W. Kamau Bell, the host of CNN’s “United Shades of America” laughs when he thinks back to his teen years living in Chicago. “It was such an exciting time around 1984. All the talk was about Harold Washington being mayor; that new kid on the Bulls, Michael Jordan, and that new lady on TV — Oprah Winfrey. Those events were swirling around in a way that frankly couldn’t be replicated today,” said the comedian, adding with a smile, “When you think about it, an argument can be made that the third most famous person to come out of Chicago is Barack Obama! Michael’s still selling stuff. Oprah’s still Oprah, and she’s still on TV.”
While Bell now is a huge fan of Chicago, it didn’t start out that way, as he explains in his new memoir, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell.”
“When I got here, Chicago seemed like it was too much and was coming at me too fast,” he said during our chat in the bar at the Westin Hotel on Michigan Avenue. “Coming from Boston, leaving behind a more tranquil scene that I was used to, was a tough adjustment. But, I was a preteen then. So, at that stage, you know I was going to hate any kind of change.”
That said, Bell now points to Chicago as being a bellwether for the cities he likes. “My love of big cities now actually comes from having lived here. Yes, it’s got its problems, but then every city has its problems. I prefer big-city issues to small-town issues. I prefer the approach: ‘How can we all get along?’ as opposed to, ‘Why did that new family move into town?’ ”
Referring to the two larger American cities, Bell noted that “New York is simply too much New York! It’s so intense, and that’s the case 24/7. L.A. is too spread out. … Chicago is built on a grid. It just makes sense. There’s this neighborhood and that neighborhood, and yes, Chicago is too segregated, but it’s cool that different groups of people do have places they can call their own. Everybody should have a place to feel comfortable and accepted, even though they need to find a way to feel that way no matter what neighborhood they’re in, at any point in time.”
On his CNN show (9 p.m. Sundays), it’s hard to showcase that look of tranquility on his face when, say, some White Aryan Nation hatemonger is belittling African-Americans — right to Bell’s face.
“That’s one of many things I learned from my mom, and I think I actually learned that lesson when we were living in Chicago. She taught me, ‘I’m only that thing [others call me or say about me] if I believe I’m that thing.’ People can say whatever, but I have to buy into that idea if it’s going to have an effect on me.”
Bell’s relationship with his mother, who currently lives in Bloomington, Indiana, has obviously been central to his entire life. “She has always been my hero. I was always aware of how hard she worked, and how effortless she made it look.
“She was a single mom — my dad was living in Alabama — at a time when single moms were being demonized. People would say I came from ‘a broken home.’ My mom and I would laugh about that, because we didn’t feel like we were in a sad situation; there was nothing ‘broken’ about our life. It was clear that I was always important — her first priority.
“We were friends. Yes, I knew she was my mom and I respected her as my mom. She could tell me no, tell me to be quiet and things like that. But at the end of the day we could have a conversation and really talk about important things. … I’m trying to do the same thing in the relationship I have with my daughters.”
As for the success he’s been achieving the past few years, Bell stressed he is not letting it go to his head. “Because no matter how good I think things are going for me, I know that Kevin Hart is somewhere simultaneously doing a hundred of situps in a row, while signing multiple movie deals, planning a stadium tour and developing a multi-million-dollar line of hip clothing — all while telling his millions of followers on Instagram what he’s up to!”
NOTE CHANGE OF VENUE: W. Kamau Bell will bring his stand-up show to the Park West in Lincoln Park (venue moved from The Vic) on Friday evening, June 16 — part of his summer tour to promote both the second season of his “United Shades of America” series on CNN and the release of his new memoir and first book, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell.”