Bell, one of the sharpest voices on race and politics in today’s comedy scene, has no qualms about calling out people’s assumptions, hypocrisies and unacknowledged prejudices. But he does so with incisive humor and genuine warmth, as on his politically charged (and disappointingly short-lived) talk show, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell. In the wake of its cancellation, Bell has put together a national standup tour, titled Oh, Everything!, which hits Portland Monday, March 17. He talked to WW about pronouns, baked goods and why he gets a kick out of calling himself a negro.
WW: You lived in San Francisco for more than 15 years and have described it as a formative place. Can you give an example?
W. Kamau Bell: When I was living in San Francisco, I was doing shows at a theater for three months. The first time I walked to the theater, I passed this bar and there was this beautiful woman out in front. The next time I walked by, I was like, “Man, that bar always has beautiful women.” And the third week, someone was like, “Oh, that’s where trans performers hang out.”
How’d you react?
My initial reaction was, “They almost got me!” As if they’re trying to get me. It’s that straight-man thing: “Everybody wants me. Gay men want me, straight women want me, trans people want me. You almost got me! You almost tricked me!” Only from living in the Bay Area did I realize they’re not playing a trick. There’s a big story about how we label people. Some people are like, “There are so many more words now that I have to learn, and I don’t know if I can.” I’m like, “Dude, you learned ‘cellphone,’ you learned ‘iPad,’ you learned ‘iPhone.’ We can learn new words.”
People often assume it will be uncomfortable to ask someone what they want to be called.
I think we’re going to get to the point where we’ll see a 6-foot-6, broad-shouldered person with a full beard and a scar on the side of his face and ask, “What pronoun would you like me to use?”
Which label do you prefer for yourself—“black” or “African-American”?
I call myself black. There’s something powerful about the word. It’s got a hard K sound. The color is powerful. The Man in Black. Ninjas. It just feels cool to be black. But I also have a lot of fun referring to myself as a “negro” publicly. I like the word because it invokes the time when black people really started to organize. It’s also fun because it makes people take an intake of breath. I like to point out that the discomfort you’re feeling is yours, and you need to deal with that. A lot of times in America, the dominant group wants to make the marginalized group deal with their discomfort. I’m like, “No, I’m going to give your discomfort back to you.”
Your wife is white. Does she become a sounding board for you?
My wife certainly becomes my focus group. There’s an idea that if you’re married to a person of a different race, it’s somehow because you don’t want to confront racial issues. No, if you want to talk a lot about racism, find a partner who’s a different race than you. If you want to have that discussion regularly, that’s how you do it.
You tweeted quite a bit about the Oscars. At the ceremony, Ellen DeGeneres made a joke suggesting that if Academy members didn’t vote for 12 Years a Slave, that meant they were racist. It seems like a lose-lose situation: If you don’t vote for 12 Years a Slave, you’re racist; if you vote for it, it’s just affirmative action.
Which is what makes it the perfect joke. I thought that was one of the edgiest Oscar jokes in the history of all time. It was way edgier than anything Seth MacFarlane did last year. Standing in front of a room of Oscar voters that are like 89 percent white, and to accuse them of racism—and for it to be a white lesbian who’s doing it? I’m a big Ellen DeGeneres fan, but she went up several notches in my book. That’s the great thing about comedy—she called out something in the room. She didn’t offer a solution for it, but comedy doesn’t have to do that. Comedy just goes, “Here’s the problem, good luck everybody. I’ll see you later, I’ll be at the bar.” Comedy is at its best, I think, when it uses jokes to point out issues.
What’s it like performing in a city as white as Portland?
I’ve performed in rooms in Portland where it feels like people don’t want to talk about how white the room is. But that means I’ve got to talk about it. We live in a racialized society. The cornerstone of America is racism. And it’s always going to be that way, until the tectonic plates shift and we all fall into the ground and a whole new species emerges. And if we’re ever going to get to this thing called “post-racial”—which I’m not saying is a good thing—we need to have a lot of race discussion. Part of that means white people have to admit their whiteness, and a lot of white people are uncomfortable doing that. A lot of white people are like, “I’m not white, I’m a mutt. I’m part British and Italian and Irish.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s all white people.” Talking about that stuff is funny to me. It makes people uncomfortable, but you’re just going to have to be uncomfortable. We’ll get through it.
As a performer, how does the audience’s racial composition affect you?
I can feel it instantly. I’ve performed in rooms that are 80 percent people of color, and it almost starts to feel like church. People are like, “Yes!” They’re laughing, but they’re also expressing agreement and a sense of relief that I’m saying out loud these conversations that they have all the time.
For your solo show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, you sometimes offer a ticket deal: Bring a friend of a different race and get in two for one. Thought about offering the deal in Portland?
We might need to do that in Portland just to level out the room. But you can’t keep the white people of Portland away. I wouldn’t want to. They bring nice baked goods.
Nice baked goods?
Yeah. There’s a craftiness in Portland. It’s like, “Look, I made you something out of cheese.”