The crowd at Spring Studios laughed, cried, oohed and ahhed as the episode set in Kenya unfolded. CNN has announced five episodes and two specials will comprise the farewell season, which kicks off Sunday night.
As Bourdain shared the screen with fellow CNN host and comedian W. Kamau Bell, the dialogue and voiceover tapped the depths of Nairobi and the surrounding savanna. Each finely honed line brought a familiar thrill, a ruminative resonance, but also a stab of recognition. In June, Bourdain committed suicide at age 61 during production in France.
After the screening, a reflective and candid conversation with five of his collaborators, moderated by CNN anchor John Berman, explored his work and legacy. While there were plenty of light moments — and humor, thanks in large part to Bell — the night proved to be one of the rare times an audience Q&A prompted tears both onstage and in the crowd.
“It was an evolution of the experience for him,” said executive producer Chris Collins. “It began 18-19 years ago as a ruse — ‘They’re going to pay me to go do this stuff?!’ And then over time it turned into a job. Then it turned into a profession. And then it turned into a life’s work.”
The interplay with Bell throughout the Kenya episode displayed Bourdain’s compassion but also the toll of the nearly two decades of intense work and travel. “He had been on the road at this point for almost 20 years,” said executive producer Lydia Tenaglia. “So he had traveled everywhere and had seen everything, really. Traveling with someone else gave him the opportunity to almost see that place again through someone else’s perspective. … After traveling for so long, he was always craving that experience.”
A sequence already revealed by CNN in a promotional clip shows Bell and Bourdain looking out at the landscape during a break in a safari. “I pinch myself,” Bourdain says. “I’m so f–king lucky I get to do this.”
Bell said Bourdain “had already changed my life” before Bell joined CNN and had Bourdain as a lead-in. As a longtime admirer of Bourdain’s work, he said, “Just by watching the show and seeing how to be in the world. … I am just one of the people on the couch who got to be in the show.”
The ending minute of the show, a solo meditation on the essence of travel, comes after the final credits (and won’t be spoiled here). Conceptually, it threw the producers and crew when Bourdain showed them the script for that segment. “When he wrote it, we all thought, it was so out of the context,” said director Morgan Fallon. “We were kinda thinking of a big ending for Kamau. … But what he wrote was uncanny after everything that’s happened. This realization that, ‘Oh my God, there’s this incredibly impactful line that we’ve been cutting out of the show.'”
Added showrunner Sandy Zweig, “He gave all of us and the audience a way to see the world in a very intimate way. it wasn’t just a travel show.”
Speaking of intimacy, the Kenya episode includes one segment that culminates in Bell and Bourdain joining a native tribe in a ceremonial drinking of cow’s blood that has just been drained from the cow. While onscreen, and on the panel, Bell milked plenty of comedy out of the moment, he also pointed to it as a distillation of Bourdain’s fearless pursuit of purity. “You’ve got to do the whole thing,” Bell said. “And I’ve got to really submit to the process of making the show, or else I’m not being a good guest. And if there’s anything that Tony taught us, it’s how to be a good guest.”
No one onstage tackled at any length what the longer-term legacy of the show will be, but Collins came the closest and spoke for everyone present. “He will resonate further and farther,” he said. “All is not said and done for him tonight.”