W. Kamau Bell doesn't seem like the type of comedian who explicitly set out to be a "political comedian."
Like every good stand-up comic, Bell's jokes are really just all about himself and the way he experiences the world. But where other comics take a look around and see that airline food tastes like Jack Nicholson's lower back smells and the line at the DMV never seems to move, this Richmond District resident sees the thorny issues of race relations, urban inequality and political upheaval. Too Bell's credit, he makes it all very, very funny.
Bell has been stalking Bay Area stages for over a decade, both with his stand-up and his acclaimed solo show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About An Hour.
Now, the man SF Weekly once called "San Francisco's Best Comedian" has teamed up with fellow local comics Nato Green and Janine Brito for a SF Sketchfest presentation of Laughter Against the Machine, a political comedy show for people who hate political comedy shows by people who hate political comedy shows.
We sat down with Bell to chat about feeling like the only black dude in his neighborhood, why you shouldn't get real estate advice from rap songs and the tribulations of being a San Francisco comedian on the road.
Who: W. Kamau Bell, comedian and co-host of Laughter Against the Machine
Years in SF: 12
What's your first San Francisco memory? My first memory of the Bay Area is actually of Oakland. When I moved out here from Chicago, me and my girlfriend at the time had rented an apartment, sight unseen, and all we knew about Oakland was from rap songs. We got off the airplane and took the bus from BART to the apartment, which was a block outside of Piedmont--if you're not familiar with Piedmont, it's where all the rich white people live. So we're a block outside of it and we were like, "This is Oakland? Where are all the black people I heard about?"
Were you like, "You lied to me Too $hort"? Yeah, my first memory of Oakland was that Too $hort was a liar. Please, don't tell him I said that.
My first experience of San Francisco was that it seemed to me that the city, much like New York City at the time, lived up to its reputation. There's a lot of hills; there's a lot of Chinese people; there's a wharf; there's a Haight street where there are still people wearing tie-die and it smells like pot everywhere. Not all cities do that, but San Francisco lived up to the thing I heard about. If Disneyland had a SF-land, it would be just like the city. My first memory of the city was being on a cable car going over a hill into Chinatown--this isn't a movie about San Francisco, it actually is San Francisco.
Having lived here since then I realized its not really like that. That's just for the tourists.
How so? It's way more Real Housewives of Orange Country. It's nowhere as near as grungy or as friendly to the arts as I thought it would be. There's a lot of really cool art going on in the city, but it's nowhere near as friendly to the freaks as I expected. Oakland feels a lot more like that to me. So that's been sort of a bummer. And, statically, there's no black people in San Francisco. If you look at the statistical model, we're in the margin of error. That was really quite shocking and every year there seems to be less and less.
Even in my neighborhood, I talk about this in my act too, sometimes I feel like the only other black people I see regularly are homeless black people. I feel like I carry a lot of weight because I sleep indoors at night. I feel like I Am Legend. It's shocking and disturbing and I feel like that's affected my act a lot.
When you do that sort of thing in your act and ask, "Where are all the black people in San Francisco?", what response do you typically get?
It depends on the crowd. It depends on the racial mix of the crowd. White people will laugh at those jokes but they often won't enjoy them. Whereas, if it's a racially mixed or racially aware crowd--it doesn't have to be all black people, but white people who are racially aware can enjoy those things because they can think, "I'm glad somebody is talking about this." If it's a standard white comedy club audience they'll laugh, but it's a little defensive.
Are audiences here different than ones you've played for in other parts of the country? Here I can get away with different things.
In San Francisco I can say, "blah blah blah legalize gay marriage," and not think about if everyone is with this. I mean, in San Francisco there are people who aren't with it but don't feel free to express their opinion, which is awesome. Whereas, if I'm in Cincinnati, and I've played Cincinnati a couple times, I'll go, "blah blah blah gay marriage," I can feel not everybody's with this. Not that they boo or anything, but people feel free to not be with it. Not be down on Cincinnati--there are a lots of other places where you can feel that. Even in Chicago, there's a different vibe where people tense up about things they don't feel free to tense up about here. That means you have to not do the joke or do the joke in a different way.
Every comic from San Francisco knows that feeling of going up somewhere in the country and the MC goes, "This comic is from San Francisco," and the audience immediately starts to guffaw. I'm always like, "Really? Already? Well, just say I'm from California."
You can take things for granted here that you can't elsewhere. But then you go the UK and tell them that we don't have gay marriage in California and they don't understand why you wouldn't. So it works both ways. Sometimes I think I'm saying something really progressive and the crowd will be like "that's not actually a big deal."
I think really a lot of being a good comic is like being a great chess player. You don't play the same game every time, but you're still going to win.
What is Laughter Against The Machine? LATM is basically a response to all those bad crowds I was talking about. Around the time of Barack's running for president, suddenly people told me I was a political comedian because I was talking about politics. I thought I was just talking about black presidents. I got put on political shows and I found that the audiences that showed up to liberal comedy shows weren't good comedy audiences. It's almost like when you go to a benefit show but don't really care who's playing. Mainly wanting people to know you support the cause--they'd be super "one percent" white people. So if you talked about things from a black perspective they get uncomfortable.
Just tell me my views are right. Exactly. [Fellow LATM comedian] Nato [Green] always said that what they really wanted was a cheerleader. "George W. Bush is dumb." I mean, I never wrote a joke like that; I don't have those jokes. Me and him both had that feeling where we wanted to talk about issues but didn't want to deal with those audiences. So we thought, what if we started a comedy show based around the idea of talking about stuff from the left, but it's not there exclusively for you to agree with necessarily. It's just there for you to hear and decide if you want to laugh or not. Do it on issues and not on party lines. Part of the reason we wanted to do it was because we want to have criticism for both the left and the right, but a lot of left-wing comedy crowds don't want to hear that.
Laughter Against The Machine performs at the Eureka Theatre on February 2nd.
Check out this video promo for LATM: