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CNN’s Comedy Test: W. Kamau Bell Gears Up for Cable-News Primetime

W. Kamau Bell’s journeys have taken him to a late-night program on FX and to stages around the country. More recently, however, the African-American comic found himself in an even more unlikely position – deep in the woods, face to face with members of the Ku Klux Klan, who were decked in full regalia.

“It went exactly like you think it went,” said Bell. “Eventually, most of them opened up,” he recalled. “Some of them were laughing. I know when I left, a lot of them were like, ‘I think I like a black person now.’”

That scene will be among the first in a series of awkward cultural juxtapositions through which Bell will lead audiences when he hosts a new CNN series, “United Shades of America,” which launches April 24 on the Time Warner-owned cable-news outlet. The comedian will examine clashes of class and race in locales ranging from Alaska to East Los Angeles. His travels will find him navigating between Spring Breakers and Florida senior citizens and examining hipsters in Portland, Oregon, who may, through their growing prosperity, force a group of African-Americans from their homes.

“Every episode is really about gentrification,”said Bell, during an interview held at CNN’s New York offices. “Every one is about one group being rightfully or not rightfully afraid of another group replacing them.”

Each episode of “United Shades” will also be about something else. CNN has over the last few years gained notice by launching a handful of primetime series anchored by unique personalities including filmmaker Morgan Spurlock or epicure Anthony Bourdain. And while Mike Rowe, the host of odd-jobs chronicle “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” is certainly good-natured and avuncular, he’s not a comedian like Bell. Is CNN trying to get in on the burgeoning trend of sending comics like Samantha Bee or John Oliver on fact-finding missions and paroxysms of analysis?

The network is one of several tapping comedians to analyze national undercurrents. Netflix has been working with Chelsea Handler on a series of a documentaries and a new “late night” program that is slated to bow May 11. In the show, which will run for half an hour three days a week, Handler expects to spend time “traveling around the world and learning new things,” she said in a statement released recently on social media. Fusion has gained some notice with the program “No, You Shut Up,” which features host Paul F. Tompkins and a host of anthropomorphic Jim Henson Productions creature riffing on politics and news of the day, and interviewing celebrities.

Viewers who tune into “United Shades” will laugh and learn in equal measure, Bell suggested. While he’s not a journalist, he is extremely curious and uses that quality to get his subjects to explain their views. “I’m owning my ignorance,” he said, and remains open to having his preconceptions about any particular group of people challenged. “You talk to the Klan guys. Where do you get the robes from? I was curious. You can’t just buy them off the rack. Where do you get the wood to burn the cross?”

CNN seems to realize Bell is not the typical CNN personality (and one of a handful of people of color the network has on in primetime). To get viewers accustomed to the comic and his style, CNN has quietly dispatched him to various places on its schedule. He has appeared on Don Lemon’s program in late primetime and contributed field pieces about the Super Bowl and the Iowa State Fair. CNN even has Bell taking part in its periodic quiz show, in which personalities the network wants to provide with a little more spotlight take a crack at answering trivia questions (Brooke Baldwin, Lemon, Alisyn Camerota, Brianna Keilar and HLN’s Robin Meade are expected to appear on the April 17 program along with Bell).

And CNN executives don’t think they’re attempting to emulate some of late-night’s newer formats. “We are not doing a studio show. We are not doing a late-night show. We are not putting a comedian behind a desk in a highly scripted way,” said Amy Entelis, executive vice president for talent and original programming at CNN Worldwide, in an interview.

The network wanted to take part in some of the conversations viewers are having about race and culture, she said. Bell “talks about some things that are very difficult to talk about. It’s a very tense time in our country around some of these subjects. By bringing a sense of humor to it, even when it’s a serious moment, that’s really the kernel of the show. That makes it very different from some of the things I’ve seen on this subject.”

Bell, 43 years old, said he has long considered such topics – even when he was a child. “I was born into a house where we talked about this stuff all the time. In our house, every month was Black History Month. We didn’t wait for February,” he said. “We went to black church, went to see Alice Walker sign books. This was just happening, It was the family business.” He is also an activist and bills himself as a “sociopolitical comedian.” Bell hosts a radio program on public station KALW in San Francisco and co-hosts a podcast that analyzes the various movies of actor Denzel Washington.

His hope is that the new program, which is slated for eight one-hour episodes, might eliminate some of the fissures that have opened in American society. “A lot of the rhetoric in this country, especially during a political season, is us-versus-them,” he noted. “Let’s sit around and talk for a while. I may not agree with you, and you may not agree with me, but we should all be able to agree that I have the right to my space and you have the right to yours.”

For a while, at least, W. Kamau Bell has space on CNN that ought to bring some new ideas to light to its viewers.

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