W. Kamau Bell, a Bay Area-bred comedian known for his socio-political wit, is set to star in a new series for CNN.
'United Shades of America' finds Bell traveling to remote pockets of the country to explore various subcultures and communities, putting himself in frequent fish out of water situations.
As he explains in the first episode, which airs April 24, he pushed himself to go to places where he might not be comfortable. But even he was shocked that CNN actually let him meet members of the Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky, which he handles with great poise and gentle, but incisive humor.
A future episode takes him even closer to home, behind the walls of San Quentin in Marin County.
"Until I went to San Quentin, I had no idea how close it was to my house," Bell told NBC Bay Area. "It was like a 30 minute drive and basically felt like it was at the end of a cul de sac in Marin. Every man that I met in there was interesting, intelligent, funny and owned up to the mistakes they had made and spoke regretfully about the lives they had negatively impacted. I was shocked by how much I liked the men I met and how sad I was to leave San Quentin at the end of my days there."
Bell identified closely with the inmates and realized that he could have easily been in their shoes with a few twists of fate.
"I believe that this episode will show these men in prison in ways that inmates are not often shown on TV," he said. "They are laughing, learning, teaching, being curious and also very likable. I was also aware that I am around the same age as many of these men and that if I had taken a couple wrong turns or been in the wrong place at the wrong time — which can be anywhere in America when you are black — that I could very well be in a prison myself.
"Everyone in the Bay Area who professes to be a liberal or progressive or a human owes it to themselves to figure out a way to volunteer at San Quentin or donate books to them," he asserts. "These men live in our Bay Area community. We are them and they are us. Hopefully in the near future, we can push our elected officials to learn that rehab is more more beneficial to society than punishment."
Bell will follow the debut of his CNN series with his first comedy special for Showtime. 'Semi-Prominent Negro,' directed by Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me"), premieres on April 29.
He's also got a radio show called Kamau Right Now! every third Thursday of the month on KALW 91.7 FM. Tickets are available to attend the next two live broadcasts, held on May 19 and June 16 at Starline Social Club in Oakland.