W. Kamau Bell is the host of CNN’s United Shades of America, the first comedy-driven programming the network has ever produced. He’s also the cohost of two podcasts: Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period and Politically Re-Active, the latter a weekly podcast about the presidential election that will make you laugh and cry—occasionally at the same time.
Wait, we’re not done. His new uproarious new stand-up special, Semi-Prominent Negro, just came out on CD and digital via the eternally cool indie label Kill Rock Stars. Plus he’s currently on tour doing stand-up across the country. Oh, and he also has two daughters and a wife. That he ever manages to sleep is some kind of miracle.
In between filming season 2 of United Shades and touring, Kamau sat down with Playboy.com to talk about the ceaseless madness of this election, the very real possibility that Trump may have a diagnosable disorder and behind-the-scenes awkwardness at CNN.
In Semi-Prominent Negro, you call Donald Trump the “nagging cough that turns into AIDS.” That was in December of 2015. What is he now?
I don’t know! What’s worse than that?
That’s the thing though: we’re not dead yet, but like, could you just kill us? That’s how I feel. We’re lingering on. And an injection of Hillary is not necessarily going to make us 100 percent better, but at least it will stave of death. Maybe then we could get healthy enough and save ourselves.
As someone who is constantly commenting on current events, have you figured out any other way to talk about Donald Trump?
I’m completely over it. I’m going on this tour and I know people are like, “What he gonna say about Trump?” And I feel like I said it in that joke. I still feel similarly. All you can do is talk about the details and pull those apart. It’s not so much about skewering him, but skewering all of us for being involved in this. Eleven years ago Billy Bush gets on a bus with Donald Trump. Eleven years later he loses his job. [laughs] There’s no way he saw that coming. I think the ridiculous nature of how toxic this dude is…and yet, it’s like the virus that can’t kill itself.
[Trump] is like a virus that gets everybody else sick, but it’s not hurting him.
That clip was interesting to me because everyone kept saying, “This is going to be the death of Trump!” And I was like, “Wait, no it’s not.”
Obviously it hasn’t. He’s like a virus that gets everybody else sick, but it’s not hurting him. The funny thing is Billy Bush lost his job over being a wingman. Just being a wingman. Not even being the dude. Meanwhile, the dude tweeted out “It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me…” He’s stronger. And I don’t think a tweet has gone out saying, “Uh, I’d like to apologize to Billy Bush for pulling him into my circle of awful.” [laughs] That guy has some kids and a wife! He just lost his job. I think he should’ve lost his job, but if I had been partially responsible I might feel bad. Trump? Not at all.
Do you fear it only gets worse after Trump?
It’s funny. I had this talk with [CNN commentator] Van Jones after we finished recording Politically Re-Active, and he said, “Hey man, no matter who wins, it’s going to be ugly.” He was like, “I’ve seen this before.” Remember after Obama won? There was a sense of positivity from the Obama supporters, and overwhelming negativity from the McCain supporters. This time, there’s overwhelming negativity on both sides, for both sides. If Hillary wins, some people will be like, “Yeah!” who really believe in her. But for a lot of people it’s going to be like, “Phew. Oh god. We avoided that horrible car accident.”
Have you contemplated the possibility that Trump could have a real mental illness?
I certainly don’t trust Dr. Disco to tell me what’s going on with Trump. I think “billionaire” is potentially a disease. You can really see that in the fact that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are like, “I’m giving away half my money to charity.” They know this is toxic. When you combine that level of wealth with a white, cisgender, heterosexual tall man, your level of privilege is so high that it can be a mental illness. If you stripped away his billion dollars, maybe he would snap back into reality.
Let’s pivot. What’s the environment at CNN like these days?
The only thing that’s intimidating is actually being on camera in a box with four other people trying to be quippy and score points. People like Angela Rye and Kayleigh McEnany. They’re sitting in CNN all day long, going from show to show to show sometimes. They’ve figured out ways to talk in soundbites, where it always sounds like tweets. They’re always talking in ways that people are going to tweet what they say. If you see me on stage, I take a while to build to things. It’s not always succinct. Everybody wants to be the person on Mediaite that goes, “Look at what this person said to this other person!” And you want to be the person who said the thing, not the person who had the thing said to them.
Are there conversations between the panelists before the camera starts rolling?
Kayleigh McEnany could watch a news report, “Donald Trump shot a nun in the face on 5th avenue” and respond, “Well, let’s unpack that for a second. The Catholic church…” When I watch her on TV I’m like, “She’s really good at it, but also oh my god you’re so scary.” And then she walks right up to me and is like, “Hello, I’m Kayleigh. I like your show.” Some of those people do actually feel hatred for each other, and some of those people are like, “I’m just on this team and you’re on that team. After the game is over, we can high-five and go about our business.” Its like sports: Some players actually hate people on the other team, and some players know next season I might be playing for that team. That’s hard to adjust to. ”You are the worst example of American that America has ever seen! And you and Donald Trump should get outta here! Anyway, oh, thanks for the show, how are your kids doing?“