The Rumpus Interview with W. Kamau Bell

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W. Kamau Bell wants stand-up comedy to be seen as an art form enjoyed by hip, educated people. He’s on a mission to raise the IQ and literacy of comedy audiences, take sides on the lofty questions confronting his generation, and end racism. Then he’ll kick back with a torta and watch Lost.

His crusade has landed his second comedy album, Face Full of Flour, on the iTunes and Punchline Magazine lists of Top 10 Comedy Albums of 2010, won him Best Comedian title several times over, a critically acclaimed solo show, and the respect and accolades of the likes of Margaret Cho and Robin Williams.

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The Rumpus: When I first met you in 2005, you were frustrated with comedy. Back before you recorded your first CD, before you got on Premium Blend.

W. Kamau Bell: Pre-Premium Blend was definitely frustrated Kamau.

Rumpus: You were always upfront about wanting to talk about racism. Chart the transition from just trying to kill onstage by doing jokes about Tyra Banks and Ikea to the Bell Curve.

Kamau: I’ve been thinking about the first CD, One Night Only, a lot because the second CD, Face Full of Flour, is out. There was no arc to the first CD. It was my first headlining night. I hadn’t intended to record a CD. I just brought a minidisc recorder onstage. I didn’t know what I would do with it. It was packed that night. First time I ever sold out a venue. I did sixty-three minutes. They didn’t light me because there were more people than they expected and they needed to get checks out.

I did every joke I had at that time. It was a last will and testament. A lot of the jokes I never did again. It felt like the end of an era. I was starting the transition. There was still a sense I’m trying to get something across. The Tyra Banks joke, I wouldn’t do that way now, but I was trying to talk about hypocrisy. I don’t have the approach any more of doing material just because it’s funny. Now I have to know why I feel the need to say this thing in front of these people.

Around the time I recorded the CD, I did shows in Okinawa for the military. They were nice and polite and bored by what I had to say. I came away thinking, “Is this what I do for a living?” Then I took a month or two and stopped doing sets. The Bell Curve came out of that; the Bell Curve has really affected my comedy.

When we met before Montreal and Premium Blend, I was floundering. I knew that when I’d audition, there was a reason I wasn’t getting picked. I had no illusion. A lot of comics who were getting picked back then, like Al Madrigal, had a whole package. When I went to Montreal, it went okay. When I came back to do Premium Blend I got all Rocky 2 about the training. The jokes I submitted and the set I did were quite different. I wanted to focus. I wanted all of it to be in one direction on one subject—not just random jokes.

Rumpus: Has directing theater helped your stand-up?

Kamau: Teaching the Solo Performance Workshop changed my stand-up. I was challenging people to do things that I wasn’t doing in my own art. In solo performance you’re onstage for fifteen minutes, but it has to be fifteen minutes you really care about. In stand-up we just care about the laugh. We don’t care about the topic.

In the class I was constantly challenging people to say what they believe even if they know no one else does, go out on a limb, say things they’re afraid to say. I don’t do this as much as I tell people to. Seeing people be successful has made me want to be successful at it. Seeing the class change people’s lives made me want to have that effect. It’s been life changing for participants. I used to be embarrassed to have people come from the class to see my stand-up because it wasn’t related at all. Now it is. I’m not doing a solo show during stand-up, and I’m only talking about stuff I care about.

Rumpus: When the Bell Curve started, how much of it was about the different venue and the expectations of the audience, and how much the content of writing and performing solo vs. stand-up, or is that a false distinction?

Kamau: Not at all. In a theater, it seems like you have to get as many people as you can, but you actually get to curate who comes through the door. Based on how you advertise it, where, to whom. The audience I got for the Bell Curve was not an audience I was seeing in comedy clubs. Some traditional theater audience, but also people whose interest was piqued by the two-for-one promotion. (Bring a friend of a different race for free.)

Giving myself permission to tell stories and use multimedia helped a lot. In a comedy club, people don’t believe you when you say, “A guy said a thing.” People think you made it up. In a theater, I could show the article or quote or person to give it relevance.

The East Bay Express said my audience has a high median IQ—certainly higher than a comedy club audience. If you market the product correctly, you get exactly the right crowd for your product. In a comedy club, there are people there just because it’s a comedy club and open. I’d rather have fifty people in a theater who are there to see this specific thing than 150 people in a club who are there because it’s a club.

Rumpus: Why do theater audiences not think comedy is for them?

Kamau: I should have been born when my dad was born and he should have been born when I was. He was born in 1943. He was in his late twenties in the late 60s. A time of great music and comedy. Comedy wasn’t defined. So intelligent, hip people found comedy—like music—was the thing they liked. You could see Richard Pryor or Buddy Hackett. You could get a hip audience who felt like comedy was for them.

In the 80s and 90s, comedy became a thing you saw mainly on TV. Took a lot of wind out of it. Comedy clubs reflect that more often than not. There is a comedian who talks about airports, men and women—a defined list of subjects. That affects who does and doesn’t come to the club. Comedy is not considered an art form in this country.

If Bill Hicks had come up in the 70s he would have been a star, because people were looking for those types of comedians. Lenny Bruce was a star for a brief period of time because comedy was something that hip educated people did. Now it’s not so you have to go get those people.

When we do Laughter Against the Machine, we get people who were offended by stuff we did. I’d love to take all those people who were offended and put them in the Punchline on a Sunday night. “This is what normally happens. You don’t normally do this, so you’re offended by us, where if you saw what normally happens, you would react differently.”

I love stand-up comedy. I love being a comic. There’s a sense that it’s the Old West with no rules. But there’s a story that I told two nights in a row at a solo show, but I can’t tell in a comedy club because it’s too personal and nuanced for stand-up:

I was in Los Angeles to audition for a new Def Jam. I followed a guy named Dam Fool. Nothing against him personally, but that’s so 90s, maybe 1890s. He says it a lot onstage. “I’m a damn fool, I can’t help myself.” I feel like it’s invoking evil spirits. Like saying “candyman” three times.

Rumpus: Defining yourself that way precludes your evolution as an artist.

Kamau: He was in his twenties—he wasn’t in his seventies. Part of being a comic is to brand yourself before you’re ready to brand yourself. Pryor branded himself the other Cosby before he realized that wasn’t who he was. My act went fine that night. I told my joke about Gandhi and the crowd went quiet. They knew who Gandhi was, but weren’t used to thinking about him in a black club. So I get offstage and the guy says, “You can tell he reads. I don’t.” The crowd laughs and I was in seventh grade again, not fitting in with the other black people.

I read a book. I read an article on Yahoo. But I’m not that guy. I’m not the smart one of my friends. I’m the funny one. I say things to my friends trying to be serious and my friends laugh, and then I say them onstage. My best friend owns a bookstore.

Rumpus: In Laughter Against the Machine, what we all have in common is that we have a contentious relationship with our own identities. You’re not trying to make any claim to being authentically black, or to work traditional black rooms. Contradiction of being a black comic talking about race and being someone who struggles with your own identity.

Kamau: I only struggle with my identity when others struggle with my identity. I’m pretty okay when I’m sitting at home listening to Fishbone, watching Project Runway. Like when the guy said, “Give it up for Kamau, he reads.” That’s bad?

Black people come to the club who didn’t come to see me specifically. I get nervous that they’ll think “Finally, a black comedian.” But I’m not the black comedian they ordered. But now that I have a better handle on my act, they’ll be appreciative of me because I’m outside the circumstance black comedy is normally in. I’m excited when black people are there. I don’t have any guilt for not doing black comedy clubs, because black comedy clubs—like black radio—don’t encompass a lot of black people. I talk about being black and race in ways more than they do in black clubs. The people who like me aren’t going to black clubs either. In the black club, someone said “you’re a conscious comedian.”

I’m a Rap act from the 90s? I’d prefer being an opinionated comedian. They tried to put me in a box I wasn’t comfortable in.

Rumpus: There’s a dilemma of people liking you or not liking you for the wrong reason. How do you think about your responsibility to bring the audience along?

Kamau: I was very aware when we did those shows at the New Parish, I was basically opening on “Fuck Tyler Perry.” I was hyper-aware that I was opening on that in Oakland. Maybe closing on that would have been better than opening, because I would have brought people along. But I really wanted to open on that, to let people know, this is where I’m at. As we saw, one night someone got mad about it. Every show, a portion of the audience didn’t come along.

Rumpus: It’s so crazy that of all the shit that we talk about, Tyler Perry was what freaked people out. It’s not like he’s a sacred cow.

Kamau: That’s true of a lot of identities. You’re not supposed to talk about that in mixed company. You’re not supposed to talk about someone who’s doing well. In a comedy club, you don’t open on, “I have some thoughts about Tyler Perry. I have some issues. I’m going to enumerate them.” You want to break the door down. You want to divide the room into teams. I want to write jokes that make people choose a side. People can laugh and be against me.

I don’t do that joke in an all-white room. It doesn’t mean the same thing. I didn’t do it in Seattle. In the bit where I list things I hate, the crowd made me go through the list and say why I hated each one. When I got to Tyler Perry, instead of saying “Fuck Tyler Perry” like I usually do, I said “There aren’t enough black people here for me to talk about this.” It got a big laugh, but it was true.

Rumpus: I feel like I don’t have that much time to be offended by art. I’m offended by poverty and police brutality and imperialism. If someone wants to put some bullshit out, maybe I won’t buy their DVD. But I want to focus my rage on something other than artists. I don’t think the point of art is to avoid being offended. People don’t feel that way about comedy. “I wanted to laugh, not be offended.” Yet Robert Mapplethorpe had a career.

Kamau: People walk in and go “Oh God!” I would like to put that in my house and never look at it.

Rumpus: People pay for that. But if Mapplethorpe were a comedian, the same people who love his photographs wouldn’t watch his stand-up.

Kamau: The first time I heard Bill Hicks’ Relentless, that album changed my DNA. I didn’t agree with everything. I couldn’t believe he said those things. That visceral thing is a part of comedy. It pushes you on a basic level. People get pushed on that level and think “that’s not laughter.” I think they get up and walk out.
The week at the Punchline when I recorded the new album, four white people walked out. It’s twenty minutes in, and I’m the headliner. I was going to say something, and then I thought, “You’re not Paul Mooney.” I’m glad they’re leaving. Good for you. Just go. I don’t want to attack you for leaving. Let’s get it down to the people who want to be here. Mooney would narrate people out of the room. I’m not trying to create a confrontational dynamic.

Do your research next time. Look it up on YouTube. The Internet exists so you don’t have to do anything uninformed. When people are offended, it’s not “Oops, I came to the wrong thing.” They don’t think of it that way. They think, “You’re wrong.”

Rumpus: If you’re going to bother to talk about the world, your whole credibility is in your point of view, not to be a mouthpiece of a cause. It’s not just being funny, but being fearless about examining the damage in the world. When people get offended, it’s not that I disagree with that idea—it’s that I’m uncomfortable with that subject. I had a huge argument with a group because I said the word “molested” and they knew people who had been molested. But it’s not a pro-molesting joke. So we can’t talk onstage about how molesting exists?

Kamau: It’s very easy to deconstruct comedy and take the humor from it. It’s very easy to say if you look at this from this way it’s not funny. If you know more about the history it’s not funny. I feel like comics like me, you, Hari, we’re walking in the tradition of Hicks, Lenny Bruce, where the direction we’re in is examining the damage in the world. We’re trying to do it in an honest way. We’re not trying to make it cuter. Or belittle it. So it makes sense that there would be rough edges. Some people don’t want any rough edges.

Even though I’m doing a show about ending racism, I’m not trying to shave the rough edges off of racism. I hate solo shows about racism that don’t make anybody in the audience feel bad or guilty, or like they have a part in it. I want us all in the room to feel like we have a part in it.

I’ve gotten feedback, too. There’s a joke on my first CD about Condoleezza Rice. Now whenever it comes up, I admit that I did that wrong. I found a blog where someone had heard me on the radio and found this clip online. I emailed them and said, “Yes, I know. It was 2005 and I’ve changed. I wouldn’t do that again.” They were like, “Oh. Well, good.” They don’t realize that comics spend forty-five percent of their day Googling themselves.

Rumpus: I don’t think this has always been true of your act, but what has really gotten sharpened through the Bell Curve is the central argument of your whole comedy act: that we’re all that asshole. What makes it all work is that you don’t let yourself off the hook, either.

Kamau: It’s like the Tyler Perry thing. People don’t want you to talk about him because he’s at the forefront and he’s doing well. I’m not running for black leader. I’m here for a different thing.

I put everything through a litmus test before I say it onstage. We all cross lines and go too far. I ask, how much do I care about this? Why am I saying this? I want to put every joke in a bigger context. I don’t just want to say something. Even if it’s seemingly a small thing, I want it to all link up. Because I put everything through that litmus test, if you see me do a show, there is a sense that it’s one show. There’s no “What else is going on?” There’s an order to it.

Rumpus: How do you deal with the accusation of preaching to the converted?

Kamau: I’ve spent so little time preaching to the converted. If the converted were showing up at comedy clubs all the time, I wouldn’t be the comic I am now. The shows I did at La Pena last August, I said for the first time I’d ever said it onstage, “Fuck Tyler Perry.” I was nervous. I tried to step into it so it wouldn’t show. But at La Pena, that audience was sixty percent black. This could have led to a riot, and then to hear the roar. It was not that I was preaching to the converted, but that we had all united around something none of us had said out loud before. We’re not all always talking about our problems with Tyler Perry. I said it and we all felt a release. There’s a segment of society that won’t feel a release, but I don’t need them.

My act can’t end up being a series of applause breaks. I still want gale-force laughter. I still want the kind of laughter Larry the Cable Guy gets, but about ending racism. I still want buckets of laughter. As the artist onstage, I still want to push the audience past what they came for.

We all want to have an audience that supports us to live and draws a crowd. We all want to be headliners. There’s a point at which you go from being a headliner to a spokesperson for a movement, like Margaret Cho. She went from being a comedian to being a gay spokesperson. She handles it well. Kathy Griffin plays a similar crowd, but hasn’t invested in the role of gay spokesperson.

Until I know who the movement I’m speaking to is, I only feel responsibility to me, my wife, and my family and friends. I don’t want to take on that responsibility until it exists. And I would be a shitty spokesperson.

Like when I was at the rally for public education, and someone recognized me from the show and wanted to interview me—he was asking me where they should find the money to fund schools. I’m not that guy. I never told anyone I could answer this question.  If there are 15,000 people down here and I’m the one with the answers, close the schools now because we’re doomed.

Dick Gregory was a full-time comedian who was working in the civil rights movement. At a certain point he said, I’m not doing enough in the civil rights movement and he gave up being a comedian. It’s not enough to tell jokes that civil rights activists laugh at, I’m going to go work in the movement.

Someone asked me what I was doing to end white supremacy. I’m a comedian. Whatever that does is what I’m doing. Whatever it is to tell jokes about racism. The people who are working in the field are having a bigger impact than what I’m doing.

Rumpus: I’m always annoyed at people identified as poet-activists or writer-organizers. What is your organizing? Reading poems at rallies. That’s not activism.

Kamau: It’s not that I don’t believe what I’m doing is helpful. I have an agenda. But I’m not being an activist. I know from my mom, and my friends, that if you want to get work done in activism, that’s a job. There’s a place you go to pick up the van and put the signs on sticks. I’m not doing that.

Rumpus: The comedian is as much the effect as the cause of social change. Political currents find expression in the arts. Pryor couldn’t be Pryor without the civil rights movement and the counterculture and black power. There was a movement for him to relate to and respond to. People in those movements, we’re like, “We’re going to the movies, we’re going to see a comedy show and see a comedian who will talk about our shit. Then we’re going to go picket tomorrow and feel better.”

Once you said to me that the Bell Curve was the first show you had to write, and then you would write a show about religion. How’s that coming along?

Kamau: I still think I’m going to do that show, but not anytime soon. Something I like about the Bell Curve is the evening-length investigation into one subject that I could do about other subjects. With the Bell Curve, there are times I feel constrained by the subject. When I have stuff to say about fundamentalist Christians, I use stand-up. Sometimes I wish I could do a power point on my stand-up.

Recently, I did the “Blacktacular,” the examination of Black History Month. I knew that I only had so much to say about Black History Month. There were other things I wanted to say that were maybe going to end up in the Bell Curve or somewhere else. Writing the show, it ended up being a rallying cry for the left, which I didn’t know I was interested in doing. I realized it was a different show. I backed into a new show that I could do now. It was about how on the left we spend so much time talking shit about each other, while the right is lining up against us and we’re wasting time on “You didn’t mention recycling. You didn’t mention baby seals.”

All artists are lucky to get one great artistic statement. If you have more than that, you’re the Beatles. The Bell Curve is a good one for right now.

If I could cultivate any audience, it would be an audience thinking, “What do you have to say, Kamau?” Not that they want to hear me beat their drum. Chris Rock is able to express a point of view in a way that people can quote it as their opinion on a subject. What’s the point of going to a comedy show where you agree with everything? Stay home and write your blog.

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W. Kamau Bell & Nato Green bring their hit comedy tour Laughter Against the Machine: Guerilla Stand-up Comedy back to the New Parish in Oakland on February 8 and 9, and to the Sacramento Comedy Spot on February 11. They’ll be joined by Janine Brito, and for the Oakland shows by Hari Kondabolu.


Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian and writer. He has a regular column in the San Francisco Examiner, a regular show on KALW public radio, and hosts monthly comedy shows at the Alamo Drafthouse, the Verdi Club, and Modern Times Bookstore. More from this author →