Last week I had what I knew going in was a rare showbiz occurrence. I was booked to appear on Comedy Central’s @midnight with Chris Hardwick and on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. For now, I believe that I alone hold that distinction. Call the Comedy Hall of Fame and bronze my parking passes! When I realized I was going to do both shows in the same week, I knew I was up for a challenge. Before the week began I couldn’t imagine two more different shows for a comic to appear on. But now that the week is over I know that they have one thing in common. Both are basically game shows. Sure there are differences. Bill doesn’t scream, “POINTS!” like Chris does on his show. And you don’t get bathed in red light when you lose on Real Time, although you do get bathed in Bill’s red glare.
ICYMI, here’s the clip.
So yeah, I (apparently) lost a game on Bill’s show that I didn’t know I was playing. The game was “Gotcha!” And according to the Internet (and the number of misspelled and nigger filled --- the word, not the people --- tweets in my timeline), I got gotcha’ed!
Here’s what went down from my (totally biased) perspective. Bill read a Paul Ryan quote from a radio interview on Bill Bennett’s show. The panel had been given the quote before the show. And then he asked if it was okay to infer that Ryan was talking about people of color without saying the words. The panel had also been told that this was going to happen. In fact, I had been told right before the show taped to jump in first on this one because --- and I quote --- “As an African-American Bill is going to want to hear your perspective.” Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for conversations about race and racism in America. Well, I got played for a sucker.
After the question came up, I basically said (FIRST!) that the quote was clearly about race, Bill read a second quote that he said was from Paul Ryan, and I snickered. And then Bill made that famous Bill Maher face that we all know (and many love). And he declared that the second quote was from Michelle Obama. Duh, duh, duuuuuuuh!
The studio was silent at that. But Bill seemed to believe it was the kind of stunned silence that followed when (Breaking Bad spoiler alert) that blonde dude killed that kid on the bicycle on Breaking Bad. But I believe it was the stunned silence of...
“DUUUUUUUUDE! Why did you just lie to us like that? We trust you! Now we’re confused! What’s next? Are you going to say Kim Kardashian said it?”
Then Bill put the quote to me... Well on me more accurately, he put it on me. As if I was a representative of The Obamas. When I know he's a waaaaay bigger Obama fan than me. How do I know that? He gave them a million bucks. I gave them $30. Even by percentage of our incomes he's more into them than me.
But that was when I realized I was in a game of “Gotcha!” And then my private school high school diploma kicked in. I needed more information. So I asked where Michelle Obama had said that. Bill answered that it was at Bowie State University. Then my Blackness sensor kicked in, and I surmised knew it was an historically black college, even though I had never heard of it before. Thanks for all the training, mom! I knew I wasn't a sucker!
And my response to Bill got my biggest laugh of the night. I said to Bill that Black people talk to each other differently when we aren’t around white people. (True. Sorry, White people.) I thought that would be that. But this clip has turned out to be a Rorschach test for ignorance. If you think he gotcha'ed me or the panel, I feel sorry for you.
And the real freaking bummer of all of this is that there is an awesome conversation to be had in the two different quotes from Ryan and the First Lady.
1. Is there a difference between what Paul Ryan said and what Michelle Obama said? (Yes, it’s called context.) 2. What is the difference between “othering” and “identifying”? (In one you are outside of the group of which you speak – Ryan. In the second you are a member of the group you are talking about – Michelle Obama was raised on the South Side of Chicago. It doesn’t get much “blacker”.) 3. Does context change the meaning of rhetoric? (Yes. Dramatically.) 4. Does Michelle Obama’s quote being pulled out of the middle of a commencement address that was in front of an audience of people who likely have direct relationships to the issues she is referencing play substantially differently than two white Neo-Cons in the echo chamber of conservative talk radio? (Umm… Yes.) 5. Is Michelle Obama's quote potentially problematic? (Sure. But let's discuss and... Oops, Bill says we're moving on.)
But Bill obviously didn’t want to have that conversation because if he had, he woulda had his awesome and gracious staff give the panel the Michelle Obama quote, too. He wanted to play “Gotcha!” Hey, good on him. It’s easy to trip people up if that is your sole intention. Go outside right now and see how many people you can trip while they walk around. I guessing it’s damn near 100%. Does it feel good? Not to me.
But again, who am I to judge? Bill’s got the rightfully acclaimed, long running hit show, and mine was canceled. I’m not even sure why he would waste his time gotcha’ing me. Was Al Sharpton not available?
Last week before the show I jokingly started a hashtag, #LetsAllHaveAThoughtfulDiscussion.
You know what hashtag is never going to trend? #LetsAllHaveAThoughtfulDiscussion
— W. Kamau Bell (@wkamaubell) March 28, 2014
The joke being that it would never trend. It didn’t. But that’s actually what I am totally into. I have been closing my current stand-up tour talking about how the one sure way to initiate change is to have more awkward conversations. (Don’t worry. There’s a dick joke mixed in there to thin out the sure to come Nobel Peace Prize nomination.) But I believe in the power of the awkward conversation to bring people together. But this thing was just awkward.