W. Kamau Bell is a stand-up comic and stand-up guy (yes, that is the best joke I can manage). Bell is best known for his one-man shows, the most recent of which is The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. Bell aptly describes the show, which is constantly updated to reflect the news of the day, as “one part manifesto, one part diatribe, and several parts funny.”
Bell’s comedy focuses on race and particularly on the national conversation about race, something that it can be hard to get people laughing about. Here’s a sample of the show.
As you can see, Bell’s is smart, incisive comedy. As you can imagine, it was an absolute pleasure to sit down with Bell and talk about The Matrix, the future of feminism, and just how cool his mom is. And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with W. Kamau Bell.
Chloe Angyal: What got you into comedy, and specifically into the kind of comedy that you do?
W. Kamau Bell: That’s kind of two different stories. Comedy was something I wanted to do since I was a little kid watching TV, watching Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live and thinking “that looks cool.” Bill Cosby was a big influence. His big stand up thing was called “Bill Cosby Himself” and it was the thing that landed him The Cosby Show, and I remember seeing that and thinking it was like magic.
I was an only child, so I was left alone with my own brain a lot, and I thought I was fascinating. It was just me and my mom and she told me I was hilarious. As a kid comedy was always something I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it. How do you start that? I was never the class clown – me and my best friends were all clowns. So I didn’t think of myself as the funny one, because we were all funny. When I was twenty-one, my best friend Jason knew that I wanted to go into comedy because I talked about it enough, and he found an open mic night near his house. So we went and we watched, and I got the courage to go up. Without Jason I never would have done it, because he went with me the first two years, every show I performed at. I wouldn’t have done it without him because I just didn’t have that kind of intestinal fortitude.
I would always talk about race, but whenever I’d talk about race, especially in Chicago where everything with race is so screwed up, I’d notice this tension in the room. Admittedly, I wasn’t very funny, but there was this tension, so I thought, “well, I’m not going to talk about race at all for a while,” and then I would talk about race exclusively. My mom is really a race warrior, so it was always in my DNA. Black History Month was all year long in our household. We were always talking about it. I felt like it was the family business and thought that I didn’t want to do that. And then about five years after I started in comedy I decided that I really wanted to focus on the stuff that I cared about. The comics I liked were the ones who had agendas, comics who want the audience to think differently when they leave, like Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce. So that became a totem for me, to make the audience think differently. Later I started to like comics who weren’t doing what they thought the audience wanted them to do, and were just following their own paths. Margaret Cho is an example of that. She’s just following her own direction, and I’ve always liked that.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
WKB: Trinity from The Matrix. Unfortunately because those movies went so far off the rails that character doesn’t get credit for being such an incredible science fiction character. The first movie opens with her kicking everyone’s asses. I remember when I saw it, that scene got an applause in the theater, and that was when everyone was like, “this is going to be a good movie.” The version of her in the first movie is great, and the version of her in the later movies is not a great version. So, Trinity, but only in the first one.
In real life, definitely my mom. It may sound coy to say that everyone who meets my mom says I have a cool mom, but everyone who meets my mom loves her. One of my favorite moments was at my wedding reception, they were introducing the bridal party, like, her parents and my dad and my stepmom, and then my mom got introduced and got a cheer.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
WKB: Oscar Grant’s killer getting two years, and from what I understand, with time served he’ll be out in seven months. It’s really frustrating. That along, with the midterm elections. It’s frustrating because, as a comedian, in my show, I can talk about the Oscar Grant thing and get to the point I want to make and make it funny. But in stand-up, it’s hard to do that. And it’s frustrating that it’s not a national news story, and that the first black president hasn’t said the words “Oscar Grant.” To me, on a very basic level, black people expected the first black president to get our backs on that. I would have thought that during Rodney King, having a black president would have made a difference. And now we’re living through something that’s even worse than Rodney King – because Rodney King is still alive – and we have a black president who’s afraid of talking about race. Either he’s been talking out of it, or he’s chosen to not do it. And I just wish I knew what was going on inside of his head.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
WKB: That’s such a great question. It’s like, “as a straight man, let me tell you about feminism…” I have this theory that cause designed to overcome some version of oppression should have to move one cause over and work exclusively on that. For example, I think that if black people want to end racism in America, we should have to work exclusively in gay rights. And people who want gay rights should have to work for rights for undocumented workers. Sometimes we get so tunnel-visioned that we forget that we want all this stuff. Just go spend some time next door. Not the whole week, just a few hours, and help out over there.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
WKB: Burritos, gin and tonics and my wife.