Race from a Racy Angle

Newest iteration of The W. Kamau Bell Curve comes to La Peña Cultural Center.

W. Kamau Bell went down in history for telling the first-ever Obama
joke on Comedy Central, way back in 2005. At the time, Obama was best
known for his rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. He was
definitely a looker on the US Senate, but his presidential ambitions
were vague at best. Bell announced that there would never be a black
president named Barack Obama. (“Black Osama? Ummmm ummmm,” Bell
jeered, imitating an incredulous Red State voter.) Bell kept the bit in
his repertoire for another year and a half. Then he decided he was
hurting Obama’s chances.

It was the comedian’s first brush with topical humor, which now
constitutes the bulk of his new one-man show, The W. Kamau Bell
Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour
. Kamau launched the show
in 2007 as a response to a recent spate of celebrity racism (the
Michael Richards and Don Imus meltdowns, Sarah Silverman’s entire
oeuvre, and Rosie O’Donnell’s “ching-chong Chinese” comment, among
others). The show consisted largely of personal anecdotes about his
family, his childhood, and his adventures being black in a not-so-black
Bay Area arts scene. In the two years since its inception, the Bell
Curve
did a 180-degree turn. Now it’s light on personal
testimonials, heavier on celebrity skewering, and towing a more
difficult political line: Bell’s challenging the quiet hypocrisy of our
“post-racial” society. He used to sling mud at N-word-sayers, Middle
Americans, and other easy targets; now he’s goosing the left as
well.

Yet the Bell Curve changes from week to week. To keep his
humor up to the minute, Bell constantly revises his show, making sure
to include all the day’s biggest news stories and give them his own
slant. Thus, most of his bits get a very brief window of opportunity
before they become irrelevant. “If Sotomayor is on the Supreme Court
and the guy who is grilling her is the renowned racist, I gotta put
that in the show,” Bell explained. “If Henry Louis Gates is breaking
into his own apartment, I’d feel like a lunatic if I didn’t include
that.” He keeps an autobiographical thread and a running gag about his
marriage to a white woman (“Some people would say that’s hypocritical.
I would say to those people — maybe”). He’s gotten a lot more
tech-savvy since 2007, and now includes video clips as well as a
photographic montage. And, now that the Obama joke has become one of
his biggest claims to fame, he always uses it as an opener. Hey, Bell
said, most of us aren’t perfect: “Martin Luther King didn’t open on ‘I
was wrong’ — he had to be resolute every moment of his life. But
I’m a comedian. We do things differently.”

The W. Kamau Bell Curve runs Thursday through
Saturday, July 30 through August 1, at La Peña Cultural
Center
(3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). Bring a friend of a
different race and get a 2-for-1 discount. 8 p.m., $15-$20. LaPena.org

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