W. Kamau Bell's comedy career is rising fast, and not just in comedy clubs. While he does stand-up -- as he'll do here Oct. 22, at his first-ever Pittsburgh gig -- Bell is best known for his one-man multimedia show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. The show, which premiered in 2007, was a hit at theaters in his hometown of San Francisco, at New York's soloNova Festival, in Scotland's 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and more, and it's still touring college campuses nationally.
"America wouldn't be America without black people," Bell notes in Bell Curve. "I looked it up on the Internet. You know how much of America's popular culture we're responsible for? All of it." He illustrates with a slide reading, "Country music = The Blues [minus] Slavery."
Bell, who self-describes as "a 6-foot-4, 250-pound black guy," has a booming voice and a nerdly stage presence. The critically acclaimed comic also has two CDs, including Face Full of Flour, named one of 2010's best comedy albums by Punchline Magazine.
Bell performs here with local comic Ron Placone, a friend of his who invited Bell to play Pittsburgh. Bell spoke with CP by phone from San Francisco. A longer version of this interview appears at www.pghcitypaper.com.
What's The Bell Curve like?
It's super-topical. When I wrote the show in the fall of 2007, there was no mention of Sen. Barack Obama. Whereas by the time he was full-on running for president, the show became about 30 percent about him, and the election. Now that he's just sort of settled into being president, it's much less about him. But it's about the nation's response to having a black president.
It's worked every time. I've ended racism for every crowd every time I've done the show.
It's just I can't get a crowd of the entire planet in the room.
You should deputize people.
I do. The problem is I need to follow up with them more often. Like everything, it's really a problem of staffing.
How did Bell Curve come about?
I was [addressing] racism in my show a lot, and I would find that after 10 minutes, people were like, "He's still talking about racism?" "Yes, I am!" So it was like, "I'm gonna write a show as if I'm already famous and people know what they're coming to see." The minute you step through the door, you know what you're in for. And if you don't like that, then it becomes your fault that I'm ruining your bachelorette party.
How is it different than your stand-up?
In the show it's like 90 percent about racism. In the standup, it's only 70 percent racism. And there's no visual cues.
Why do you think people like Bell Curve?
Thank God that we had a black president prove that America is more racist than we had believed. [At first,] the show was like, "I swear, there's still racism!" Now, I don't really have to fight to prove that racism still exists. Racism is part of the national discussion every day.
What kind crowds give you best reaction?
In my solo show, if you bring a friend of a different race you get in two for one. 'Cause I'm determined to change the racial demographics of the room. If we're all in the room together, we all become smarter. If everybody's all mixed in together, then nobody can really shut off and go, "I don't know why he's talking about that." 'Cause he knows there's other people there who will get that. It makes everybody have to reach for more if they're all in the same room together.
Many people don't like discussing racism. When did you realize it could be comedy?
I'm still sort of realizing that. It really varies night to night, crowd to crowd, how far you can push people, and how far people really want to be pushed. I think I really made a commitment to do that starting around 2005. …. I really decided, "I'm gonna push this," sort of in the tradition of comics who are working before me -- Chris Rock does that, Dave Chappelle does that. And I'm not comparing myself to them, but I sort of see myself trying to go to school with them -- colleagues who makes jokes about race and racism, but who are also trying to push forth progressive ideas at the same time.
After Obama's election, some people predicted racial comedy would get harder to do. Did it?
It doesn't make racial comedy harder to do. Now there's more sides than there used to be. If I step on stage and talk about the president, it's like this weird thing like, "Am I putting down a black man, if if don't agree with his polices?"
The future is nuance. It allows you to have a more nuanced perspective, but there's certainly black people who don't want to hear you put down Barack Obama, because you're putting down the black president. But there's certainly black people who are like, "You have to put down the black president because we want him to do a better job." Those people are sometimes in the same room sitting next to each other. And then there's a thing with white liberals sometimes [stage-whispers]: Don't put down Barack Obama!
When the president is a born-again Christian from Texas, it's just easier to take one side or the other.
How does Herman Cain change things?
I apologized to Herman Cain on Twitter, because I had been thinking some horrible things about him, and now I realized that he's just a double-agent sent to ruin the GOP and make it easier for Barack to get [re-]elected.
He's clearly a genius double-agent, because he's totally ruining the GOP. Because he's tearing everybody down other there, and getting respect. And the last thing the GOP wants is Herman Cain versus Barack Obama for the presidential election. I think he's been hired by Oprah to help Barack get a second term in office.
Comedian W. KAMAU BELL performs with Ron Placone at 10 p.m., Sat., Oct. 22. Papa J's Centro, 212 Blvd.of the Allies, Downtown. $10-12. 412-391-7272