California native W. Kamau Bell (the “W” stands for Walter) was born in Palo Alto and grew up in Alabama, Boston, and Chicago. He moved back to the Golden State in 1997 to chase his dream of becoming a comedian, and after years of headlining San Francisco comedy clubs he landed his first television special, Semi-Prominent Negro, on Showtime in 2016. He is now the host and executive producer of the Emmy-winning CNN TV series United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell—which begins airing its fifth season this summer.
We asked him how he’s spending his California quarantine and what he’s dreaming of doing once the shelter-in-place order is lifted.
Where are you self-quarantining and who are you with?
I’m home in Oakland with my three daughters (8, 5, and 1) and my wife.
How are you passing the time during the crisis?
As a parent who is working from home, I don’t have to struggle to fill the time. It is pretty much “All hands on deck!” from sunup to long after the sun has gone down. I’m a dad/teaching assistant/executive producer/concerned citizen. CNN is constantly on in the background while I go from Zoom to Zoom and run back and forth to my wife’s closet, where I record voiceover for United Shades of America. And I’m doing weekly online events with Masks for the People to raise money to buy masks for communities that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. The only thing I have absolutely made sure that I carve out time for is The Last Dance on ESPN.
Are there any shows you’re watching or songs you’re listening to that transport you to favorite places in California?
The Frozen 2 soundtrack reminds me of the need to take my kids back to Disneyland in Anaheim once this clears up.
What are you doing to stay connected with friends and family?
We’re Facetiming with my dad in Alabama, having weekly social-distanced and masked-up visits with my mom, and my daughters are having Facetime play dates. My mother-in-law is also hosting daily art lessons with all her grandkids. They are amazing—she should charge for them.
Have you been taking advantage of area restaurants that offer takeout and delivery? What are some go-to dishes?
The ability to have some of our favorite restaurants deliver has really helped lighten the mood, and we really appreciate those who are working hard to feed us and keep us safe. Shout out to The Star on Grand for spinach and sausage Chicago-style pizzas for my wife and me, and for thin-crust cheese pizzas for the kids. Also, everything from Belotti. And thank God for dumplings from Shan Dong and the kids’ favorite, chicken chow mein from Yang Chow.
What are some other local haunts you can’t wait to visit once things return to normal?
Honestly, the No. 1 thing I am looking forward to by far is playgrounds. Kids not having access to parks and playgrounds is like taking an adult’s phone away. It makes us both feral, short tempered, and inconsolably sad. In the East Bay, we love Frog Park, Totland, Montclair Recreation Center, every public school that keeps their gates open on the weekend, and of course Children’s Fairyland.
Looking ahead to a time when everything has reopened, how would your California dream day unfold?
That would be a lazy Saturday morning with the family, walking down Lakeshore Avenue near Lake Merritt in Oakland, letting our youngest daughter run wild at Gymboree, hitting up Colonial Donuts, heading to the huge farmers market, getting whatever is in season, running into old friends and meeting new ones, letting the kids loose on the playground over there, checking out books from the Lake Merritt Library. By then it will be 11:30 a.m. and we will be ready to choose to spend the rest of the day sheltering at home.