Local comedian W. Kamau Bell’s big gamble was deciding to devote himself to the very material his audiences were telling him to abandon.
The thing about my daughter,” says W. Kamau Bell, cradling an imaginary baby in his right arm, “is that when my wife is carrying her, she looks black…but when I carry her, she looks white.” He pauses, shakes his head in mock confusion, eyes wide behind his trademark black glasses. “She’s like a broken chameleon!”
The tiny back room of the Hemlock Tavern explodes with laughter, for not the first or the second but perhaps the tenth time since Bell took the stage. Monday or no, the energy tonight is electric, and Bell flows smoothly through his set, bringing down the house with each new riff: the evils of T-Mobile telephone repairmen; the “parade of Batman villains” in contention for the Republican nomination; and, yes, the often unwelcome reactions he gets walking down the street with his white wife or carrying his biracial baby daughter in his arms—even in this Eden of racial tolerance known as the Bay Area.
Behind the belly laughs, however, there’s a bittersweet tone to the evening, because it’s come on the heels of Bell’s announcement that within the next few months, he and his family will be packing up and moving to Brooklyn—and if all goes well, he won’t be back anytime soon. After 17 years of slogging it out on the local comedy circuit, one of the Bay Area’s most beloved comics has finally struck career gold. He’s getting a television show of his own, premiering in what might just be the most prestigious comedy time slot on TV: directly following Louis C.K.’s hit half-hour sitcom on FX, Louie.
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, premiering on August 9 at 11 p.m., is a riotous mix of Dave Chappelle–like sketch comedy and Bill Maher–like political humor. It’s already guaranteed for six episodes, and its co–executive producer is actor, filmmaker, and stand-up icon Chris Rock. This is arguably the biggest thing to happen to a San Francisco– based comic since Robin Williams was first plucked by the networks to play Mork from Ork on national TV. And to make matters even better, Williams himself is a fan. He first saw Bell in the five-minute set Bell did at a benefit at Glide Memorial Church. “I saw him and just went, ‘Wow,’” says Williams. “He was fearless.” Williams was so impressed that he called Bell, and later offered to invest in the documentary Bell was making of his recent national comedy tour, Laughter Against the Machine.
Many would argue that Bell’s triumph is an unqualified coup for the city as well, proof that San Francisco is savvy enough to nurture outspoken, fearless, and hilarious social commentary that catches both the ears of the nation and the purse strings of cable execs. They’d be right—but they’d be overlooking something about the Bay Area that we shouldn’t be all that proud of. It was the city’s vaunted open-mindedness that drew Bell here, but it was its political complacency—and, in Bell’s view, its unacknowledged racism—that helped him develop into one of the nation’s most fearless comedians of conscience.
A few weeks after that ebullient performance at the Hemlock, an exhausted Bell—barefoot and wearing shorts and a Marc Maron T-shirt—ushers me into the Inner Sunset apartment he’s packing up, along with the rest of his San Francisco life, for his move to New York.
Bell showers, packs, and feeds his one-yearold daughter, while his mother, Janet Cheatham Bell, an author, academic, and civil rights activist, boasts lovingly about her son’s early years. She recalls his “witty sense of humor,” his love of reading, and his first comedy idols: “Kamau would do anything if I would let him stay up and watch Eddie Murphy.”
As for her history and civic lessons, they tended to fall on deaf ears. “I always say that race is sort of the family business,” Bell says. “Like some families have hardware stores—for our family it was talking about race, and I didn’t wanna work in that store.” But he did want to fit in, which was hard, given that he attended mostly white private schools, both in Boston, where he lived from age 5 to 12, and in Alabama, where he spent two years with his father (his parents are divorced). He eventually found comfortable niches in Chicago’s prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (where the Obamas sent their daughters) and at the University of Pennsylvania, which he left before graduating to embark on a career as a stand-up comic. After a few years back in Chicago, he moved to San Francisco in 1997.
At first, the city was everything he’d dreamed of, and more. He won stage time, made friends,got funnier. Five years into earning his stripes, however, he’d hit a plateau: good enough to open for Chappelle and headline his own shows, but nowhere near making a living or a name. The low point came in 2007, when he performed for a group of unresponsive enlisted men on an army base in Okinawa. “Frankly, they would have preferred a stripper to me,” he says.
Meanwhile, San Francisco had somehow managed to become wealthier, whiter, and more privileged each year—though nobody seemed to be noticing. The going assumption was that the election of a black president signaled the onset of a new postracial America, so somehow it was OK when white comedians spiced up their jokes with a poorly chosen racial epithet or two. (“We all know they don’t mean it.”) When Bell tried to address these things onstage, he’d be heckled by audiences urging him to lay off the politics and “say something funny.”
Bell’s big gamble was that he decided to devote himself to the very material his audiences were telling him to abandon. He booked four monthly nights at the Shelton Theater and wrote his show (called The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour) by riffing in front of a live audience about racism, using all the comic tools in his possession to speak about what the late comic Patrice O’Neal called “the shit I can’t prove.” He often projected clips from Fox News, CNN, and other mainstream outlets, or mini–history lessons in PowerPoint, but some of his funniest and most discomfiting bits drew directly from his experiences here at home: getting blindsided by the word nigger when chatting with white friends; the strangeness of living in a city with such a rapidly dwindling black population; the tendency, as he became better known, for strangers to confuse him with just about any other celebrity with an Afro, including Questlove from the Roots, Boots Riley from the Coup, and even 59-year-old Harvard professor Cornel West.
To say that everything changed overnight would be an exaggeration, but Bell had clearly found his voice—and his career took on new momentum. He had a column at the SF Weekly, a radio show, and a series of podcasts, and eventually he went on a national tour with two gifted fellow comics who shared his activist sensibilities: locals Janine Brito and Nato Green, a former labor organizer whose own politics lie, as he jokes onstage, “somewhere to the left of Ho Chi Minh.”
Bell’s newfound edge caught the attention of Chris Rock, who helped fund his pilot presentation and found a perfect home at FX for what Robin Williams calls Bell’s radical comedy. “[Comics at FX] are doing crazy, wild stuff,” Williams says. “That’s why they have Louie, that’s why they have Wilfred, and that’s why they hired Kamau. And they’re giving them all carte blanche.” For Bell, that has meant that he’s been able to have his favorite friends and collaborators work on his show, including Brito, Green, S.F. comedy scene alum Kevin Avery, stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu, and Bell’s old Chicago mentor Dwayne Kennedy.
“I want to do what I’ve been doing,” says Bell, “but with a broader audience, and with my friends helping me do it. My biggest hope for the show is that it becomes a part of the national discussion, like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. And gives us a college fund.”