“In case you haven’t heard,” comedian W. Kamau Bell said, “A black guy’s president now. I’m not fighting against the Evil Empire anymore! I mean, how many Bush jokes can you do?”
Bell was elaborating on some of the changes in his solo show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, playing at La Peña tonight through Saturday. The show was named by the comic after both himself and The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, the controversial 1994 book on intelligence test scores by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray.
“It’s more compelling to talk about something more nuanced than ‘Bush is bad!’” Bell continued. “People say about Obama, ‘But he’s not funny!’ Yet he’s more interesting as a person—how smooth he is, how under control. Writing comedy about Bush is like writing about somebody falling downstairs—it’s too easy. The best comics are the ones dealing with what they have in front of them. If comedians are sad to see Bush go, they’re bad writers!”
He talked about the challenge of a live satiric act: “The show always pushes me, because it’s topical. The fun part is to write it as it’s happening, to break the news stories. I read about O.J. Simpson getting convicted and talked about it in the show that night. I realized some of the audience hadn’t heard about it. It’s a great feeling: to be ahead of the news cycle—and to be funny! Part of comedy of course is honing something over time. Both of my directors have told me that I like to do new stuff because it’s dangerous. Martha Rynberg, my original director, who still works with me, developing my act, would let me open on the new stuff—which is considered kind of the wrong thing to do; you’re supposed to hide it in the middle.”
Bell reflected on other things that’ve changed since he performed The Bell Curve at Pro Arts Gallery near Jack London Square just a year ago, and on his eagerness to play for East Bay audiences again.
For starters, Bell was married last March 21. “Two big things that make comics funnier are marriage and kids. I’ve got the first one now.”
“I’ve only played the East Bay a little bit,” said Bell, who’s based in San Francisco. “But those have been some of the most exciting times. It’s more diverse in the East Bay; that strengthens the show. Not just black and white, but across all lines. And it’s a younger crowd, too. When I played the art gallery, we wondered about it. It was way off the beaten path. But people found it—and they had to seek it out. I was kind of shocked.”
“Every stand-up comic has to work in every kind of location, environment, circumstance,” Bell went on, “Bars, cafes, with and without microphones. ... It’s good training, makes you very adaptable. There’ve been times I’ve come in and they’ve pointed and said, ‘You play over there’—and I’ve said ‘Huh?’ Once at Cal State-East Bay, I was performing on a 3-by-3-foot stage with a wireless mic; if I moved, the stage would come up off the ground. And I was twice as old as the audience. Their concept of race was totally different than mine. I adapted the material to what was going on in the room. I felt it was more of a teaching moment, but I still wanted to be funny, to have them come to it in their own way, not to be didactic.”
Bell, who advertises a two-for-one deal, “bring a friend of a different race,” spoke about his fascination with the dynamics of working with an audience: “How they get their information—one saying, ‘I never thought about that!’ and another, “I think about it every day.’ The buzz of recognition or comprehension in the room; I react to that. Some laugh Yes! Others laugh No! The crowd’s divided, but they’re all laughing. That’s the best reaction: to pick a side, not to sit there passively. You don’t have to be with me. In my solo show, I encourage people to talk.
Doing stand-up in a club, they talk to interrupt. One time, doing my solo show, they started talking to each other. It was like a town hall meeting! I sat on the stage and said, ‘You finish it!’ Unlike TV, we’re aware in a room together. I’m just leading the charge. But if I’m not having fun, how can it be comedy?”
Bell has played twice now at the Comedy Central Stage in Los Angeles, a development space where solo performers are invited to perform for 30 minutes in front of an audience that’s admitted free. Paul Stein, the artistic director of the Comedy Central Stage and formerly with HBO’s Workspace, who has a theater background, is directing Bell’s solo show now, which will play twice in the New York Fringe Festival, Aug. 14-30. The La Peña shows this weekend will be Bell’s last Bay Area dates before leaving for New York.
Speaking of Dick Gregory, who played at the Rrazz Room last week in San Francisco with Mort Sahl, Bell remarked, “How he lived his life completely, Dick Gregory, of all comics—that’s the way you do it!”
THE W. KAMAU BELL CURVE
8 p.m. tonight through Saturday La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave. $15-$20. 849-2568. www.lapena.org.