Aspen Rooftop Comedy: Kamau Bell mines race for laughs
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – W. Kamau Bell’s stand-up act explores the subtleties of race in America. Despite the election of Barack Obama as president, and the talk about the country’s post-racial era, Kamau’s fear of running out of comedic material is slight.
“If I was to live to be 4,000 years old, that would be a concern,” said Bell, one of the comedians featured in Friday’s Rooftop After Dark program, part of the second annual Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival, at the Wheeler Opera House. “But I’m not going to run out of material in my lifetime.”
Issues of race – out-and-out racism, the more benign differences between African-, Latin-, Asian- and regular-Americans – didn’t end when the first couple of color took up residence in the White House. Bell, in addition to his stand-up act, has a one-person, multi-media show, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About an Hour,” whose title is a joke in itself. The show, developed two years ago, is “an attack on the idea of a post-racial America,” says Bell.
“I can prove there’s no post-racial America in two words: Cleveland Indians. Or Washington Redskins,” continued Bell. “The idea of a post-racial America is ridiculous. You don’t end racism with one half-black, half-white guy.”
Predictably, the fact that that particular mixed-race human is the most powerful person on the planet has found a way into Bell’s act. And perhaps it’s not surprising that Bell isn’t looking at Obama’s election through rose-colored glasses, as the crowning achievement of an enlightened electorate.
“That we were ready for to accept a black president, that we’re not wowed by that, that that’s not all we’re talking about – to me, that’s mostly an indication of how much George W. Bush f—ed up,” said Bell, a genial, tall 36-year-old who has lived in San Francisco for the past 12 years. The comedian also has his criticism’s of Obama: “I feel he’s so smooth, too smooth. I think, ‘You’re the first black president: Make it look hard. Break a sweat.'”
Bell also professes confusion about how Obama has gotten himself branded as America’s first black president, when he is the offspring of a white mother. “Why aren’t the white people claiming him?” asked Bell. “Why aren’t they saying, ‘Alright, another white guy, he’s ours, the streak is intact?’ If the election proves anything, it’s that black plus white equals black.”
Bell says that about 70 percent of his stand-up act – and 100 percent of “The W. Kamau Bell Curve” – focuses on race. Obama, however, is the obvious and easy topic, and Bell is looking for subtler, less apparent topics.
“I think it’s funny that people are so reticent about” race, said Bell. “That in itself is funny. And when race creeps into things in a way that people aren’t aware of, it’s funny to be able to point that out. I use race like a Louisville Slugger. Or like a scalpel, depending on what the material is.” (One hopes that he comes up with an local flavored joke that goes beyond the standard “No black folks in Aspen” line.)
Bell finds himself to be in an advantageous position to look at racial issues. He is black through and through, from his Afro to the Jimi Hendrix T-shirt to the two African-Americans he calls his parents. But he sees his upbringing – which included a childhood that found him moving from Indiana to Alabama to Chicago – as well outside the African-American norm. His mother, he says, was “a race warrior” who quit the Stanford English department’s Ph.D. program when they refused to give her a degree in black studies. His father’s resume includes being a v.p. of an insurance company, the insurance commissioner of Alabama, and a job with a Fortune 500 business. The history and struggle of blacks was a constant topic in his household. But Bell didn’t much appreciate at the time the kitchen-table education he was getting; he has, though, found that the background has left him comfortable talking with audiences about racial topics. And the talk of race didn’t instill in him an especially black identity.
“I grew up in the ’80s, around the birth of rap music,” he said. “But rap happened around me; it didn’t happen to me. My two best friends were Jewish guys who taught me about Bob Dylan and Miles Davis and Frank Zappa and Bob Marley.” His lifelong interest in comedy stemmed from Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” and “Bill Cosby, Himself” – but perhaps the biggest impact came from seeing Jerry Seinfeld’s first “Tonight Show” appearance.
Bell went to the University of Pennsylvania, where he learned mostly that he didn’t want to be a professional. He dropped out and returned to Chicago, where his mother enrolled him in classes at The Second City, the renowned improv-comedy training ground. Bell lasted two years at Second City – longer than he lasted at Penn, and long enough to earn the red t-shirt that says “Conservatory” that is given to all graduates. And long enough to realize that improv was not the humor style he wanted to explore. He wanted to be a stand-up comedian, so he moved to San Francisco, which had a thriving stand-up community.
In San Francisco, Bell armed himself with a notebook and pen, which he used obsessively to write down anything that he thought of that might be turned into material. To sharpen his direction, he read Richard Pryor’s “Pryor Convictions,” a memoir in which the late comic discussed how he found his stand-up voice.
“The big question for me was, How do I want to be funny? I’d try out – maybe I want to be funny like this, maybe like this. It was a grab-bag,” said Bell. “I found whenever I talked about race, the audience got real tense. So I spent a lot of years talking about race, then not talking about race. But the things I was saying didn’t seem like things that should make people tense. It was just material to me. But America’s a country that has race issues. So, six years in, I decided I wanted to talk about race.”
Bell got one of his big early laughs at a club in Chicago, a city he sees as so segregated, “It’s like being in the past.” Bell told the predominantly white audience, “Don’t worry. I’m not moving in.” “That got me thinking: Why is this so weird?” he said.
Bell developed his comic voice as a black man who felt on the outside of much of black culture. “What has become my biggest strength – but was my biggest obstacle – is I didn’t have a typical black upbringing,” he said. “I didn’t grow up in the inner city. My take was, I don’t understand any of this. I was an outsider in both worlds.”
His approach now is to expose for audiences how race pervades our thinking in ways we don’t recognize as race-related. There is a subtlety involved that was largely absent when Pryor or Murphy talked about being black. “It’s not, ‘black, black, black, black,'” Bell said of his act. “The things I’m interested in come from a racial perspective. But I don’t think people in the audience see it as 70 percent about race.”
While Bell doesn’t see racism disappearing anytime in the next few millennia, he is also optimistic that we are heading (slowly) in the right direction. His wife is white, but he says the biggest difference between the two comes down to religion: “She’s Catholic, and I’m sane,” he quips. Anyone attending “The W. Kamau Bell Curve” gets a second ticket free, if they bring a companion of a different race. “Audiences get smarter when there are all different kinds of people in them,” he said.
If racism does happen to evaporate much more quickly than he anticipates, Bell is prepared, professionally. “I don’t hope that racism is always America’s biggest sin,” he said. “I’m funny. I can always think of funny things to say.”
And he is confident that if racism were suddenly eradicated, there would still be plenty of material in the ways people separate themselves.
“Humanity always finds a way to exclude others,” he said. “Look at Ireland – they all look exactly alike. And they’ve figured out a way to hate each other.”
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It’s that time of year — hikers and mountain bikers must be aware that seasonal closures are taking effect on multiple trails in the area today for the winter for the benefit of wildlife.