San Francisco comedian W. Kamau Bell would like you to know that racism still exists in the Bay Area, 150 years after the abolition of slavery and 100-plus days into President Barack Obama's historic term. But it's not always easy to spot.
Take this, for example, from one of Bell's signature bits, an extended riff on the difficulty of identifying actual bigots in a sea of small-time jerks. "I was drinking my coffee [in San Francisco] and minding my own business, and this white guy is sitting next to me typing on his laptop, when suddenly out of nowhere he turns to me and says, 'Is the correct term 'crack' or 'crack cocaine'?" Bell said. "But he stunned me, so I actually started to answer the question. 'Wait! Don't tell me! I know this one!' Then I stopped and asked him, 'Why the hell would you think that I would know?'" The question became, Bell said, is he a racist or an asshole?
And then there's another incident that made its way into Bell's act, the time he and an older white woman were leaving a drugstore at the same time and happened to walk in the same direction. She began to do "the white woman shuffle," as he tells it, "all knees and elbows, knees and elbows," until finally turning around with an expression of terror that caused him to jump back, frightened, wondering what crazy ax murderer was following them. Turns out it was him. "I get it," he says. "I'm a six-foot-four black man."
But still, he wonders, "racism"? While most comedians deal with race in absolutes — black people do this, white people do that — Bell has built a career on examining the messy intersections of race and class in a supposedly postracial world.
After years of working the Bay Area stand-up scene and then launching his one-man show in 2007, Bell has reached a tipping point in his professional life. This past month marked his first week as the Punch Line's headliner, a rare gig for a local. In March, he flew to Los Angeles for a round of meetings with Comedy Central about filming his own half-hour special, and he's been accepted into industry-heavy events like this year's HBO Aspen Comedy Festival and the New York International Fringe Festival.
But Bell has higher goals than just "killing it" onstage. Whether the target is an asshole at the coffee shop or the hidden racist agenda of People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, Bell wants to educate people about the insidious nature of modern bigotry while also entertaining them. "I don't want to be a comedian who just tells jokes," he says. "I have an agenda."
It's tempting to think that perhaps Bell sees so much latent racism in a liberal bastion like San Francisco because he goes out looking for it. But it's not that simple. On a recent Friday morning, for instance, the 36-year-old Bell, clad casually in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, jeans, and a corduroy blazer, stood in the periodicals room of the San Francisco Main Public Library, waiting to film a public service announcement on the library's amnesty program to allow borrowers to return overdue books without paying fees. He flipped through a book on how to draw comics, a prop representing a library book he checked out as a child and never returned.
"I have to say, I don't know you, but I would never have guessed you would be into comic books," the library publicist said.
Bell looked up in disbelief. Normally quick with a quip, he spoke defensively. "You really don't know me, no," he said. "If you ask any of my friends, they would not be surprised at all."
The awkward moment was quickly shoved aside as the shooting started, but the unspoken question — why wouldn't you have guessed I love comic books? — hung in the air.
When asked about the situation, Bell later shrugged it off, saying, "All my life I haven't been meeting people's expectations of what this package would be." He is a big guy who never played basketball, a painfully shy kid who was drawn to the stage, an intellectually curious person who dropped out of an Ivy League college. While not opposed to prevailing notions of race and class and social status, he's definitely off-kilter. Essentially a nerd, Bell spent his formative years feeling "outside of blackness," especially impatient with his mother's focus on instilling black pride and discussing race.
The funny thing is, Bell's future depends on finding an audience who, unlike his younger self, wants to keep talking about race.
For the library's PSAs, Bell and fellow Bay Area luminaries — Josh Kornbluth, Beth Lisick, Marga Gomez, heroic pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III — were instructed to tell stories about books they had checked out and never returned.
Over a dozen or so takes, Bell built up a routine — "This book is old enough to drink. This book is almost old enough to rent a car and drive itself back to the library" — but he was distracted by another joke that has been fomenting, one that he hoped to write in time for his Sunday show at the Punch Line. He couldn't stop thinking about Susan Boyle, the dowdy Britain's Got Talent competitor who amazed audiences with her emotional rendition of a song from Les Miserables.
She moved Bell, rather profoundly. "I don't really trust anyone who doesn't believe in Susan Boyle," he said, as the small crew moved from the periodicals room to another spot in the library. His voice deepened slightly as he straightened up and began working out material, not for his current audience of one, but for a potential packed house. "If someone can watch that video and not feel something, I don't want to know them. I just don't."
Watching Bell clown around for most of the shoot — he was fond of poking his head up over bookshelves and whispering into the camera, pretending to have sneaked in to return the book — it's hard to believe that this ham was, for most of his life, extremely shy.