Race to Fame

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

By the time Bell jumped onstage on Sunday, the heat had subdued the remaining crowd to the point of catatonia. A burly, tattooed man sat in front, looking drugged. Conor Kellicutt, the white comedian preceding Bell, had taken a few stabs at race jokes and gotten pretty much nowhere; his crack about Oprah being fat again was met with silence. Kasher's introduction of Bell, a comedian providing "insight," didn't seem to excite the masses either.

But Bell takes the beaten-down audience in stride. "We live in crazy times," he says, grabbing the mike stand, "crazy times. We have a black president ... Pirates of the Caribbean is real. Gay people can get married in Iowa, but not San Francisco. The biggest player in the NBA is Chinese. Crazy times."

Mild chuckles. Bell segues into a joke about Obama not acting presidential enough. "He just makes it look too easy. Maybe he's like LeBron, and the transition into the pros is seamless, but come on! Sweat a little!" he exhorts, throwing his hands up.

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.

Bell's physicality as a performer has grown over the past few years: he sits, he stands, he power-walks, he dances. The crowd seems to appreciate the effort.

When he launches into his bit on lesbians being his preferred company, a murmur spreads among the crowd. "No, no, not like that," Bell quickly corrects, "It's just that with my straight female friends, I'd always get that weird phone call, to talk about our relationship. And I only need to have that conversation with one person — the person I'm fucking." He's tweaking the language, making it a bit bawdier for the comedy club crowd.

He coasts through the section on competitive straight males and is met with approval in his description of gay male friendships. Bell has built a part into the joke where he describes reality show Project: Runway marathons as another too-busy aspect of gay life, and then drops in insider info — "Chloe should have won; she had a better line in Season Two, but then she choked at the end" — to ensure no one thinks he's somehow too straight to enjoy the show.

By this point, the crowd is won over. "The best thing about lesbian friends is that you turn to them and say, 'Women are crazy,' and they go, 'Yup. And pass the hummus,'" Bell says, slowing down to get the full effect from the punch line. It got big laughs, helped along by his wry delivery. But one figure has been absent from the set: Susan Boyle. He tried to work her into his opener — the "world is crazy" lead-in — but muffed it. Her name was jumbled up in the longer list, and while he paused for a second, perhaps intending to ad lib something, nothing happened.

Even Bell's most ardent supporters would not say his act is perfect. He can come across as too professorial at times, his topical material sounding like a Daily Show retread, and his sets lack that perfect jolt of profanity, paired with insight, that help make Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, or even Sarah Silverman grab-your-sides, gasping-for-air funny. But he has tapped a nerve.

"Kamau has a lot of 'heat' right now in the industry," says the Punch Line booker, Molly Schminke, in an e-mail, noting that Los Angeles talent agents have been calling her for more information on him. Longtime Cobb's Comedy Club booker Tom Sawyer says that Bell has broken through. "It's not difficult for a funny person to write jokes; it's difficult for a funny person to find his or her voice, the voice that makes them honest with who they are," Sawyer says. "That's the path Kamau is on."

There is a very real threat, though, that Bell is out of step with the current national mood. In one set, he said something about a haiku, and then snapped back, "Bet you didn't expect to hear me say 'haiku.'" Well, actually, we see our president delivering ten-dollar words every day on TV.

Larry Wilmore, the Senior Black Correspondent for the Daily Show, recently noted that improved racial relations was terrible news for a black comic, whose "bread and butter is the seething unease between the races." And already this year, black comics D.L. Hughley and David Alan Grier have seen their topical news shows cancelled by CNN and Comedy Central, respectively; both shows suffered from a lack of clarity about who their audiences were supposed to be, let alone what messages about race to impart.

But perhaps Bell is the right guy for these confusing times. To appreciate his brand of comedy, you do have to come into the room wanting to talk about race. But you will also get to twist the subject matter, turn it, and approach it from multiple angles.

For instance, he does a joke about walking around the city, hand in hand with his wife, ending it with a description of his own reaction to seeing an interracial couple. "How do you go home to your mama?" he asks, pantomiming releasing Melissa's hand to face the imaginary couple. As Bell is fond of saying: Everyone's racist somehow. It just takes a comedian to talk about it.

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