Race to Fame

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

It was an attempt at humor, but neither of us was laughing. The incident served as a reminder of one of the principal ironies of life in San Francisco, one Bell frequently references onstage — it's a liberal city with one of the lowest African-American populations (around 6.5 percent, as of 2005) of any major city in the country.

When Bell moved to Oakland in 1997, his comedy had improved, technically, from the Chicago days, but he still had trouble finding his own voice. "I sounded like a lot of other comics," he says. His friend, Ghetto Gourmet underground restaurant founder Jeremy Townsend, echoes this. "His act was flat, in a shallow sense — you could only dig so deep," Townsend says.

Bell was often on the brink of quitting altogether, even when things were going well. Unsurprisingly, he found the weeks and months following 9/11 a hard time to do comedy that involved race, so he stepped back from that subject. He started directing solo shows around San Francisco and teaching solo performance classes.

Paul Trapani
Bell on stage at the Punch Line in mid-April trying out new material, a week after he finished his first run as the club’s headlining comic.
Jake Poehls
Bell on stage at the Punch Line in mid-April trying out new material, a week after he finished his first run as the club’s headlining comic.

In 2005, Bell performed at the Montreal Comedy Festival and appeared on Comedy Central's Premium Blend TV showcase. "You meet a lot of people who tell you that you're going to be famous," he says of his time at Montreal. "Then I came back and I wasn't famous." His increased visibility, though, led to gigs opening for Dave Chappelle in Chicago and Detroit.

By late spring 2007, Bell reached an impasse — in Okinawa, Japan, of all places. He was booked to play shows over seven nights for U.S. troops — an audience who, Bell says, was uncommonly bored. "It was like performing at a frat house where the keg is dry," he quips. "I'm not blaming them, but my allegedly intelligent sociopolitical fare went nowhere. It was 45 minutes of nothing."

He shivers in the heat, remembering the horror of the silent crowd. The next day, he felt like "dead man walking," and the fact that he managed to do a little better the next couple of nights barely mattered. He wasn't having fun. "And if you're not having fun, there's no point."


The Punch Line's green room is indeed satisfyingly green, its mint walls covered with framed photos of comedians who have graced the stage. The ventilation, though, leaves something to be desired. Comics come and go, some scratching notes in the back of the room, others trading barbs near the door, everyone sweating up a storm.

Bell arrives at around 8:30 p.m. and takes a seat at the desk. As the closing comic, he has more than an hour to kill before his time. He takes a few weathered pieces of paper from his pockets — set lists from his last week headlining the club, filled with cryptic titles like "Walter," "Black House," Throw Some Flour," and "My Asian Fetish," and places them in front of him. He then rips a piece of paper in half and begins copying, pausing to consider and reconsider the order.

Onstage, a comedian is making fat jokes. The crowd laughs, but generally seems listless. The heat is having a bad effect on the club's atmosphere. Even nonsmokers are taking refuge outside for fresh air.

Bell pulls out his laptop to refresh his memory of new material. After murmuring to himself, he brings up Boyle, his still-unwritten joke subject. "I can't stop watching her, man," he tells comedian Greg Edmonds, slouched in the chair next to him, who nods in agreement. A spirited discussion of Boyle's looks and potential makeover follows. "It's so fucked up — can't she just look like a human?" Edmonds asks.

The emcee, Moshe Kasher, popped in and out throughout the night. About 20 minutes before Bell was to go on, Kasher issues a warning. "The crowd's turning," he says, pointing at the next comedian on the bill. "He's got his work cut out for him."


After Okinawa, Bell went to work on a different sort of act: an hour-long solo performance project. He found his inspiration in a Rolling Stone story titled "Shirley Q. Liquor, After Imus: A Black Face Comic Who Sings '12 Days of Kwanzaa,'" which questioned whether redneck comic Shirley Q. Liquor in blackface constituted racism. "I don't know in what context a man in a clown wig and blackface wouldn't be considered racist," Bell says, disgusted.

Bell's one-man show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve, didn't find an audience immediately, but Bell's long-suppressed desire to write longer-form jokes, or maybe just stories that weren't jokes at all, paid off in critical local acclaim. Longtime friends and colleagues may have heard him deliver similar material in the past, but never so personally or so pointedly. "His anger doesn't take up as much space, and that makes his performance stronger," the show's director, Martha Rynberg, says. "He uses his anger in certain places, so that it's an ingredient more than the main course."

Bell Curve consumed Bell's attention for much of 2008 — well, that, and planning his wedding to longtime girlfriend Melissa Hudson, a white UC Riverside graduate student who is frequently, if carefully, mentioned in his act. But now he's ready to say yes to any project that will extend his reach beyond local fame.

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