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"I've had a strange career," W. Kamau Bell says a few moments after hauling himself onto the stage at Caroline's Comedy Club in late April. "I had to get a TV show to break into comedy clubs."
That stirs a warm laugh from his people, a 150-strong New York crowd of races so well and truly mixed it could be on the cover of a college admissions packet.
As with almost everything Bell says, there's truth in it: Despite 15 years of stand-up, often for theater audiences rather than the two-drinks-and-dick-jokes set, the folks catching his first New York City headlining gig mostly know him from Totally Biased, his fledgling talk/comedy cable show, which last week made the jump from a half-hour weekly broadcast to four nights a week, just like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.
They know him as the smiling lug with the electric 'fro and the Muppet monster laugh. As the friendly black guy on TV who jokes about race and politics with what can only be called an inclusive indignation, inviting the like-minded to laugh along rather than to slip into the progressive rage-stupor that's MSNBC's stock in trade. As the Bay Area liberal whose bio in the program at Caroline's lists "community activist" before "late night TV host." As a guy fans just come to feel like they're down with. They're not just seeing a hot comic or a star-to-be in the weeks before he combusts. They're seeing a friend.
And tonight that friend is killing it.
Bell, a youngish 40, seems looser in person than on Totally Biased, one thought leading to the next as if they're just coming to him. He scores with some new material—the differences between San Francisco and New York, a richer vein than stand-up's old L.A./NYC standard—before tearing into American race, the core of his act, the punch lines and insights honed over years of performing his one-man show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. He talks about living in a San Francisco neighborhood where the only other black resident was homeless. About how after a couple of bad Brooklyn sublets he's ready to admit he likes a little gentrification. How one time, at a diner, a white waitress seemed to recognize him—but, long story short, turns out she mistook him for Questlove and has never heard of W. Kamau Bell. "There can be more than one guy with a nappy 'fro at a time!" Bell laughs. "We don't even look alike!"
That's when things get strange. A woman interrupts from a table just in front of the stage. "But you do," she says.
"Yes, you do." She holds up her iPhone—she has pulled up a photo.
Bell squints at it: Questlove, haloed with afro, beaming in his horn-rims.
"See?" the woman says. She's white, in her 20s, a little meek even as she keeps pushing it. The fellow sitting next to her, also white, looks like he wants to bolt.
"Just because we both have glasses?" Bell asks. "Imagine you in New York in the '70s. Everywhere you looked, you'd be: 'Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson! Angela Davis!'"
She laughs, a little. Everyone else does, a lot.
He goes on: "Every black person you see is not the only black person you know!"
Which points to one of the many curious talents of W. Kamau Bell: He's cutting. He's quick. And he's so inviting a presence that even white people are comfortable saying shit to him they ought to know they shouldn't.
Here's why that happens.
"I'm a 6-foot-4, 250-pound black dude," Bell tells the Village Voice in an interview this spring. "I know how to make sure people know that I'm not the guy that they think I'm going to be. It's sad that I've had to learn to do that, but it's always been about how to get through the world as easily as possible."
In conversation, his words galumph along as happily as they do on stage, even when he's discussing topics that tend to make Americans squeamish. "I'm used to moving around between the lines of cultures," he says, "and I know when to shut the fuck up and listen. My act started to reflect that. Coming from the Bay Area, where I lived for 15 years, I would be sitting with my feminist lesbian East Bay friends with the adopted black kids while they all explained that I'm sexist. You learn to listen around people like that."
Superficially, of course, in a head shot, he does share a fashion sense with Questlove: those glasses, a boho afro that looks friendly and funky rather than a Panther's Declaration of Blackness. It's a look that, lately, bank commercials and iPod ads have been selling as representative of the kind of black guy everyone likes.
"That's become a type," Bell acknowledges. "I maybe have a little to do with it, but Cornell West has done his part, too. It's like the black guy who's totally black but also not threatening. But it's not just the look. If I carried myself differently, I might get a different response from people."
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