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Thursday, September 8, 2011

W. Kamau Bell and Comedian Dwayne Kennedy -- Like A Bronx Tale for Stand-Up

Posted By on Thu, Sep 8, 2011 at 9:30 AM

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There are only a handful of comics who I can really say directly played a big role in my comedic voice. (If you don't like that comedic voice, please don't blame them. I've never been a very good student.) Some probably didn't even know that they were playing this role. With some it was like if Luke Skywalker had learned from Yoda only by following him from planet to planet. And every time the Force told Yoda to turn around because somebody was watching him, Luke would just look the other way and pretend to be staring at a Rancor or something.

But this comic definitely knew I was there, because most nights he gave me a ride home. His name is Dwayne Kennedy and he plays the Punch Line this weekend starting tonight... and I don't care if you've never heard of him.

Comedy is a fickle gigolo, and because of that Dwayne is sometimes just not that into comedy. They play hard to get with each other like Sam and Diane, or Harry and Sally, or Obama and his progressive base.

Dwayne Kennedy is the comedy equivalent of a streetball legend: the Demetrius "Hook" Mitchell of comedy. I first met Dwayne in Chicago, about a month into my comedy "career." At that point he was returning from one of his infamous breaks. He had a job cleaning the windows of highrise buildings. One night he walked into an open mic. Went up on stage and did one, brand new, two-minute bit that leveled the place ... which is just short of impossible to do at an open mic.

Then he took one of his legendary pauses and said, "Alright you all, I think I'm done." The audience and the comics gasped. Someone yelled out, "Nooooo!" Dwayne got offstage and left. The next night I saw him at another open mic do basically the same thing, but before he left, my best friend Jason talked to him. I wandered over, and we have been friends ever since. Years later, Jason told me that he approached Dwayne because he figured that I should get to know him. And I did. For two years, Dwayne carted me around to all his gigs -- the comedic equivalent of A Bronx Tale. And I saw him kill in nearly every show he did.

His style is relaxed. His word choice is specific. He approaches comedy the way virtuosos write music. No wasted notes. His notebooks are never filled with the scribbles and scratched-out chicken scrawl that comprises most comedians joke books. It always reminded me of that scene in Amadeus where Salieri finds out that Mozart's first drafts have no edits. That's Dwayne.

Yet he doesn't hide behind those words. He is old school in his approach. He gives the people a show. If the joke says do a funny voice and fall down, he does a funny voice and falls down. Even the way he talks is infectious. There are generations of Chicago comics who call each other "Bub" and refer to doing their acts full-on as "plate spinning."

The clips here are great but they really don't do him justice. The same way that listening to Robert Johnson recordings can't really let us know what it was like to be in the room with him. Even Marc Maron on his podcast, WTF, called Dwayne "sort of a mythic figure in comedy." I know because I was there. Dwayne was on the same episode I was on, because he had driven me there.

Dwayne Kennedy plays the Punch Line tonight (Thursday) through Saturday.

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Kamau's Komedy Korner is a weekly blog column about San Francisco comedy by W. Kamau Bell. Check back next week for more.

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W. Kamau Bell

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