Busting down the fourth wall between performers and live audiences in a project with Berkeley Repertory Theatre after a five-year hiatus from the stage, Oakland-based, Emmy Award-winning stand-up comedian, writer, director and producer W. Kamau Bell asks audiences to help land punchlines. Bell’s special engagement series presents a stand-up act-in-progress, “W. Kamau Bell Gets His Act Together.”
Limited to 60 fortunate folks in the Rep’s intimate Bakery Studio, audiences witness Bell experimenting with new material he plans to take on a countrywide tour in 2025. His hope is that America’s democracy survives until that time. The show was developed with Martha Rynberg, and during the series is being honed in collaboration with audiences.
For those lacking tickets, Bell offered up insights into why he was persona non grata for five years and what’s up with him now that he’s back, soloing comedy center-stage.
“I wanted to at least do an hour, spending enough time with people to be giving them a show,” he said. “The first show, I did a bunch of things thinking about my timing and thought I’d been up there about 22 minutes. I looked at my timer and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s been only nine minutes.’ It was like, OK Kamau, slow down.
“Later at some point, I thought, ‘Alright, I’m about done,’ and I looked again,” he added. “It was 36 minutes! That forced me to tell a story I probably wouldn’t have told because in my mind, I had to fill the time. That was great, because it made me tell a shaky, not-ready-to-tell story.”
Although the hour didn’t end on as funny a note as it began, the audience applause let him know it didn’t matter. “That was special,” he said. “I’ve lived in the Bay Area since I was 24, so there were people who’ve been around my career for 20 years.”
Bell is making the show news-filled, but also as personal as possible; telling stories about his upbringing, some of which are covered in his memoir, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, and HBO documentary 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed. Included are also stories about his current mixed-race family; Bell, who is Black, is married to Dr. Melissa Hudson Bell, who is white. They are the parents of three daughters, ages 5, 9 and 12.
“It’s funny, as much as I’m sort of supposed to be a bulwark at a progressive intersection, to my kids I’m just the dad who doesn’t get it,” Bell said. “My older daughter is constantly correcting me about her pronouns. I screw it up, not because I don’t agree with it, I just screw it up. My daughter is like, ‘Oh dad, it’s they!’ I want to say, ‘Hey, I’m inter-sexually progressive, according to The New Yorker!’
“I’m super proud of and happy to be corrected by my 12-year-old,” he added. “It means the work me and my wife have been trying to do is actually working, because my kids are making fun of me.”
Bell gives credit—he says “blame”—to his 86-year-old mother for his career as a stand-up comedian and his act’s substance.
“She always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. She said, ‘Sure, drop out of an Ivy League college, get a job at a condom shop and be a stand-up comedian.’ That’s not something a parent says. She knew I was smart and thoughtful, because she’d worked hard to make those things happen,” he said.
“It was always a single-parent household, and she was a textbook editor for a company in the suburbs of Boston,” Bell said. “She worked to make their stories more diverse and that was in the late 1970s and ’80s, way before DEI was a thing. When we moved to Chicago, she started publishing her own books of African-American quotations before anyone was doing books like that. She was doing the work in her own way and quietly changing the world.”
His mother takes classes at Destiny Arts Center and still performs with a dance crew. “They’re not break dancing, but they’re moving!” Bell said, proud she’s able to “live her best life.”
His father lives in Mobile, Alabama, where he spent most of his life working in high-profile public service positions. “I just went there for his 80th birthday party,” Bell said. “We don’t think of Mobile as being multiracial, but it was a multiracial room of people there to celebrate him, like a big wedding. He’s a leader in his community, so I was super happy he has that.”
His parent’s vibrancy might play into why Bell has no intention of suddenly sitting on the sidelines. “A big part of this show is accepting my newbie old age: 50,” he said. “It was funny being called OG because I was thinking, ‘I’ve never even been a G, and now I’m an OG?’”
He continued, “Acceptance doesn’t mean I can’t still be out here, making things happen. For example, my older-age perspective means I’ve been through a lot of elections, so I’m very savvy about what 2024’s gonna be. I’m preparing correctly, so I can get some things done.”
The propellant thrusting him back onstage after the birth of the couple’s third daughter, a Netflix special released in 2018 and then Covid in 2020, was realizing that at his core, he’s a stand-up comedian. “I’m also Black, but Black is something the world told me I was,” Bell said. “I had to figure out what that meant for me.”
With stories and stand-up rattling around in his brain, Bell knew he had to “un-retire,” but no longer had the time, patience or desire to show up at a club on Sunday nights and spend seven minutes setting up one punchline. Remembering Berkeley Rep reaching out prior to the pandemic, contact was made and Bell is thrilled to return to a black box theater like the ones where he began.
“I’ve never had this much support doing stand-up,” Bell said. “Berkeley Rep’s been great. And a little overwhelming. I’ve appreciated that, but I also don’t want to take advantage of it. Like, when I asked for a music stand, they brought me one. If I ask for a glass of water at a comedy club, they say, ‘Get your own water.’”
Which doesn’t mean Bell doesn’t feel any pressure to be a Black spokesperson. “The moment I feel that pressure, I remind myself, in the history of things Black people have done that have been hard in this country, me being asked to send out a tweet is not on the list of the top one thousand,” Bell said.
“Or being asked to show solidarity or be part of a campaign—it’s just not that hard,” he added. “For those of us positioned like I am in life, you have to step out and ask yourself, ‘Is this really hard, or am I just caught up in my own nonsense?’”
Bell recalls being asked to speak as part of a campaign to educate people in communities of color about the vaccine prior to its existence and thinking, “Am I the most famous Black person you can find?” He said, “I was told, ‘Yeah, you’re the guy.’ And so I did it, but it was still scary to be in the frontline of criticism, saying things people don’t want to hear.
“I remind myself, this is the reason I’m here,” he continued. “I don’t provide a lot of benefit as ‘best friend’ on comedy sitcoms or as the next Marvel superhero, but then I remind myself I’m not actually doing the crucial work activists do; I just talk about them on my show.”
‘W. Kamau Bell Gets His Act Together,’ Saturdays at 7pm through March 16 at Berkeley Rep’s Bakery Studio. SOLD OUT, but tickets not claimed by 6:55pm on the night of performance may be available for resale at the door. For more info visit www.berkeleyrep.org.