Arts and Culture

W. Kamau Bell on political humor, rape jokes and why he wants an Obama cabinet position

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Westword: You moved to New York City to do your show. Now that it hasn't been renewed, are you tempted to return to San Francisco?

W. Kamau Bell: Oh, yeah. Yes, yes. Let's be clear, though: It wasn't only not renewed, it was cancelled. We were coasting off the tracks as we were racing down the highway. We were in the middle of the Daytona 500 and FX stepped out in the middle of the roadway and said, "Stop! Get out." I would imagine that at some point, I will settle in San Francisco after a long, successful career, or I will run back there in shame. You've got to keep your options open. But yeah, San Francisco is my home.

Let's hope it's the former. It's weird that celebrities have to achieve a certain level of fame before they earn the right to move there but keep working.

Yeah, Robin Williams lives in San Francisco and it doesn't really affect what anybody thinks of his career. Nobody's like, "Man, Robin Williams, so sad he had to move back to San Francisco." When you're in the middle of it, though, like I hope I am, you want to be as close to the hot flame of show business as possible.

There's a great local scene in San Francisco, though.

The scene there has gotten really, really good. I was there before the scene got good. I was there between when the comedy boom crashed and before the Internet picked things back up again. I started out there. There was no way to get anybody to come to shows. Nobody was interested in comedy. When I got there, all the big, exciting comedians like Patton Oswalt had just moved out of town. Everyone was like, "Man, you should have been here two weeks ago." So I was there during a real downtime in comedy; it was all over the country and San Francisco certainly wasn't sheltered from that. Then the Internet came and suddenly everyone had to get a website and a Facebook fan group, and over time people slowly got excited about comedy again, which is great.

How has your act changed from those early days when you were just starting out?

I would have to say that the biggest difference is that I'm funny now. Some people come out of the gate really fast and some people come out of the gate not so fast. It certainly took me a while to figure out what I wanted to say, how to say it, and then how to say it the exact way I wanted to say it. I'm still working on that last part. Part of it was that there wasn't a ton of stage time available when I started. What makes you a better comic is getting out there -- and pardon the metaphor, which is a poor one, considering the state of the world -- and it's a war of attrition. You have to keep at it and the more at-bats you get, the better your hit ratio is. Now I'm mixing all my metaphors.

How did you find out what you wanted to talk about?

I grew up in a very racially conscious home. When I started doing comedy, I talked about lots of different things. It took me a while to realize that in some ways, I was going to pick up the family business of talking about race and racism.

When did your act take on a more sociopolitical bent?

It was really when I was preparing for my solo show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. I decided after being in the clubs and doing a joke about race -- it's funny, I just heard Colin Quinn talking about this -- at a comedy club, the audience kind of expects you to change the subject every few minutes. It's probably even faster now because post-Internet, everybody just wants to click onto the next thing. I remember being at clubs, feeling like "I'm not done talking about racism yet," but feeling the audience be ready to click on to a new thing. I don't want to click on a new thing. There are more articles about racism and I want to click on those. So I decided to set up a show where I put racism in the title, so the people who came were aware what we were there to do. If people didn't enjoy the show, it would be because they didn't like the jokes, not because they didn't like the subject.

That's the show that eventually got adapted for TV, right?

Yeah, Chris Rock saw that show, and he offered to produce a TV show with me. But, yeah, what he saw on that show is what basically ended up being Totally Biased. Which ended up with me being back in my apartment and unemployed. Ah, the circle of life.

Now that you're touring, is the show more oriented towards straightforward standup, or are you still primarily focused on political commentary?

I think political commentary can be just straightforward standup. I'm not bringing a screen and pictures. I will be saying things that will be based in political commentary because that's, you know, how I roll. It's a standup show. I love standup, I came from standup. I loved doing my solo show and I loved doing Totally Biased, but I want to get back to standup. The whole idea of this tour was to get away from the screen and go out and meet the people. After having a year of being wedded to my mark, wedded to the screen and wedded to the script, it's liberating to think, "I can just go out there and talk! I can say funny things and see how it goes!" I love standup, and I'm hoping this tour will culminate in a comedy special recording at the end of the year. Which is something I've never done. Keep reading for more from W. Kamau Bell.

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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham