Race to Fame

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

San Francisco comedian W. Kamau Bell would like you to know that racism still exists in the Bay Area, 150 years after the abolition of slavery and 100-plus days into President Barack Obama's historic term. But it's not always easy to spot.

Take this, for example, from one of Bell's signature bits, an extended riff on the difficulty of identifying actual bigots in a sea of small-time jerks. "I was drinking my coffee [in San Francisco] and minding my own business, and this white guy is sitting next to me typing on his laptop, when suddenly out of nowhere he turns to me and says, 'Is the correct term 'crack' or 'crack cocaine'?" Bell said. "But he stunned me, so I actually started to answer the question. 'Wait! Don't tell me! I know this one!' Then I stopped and asked him, 'Why the hell would you think that I would know?'" The question became, Bell said, is he a racist or an asshole?

And then there's another incident that made its way into Bell's act, the time he and an older white woman were leaving a drugstore at the same time and happened to walk in the same direction. She began to do "the white woman shuffle," as he tells it, "all knees and elbows, knees and elbows," until finally turning around with an expression of terror that caused him to jump back, frightened, wondering what crazy ax murderer was following them. Turns out it was him. "I get it," he says. "I'm a six-foot-four black man."

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 during a solo performance workshop at the Shelton Theater. Doing a one-man show turned out to be crucial for his progress in stand-up.
Jake Poehls
Bell during a solo performance workshop at the Shelton Theater. Doing a one-man show turned out to be crucial for his progress in stand-up.
The comedian as a young clown: 
Although he was intensely shy, Bell loved the theatrics of Halloween.
Courtesy of Janet Bell
The comedian as a young clown: Although he was intensely shy, Bell loved the theatrics of Halloween.
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.

But still, he wonders, "racism"? While most comedians deal with race in absolutes — black people do this, white people do that — Bell has built a career on examining the messy intersections of race and class in a supposedly postracial world.

After years of working the Bay Area stand-up scene and then launching his one-man show in 2007, Bell has reached a tipping point in his professional life. This past month marked his first week as the Punch Line's headliner, a rare gig for a local. In March, he flew to Los Angeles for a round of meetings with Comedy Central about filming his own half-hour special, and he's been accepted into industry-heavy events like this year's HBO Aspen Comedy Festival and the New York International Fringe Festival.

But Bell has higher goals than just "killing it" onstage. Whether the target is an asshole at the coffee shop or the hidden racist agenda of People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, Bell wants to educate people about the insidious nature of modern bigotry while also entertaining them. "I don't want to be a comedian who just tells jokes," he says. "I have an agenda."

It's tempting to think that perhaps Bell sees so much latent racism in a liberal bastion like San Francisco because he goes out looking for it. But it's not that simple. On a recent Friday morning, for instance, the 36-year-old Bell, clad casually in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, jeans, and a corduroy blazer, stood in the periodicals room of the San Francisco Main Public Library, waiting to film a public service announcement on the library's amnesty program to allow borrowers to return overdue books without paying fees. He flipped through a book on how to draw comics, a prop representing a library book he checked out as a child and never returned.

"I have to say, I don't know you, but I would never have guessed you would be into comic books," the library publicist said.

Bell looked up in disbelief. Normally quick with a quip, he spoke defensively. "You really don't know me, no," he said. "If you ask any of my friends, they would not be surprised at all."

The awkward moment was quickly shoved aside as the shooting started, but the unspoken question — why wouldn't you have guessed I love comic books? — hung in the air.

When asked about the situation, Bell later shrugged it off, saying, "All my life I haven't been meeting people's expectations of what this package would be." He is a big guy who never played basketball, a painfully shy kid who was drawn to the stage, an intellectually curious person who dropped out of an Ivy League college. While not opposed to prevailing notions of race and class and social status, he's definitely off-kilter. Essentially a nerd, Bell spent his formative years feeling "outside of blackness," especially impatient with his mother's focus on instilling black pride and discussing race.

The funny thing is, Bell's future depends on finding an audience who, unlike his younger self, wants to keep talking about race.

For the library's PSAs, Bell and fellow Bay Area luminaries — Josh Kornbluth, Beth Lisick, Marga Gomez, heroic pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III — were instructed to tell stories about books they had checked out and never returned.

Over a dozen or so takes, Bell built up a routine — "This book is old enough to drink. This book is almost old enough to rent a car and drive itself back to the library" — but he was distracted by another joke that has been fomenting, one that he hoped to write in time for his Sunday show at the Punch Line. He couldn't stop thinking about Susan Boyle, the dowdy Britain's Got Talent competitor who amazed audiences with her emotional rendition of a song from Les Miserables.

She moved Bell, rather profoundly. "I don't really trust anyone who doesn't believe in Susan Boyle," he said, as the small crew moved from the periodicals room to another spot in the library. His voice deepened slightly as he straightened up and began working out material, not for his current audience of one, but for a potential packed house. "If someone can watch that video and not feel something, I don't want to know them. I just don't."

Watching Bell clown around for most of the shoot — he was fond of poking his head up over bookshelves and whispering into the camera, pretending to have sneaked in to return the book — it's hard to believe that this ham was, for most of his life, extremely shy.

Bell was a classic bookworm, the product of his parents' emphasis on education. It was a rare point of convergence for his parents, who he can't imagine "getting along long enough to agree to have sex."

"My father is black, and my mother is black," was how Bell used to put it in his act. His college professor mother, Janet Cheatham Bell, actively sought to inject race into family conversations, publishing four volumes of black quotations and celebrating Kwanzaa "unironically," Bell says, with her only son.

Bell and his mother moved around for most of his childhood, but the two years he spent in junior high in Mobile, Alabama, with his businessman father, Walter Bell, proved to be formative in his racial consciousness. At one point at his mostly white school, a group of black kids threw him against a locker and demanded to know why he hung out with the white kids. Bell fell between the boundaries of most racial lines. "I wasn't living the story of black youth," he said. "I never was a break dancer, I didn't buy rap albums, I was not even really into music at that age, only TV."

Missing his mother, Bell went to her in Chicago and enrolled in the prestigious University of Chicago's Laboratory School, where the Obamas sent their daughters. Inside the competitive academic environment of the Lab School, Bell formed a small cadre of white outsider friends. He headed to the University of Pennsylvania, intending to get a degree in East Asian studies and become a martial arts star.

But once Bell got to Philadelphia, his perspective began to shift. During freshman orientation, he remembers sitting in a circle, talking about identity, and saying something like, "I don't feel African-American, I just feel American."

"This white guy said, 'Oh I'm so happy to hear you say that,'" Bell said, shaking his head. "And a black woman in the group just looked totally repulsed. Shortly after that, everything changed."

Largely through art, Bell's racial consciousness grew. He found music that spoke to him intensely — black rock bands like Living Colour and Fishbone. He began growing dreads. He got his mind blown by The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In his sophomore year, he realized that East Asian studies had little to do with his hero, Bruce Lee, so he dropped out of school and moved back to Chicago.

Bell then made a decision that shocked his friends and family: He started classes at famed comic institution Second City, completing a year-and-a-half-long program. "My resting rate is shy and quiet," Bell says. Standup "came out of left field." Bell had been moved to consider comedy after spending afternoons watching videos of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor; he found that he loved performing, but he didn't cotton to Second City's regimen of improv. So he bought a notebook and began dragging an old Lab School friend, Jason Smith, to open mike nights around Chicago. It took Bell more than a month to get on a stage for what he says, and Smith confirms, was a pretty terrible attempt at humor. "I can't lie," says Smith, now a bookstore owner in Chicago. "It was slow going. He had all stereotypical stuff — stories about the DMV, all kinds of relationship jokes. It wasn't Kamau; it was someone trying to be a comedian onstage."

But Bell kept plugging away, meeting fellow comics and getting turned on to what would be a primary inspiration — the incendiary political comedy of late comic Bill Hicks. "My friend gave me this cassette tape — remember, this was when there were cassette tapes — of Bill Hicks' Relentless," Bell says. "It just rang true ... and he was in charge in a way onstage that I wasn't. The audience wants him to think they're cool, not vice versa." With Hicks in mind, and armed with a few years' experience on the Chicago comedy scene, Bell headed west, hoping to make a living in stand-up.

It's a Sunday afternoon, two days after the PSA at the library, and Bell escorted the stragglers out of the Shelton Theater in San Francisco, locked the doors, and headed to a Starbucks across the street. He had been inside the Shelton on one of the hottest days of the year, helping lead a solo performance workshop with Paul Stein, the artistic director of the Comedy Central Stage in L.A.

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 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."

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.

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.

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.

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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