Kamau Bell opens up about working with Bourdain

Kamau Bell opens up about working with Bourdain

(CNN) — If I think about Tony for too long, I start to cry. If I’m talking to somebody about him for more than a minute or two, especially someone else who knew him as a friend or who worked with him, then my eyes start to fill up, and I realize I have to make a decision.

Do I try to keep a stiff upper lip and fight back the tears, or do I lean into the sadness and allow myself to become a sloppy mess? More often than not, I lean into the sadness. It just feels like the right thing to do.

I want to be clear: Tony and I weren’t great friends, but I think we were on our way to becoming friends. And this is what makes me the most sad. I’ll never know what kind of friendship it was going to be.

But sadness isn’t the only emotion I feel. For the most part, when I think of Tony, I smile or hear myself laughing. And I’m often overwhelmed by a different feeling: awe.

I was — and still am — in awe of him. It is one thing to be an experienced and gracious world traveler. It is another thing to be a writer who can seemingly easily, humorously and profoundly sum up the human experience. And it is a completely different thing to make great television. Tony did all these things. Oh yeah, he was a great cook, too.

Nairobi, Kenya: Anthony Bourdain with W. Kamau Bell in the Kibera slums during the filming of 'Parts Unknown' season 12.

Nairobi, Kenya: Anthony Bourdain with W. Kamau Bell in the Kibera slums during the filming of ‘Parts Unknown’ season 12.

David Scott Holloway for CNN

And I know it’s nearly an impossible task to be all those things because, aside from “great cook,” I’m trying hard to be all those things, too.

When I first got the job offer at CNN for my show, “United Shades of America,” I knew I was walking in Tony’s footsteps. I knew that Tony’s success at CNN had paved the way for me — someone who had no experience in making a docu-series — to make USOA.

When CNN President Jeff Zucker told me that my show was going to air after Bourdain’s on Sunday nights, I became even more aware of how hard I was going to have to work to follow him.

I even started using his show to sell my show. I often said, “It’s like ‘Parts Unknown,’ but instead of food I’m sampling racism.” During season one of “United Shades of America,” I worried about what Tony would think if he heard me promote my show like that.

Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut and do my own show. After all, what if he hated my show? I finally settled on the fact that he most certainly hadn’t even seen my show. “Why would he?” I thought. He’s too busy being the actual most interesting man in the world.

I met Tony at the 2016 Emmys. “United Shades of America” was nominated for an award following our first season, and I was happy just to be there. It didn’t matter that we didn’t end up winning.

Meanwhile, “Parts Unknown” took home several Emmys. At the after party, I worked up the courage to walk over to him and say hello with my wife, Melissa, by my side. His face brightened as we approached. After we all said hello, Tony dropped the bomb.

Tony: “We should do something together.”

Me (trying to play it cool): “… Umm … Yeah!”

We talked for a couple of minutes, and by then I felt comfortable enough to ask him for a picture.

You can see the look on my face is not the look of a colleague but more like the look of a contest winner, because that is honestly how I felt in that moment.

Kamau and Tony met at the 2016 Emmy Awards.

Kamau and Tony met at the 2016 Emmy Awards.

Courtesy Melissa Hudson Bell

See, I hadn’t just followed Tony’s career on CNN. I remember him on the Food Network and on the Travel Channel. He had the kind of career I wanted even before I had any career to speak of.

I’d sit on the couch of my wife’s (then girlfriend’s) apartment watching Tony going, “If only… but how the hell do I go from this couch to making hourlong documentaries? … If only …”

I remember mentioning him in my nascent showbiz meetings as an influence and getting blank stares. He wasn’t always a household name or a brand or an adjective. Now I regularly hear words such as “Bourdain-like” or “Bourdain-esque” to describe shows that are about traveling the world without being an asshole.

Programs that attempt to leave the people on the show and the people watching the show better than they were before, that are attracted to the stories that others avoid, claiming that they’re too small or too complicated. Programs that want to turn TV into art. “Parts Unknown” accomplished all that and had a great time in the process.

Tony and I only saw each other a few times after that first meeting in 2016 — at the Emmys and official CNN events. He always talked about us doing something together.

Then one day we were.

Nairobi, Kenya: Anthony Bourdain with W. Kamau Bell in Nairobi's Kibera slums in February 2018 during the filming of Season 12 'Parts Unknown.'

Nairobi, Kenya: Anthony Bourdain with W. Kamau Bell in Nairobi’s Kibera slums in February 2018 during the filming of Season 12 ‘Parts Unknown.’

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David Scott Holloway

Once we got down to it, we decided that Kenya would be the location, because although I’m not Kenyan, my name “Kamau” is Kenyan (Kikuyu to be precise). For years, Kenyans have told me that I needed to go to Kenya.

And unbelievably, though Tony had traveled throughout other parts of Africa, he’d never been to Kenya. I assumed he’d been everywhere, twice. And not only was it my first trip to Kenya, it was to be my first trip to Africa. I knew that alone would make it an intense experience.

But I was in good hands. Not only Tony’s but also his incredible production crew — a tight-knit band of misfit toys who welcomed me into the fold.

And once again, I feel like a contest winner. We shot the show. Most days before the shoot, we’d all have breakfast together. We hung out together most nights after filming. And one evening we saw “The Black Panther” in Nairobi. (Tony and the producers even bought tickets for a group of kids who they had filmed with during the episode.)

As exciting as it is to be paid to make TV, sometimes it is just a job. I have to get up early. I have to work long hours. And I have to deal with people and things I would rather not. But then sometimes when you are making TV, you forget it is a job. I’m too busy having the experience to think about it as work. I’m too busy laughing, learning, trying new things, being surprised by unexpected twists, and genuinely feeling a full range of emotions.

And then I look up and see the cameras, and I remember, “THAT’S SO COOL THAT THIS IS ALL GOING TO BE ON TELEVISION!” That was my experience in Kenya with Tony.

I kept thinking I was in Parts Unknown Fantasy Camp, and then I’d remember that it was going to be aired on TV. I wasn’t going to have rely on my memory of it. Every day after I returned from Africa, I would think about how awesome it was that I was going to get to see it again.

And then he died.

And everything took on a whole new importance. All those experiences I had with Tony and his crew were now the last time I would ever have them. The many conversations that I had with Tony on the way to filming about politics, comedy, family, TV production, jujitsu and more were the last conversations I would ever have with him.

Nairobi, Kenya: Tony and Kamau enjoy beers at a local restaurant. Kamau says that the two spent a lot of off-screen time together while on location too.

Nairobi, Kenya: Tony and Kamau enjoy beers at a local restaurant. Kamau says that the two spent a lot of off-screen time together while on location too.

David Scott Holloway for CNN

Kenya felt like a beginning but once he passed I had to accept it as the end, an ending I was lucky to have.

I had hoped that the Kenya episode would be just one of the (hopefully) many episodes of television that Tony and I made together. Maybe there wouldn’t be many. But I’m pretty sure that there would have been at least one more.

Toward the end of the filming in Kenya, Tony blurted out, “When am I going to do your show?” He said it like I had been putting him off for a while. We hadn’t talked about it before that moment.

Of course I had talked about it with many other people, with the “United Shades” crew, with CNN, with strangers on the street. But I figured I’d have to wait and see how the Kenya episode went over before trying to get Tony to do an episode of “United Shades” with me.

But here we were, not even done with our first shoot, and Tony was thinking of the future. And again, he said it like I had been turning him down for years. As if we wouldn’t move heaven and Earth to get it done.

We immediately began kicking around locations and somehow settled on Alabama, because he had never filmed there (or he had never been there. I can’t remember now). The idea of Tony, my dad (an Alabama native) and me going shrimping immediately filled me with joy beyond belief.

But we never got that opportunity because Tony died prematurely.

So while I’ll never get to know what it would have been like to have Tony on “United Shades of America,” his legacy will be all over it. I will continue to try to follow his example. I will continue to try to be a gracious guest. And I will work harder to turn TV into art like he talked to me about when we drove around Kenya.

It’s an honor to be associated with him in any way. Let me be clear about something though: I’m not trying to compare myself to Anthony Bourdain. There was only one Tony. This is why it hurts so much that he’s gone.

The fact that Tony is beyond compare explains why people who never got the chance to meet him are hurting too. He was far more than just the host of a popular TV show. He was a singular force in the universe for good and for good times.

Thank you, Tony, for taking me along for a ride.

Kenya: Roasted goat is one of the dishes that Tony and Kamau enjoyed while spending time with the II Ingwesi community in Kenya.

Kenya: Roasted goat is one of the dishes that Tony and Kamau enjoyed while spending time with the II Ingwesi community in Kenya.

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