Three Great Things: W. Kamau Bell

The comedian and filmmaker, whose new documentary 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed is now on HBO, shares some of his favorite stuff.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark W. Kamau Bell’s moving new documentary, 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed, which airs on HBO Max on May 3, the comedian and filmmaker shared some of the stuff that brings him the most joy in life. — N.D.

Walking to My Office
Recently, I started working out of a new office. I’d been working out of my house for a long time, but I’m grateful I now have a place to work where I have space to myself. It’s about 40 minutes from where I live and I’ve been walking to work pretty regularly. It’s not flat the whole way because it’s the Bay Area, but it’s not ridiculously hilly like San Francisco. It’s a proper walk. I grew up an only child, so I appreciate the time alone. The walk passes through back streets and residential streets, so it’s pretty quiet, which is nice.

As a dad and a husband and a person who’s routinely working on four or five different projects, my brain is always doing multiple things. There’s always that feeling of, “Wait, what do I do next? Am I doing the right thing now? Oh, did I forget something?” So it’s nice to have that 40 minutes when really all I have to do is focus on walking. I can listen to a podcast or a YouTube video (I listen to a lot of YouTube videos, which always sounds funny) and not feel like I should be doing something else that’s super important. In this current world, it always feels like so much is happening and there are so many ways to create more anxiety and panic in our lives. By the time I get to my workspace, though, I’m just a lot more relaxed. I’m able to start organizing myself in a way that feels like I’m tackling the day, rather than the day’s tackling me.

Throughout most of the pandemic, I was in my living room with my family and then walking through a door into my office, and there was no time to decompress, no time to prepare my brain and get myself into the right rhythm. When I lived with roommates and could just close a door, I had so much free time, so much dead time, when my brain could pursue its own weird trains of thought. Now, my walk to work allows me a little time when I’m not defined as a dad or a husband or a guy on TV or whatever else people think I am.

I think people really appreciate the value of just letting your brain think whatever it wants to think. A lot of inspiration comes from just letting my brain go down these dark paths, finding trains of thought and then building on them. I think one of the reasons I became a stand-up comic is because a lot of bits come from the thought, “Yeah, what if that happened? And then what if that happened? And then what if that happened? And so then … oh wait, that’s funny.”

Tomosteen Videos
I watch a lot of content on YouTube, and I don’t think people realize how grand and wide the breadth of options is on there. There’s a lot of incredible content being created on YouTube. Some of it makes me think, “I don’t know why somebody did this, but I appreciate it.”

Recently, I showed Tomosteen’s videos to my daughters, because I knew they would appreciate them. I don’t know much about Tomosteen, except he’s a guy and I think he’s somewhere in Asia. In his videos, he cooks “food,” but with Legos. There’s one where he makes a pork cutlet, and another where he makes a cake. It’s all pretend, of course, but it is relaxing to watch.

His videos are all stop-motion animation and it makes me wonder, “How long did it take to make this?!” When I’m watching, I’m enjoying the experience, but also blown away by the craft, the same way that when I see a classical piano player, I think, “This is hard to do!” My kids and I love to watch them, but we also talk about the craft of being a creator. We often think that art has to be high-minded, but it can be as simple as a guy who makes stop-motion Lego cooking videos.

The Career of Denzel Washington
The career of Denzel Washington is a great thing and I think it only grows in stature the older he gets and the more he keeps taking risks. I mean, he’s 68 now and he’s doing The Equalizer 3 and also turning all the August Wilson plays into movies. His August Wilson project is so key, because most of the world does not have access to go see plays, let alone have an August Wilson play in their town. So by committing to make all of them into movies, he’s creating an accessible way for people – and specifically Black people – to connect with August Wilson’s work.

When Denzel was coming up, Sidney Poitier literally said to him, “You’re the next guy. I was the Black actor. Now you’re the Black actor.” For a while, people used to ask about a lot of the up-and-coming Black actors, “Is this the next Denzel Washington?” But now we’re at a place where we don’t have to ask that anymore, because there is an array of Black actors who are leading men. And that’s due to Denzel Washington making sure he was not only going to be in big A-list action movies, but also act in small indie movies and work with Black directors. He basically said, “You can do all of it.”

Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli.

The funny thing about Denzel is I think he would have been a great character actor, except he was just too good looking. Sidney Poitier was always going to play some version of Sidney Poitier, whereas Denzel has sometimes disappeared into a role. But he’s just too damn handsome to disappear that often. We want to see him in the center of the movie poster, not on the side of it.

The thing about his career is he’s done so many movies, and he’s always trying new things. One of his unheralded movies is The Book of Eli, which made $100 million at the box office at a time when that was not big money anymore. But I think it’s just a very sensitive portrayal of a man on a mission – it’s basically the Malcolm X story, but in a post-apocalyptic America. It’s the story of a guy who, no matter what the circumstances are, is going to continue his mission, or die trying. When I saw it back in the day, I was like, “Oh, it’s a Denzel action movie.” But then at some point, I was like, “Why am I crying?” It hit me on a very personal level, and I think if you give that same movie to another actor, it wouldn’t land the same. It would just mean a different thing. It is a Black man living a Black experience in post-apocalyptic America. Also, he really trained for the martial arts scenes in the movie. I’m an ex-martial artist and I was really impressed with the fight choreography of that movie. If Denzel does something, he really does it!

Featured image of W. Kamay Bell by Aundre Larrow.

W. Kamau Bell’s new documentary 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed airs on HBO on May 2. He is a stand-up comedian and the director and executive producer of the four-part Showtime documentary, We Need To Talk About Cosby, which premiered at Sundance. He also hosts and executive-produces the Emmy Award winning CNN docu-series United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell. His new book, Do the Work: An Antiracist Activity Book, co-written with Kate Schatz, came out in 2022. His most recent stand-up comedy special, Private School Negro, is available on Netflix. Kamau’s first book has an easy-to-remember title, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian. He’s the ACLU Celebrity Ambassador for Racial Justice and serves on the board of directors of Donors Choose and the advisory board of Right To Be (formerly Hollaback!). (Photo by Aundre Larrow.)