Race to Fame

W. Kamau Bell has built a career on examining the messy intersections of race and class in a supposedly postracial world.

Once again, Bell wore a band T-shirt (Rage Against the Machine) and jeans. His Susan Boyle joke had yet to be fleshed out, but he was planning to work on it in the hours between the workshop and his regular performance at the Punch Line's Sunday Night Showcase, which features a rotating cast of local comics. As one of the reigning kings of S.F. comedy, Bell was expected to go on last, and he would get the most time, at least 15 minutes.

With his laptop in front of him, Bell broke down a bit of his process. Joke writing, he says, is like math: Certain variables get plugged into certain formulas, with the correct answer always being laughter. Every comic arranges the equations differently, but he likes to start with a clearly stated premise. His inspirations tend to come from two sources: his life and the Internet. In this case, Bell opened his laptop one morning and found a link to Boyle on a news site. Being an obsessive, he's watched the clip at least a dozen times, posted it twice on his Facebook page, and Twittered about it.

What kept Bell interested wasn't just Boyle herself, but the media's reaction to her. He became incensed at Brian Williams' remarks on NBC Nightly News that treated her looks as some kind of calculated PR move. "She knows she can sing — she's not Rain Man," Bell huffs. "There's this cynicism that just because she's not blond and 18 years old, she's going to be a total disaster." Even when he isn't explicitly talking about race, some lessons remain the same. Prejudging people on their appearance offends him.

Bell takes advantage of a rare quiet moment in the Punch Line’s green room to work out a set list.
Jake Poehls
Bell takes advantage of a rare quiet moment in the Punch Line’s green room to work out a set list.

Bell and a reporter moved to Union Square, laptop in tow, to take advantage of the weather. He opened a Word document with a list of jokes neatly outlined. He has just begun to work another joke into the rotation, and he isn't completely comfortable with it. Every premise — in this case, it's "Now that I'm married, I only want to hang out with lesbians" — needs to get tested. Sometimes testing a joke can take years, with constant revision, sometimes in the middle of a set.

True to form, Bell doesn't bury the lede. "I can't be friends with straight women anymore," he begins. "Every straight woman that I've ever been friends with inevitably ends up treating me like I'm their boyfriend. It's always some phone call out of nowhere." He affects a woman's voice. "Kamau, what's going on with us? We need to talk about our relationship." He continues in his own voice. "No, we don't. We don't have a relationship. We're friends. Friends don't need to talk. They either talk or they don't. We never need to talk. I only need to talk to one person at a time in my life."

He pauses before segueing into the next section. "And straight men are too competitive. And it's not just sports. Everything is a competition. I was talking to one of my best friends, Kevin, and I was telling him a story ... 'I was on my way here, and this dude that I passed on the street gave me a weird look.' And Kevin was like, 'I would have kicked his ass.' Really, Kevin? Really, you would have kicked his ass? Even though you've never kicked anyone's ass, ever? No one has ever seen you kick anyone's ass. There is no record of you kicking anyone's ass. Look — and this is a message to every straight guy out there — just because you own the Bourne Identity movies on DVD ... and you've watched all the bonus footage ... That doesn't make you ready to throw down!"

Reading over his jokes, Bell quickly points out a problem: He's objectifying lesbians and lumping together and skewering other groups of people based on their sexuality, which is not usually how his humor operates. But he claims it's coming from an affectionate place.

The third joke was giving him the most trouble. "My gay male friends are always so busy, there's so much going on. If they weren't going on an AIDS walk, it's a rave, and then the next day, you have to wake up early to get brunch," he says, again summarizing what's on the screen before breaking into a pedagogical tone.

"See, what I'm trying to do is take a stereotypical image, which I don't like, and make it funnier, and also put the image of gay men in a positive light. I'm not making a joke about gay men hitting on me." But Bell shakes his head over the next line, a few words implying that all that gay male activity leads to a coke habit. Most of his act rests on his ability to point out the hypocrisy of modern racism. It just won't work if he brings in sexist or homophobic fare.

As we discuss this, a derelict-looking black man approaches us, proffering flowers and a garbled song. Bell reaches into his pocket and produces some change. Scanning the clumps of people enjoying the rare warm night, Bell suddenly looks weary. "That guy and I are probably the only black people here," he says, gesturing around Union Square. "For them, now, 50 percent of the black people they see in San Francisco are like a homeless, off-key member of the Temptations."

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