robin williams

Robin Williams 1951-2014

Glide MemorialI was having one of those great stand-up comedy nights. And this was about four years ago, when I didn't have that many great stand-up comedy nights. At that point I was a San Francisco comedian whose options were not necessarily running out but they were limited. So I was happy knowing that going in it was gong to be a great night. I was already scheduled that night to feature for Bill Burr at Cobb’s Comedy Club in SF. This was at the point that Bill was really taking off. His audiences were big and knew they were the cool kids for knowing who he was before everybody else. I knew in advance it was going to be good. But before I was scheduled to go on at Cobb’s that night, I had to do a five minute set at a benefit for Glide Memorial Church, a church with a truly progressive social justice agenda. Forget about “What Would Jesus Do?” Glide was about “What Jesus Actually Did.” Helping the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. The benefit was a huge deal. It was at The Warfield, a 2000 seat theater. It was filled with the movers and shakers of SF. And the show that night featured, singers, musicians, choirs, and a few comedians. Those comedians were me, Johnny Steele, Selene Luna, Steven Pearl, and Robin Williams. I had met Robin kinda, sorta before. As an SF comedian we were all accustomed those nights he would just show up around town. He had a home here. And he was sort of still looked at as local, just the most famous one. It wasn’t often that he showed up on the scene. It wasn’t regular. But when it happened. It happened in streaks. You’d show up at Cobb’s on a showcase night and on the line-up behind the desk where you’d look to see what time you were on, you’d read the name of a comic that you’d never heard off… AND THAT COMIC WAS HEADLINING??? Eventually somebody would let it slip that the name was just a sneaky way to say, “Robin Williams” without having everybody freakout. Because that’s what people did when even the hint of Robin was around, they freaked out.

When Robin was on these runs around town, it would start at Cobb’s, then maybe the Punch Line, and then suddenly you’d see him at a full on open mic. He showed up often at The Mock Cafe in the Mission. The Mock was so small I think it was shut down in order to turn it into an elevator. (I’m not kidding.) Robin would show up at The Mock and a room that felt full with fifteen people — and packed to the gills with 20 — would have 50 people struggling to see around the pillar that went right down the center of the “room”, blocking the view of Robin Williams on a stage the size of a twin mattress. People would just be walking by the “club” on their way to dinner or to do laundry or on their way to nothing, and they would see — or hear — that Robin was in there, and suddenly all plans were canceled. No one was turning down a chance to see Robin Williams doing exactly what you wanted him to be doing — BEING ROBIN WILLIAMS! Once the owner of The Mock — who also owned The Marsh — realized what was going on in her C room, she had strict instructions for her to be called the minute he entered the building, so she could get down there right away.

I was there many of those evenings. I got to see him be him at Cobb’s and I got to see him at The Mock Cafe. It was always electric. It was always overwhelming. It was always hilarious. And I always felt lucky to be there. Joe Klocek pointed out to me that Robin regularly got a standing ovation on his way up to the stage, before he’d even said anything. This was before cameraphones were ubiquitous, and yet when he hit the stage suddenly everybody had a camera. He would usually do an hour. The first five was just him responding to people responding to him. And then he would get to work and just be a comic working on bits. Much of which ended up in his “Live on Broadway” HBO special. I’m sure I met him on one of those nights. Maybe I even talked to him. I’m sure he didn’t remember. But he was very approachable. He always hung out with the comics before he went on, even if those comics were the open mikers whose biggest credits were, “I got to hang out with Robin Williams one night.”

That night at The Glide Benefit I actually met him for reals. I was a comic who was on the show with him. And since it was this “big wig” show, all the comics took a picture together. And then the show started. I wanted to do well for a bunch of reasons. 1) Because I always want to do well. 2) Because there’s nothing worse than bombing at a benefit. Trust me. I’ve done it… recently. 3) ROBIN WAS WATCHING.

And although I followed a full-on gospel choir, I had a good set. It felt good. I didn’t drop the ball. I got the crowd refocused from choir to jokes. And then I said good night, and immediately I hopped in my wife’s car with her. And we beat it over to Cobb’s where I featured for Bill Burr minutes later. It was a great stand-up comedy night.

And it was made better by the fact that I later heard that Robin had thought I was funny, and he had spent time looking for me at The Benefit after I had left. And he had asked one of the organizers if he could have my contact info. (I told her that he could because… YES!)

And then one day out of the blue I got an email from an email address that didn’t have the words “Robin” or “Williams” anywhere in it, but it was him. And he told me that my stand-up was a “revelation” and “you got the spark.” Robin had no idea how often I thought of the fact that HE thought I had “the spark.” He had no idea that those simple words helped dig me out of my own dark corners and emotional dead ends. Even now I spend more time offstage wondering if this career makes any sense for me than I spend onstage doing it. And his simple words have often made a difference in me getting up and getting at it again and again.

And I’m not the only comic by a longshot who he reached out to and “bonafide.” He was obviously still a fan of stand-up, and he also understood that kind words from him meant a lot. He just had a generous spirit, which people in positions even close to his position don’t always have. He was generous in one more way too. He donated money to a film project I was working on without even being asked really. He just heard about it and wanted to help.

My wife cried last night when she saw the still from the movie Aladdin that Evan Rachel Wood tweeted of The Genie hugging Aladdin. That’s who he was to her. And that’s when it really hit her that he was gone. But I’m a little older than my wife, for me he will always be Mork. And I’m not being condescending. When I was a little kid, Mork was my hero as much as Spider-Man and The Hulk. As far as I was concerned they all had superpowers. They all seemed bigger than life. To me Robin had more in common with greatest athletes than other entertainers. He had all the tools. His standard was so high the rest of us comics won’t even have to worry about being compared to him. You can still be in the NBA but still be miles away from being Michael Jordan.

When I was thinking about how amazing it is to see so many people show so much love in Robin’s death, one thing struck me. For so many of us, Robin first got us when we were kids. You don’t forget those entertainers who got you back then. But then Robin did near the impossible. He circled back and got us again when were adults. It’s kinda like if Steve from Blues Clues grew up to be Richard Pryor.

And yes, Robin was a complicated human with a complicated history, much of which he covered in his very open interview with Marc Maron. And now he's gone. I already miss him.

My London Debut on 5 April. YIKES! I need your help.

So my UK debut is fast approaching and I'm still kind of confused why my first set EVER in the UK will be an hour long stand-up set in London, but here we go. I could really use the help of YOU, my United States peoples, who have peoples in London who might be interested in some Kamau and my Kamauhour! (Say it put loud. It's fun.)

The details are below and you can download this flier if you wanna ship it to your peoples across the pond. Here is a Facebook invite too if you go that way.

Also, there's a clip below of my stand-up so they can check me out. Thanks.

I've even included a sample letter to help get you started.


Hey Friend (or other synonym here... maybe even their name),

I think you should go see my friend W. Kamau Bell when he comes to London and plays Hen & Chickens Theatre on Tuesday, 5 April. Kamau is hilarious (or other synonym here). He's been named San Francisco's best comedian three times. America's Punchline Magazine declared, One of our country’s most adept racial commentators with a blistering wit and a willingness to say what you quickly realize you’ve always thought." And Robin Williams called him "ferociously funny." This is his first time in the UK, so treat him well. He's a delicate flower. See a clip of him here.

You can also follow him on Twitter and here is the Facebook invite.


(Insert your name here.)

I might just make it to SF Comedy Eagle Scout after all.

So there are 13 things that need to happen in order to be fully vetted/made as a San Francisco comic... as opposed to a comic who does and/or did comedy in San Francisco.

I am proud to say I think I have just been blessed with one of the most key elements.

First, here’s the list of things that you need to accomplish if you want to be considered a San Francisco comic. (And yes, I made this list up, but I stand by it, although feel free to suggest other things.)

In NO particular order...

1. Open for Will Durst. (check)

2. Drive yourself --- or get driven... thanks to Jim Short. --- all over the hinterlands of California (and/or Nevada and/or Oregon) doing the San Francisco International (but not Intentional) Comedy Competition. (Sadly check. Cotati?)

3. See your name on the back of the Punch Line t-shirt several times. (check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check...)

4. Get bumped from a show that you were booked in advance to be on at Cobb’s. (check, check, check, and yes check! I even got bumped from a show on fucking New Year’s Eve. My wife is still mad at you, Joe Rogan.) When Cobb’s was a smaller club, number 4 used to be “Be House MC at Cobb’s but those days are goooooooooone.

5. Bomb at The Brainwash. / Have Tony Sparks tell you that he loves you. (check on both counts more times than I could ever remember.)

6. Perform at a benefit at The Punch Line. Bonus points if it is Troy’s YMCA benefit. You lose points if it is the REDACTED benefit or the REDACTED benefit. Both of them suck. They suck and the people who come out to support them suck. And that sucks, because you think I’d like to perform in front of REDACTED people.

7. Hear about how great the old days were from a comic who came before you. (At this point the old days could be the Holy City Zoo, Cobb’s in The Marina, The Walnut Creek Punch Line, The One World Cafe, or even (YIKES!) The Comedy College. (check. Doug Ferrari is good for this one if you need to get this one done soon. Actually, I’m getting pretty good at this one, too.)

8. Hear YOURSELF talk about how Comedy Day in The Park used to be a much bigger deal. (check)

9. Play whatever is the current hell gig of the time while you are still on your way up in the local scene. During my time it was Modesto. It probably still is. Let’s just say that you know a gig is bad when Vanilla Ice is playing the same place as you the week AFTER you are there.

10. Open for Dave Chappelle at The Punch Line. It sounds like an honor, until you see the rabid audience look at you like the parsley on top of the steak. (You can also get credit for this if you open for him at The New Parish in Oakland.)


12A. Be in a city other than SF, and have a comic in that city give you some measure of respect when they find out that you are from San Francisco.

12B. Also, know that our audiences aren’t as smart as people outside of SF, think they are.

13. And finally, lucky 13, I just got it recently. One of the most important pieces of the San Francisco comic puzzle was found last week. See, last week, I performed on an AWESOME benefit for Glide Memorial Church (not that...) and I was on a show with Johnny Steele (not that... although he is apt to tell you about the old days.) and Selene Luna (not that...) and also on the show was Robin Williams (not even that... at least not quite...) The "IT" is that Robin watched my set ANNNNNND thought I was funny. And he shared some thoughts about me that he is allowing me to share with YOU!

"W. Kamau Bell is ferociously funny.” - Robin Williams

Yup, he said that about me. Pretty cool. Actually VERY cool. I have definitely seen him give the nod to other SF comedians: Jim Short, Colin Mahan... And certainly non SF comedians who have spent time in SF: Eddie Izzard and recently Jamie Kilstein.

But I feel like I have finally completed my fair share of the SF comedy scene Merit Badges. I’ve been bona fide funny by Mr. San Francisco Comedy, himself: Robin Williams. And yes, there are certainly more SF Comedy Scene Merit Badges than these out there. Hell, fifteen alone deal with weed, and 11 of those involve N’Gaio Bealum --- who people still confuse me with, but nothing is perfect. But this feels like a pretty good place to be at. Now, I got to nail down some LA and NYC Comedy Scene Merit Badges.