Kelly Carlin has questions for W. Kamau Bell. Lots of them. About comedy. About humanity. About race. About political correctness — and how they all intersect.
“What’s the difference between punching up at power and punching down a people who are oppressed?” Carlin asked. “What can comedy do in conversations about race?”
At 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater, Carlin and Bell will sit down for a candid conversation, as part of Week Six’s theme, “Comedy and the Human Condition.”
“The one thing I find is that no matter where you go or what you’re talking about, even if you’re talking to the Klan,” Bell said, “there are little connections that you can make that sort of melt those little preconceived notions away.”
Both Carlin and Bell agree that while comedy opens up a space for laughter, it also creates space for self-examination.
“I think the conversation would be wasted if we weren’t all challenged in some way by it,” said Carlin, Sirius XM radio host and author of A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up with George. “And that we are at least made to sit in another person’s shoes, stand in another person’s shoes to see their perspective, even if we have to walk away saying ‘I’m not sure about it’ or ‘I don’t agree.’ ”
Carlin and Bell, who hosts CNN’s “United Shades of America,” spoke on the phone last week and have been preparing for Thursday’s conversation in their own ways. For Carlin, it meant reading Bell’s recently released memoir, 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, and watching episodes of his show.
She asked herself, “What’s the richest conversation that Kamau and I could have that’s about comedy, that’s about identity, that’s about the conversation around political correctness?”
Bell, who was first a stand-up comedian before becoming an Emmy-nominated host, said he hasn’t prepared at all.
“I don’t prepare for conversations because that makes not-good conversations,” Bell said. “I do a lot of this conversatin’ stuff, so I find it’s best if you don’t pre-plan conversation.”
While Bell said some of the audience may be fans of his show or his podcast, “Politically Re-Active,” he’s aware that others may not know who he is at all.
“I feel interested to see really how the audience takes me and who shows up to this thing,” Bell said. “It won’t be a room of people who are like ‘We love you Kamau!’ ”
According to Carlin, comedy is about “coming clean, ultimately.” It’s also a job, she said, that has several jobs.
“Part of comedy’s job is to shine a light on uncomfortable things. Part of comedy’s job is to find the line in culture that’s uncomfortable — and cross it,” Carlin said. “I think Kamau’s work is about asking people of privilege to be uncomfortable.”
Aside from looking forward to speaking at the Amp, Bell said he’s excited about visiting Chautauqua Institution for the first time.
“We’re bringing the whole family, so we’re really looking forward to embracing the whole Chautauqua experience,” said Bell, who has two daughters. “I really feel honored and grateful that they would allow me to bring my whole family.”
Bell said he’s used to traveling across the country to speak and perform in front of audiences but admitted that at times, traveling solo can get lonely.
“Comedian is the job I have, TV host is the job I have, but I like treating myself as a person,” he said. “So for me, it’s like when I bring my family, I feel more like a person when I’m offstage.”
Staff writer Brian Contreras contributed to this report.