AN INTERVIEW WITH W. KAMAU BELL
“W. Kamau Bell is the most important guy doing comedy right now. He’s got the most astute, hilarious and completely righteous material going and he’s going to be a legend in his own lifetime like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. Think Bill Hicks but slightly taller.” — Margaret Cho
It’s praise like that has made W. Kamau Bell’s “Face Full of Flour” one of the most anticipated comedy albums of 2010. Recorded live at the San Francisco Punchline and produced by Rooftop Comedy Productions, the album features comedic meditations on Barack Obama, the wrongness of the Right, interracial mating, and why Black + White = Black.
Kamau was nice enough to take a break from his busy schedule to answer a few questions from fellow comedian Hari Kondabolu.
Hari Kondabolu: Why did you name your CD “Face Full of Flour” and how does it and you differ from your last album “One Night Only?”
W. Kamau Bell: First of all, my first CD wasn’t named “One Night Only” It was named ONE NIGht ONLY,” which is very funny joke if you get it. Most people didn’t. And secondly, how come you didn’t listen to my CD before the interview, Hari? I thought we were supposed to be cool. I’m going to go unfollow you on Twitter… There. It’s done.
This CD is called Face Full of Flour because there is a joke on it that was inspired by a Rice Krispies commercial from way back the 80’s. In the commercial a mom throws flour on her face to convince her family that she’s working harder than she actually is. My joke recommends Barack do the same thing.
Dammit. Now the joke is ruined. Nothing is less funny than a joke explained.
HK: Why make this album now?
WKB: I was very much aware that for like two years I was one of the only comics talking about Barack Obama. My first joke about him was in 2005, and I did it that year on Comedy Central, which according to Comedy Centrla is the very first Barack Obama joke. Don’t believe me? Google it. (I’m talking to the “YOU” who is reading this right now. Go ahead and Google it. Hari knows this already.)
Anyway, now that Barack is President there has been a ridiculous media story going around that it is impossible to make jokes about Barack Obama. I know this is ridiculous because I haven’t stopped telling Barack jokes since 2005. I kind of wanted to be on record again as being ahead of this nonexistent curve. Also the country is in such incredible transition it is great to be able to release a CD that addresses the transition while it is still transitioning… transitorially.
HK: You’ve told me that there are things on the last record that you no longer stand by. Did you have any fear when recording this record about making that particular moment permanent?
WKB: First of all, allow me to go very public with the first part of what you said. I had a joke on the first CD about Condoleeza Rice, which I also did on Comedy Central. It was a very funny joke to me when I wrote it… because I was so angry at Condoleeza at the time and at her stature as a such high ranking Bush cabinet member, but very soon after I had done it, it became clear to me (actually it was made clear by many, MANY women in my life) that the joke was not helpful to the struggle of women as a group… no matter how evil I perceived her to be at the time. And as my friend and main co-conspirator Martha Rynberg said so eloquently to me at the time, “You can’t talk about ending racism and then go out and create more sexism.” (KAMAU’S NOTE: This has now beccome OFFICIALLY the most unfunny interview in the history of Rooftop Comedy.) And unfortunately for me, the joke is forever out there on the Internet so occasionally people discover it and GO OFF on me. Recently when a dude on a website went off on me on his blog, I commented on the blog that I agreed with him, which I’m pretty sure shocked him. People don’t realize that us comics spend about 45% of our days Googling oursleves.
On some level I’m always thinking about how people will take something I have said. But I can say that right now I stand by the things on this record. I’m still progressing as a writer and performer, and as much as I love it, stand-up comedy can be a pretty poor way to communicate subtle ideas. And I’m certainly not above rethinking things I have said if new information comes in. As Muhammad Ali said, “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.” (KAMAU’S NOTE: Is this the first Muhammad Ali quote in Rooftop Comedy history?)
HK: Margaret Cho said you were the most important guy doing standup right now and compared you to Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks. That’s a huge statement. What do you do with that?
WKB: I continue to thank her profusely and also realize that I haven’t accomplished one million of one thousandth of a percent of what all those geniuses did. I think she was just trying to say that she liked what I do a lot, and one way to do explain to people outside comedy how much you like a comedian is to invoke the legends. Admittedly those are the legends I would want to have my name associated with. And me and Margaret have had long conversations about the comedians we like and those names have certainly come up. I think the comment really speaks more to a tradition of comedy that I am trying to engage with… the agenda driven / socio-political / social critic comedian. I think those names — Pryor, Bruce, & Hicks — are also a shortcut for someone who reads that quote to decide if they might be interested in what I do. She’s basically saying, “If you like these comics, you might like Kamau.” It would be different if she had compared me to Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters, and Carol Burnett. Those three are also geniuses but I don’t do ANYTHING like they do.
HK: Do you see this as a record that is very much informed by San Francisco? Could you imagine being somewhere else the past 5 years and still be able to make this record?
WKB: I don’t know. There is certainly a freedom of expression thing that exists in San Francisco — and other major cities — that I don’t feel when I travel in most smaller cities. But San Francisco is not perfect. Far from it. In fact much of the frustration in my act comes from the difference of perception of San Francisco and the reality. People percieve SF as being as liberal and lefty as can be, but San Frnacisco can be just as conservative and especially racially fucked up as any place in America. SF is like 6% black… and falling. This city is literally chasing diversity out of it to make room for condos. I do have great audiences in the SF and all around the Bay Area, and the media here has been very supportive of me. especially The San Francisco Weekly & The East Bay Express, but at this point I find myself much more at home in Oakland, but as Tony Bennett said, I’ve left my apartment is in San Francisco. Add a rimshot here.
HK: You are one of the elder statesmen of the San Francisco scene. I’ve met so many comics with such drastically different styles that cite you as an influence or pivotal figure it their development? Why are you so great?
WKB: First of all, just because I’m older than you, Hari, that doesn’t make me an “elder statesman.” Come on, I’m tying to convince Hollywood that I’m 22! And I don’t know who these unnamed comics are that you are talking about. If anything I’m an example of what happens when you go your own way. I could’ve (and maybe should’ve) moved to LA years ago, but I really wanted to create something of my own… that I had ultimate control of, and that has happened through my solo show. (KAMAU’S NOTE: I’ve read ahead and I’ve seen that Hari is going to ask me about my solo show later, so I won’t go into my show now.) The San Francisco Bay Area is awash with a history of GREAT COMEDIANS. Comics who grew up here like Margaret Cho, Greg Proops, and Jake Johannsen… to comics who transplanted themselves here to grow their acts, like Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt, Robert Hawkins, Jim Short, Tom Rhodes, Dana Gould, Janeane Garofalo… I believe. And when you look through that both of those lists you’ll notice something: Again, I haven’t accomplished any part of what ANY of those comics have done. And those are mostly just comics from the recent era. We’re not talking Mort Sahl, The Smothers Brothers, Paul Mooney, some dude named Robin Williams. I have a looooong way to go before I make The SF Comedy Hall of Fame.
HK: You really refocused your energy from doing pure standup to your one-man show, the “W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism Within An Hour. Do you still love doing standup? How does your standup (and specifically the content of this album) differ from the content of the one man show? Does the show inform your standup now?
WKB: I LOOOOOOOOVE stand-up. When I’m killing in stand-up, no feeling is better. The difference between stand-up and solo for me is that when I do solo I feel like I am using a scalpel to get my point across. When I do stand-up I feel like I am using a two by four… with a rusty nail in the end of it. (KAMAU’S NOTE: I may have taken this metaphor too far.) I feel like a great stand-up set is like beating someone up in a dark alley. The6 don’t know where the blows/punchlines are coming from and they can’t stop you. (KAMAU’ NOTE: I have CERTAINLY taken this one too far.) The solo show is much more crafted and I am trying to build an arc, so that by the end you feel like there was a reason that you showed up besides just laughter. However, differences aside, in both formats I’m trying to get body-doubling over laughter.
The solo show also incorporates video, audio, slides and stories that are far more personal than I get in stand-up. As far as the stories go, to me it feels like what I would imagine it was to do stand-up in the 70’s, when audiences allowed you to take your time more. Although the by product of this is that solo has DEFINITELY made me a better stand-up.
HK: Has Barack Obama’s presidency made it easier or harder to talk about race for a general audience in America? It is still possible to tell jokes about Obama? (You know I know the answer to this question, Kamau. I mean, c’mon! I’m asking this for the kids)
WKB: Before Barack began campaigning, occasionally there were crowds that made me feel like, “HEY! GET OVER IT! THAT RACISM THING IS LONG OVER!” But ever since the campaign up through today. racism has become so much a part of America’s daily discussion that now, that I don’t have to spend as much time fighting to get people to understand that racism exists. Although there are definitely still times when crowds who didn’t come to see me specifically feel like, “WE DIDN’T COME TO A COMEDY CLUB TO HEAR ABOUT RACISM! WE CAME TO A COMEDY CLUB TO GET DRUNK!”, but every comic deals with that. And THAT is a big reason I started my solo show. I’d rather fifty people who wanted to hear what I want to talk about vs. 200 who would rather eat nachos and drink Bud Light in peace.
HK: You have become a beloved and respected commentator on issues of race in San Francisco? Does this add a responsibility and pressure when you write and perform? Do you ever feel handcuffed by a sense of responsibility?
WKB: “Beloved and respected”??? Next question. The only people I feel responsible to are my good friends and my family. They are the only ones that I want to make sure can stand behind what I am saying. And as I have said, many of my friends will call me on my shit when they believe I am going in the wrong direction OR if they think my message is confused. Hari, I believe you have called me out on stuff on more than one occasion. And I appreciate that, because my friends want me to succeed as much… if not more than I do. I don’t feel handcuffed at all. I feel supported. But having said that, I do heartily support a comedian’s need/inalienable right to go up onstage and fall flat on their faces and also to go over the line in an effort try to find out where their individual line is. I also don’t try out many jokes out on people before I do them onstage, because I have a fear that if I get input too early that it will somehow negatively affect the jokes chances of succeeding.
HK: You’re one of the most prolific comedy writers I have ever met. Why did you choose the jokes you did for this record?
WKB: These are for the most part jokes that have been created in the Obama Era, so they feel very current for me, and I think that material that feels alive makes for a great comedy CD. There is of course a danger that topical jokes may not hold up over time. There’s some Lenny Bruce stuff that might as well be in a different language, becasue the references are so specific to that era. You’d be best off with Wikipedia open to get through some of it. Although it is amazing how much of Bill Hicks stuff is still relevant today… not that I’m comparing myself to Hicks.
Even the some stuff on my CD that isn’t topical is still newer jokes for me. For example, I did just get married so those jokes about my relationship are fresh. I think George Carlin and Bill Burr are great examples of how to be a comedian. A comedian is supposed to be constantly writing and trying out new material, and therefore you should have a new hour every year or so. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying. My first CD was basically all my best jokes at the time, this one is more the stuff I was really thinking about on the night I recorded it. The goal is to have a stack of comedy CD’s a foot high when it’s all said and done. Although by the time I’m done, CD’s will be obsolete, so I guess the goal is to have a stack of mp3’s a foot high. Can you stack mp3’s?
HK: How have your friendships with Nato Green and Hari Kondabolu affected you as a writer and performer?
WKB: I’ve never met them. BUT SERIOUSLY… As you know, the three of us — you, Nato, and myself — have a comedy tour called Laughter Against The Machine which we have done to sold out audiences in the Bay Area and will soon be taking to Seattle. And the entire reason for LATM is so that we can do shows surrounded by comedians that inspire, challenge, and most of all entertain us AND the audiences that we perform for. It is opinionated comedy for times that need opinions. Nato is a political comic in the truest sense, in that HE is political onstage and off. He’s not just attacking both sides equally. He has a group of ideas that he wants to put forth AND he truly believes that the world would be a better place if he was in charge. I think of the three of us, he actually represent most what LATM is supposed to be. And you, Hari… and it pains me to say this to your Internetic face… are one of my favorite comics of all-time, and I know that because the moment I first saw you it made me want to be a better comedian. And I tell you this even though I know you will one day use it against me. Probably tomorrow. Face Full of Flour is available on iTunes. Keep up with Kamau on www.wkamaubell.com Hari Kondabolu is a standup comedian based in Queens, NY. He has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham and John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show. www.harithecomic.com