Comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu on Staying ‘Politically Re-Active’ in the Trump Era
The hosts of Politically Re-Active talk the return of their popular podcast, voting for Jill Stein and that controversial ‘future of media’ magazine cover.
Earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter decided to put five men from CNN on its cover. But it was CNN senior producer Josiah Daniel Ryan who managed to set off a social media firestorm when he tweeted an image of the cover with the caption, “This is what the future of media looks like.” It didn’t take long for journalists and others on Twitter to start pointing out that that “future” did not include any women.
It was exactly the type of unfortunate gaffe that comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu would call out for its lack of woke-ness on their podcast Politically Re-Active. But this time, Bell, who also hosts the CNN series United Shades of America, was at the center of the controversy—and the return of their highly-anticipated second season was still weeks away.
On the one hand, Bell “never, ever thought” that being on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter would even be an option for him, so he was just happy to be included. “If, five or six years ago someone had called and said we’re putting you on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter I would have known it was one of my friends fucking with me,” he tells The Daily Beast by phone from Indianapolis before delivering a performance of his jokingly-titled talk “Ending Racism in an Hour” at Butler University. “I was blown away by the fact that I was asked.”
He felt like he was in good company with Anthony Bourdain, Jake Tapper, as well as his boss, Jeff Zucker. “And then when we were taking the photo, it was like, ‘Hey, wait a minute…’” he says, laughing. He remembers looking around and thinking, “Huh, there are a lot of dudes up here.’”
Bell confirms that he heard from women in his life who were not thrilled about his participation in the mini-scandal. “They lightly sauteed me, they didn’t totally burn me,” he says. “But it was a reminder to me that I need to do a better job.”
“The thing that I realized is that in that moment, I needed to have the ‘hey, wait a minute’ moment way sooner. That’s 100 percent on me,” he adds, comparing that feeling to a regular feature from Politically Re-Active called, “Hold up; wait a minute.” During their interviews with guests, if someone says something that needs a little fact-checking or explaining they stop the podcast in its tracks to make sure their listeners are all on the same page. For instance, during one early episode, they had to unpack the historical feud between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, which their feminist activist guest Kathleen Hanna claimed “everybody knows about.”
The two comedians first started working together on Bell’s short-lived late-night show Totally Biased in 2012. It was there that they formed a bond over their shared passion for progressive politics and an unwillingness to cater to the moral equivalency argument that drives cable news networks like CNN to insist on giving airtime to Donald Trump surrogates in the name of balance.
“I find it troubling, the idea that hate is a point of view,” Kondabolu says in a separate interview from Seattle, noting that it’s “not just CNN” that is guilty of this sin. “It shouldn’t be all capitalism and ratings. There’s a responsibility to inform the public.”
“When you do that, you’re allowing for white supremacy, which in my opinion is a form of terrorism,” he adds. “It’s something that has terrorized people of color since the beginning. And how does terrorism lead to a freer press?”
The most conservative guest they had on the podcast during their first season was S.E. Cupp, a vocal advocate for the #NeverTrump movement. There is a deliberate lack of white male guests, which made it notable when CNN’s Jake Tapper appeared on the final episode of the first season as an emissary from the “mainstream media.”
Among the guests scheduled to appear in season two are CNN commentator and political analyst Angela Rye, former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, civil rights activist and filmmaker Michael Skolnik and writer/comedian Akilah Hughes.
Despite his role at CNN, Bell says he has little interest in becoming a talking head, preferring the long-form freedom of the podcast format. “You have to talk in soundbites and you have to talk quickly. And if you screw it up, the ball’s not coming back to you,” he says of cable news format. “I’m not good at that. There are people who are great at that,” he adds, citing his friend and another former guest on the podcast, Van Jones.
When First Look Media, the company founded by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, first approached Bell and Kondabolu with the idea of hosting a political podcast, it was intended to run only through Election Day. But once Trump won, they decided they weren’t ready to give up the increasingly popular platform.
“Kamau and I both assumed that Hillary would win,” Kondabolu says. “If Hillary had won, would we have come back? Possibly. There’s still a good chance. But we weren’t signed on for a second season and once Trump won, for both the people who listen to the show and Kamau and I, there was an urgency to come back.”
The show “got a lot more attention than anyone was expecting,” Bell adds. “Hari and I are not often associated with things that are hits. It took a while to coordinate the return, because we wanted to make sure we did it right and didn’t rush back out there.” They both individually stress that this is not some little project they are doing in their “basement,” but rather a “professional operation” that took time to get going again after an extended break.
“The ability to take in what’s happening along with everyone else as opposed to having to give an opinion about it every week has been good, at least for me,” Kondabolu says of their more than four-month break. “But at the same time, you’re itching to say some of this stuff.”
“Selfishly, every week Kamau and I spoke, in addition to getting to talk to one of my best friends, it allowed us to get a lot of things out. It was really tense last year and it’s going to be tense for a while,” he adds.
Some of that tension came from listeners of the show, angry with the hosts’ decision to cast their votes for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who made her case directly to them on an episode that went up just two weeks before Election Day.
Based in solid-blue New York and California, respectively, Kondabolu and Bell both felt safe that their votes would not help tip the election to Trump but would rather help bolster the future of a legitimate third party. “I don’t regret voting for her,” Kondabolu says with some hindsight. “I sometimes regret talking about it. Only because it became such a distracting thing.”
“I don’t think Jill Stein should be president of the United States. I made a very logical, thoughtful decision,” he continues, stressing that he urged listeners in swing states not to make the same decision that he did. Kondabolu thinks anyone in Wisconsin or Michigan who thought they were safe to vote for Stein just weren’t paying attention. (Stein got more votes than Trump’s margin of victory in both states).
“I don’t regret voting the way I voted because I’m not an idiot. Neither of us are,” Kondabolu adds, letting out his frustration with the criticism he received from Democrats. “People fucking listen to the podcast, they love our podcast, and they tell us that we inform that. They listen to us because we have some insight and unique things to say and perspective. And then people get upset, because this doesn’t go in line with everything else. You’re listening to the same guys you were listening to before.”
As a meditation of sorts, Kondabolu begins each day by tweeting a reminder about how far into the Trump presidency we are, along with the message, “THIS IS NOT NORMAL.”
Calling that statement a “half truth,” he says, “Some of this stuff is very bizarre and has never been seen before. Some of it is just the veil being dropped. Because he’s not somebody who’s big on subtlety or keeping things to himself, you actually see the dysfunction.”
With that in mind, both men say they will be very careful not to make everything on their podcast about the president when it returns.
“Now we just have a clearer idea of what’s going on and the stakes are raised,” Bell says. “But I think the great thing about the first season of the show is that we weren’t really chasing the news, we were chasing the movements and the issues.”
That’s why they included segments about things like the #NoDAPL protests at Standing Rock that had nothing to do with the election specifically. As “political comedians,” Bell says he and Kondabolu have “always been about the movements and the cultural shifts, not about the individual things that happen in D.C.”
“This isn’t a Trump podcast. It isn’t about Trump,” Kondabolu concurs. “But certainly the president of the United States is a factor in how a point of view is shaped nationally or how we talk about an issue. We don’t want this to be just about him, because it’s not.”
“There will be Trump talk, but we also know that our listeners will let us get into the weeds about things that are relevant. Our government wasn’t functioning perfectly before Trump was in office,” Bell adds. “They’d be disappointed if we never talked about Trump, but they’d be more disappointed if we only talked about Trump.”