CORRECTION: Originally this review said that Bell had previously interviewed Milo Yiannopoulos. Bell has never interviewed Yiannopoulos; our writer was thinking of Bell’s interview with white supremacist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer.
Of the many comedians of the 2010s who hosted interesting, innovative talk shows that got cancelled almost immediately, W. Kamau Bell perhaps got the shortest end of the stick. Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell was canned by FX before it got a chance to comment on the state of the world on either immediate side of the sinkhole that was 2016. Since then, he’s gotten or made other opportunities to address the divisive state of the country, primarily on his CNN show United Shades of America, but nothing quite as unfiltered as his new Netflix special Private School Negro.
Staged in the round (as was Jerrod Carmichael’s 8, which similarly breaks up the predictable proscenium rhythms a lot of specials fall into), Private School Negro gives off a town hall impression, and Bell effectively leads one. He wears his status as a voice-of-reason comedian like a loose shirt, presenting plenty of ideas that earn applause breaks but not without playfully undercutting them. For example, his salient points about free speech, namely that “you have the right of freedom of speech, but you don’t have freedom of consequences from that speech,” is only half of his characterization of the alt-right, the other half being “they wish they were a little bit taller, they wish they were ballers. If they had a girl they’d call her.”
And while much of Bell’s political material (though he seems to be painfully aware that, in the current climate, all material is political, so let’s just say ‘his most’ political material) is subject to the delayed-reaction problem that is affecting the slow rollout of comedy specials in the middle of a rapid news cycle, he at least lets some of his best jokes land on increasingly irrelevant personalities within the Trump circle. “Sean Spicer,” he says, “seems like he’s composed of the bare minimum amount of semen that it takes to make a human being.”
When Bell returns to material sprung from the kind of cross country immersive journalism he’s been doing, the special starts to really click into place. He is at his best digging through the mundane for nuggets of interaction that speak to much larger problems. When a white woman in Kansas asks if he just put brown sugar in his coffee, since, if he had, then she would have seen everything, Bell mines catharsis out of responding, “either you’ve seen everything or you’ve seen NOTHING.”
This extends to the stories Bell tells about his family. Noting early on that he’s in an interracial relationship, he uses the intimate setting of his own home to examine racial issues affecting the entire country in a microcosm, without sacrificing the element of dad-joking that he clearly gets a lot of joy out of. “If you’re in a fight,” he says, pondering a potential race riot within his home, “you want a three-year-old with you, cause they don’t play fair.”
The special’s most notable drawback is a relatively small one—Bell leans on pop cultural “it’d be like _______” jokes a little too frequently, occasionally settling for just saying “disappointed!” or “finish him!” or some other internet-recognizable buzz phrase. These moments stick out so much simply because of the thought Bell generally gives to wrapping a joke together surrounds them on every side.
Not that this kind of thing always grinds the special to a halt. As reticent as I was about a lengthy “American Pie” parody Bell whips out, the audience’s spontaneous rendition of the chorus—prompted by Bell, but taking much longer than he intended—was the kind of group experience you have at a comedy show that is rarely translated to a filmed special. Bell acknowledges how infrequently we engage in that together, and notes the audience’s delighted reaction when they get a chance to collectively break away from the nerve-deadening, solitary experience of checking Twitter for the new bad thing that’ll happen today. It’s in these moments that Bell’s natural charisma becomes something like leadership.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.