BRITTANY LUSE: From Gimlet Media, this is Sampler, the show where we scour the internet for the finest, most fun and most far-flung moments in the podcast world and share them with you. I'm Brittany Luse, self-proclaimed podcast aficionado and your host. Before we start, just a warning, there is adult language in this episode. One of the things that I like most about podcasting is that it's a medium that supports just total out and out obsession. Whatever you like you have free rein to talk about it, however you want for as long as you want whether that obsession is the Grateful Dead or predicting Scandal Plot twists, or even picking apart the film Goodfellas literally one minute at a time. For example, if you're someone who believes that Denzel Washington is the greatest actor of all time... you can listen to a podcast called Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time, Period. No seriously, I’m not joking here. There is actually a podcast called this. Here’s a sample of the hosts breaking down a term they call “denzelishness”:
IN: “We were breaking down the things that make a Denzel movie…
OUT: “…Makes me happy that I’m not his son."
BRITTANY: The hosts of the show are comedian W. Kamau Bell and “Last Week Tonight” writer, Kevin Avery. W. Kamau Bell is one of my favorite comedians. He's done a bunch of standup. He's got one television show under his belt and has another one on the way, but I first heard of him because of a comedy special called The W. Kamau Bell Curve; “Ending Racism in About an Hour.” Here's a great moment from that…
W. KAMAU BELL: America wouldn't be America without black people. Without all the different people but black people we are so much a part of America's pop culture. I mean we have - I looked it up on the internet. You know how much of America's pop culture we're responsible for. All of it. [laughter]
Rock and Roll, jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, pop, soul, hip hop. We invented all of America's popular music without fail. Did I miss anything? Country? Country? Yes we invented country.
And I can prove it mathematically. Country music equals the blues minus slavery. [applause]
BRITTANY: So that gives you a feeling for the sense of humor that you can expect to hear on this podcast. But if you don’t consider yourself a Denzel devotee or a Denzealot as they call themselves... You will still enjoy this show. Because more than Denzel, It's about acting. It’s about Hollywood. And It’s about race… Here's a clip from the show that really shows that off. In this episode, Kamau and Kevin reminiscing about how they bonded as Denzel fans in 2001 when they saw Training Day together. Just in case you haven’t seen the movie, it’s about a corrupt LA cop played by Denzel Washington who is training a new recruit played by Ethan Hawke. To give you the full Denzel experience, we’ve added some sound from the movie into this clip from the podcast.
W. KAMAU BELL: I remember when me you and Dwayne saw Training Day in LA at the Magic Johnson movie theater. I think we talked about this on the first episode and I just it was one of those things - like I saw, Rocky IV was out or was it Rocky V was not a good movie but I saw it in Philadelphia so it was like if you're going to see it, see it in Philadelphia. And so seeing Training Day in LA at the Magic Johnson theater in an audience of black people in the side of time where they probably remember cops like that, where they probably know cops like that. It was just electric. And I remember just the moment where the movie starts with Ethan Hawke talking to his wife and then he goes to the cafe, the coffee shop and Denzel's sort of sitting there with his glasses on reading the paper. And Denzel just sort of reads him the riot act in a very quiet way.
[movie clip begins, sounds of the cafe in background]
DENZEL WASHINGTON: Tell me a story, Hoyt.
ETHAN HAWKE: Like my story?
DENZEL: No not your story. A story. Since you can’t keep your mouth shut long enough to let me read my paper. Tell me a story. I don’t think I know any stories. No. This is a newspaper right. It’s 90% bullshit. but it’s entertaining that’s I read it. You won’t let me read it so you entertain me with your bullshit.
W KAMAU BELL: And then they get up and pay for breakfast and they get up and walk outside and then Denzel goes to his car and they get in and the Dr. Dre beat starts playing and the car goes and also the hydrox in the car kick in and the crowd goes ahhh… in the theater were just like you have made the perfect movie!
BRITTANY: A few weeks ago, I got in touch with Kamau to ask him, ‘Why a successful comedian like himself would pour many many hours each week into a Denzel Washington tribute podcast?’
KAMAU: I mean that's a weird question. I guess it's like why focus on the sun. I had always been a huge Denzel Washington fan since back in the I guess back to the late 80s early 90s and every time you talk about Denzel Washington to people they're like 'oh yeah, he's great. He's the best, duh duh duh." But they sort of forget him. And me and Kevin decided we wanted to celebrate him while he's still around enough to hear it and not wait until he's like 170 year olds at the Oscars getting his honorary Oscar for you were the best too bad we didn't tell you sooner.
BRITTANY: What do they say? Give people their flowers while they're alive?
KAMAU: I'm a big believer in that. And also I think Denzel, me and Kevin talk about this too has a very important place as an African American movie star. And that so it's not just entertainment so it's also the podcast ends up being about diversity in Hollywood and what it means to represent the race. He literally got the baton passed from Sidney Poitier and he's still holding it even though he's 60 years old. And everybody else is like that looks good on you. We're just going to let you carry it. He does hold a very important place in a lot of black people's hearts and minds in a way and this is not meant as a diss in a way that I think Tom Hanks is awesome too but the white people aren't like Tom Hanks is the great - he's just a link in the chain of Hollywood. And he's a great link in the chain but he's not in and of itself he's not held as closely to the breast by the community the same way Denzel is.
BRITTANY: No it's true. You could actually - if you really felt like it you could wallpaper like the Taj Mahal with every Denzel Washington Jet cover ever created. Like you really could do that. Like that's a think that you could do.
KAMAU: I'm sure they have - they probably have Jet magazine have like a prerequisite like we have to do six a year.
BRITTANY: [laughs] We are a weekly publication. Um, there's something you guys talked about: the fact that Denzel Washington is the only man of color to be voted People's Sexiest Man Alive. Right?
KAMAU: Oh yeah that's me. I've been talking about that for years. The only other person who's not a white man. Cindy Crawford was on one - you know they did sexiest couple alive so she's on a cover of one of the People Magazine sexiest man alive covers. So it's been a white woman and Denzel are the only two people who haven't been white men. The reason why that's happening is People Magazine feels like they can't say it's People Magazine's Sexiest White Man Alive with two very notable exceptions.
BRITTANY: Yes [laughing].
KAMAU: Who was it this year? I can't even hardly remember. Oh no it was David Beckham. To me that was the ultimate bit of like we're just choosing for white guys. Which is fine but just put that on the cover. Because meanwhile Idris Elba is on his worst day like with the stomach flu and botulism is sexier than David Beckham.
BRITTANY: Welcome back to Sampler. Today, we’re talking with comedian W. Kamau Bell about his podcast, Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time, Period. So OK I want to play you a clip from your show. It's from the Spike Lee episode. I really, really enjoyed the hell out of this episode. In this clip, you and Kevin are talking to Spike about his 1998 movie He Got Game.
Quick recap: that movie is about a high school basketball prodigy and his relationship with his long incarcerated father. The prodigy, named Jesus Shuttlesworth is played by future NBA hall-famer Ray Allen, and the father is played by—surprise— Denzel Washington.
KAMAU: So and there's a famous story and I feel like we've heard it from other people but hear it from you - the one on one game yes.
SPIKE LEE: Alright. Another thing people don't know.
W KAMAU BELL: The name of this episode.
SPIKE: I know right.
W KAMAU BELL: With Spike Lee, another thing you don't know.
SPIKE: Another thing you don't know. Denzel was on the junior varsity team at Fordham and his coach was PJ Carlesimo.
W KAMAU BELL: Oh PJ the one who got choked by Speedwell.
SPIKE: The one that got choked by Speedwell. So Denzel to this day still thinks he can play basketball. So in the script that I wrote Jesus is supposed to beat his father in the one on one. 15 to 1.
W KAMAU BELL: As Ray Allen should be able to beat Denzel Washington.
SPIKE: So Ray this was for his film thought well Spike wrote it so that means I got to win 15 to nothing.
W KAMAU BELL: Yeah yeah.
SPIKE LEE: Denzel’s like fuck that. [laughter] I don't give a fuck what Spike wrote. Fuck Spike Lee. Fuck the script. I'm scoring a basket. [laughter] I don't care if this fucks up the film. I don't give a fuck. I'm scoring a basket. Oh my God. So Denzel gets the ball and he's throwing up some humble shit and it's going in. And he's like oh I'm going to keep going and then I think like Denzel scored four baskets and Ray Allen said time out. Spike. And I said Ray, I ain't got nothing to do with it. If Denzel just scores another basket, call this a moral victor for Denzel. He scored four baskets on an NBA - a great NBA player.
W KAMAU BELL: Yeah a future hall of famer. I feel like you can see when he scores that first basket like Ray Allen go way the who the?
KEVIN AVERY: Yeah meanwhile you're just sitting courtside again and like
W KAMAU BELL: Oh what a great. What a great game.
SPIKE: True story.
BRITTANY: The thing I really really like about this clip is Spike really seemed like he was a really cool guy.
KAMAU: It's funny because when I told people who know - like people in the industry who know Spike and have dealt with Spike. I was like oh yeah we interviewed Spike and they were like oh which Spike Lee did you get?
KAMAU: Because there's fun Spike. There's also like fuck you motherfuckers Spike which I think he gets a lot of the time, which a lot of people get.
BRITTANY: I've seen it I've seen it.
KAMAU: He showed up two hours late. He let us know he was going to be late but we were sitting there for two hours. Suddenly it's like the tension mounts. And then he walks in by himself, no handler, no extra person, doesn't say too much and it wasn't until we sat down and actually started recording and he goes 'What's up, young brothers?' And we all laugh that I realize oh he's here to have a good time. Like and that's when he let us know he had listened to the podcast, more than one episode and he referenced another episode. I mean I understand this and I think he understood, the only reason this podcast can exist is because of the four movies that Spike did with Denzel. Like Denzel's career is great without those four movies. Malcolm X, Mo' Better Blues, He got Game, those are regularly in people's top five Denzel Washington movies.
BRITTANY: It's all like to me it kind of felt like when Marc Maron interviewed Obama and then he had like the entire decompression session where he was like OK so Barack Obama was just beside my garage talking to me like no big deal. What was the rest of the day like?
KAMAU: It's funny you say that because we weren't able to decompress right away because after it was over, he has mentioned this before, he was like hey you guys want to come see a screening of Chi-Raq. And we were like yeah of course yes! And so we got into a town car with Spike Lee and his driver and we thought we were going to like a proper premier or something but it was a screening room where they were still doing the final editing touches on the movie and it was a screening room kind of like if you had a nice home theater. It was a room like that. Me and Kevin sat down in these like baller chairs all made from unicorn hair and reindeer quills or something and we sat there and watched Chi-Raq.
BRITTANY: That sounds like a Spike Lee fantasy sequence. From like -
KAMAU: It does when we make the movie about the podcast where me and Kevin play ourselves and it's directed by Spike Lee -
BRITTANY: And Denzel plays himself yeah.
KAMAU: The walk to the Spike Lee screening it will be on that standard Spike dolly shot where we're floating over the ground. I had to leave an hour into it, an hour and a half into it because I had to go be on CNN. I was on my phone during the screening trying to get out of it but they wouldn't let me out of it. Because I was doing all these text messages and emails trying to get out of it and I was like no and I was like a half a second away from texting well then screw all y'all I quit the entire thing.[laughter] What do you mean you quit? That segment. No the CNN show working for CNN. Show business. I'm just going to sit in this room for the rest of my life. Send my wife and kids. We live here now. But I had to leave an hour and a half into it. So from like one of the blackest experiences of my life to still a black experience - it's Don Lemon, but let's be honest - it's not.
BRITTANY: It's a little different. It's different. It's different.
KAMAU: It's a different black experience.
BRITTANY: So going back to the podcast. What surprised you most about doing it?
KAMAU: I thought it might be a bit of an echo chamber conversation, me and Kevin just bouncing off each other and people going like who cares? But the thing that surprised me was how quickly we started to see an audience of people online sort of fan the flames of this podcast. We realized, very early on, that the podcast was bigger than even me and Kevin's individual contributions to it. That the audience would correct us when we said something wrong or disagree with us. We were not the final word on Denzel. They would be like - I happen to - people love Devil in the Blue Dress. I happen to think it's OK but that's not my favorite Denzel movie and people were like you are wrong. [laughter] The best example of it is that this woman who uh uh reached out to me and Kevin on Twitter was like I noticed you haven't got the Twitter handle for @denzealots. Should I get it for you or just leave it there and then to this day for the better part of a year she has run - she runs our official Twitter profile. And kind of in a way that's cool like we will ask her to post stuff but also it's filled with her own opinions. [laughter] Recently during the live Wiz she tweeted something about how Common wasn't a good actor and some black lady was like come on brothers you can't and I was like woah woah woah this is not us. I don't need Common coming after me. Yeah.
BRITTANY: So OK I want to play you a clip from another show. It's from a first-time podcaster who sounds a little like an academic but if I say so myself he shows a lot of promise. Let's call him Barry.
BARACK OBAMA: And how do you think you ended up thinking about democracy, writing, faith the way you do? How did that experience of growing up in a pretty small piece, Idaho which uh you know um might have led you in an entirely different direction, how did you end up here man? What happened. Was it libraries?
MARILYNN ROBINSON: I love how libraries figured in all this I have to say.
BRITTANY: Now Kamau, you might recognize that voice as President Barack Obama.
KAMAU: Ooooooooh. Oooooooh. Don’t quit your day job. [laughter] Whatever job you got sir, keep it as long as you can. At least another 4 years.
BRITTANY: [laughter] So a little background, that was President Obama interviewing novelist Marilynne Robinson, who’s his favorite writer, and someone he kind of considers to be like a moral compass, in a way. So he was in Iowa on political business, but he actually took time out of his schedule to sit down with her and have this really in-depth conversation. And like don't get me wrong, there’s some really beautiful stuff in there...but in between that is him asking questions in these ways that just basically take forever to get to the point. Like, “How did you start writing?” Like he could have just said that.
KAMAU: When was this recorded?
BRITTANY: This was recorded like fall of last year.
KAMAU: Yeah here's the problem. That's an interview done by a man who's like what am I going to do about ISIS? [laughter] Give Barack Obama a year and a half. His interview style is going to loosen up quite a bit. That's a dude whose blackberry won't stop blowing up with like and here's another thing Donald Trump said. That's a dude that's thinking about like - whose secret service is like yeah you once again you've topped the all time threat list for a president. That's a dude with a lot on his mind. I bet if they meet again in a year and a half he's going to be like haha, Marilynne girl, you know what I'm talking about. You a good writer girl. You know you a good writer. Come on give me a hug.
BRITTANY: Gilead was lit. Well Kamau this has been like an absolute joyous pleasure.
KAMAU: Thank you this was fun. I hope I got at least three jokes in.
BRITTANY: Yeah I think we could pull out a smooth two and a half. The third one we may have to like crank you on home.
KAMAU: Sweeten, sweeten it in post.
BRITTANY: That’s it from the wonderful W. Kamau Bell, co-host of Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time, Period, which comes out weekly on the Wolfpop Network. Barack Obama’s interview with Marilynne Robinson is from Soundings from the New York Review. We’ll put links to both those shows on our website, Gimletmedia.com/Sampler. That’s all from Sampler for this week. But in the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. Send us a podcast or moment from a podcast that reveals a side of someone that surprised you. You can find us on Twitter or Facebook, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode of Sampler was produced by Chris Neary, Matthew Nelson, Rose Reid and myself.
It was edited by Alex Blumberg, Peter Clowney, and Caitlin Kenney.
This episode was mixed by Rick Kwan.
Special Thanks to Eric Mennel and Emma Jacobs.
Our theme song was written and performed by Micah Vellian.
And our ad music is by Build Buildings.
Sampler is a production of Gimlet Media.
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BRITTANY: And next week, hear how one woman conquered her biggest fear: sex.