'America is in ruins': Politically Re-Active's W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu on Joe Biden's inauguration
The American comedians said the new president's message of unity will soon be put to the test
After watching U.S. President Joe Biden's inauguration speech yesterday, comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu were left feeling happy but ultimately uninspired.
In his first address to the nation as president, Biden called for unity, admitting that he knows it "can sound, to some, like a foolish fantasy these days," but "unity is the path forward" for a deeply divided America.
"I think Biden did his job," said Kondabolu in a joint interview with Bell on CBC Radio's q. "He was supposed to talk about unity [and] he hit that word multiple times."
Bell added that from a comedian's perspective, it's "super easy to follow a person who bombed," and so Biden shouldn't be praised too much in the wake of former President Donald Trump's tumultuous years in office.
He said, "[while] it's great to hear that speech," he was more excited that Biden "immediately got to work" — signing executive orders to reverse Trump's policies.
"America is in ruins," remarked Bell. "And it's going to be hard because 'the right' is going to get right back to being 'the right' in this country. So that's the thing, I think, we have to really understand that this country is on the verge of not being what we thought it was."
'Sesame Street for grown-ups'
As co-hosts of the political comedy podcast, Politically Re-Active, Bell and Kondabolu think a lot about the ways democracy is approached and how the current political climate affects the future of comedy.
Initially, when the longtime friends started the podcast in 2016, they were under the impression that Hillary Clinton would be the 45th president of the United States, not Trump.
"If Hillary Clinton had won, I don't think we'd be on for a second season," said Kondabolu. "I feel like the demand for the podcast increased as people were looking for answers, like, 'What do we do now? What does this mean? How do we get through the next four years?'"
We know, we know, it’s been a long time. But with all of 2020’s madness behind us and an election right in front of us, there’s no better time than now to rage in solidarity with <a href="https://twitter.com/wkamaubell?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@wkamaubell</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/harikondabolu?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@harikondabolu</a>. New episodes of <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PoliticallyReactive?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PoliticallyReactive</a>, coming this October! <a href="https://t.co/dywJ675vrS">pic.twitter.com/dywJ675vrS</a>—@PoliticReActive
After a three-year hiatus, Politically Re-Active returned for a third season in 2020. Bell explained that the decision to bring the podcast back wasn't really theirs.
"All of our fans who would meet us in other areas, like our stand-up or TV shows, would go, 'When are you bringing back the podcast? That's all I really care about.' So, we just felt compelled. And then as 2020 turned into such an epic, historic year in the worst ways, it just felt like the time was right."
I'm learning in real-time and I feel like if I'm learning in real-time, somebody who's listening is learning in real-time.- W. Kamau Bell
Commenting on how educational the podcast is for many of their listeners, Kondabolu noted that they feel a responsibility to bring thoughtful conversations to the forefront, as their work has been used in ways that they had never even intended — such as in high school and college classrooms.
Politically Re-Active hasn't only been educational for their audience but for them as hosts as well. Bell said that he feels like they're learning right alongside their listeners.
"I'm learning in real-time and I feel like if I'm learning in real-time, somebody who's listening is learning in real-time. … So yeah, I feel like all my work is basically Sesame Street for grown-ups."
'Normal is not a good place in this country'
Looking back on the 2016 presidential election, Kondabolu said the "problem from the get-go" was that comedians and the media industry at large didn't take Trump seriously, which significantly contributed to his rise to power.
"He actually was able to create this incredibly large voter base that maybe a lot of us, especially in coastal cities, didn't know existed. And he was able to mobilize them and change the world for, I would say, the worst."
However, Kondabolu added that comedy and the political comedians who covered Trump are not necessarily at fault.
"If anything, I think it was at least positive that even if, for example, Jimmy Fallon [was] talking about Trump in a negative way, it's still like, 'Oh, we're all acknowledging this is not going well.'"
Bell said he doesn't feel like he'll be going back to doing "dumb comedy" any time soon (as opposed to political comedy), because Trump's presidency has revealed "how awful, how painful [and] how ineffective" the structures of America really are.
"I think those jokes are still to be written."
He also pointed out that, moving forward, the goal shouldn't be to get back to normal because "normal is not a good place in this country."
When it comes to hope, Kondabolu said he thinks it's "easier to feel hopeful" if you follow mainstream American politics. But, he emphasized that just because Biden won the presidency, doesn't mean it's the end of the game.
"It's hard for me not to be cynical and that's also kind of why I do the comedy that I do. … I think we have the podcast that we have [because] we're critical. And we're not just happy that Biden won the political Super Bowl."
Hear Tom Power's full interview with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu near the top of this page, where they also talk about Trump's final remarks as president and the insurrection at the U.S Capitol on Jan. 6.
Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Vanessa Nigro.