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Comedian W. Kamau Bell on His Mom and What Makes Malcolm X Funny

The former Chicagoan and funniest political commentator on CNN discusses the forces that shaped him.

W. Kamau Bell
Photo: John Nowak

In his new book, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, the host of the CNN series United Shades of America and the podcast Politically Re-Active traces his unlikely journey from, as he puts it, “being a completely unknown comedian to being the only comedian that CNN employs on purpose.” Bell, a Lab School alum, believes in the “power of awkward conversations to initiate change.” Here, the 44-year-old describes, only somewhat awkwardly, his formative influences.

My mom

I wanted to be a comedian because I liked making her laugh. She’s got a big, throaty, totally-not-embarrassed-if-other-people-hear-it laugh, but she doesn’t laugh easily. I did anything to get it out of her.

The Kentucky Fried Movie

It’s the first film by the dudes who wrote the Airplane and Naked Gun movies. It was a series of short sketches—like Saturday Night Live, but the jokes were edgier and more adult. It felt like there were no rules.

Henry Rollins
Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times

Henry Rollins

His shows were funny in a standup way, but they were also real and very political. Rollins is not beholden to the laugh in a way that keeps him from making his point or telling his story. A lot of times in standup comedy, the comics go, “I think they’ll think this is funny.” But with Rollins, he’d go, “No. I think this is funny.”

Bill Hicks’s album Relentless

Many people refer to [comedian] Bill Hicks as the ’90s-era Lenny Bruce. He was hilarious but also passionate and biting. He was all about propaganda and dismantling propaganda, but he also had bits like what would happen if he died and his mom found his porn stash.

'Time’s Up' by Living Colour
Photo: Courtesy of Epic Records

Living Colour’s album Time’s Up

It’s blistering rock ’n’ roll, but from an authentically black perspective. The third song is about how white people often try to take African American culture and leave the people behind. That idea still informs my comedy: You can be black in a space considered white and you don’t have to diminish yourself.

Chris Rock: Bring the Pain

It was like my moon landing. In that special, he established what a Chris Rock joke is: telling truth to power, cutting through with incisive wit, saying things you don’t agree with but you laugh at anyway, and also identifying black comedy as smart comedy.

'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' by Alex Haley
Photo: Courtesy of Ballantine Books

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

That book changed my life. Malcolm X was actually really funny. It makes sense: You can’t deal with that level of anger without having humor to pop the tension every now and then. It reminded me that you can take angry onstage, but you have to make sure you bring humor with it too.

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