, you know, one week or a couple of days and go - and teach about African-Americans studies, and she would show slides of Africa because she knew that people at that point, kids thought Africa was just a jungle and Tarzan. And she would go here's Africa, here's buildings, here's people doing regular things that you do here. And so my mom always showed me that - be the change you want to see and be the example.
GROSS: Did it make you feel proud or embarrassed when she came to school and insisted, I'll take care of that, I'll teach African-American studies?
BELL: Oh, it was horribly embarrassing. It was...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BELL: I still get embarrassed thinking about it now. I mean, you know, no kid wants their parent coming to school to teach, I don't think, you know. I often say why can't you just bake some muffins or something?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BELL: But she did - she is not a muffin baker. She's a change maker.
GROSS: So when you were going to private schools, were they racially mixed or predominantly white?
BELL: I mean at that point the private schools I went to, they were predominantly white. There were always other black kids there but it would be that weird thing, sometimes you'd go to a private school and there'd be one other black kid in your grade and I always got the feeling from that kid that they were like, I can't be friends with you because that's going to remind everybody else that I'm black, so I'm going to have to let you go your own way...
BELL: ...which I understand in theory, but yeah, so there was always, there was usually some weirdness around that. And I sort of struggled with my own black identity for a lot of times because I was like, you know, I sort of got that message that maybe black isn't a great thing to be. And then through growing up and doing my solo show and reading a lot - "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" changed my life and that was the point in which I was like I can define my own blackness.
GROSS: Was there ever a point when you were, one of the very few black people in your school, where you felt like you had to play the role of the black guy? Do you know what I mean? That you had to stand in for all black people and be, I don't know, whatever it is that the white friends that you had wanted you to be as the black person in the group?
BELL: First of all, I love the way you said the black guy.
BELL: I like the basing your voice, Terry.
GROSS: Thank you.
BELL: There are times when, you know - you know, and every black person I think has this, where you'll feel put in a position to either speak up for the race or have opinions about things that you haven't actually expressed knowing about. I'm a fan of music. I don't have the biggest knowledge of hip-hop, and regularly people, especially when I was younger, would start conversations with me about hip-hop and I would have to sort of choose to fake my way through it or else feel like I was going to look uncool. And so, I mean and that's not the worst position to be in, but also I had times where I had friends where would say something to me like - a friend of mine says to me Kamau, you're black but you're not black black.
BELL: And I immediately knew he was like, you're black but I still have my wallet and I appreciate that.
BELL: Like he was associating blackness with the kind of thing, a negativity that he doesn't see in me and he thinks he's complimenting me, you know. And if I - and I have to choose to take it as a compliment, or else I lose a friend.
GROSS: You're wife is white and you've talked a little bit in your act about what it's like to be a couple with a white woman.
GROSS: Reactions that you get from strangers and the reactions that you get from African-American women. So can you talk a little bit about that?
BELL: Yeah. I mean it was funny. The first time me and my wife went out together, it wasn't even officially a date. We were in a taqueria in San Francisco and a black woman and a black man came into the taqueria. And the black woman looked visibly shaken and kept looking and was really sort of like just agitated. And my then friend, who became my wife, was like, what's wrong with her? And I was like, and she had never experienced that. I was like I think she's mad that we are together.
And my wife was like, really? Like she just couldn't - and she's a cosmopolitan person but she's never seen anything like that, whereas I sort of had smelled that before. And the woman just got really mad and really like agitated, so much to the fact that after they got their tacos, her, the guy she was with literally escorted her out of the place and put her in the car the way a cop puts somebody in the back of a car...
BELL: ...like sort of put his hand on the back of her head and sort of like gently guided her down into the car because she was so agitated. And, you know, and that's in San Francisco, you know what I mean? That's not in the backwoods of someplace. That's in San Francisco.
GROSS: Did she say anything to you?
BELL: On her way out she said, hmm, you dating a white girl 'cause you can't handle a black woman. And I very - looked at her and said, maybe.
BELL: Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm a trifling Negro. Thank God there's white women to take this trifling Negro off your hands. And that's...
GROSS: Did you really say that to her?
BELL: I said - I didn't say that to her. I said that at another time.
GROSS: Yeah. OK. I was sort of wondering like how quick are you and how willing are you...
BELL: How willing am I too entered the fray?
BELL: Well, no, generally as a comic, the reason why I think I'm a comic because I think of the good things later.
GROSS: Yeah. Sure.
BELL: If I thought of the good things at the time, I would then be a, you know, I don't know, less popular with people.
BELL: But I think that a lot of things that makes me a comic is the thing that makes me go home and go, what, I should've said something different. Oh, I know what I should've said. I'll go say that on stage.
GROSS: So you have a daughter. I assume she's lighter skinned than you are. What reaction do you get to that?
BELL: Well, the funny thing about my daughter is that when she was born she came out white, like very pale white, and so much so that like when we brought my wife's family around, like I remember my brother-in-law - my wife's brother - literally looked at her and looked at me and I felt like he was going like, dude, I got to tell you something.
BELL: But I know, because black people sort of know this because we have more, probably more experience with this, that the color that a kid is when they're born changes. And so - and it's even true of white kids, that their color, 'cause they come out one color.
The funny thing was is that - so my daughter immediately started getting darker, but I always said that we didn't know where her color would start, and so I always said I would track her color every day to see where her color would start by using the cover of Michael Jackson's CDs...
BELL: ...in reverse chronological order.
BELL: You know, I would just be like, oh, today it's "Bad," yesterday was "Dangerous," maybe we can make it to 'Thriller." It's never going to be "Off the Wall," who am I kidding?
GROSS: So has having an interracial marriage affected your views about race and what it means, like what race means?
BELL: Well, yeah. I mean I think it has affected my views about race. Sometimes people will say if you are in an interracial relationship that you're somehow a sellout, or you're taking the easy route, or something like that. And literally, if you want to talk about race a lot in your life, marry a person who is a different race than you because that will become a topic in ways that it didn't, that it probably wouldn't if you marry a person of the same race because I mean we've had a lot of things, you know, just in, you know, I'm aware that when I'm hanging out with my wife's family that I'm the only black person around.
And I'm aware that if my wife's, her cousins start talking about Obama, and they're very conservative, they start talking about Obama in ways that makes me want to like - ah, you know.
BELL: But I also want to make sure I can come back for Thanksgiving. And I get very - and so I just spend a lot of time being quiet and mentally jotting down notes to use in my act. But, yeah, so it certainly becomes a bigger part of your discussion. But I also feel like that it's not the biggest part. The biggest thing that separates me and my wife is the fact that my wife is Catholic and I like to say I'm sane. You know what I mean?
So that's way bigger for us than race.
GROSS: So what have you learned by being married to a white woman about race that you didn't know before - about how white people perceive African-Americans or some white people perceive African-Americans, about your own preconceptions about white people?
BELL: Well, I mean - let me say this - I, you know it's funny how I feel like I have to say I've grown up around white people.
GROSS: That's right. Right.
BELL: Some of my best whites are friends.
BELL: I've spent a lot of time, you know, it wasn't really like such a "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" scenario with my wife's family. But it was this thing where, you know, like I always felt like my wife's family, it sort of took them a while to warm up to me. But I don't think it was because I was black, I think it was because I was a comedian.
BELL: I think my un-famous comedian trumped black with her family.
BELL: But I also feel like that, you know, the real change is that since we've had a daughter, my wife told me that her mom was like, uh, so does that mean that Sammy's(ph) black? Because she just never thought about that, you know, and in her life, I'm sure when she grew up and got married and had kids and thought about her kid's kids, she didn't picture a black granddaughter.
Now, she's a great grandmother and I don't feel like she's ever done anything to Sammy - I don't think she's treated Sammy worse because she's black, she loves Sammy, but I think it's somehow altering her perception of the world in a way that I think is awesome.
Now, for me, the other thing is that when Sammy was first born, Sammy was very light and I would walk around in the world with this baby who looked to be white and we got a lot of weird stares because, you know, a black guy with a white baby is not the most popular color combination, you know.
BELL: We're all very used to the white guy with the black baby because you're like, oh, that's very nice of you to adopt that child from that place. But with me it was a whole different thing. We got a lot of stares and a lot of questions that I had to deal with while at the same time knowing that I didn't care what people thought because this was my daughter.
And this is a true story. When my daughter was born, you know, it's a very emotional moment, your kid is born, they hand you the kid, they wipe the kid off, and you're just sitting there with your kid. And I actually realized when I looked in my daughter's eyes that it was the first time in my life that I was looking at somebody and they didn't think of me as black, that I knew for sure that she didn't think of me as black. She just thought of me as dad. Well, at that point she probably thought of me as ah.
BELL: She thought of me as the one that didn't have milk. But that was a very important moment for me to realize that this is actually, that that's how embedded race is in me, which I think it's kind of sad but also that how exciting a moment that was for me that I know for sure this person doesn't think of me as black.
GROSS: My guest is comic W. Kamau Bell, the host of the FX political comedy series "Totally Biased." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded in September with W. Kamau Bell, the host of the political comedy series "Totally Biased," which begins its second season January 17 on FX.
Now, so much comedy club material is about sex and about being graded at it or being terrible at it or getting it or not getting it or - anyway. So you've actually worked at a condom store and at a video store that sold adult videos. So I'm thinking you must have material galore, even though you're not the kind of comical who talks a lot about sex. What were those experiences like?
BELL: I mean, you know, I think the reason that I don't talk about those experiences a lot of stage is because I know comics who do incredible sex material, and I feel like that's not my strength. So I would, you know, I would gladly give those stories to those comedians if they wanted them.
But the - working at the video store, I mean it was one of those video stores that you walked in and it was like this is the worst video store I've ever seen. They only had like "Jurassic Park III..."
BELL: ...and like "Home Alone 4" and you're like how does this video stores survive? And then there's a door in the back that leads to stairs that go up and it's all the porno that's ever been created in the history of the world, and that was the video store I worked at.
BELL: All the videos downstairs were dusty. And I didn't know that I was going to work at that store. I thought that I was working at a really bad video store until they sat me down and explained to me what was happening upstairs. And you get a real window into male humanity in that way because it was also a video store, again, it was in Chicago on the edge of the gay area so we had probably twice as much gay porn as we had straight porn.
And I think that's actually where I started to learn about the fluidity of human sexuality because I would regularly see guys who were renting from the straight side of the porn section - over time they rented so much straight porn that they would start to leak over to the gay side of the porn section.
BELL: Just because I think they were like, I've seen everything this combination of people can do and so let me go look over to this combination. And it really was an eye-opener to, like, oh, I guess human sexuality is on a spectrum.
And you know, it was a very funny time. I also had a guy say to me one time, like, man, I see you here all the time. And I remember thinking, no, I see you here all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BELL: I get paid to be here.
GROSS: So since you were working in the store, were you expected to have seen a lot of the videos so that you could be helpful to people?
BELL: Yeah. There is a weird thing where you're expected (technical difficulties) recommendations you're expected to have if you work at a regular video store, you're expected to have at the adult video store. And at the time, I'm not saying I'm any kind of Puritan, I just wasn't partaking at the level that I was going to have a top 10 list or a list of suggestions. You know?
BELL: Occasionally people would come in and say that a tape was broken and you would have to sort of play the tape on your VCR to make sure that it was or wasn't broken, which is a very, a very surreal experience of, like, nope, looks fine to me. I can see all the body parts doing the things that they're supposed to be doing. You know, so it was a very - it's funny. When you work in a place like that, it becomes very regular after a while. It's just what you do for a living.
GROSS: Well, W. Kamau Bell, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
BELL: Thank you for having me. This is an extreme honor.
GROSS: W. Kamau Bell, recorded in September. His political comedy series "Totally Biased" begins its second season January 17th on FX.
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.