The Hippo


May 31, 2020








W. Kamau Bell. Courtesy photo.

W. Kamau Bell

When: Wednesday, Dec. 3, at 9 p.m.
Where: Shaskeen Pub, 909 Elm St., Manchester

Truth teller
The challenging comedy of W. Kamau Bell

By Michael Witthaus

 W. Kamau Bell wouldn’t mind just one night of jokes about Hot Pockets. 

“I know Jim Gaffigan has a hard life, but I would love to borrow his act,” said Bell recently. “I’m not trying to take anything away — he’s one of the greatest. … I’d just like to be him for a night to have a little breathing room.”
Thus, Bell concedes his act isn’t easy, but that’s the point. 
“A lot of people view standup comedy as an opportunity to check their brain at the door. That is not why I do it. I’m like, bring your brain in so we can talk about the problems of the world.”
Make no mistake, Bell is hilarious when he likens religious zealots to gym rats and Comicon cosplay fanatics, or describes the birth of the Tea Party at town hall meetings as “Klan casual Friday.” But he admits that his jokes are sometimes thought-provoking in uncomfortable ways. 
“It’s not always the kind of comedy people want; it can be very frustrating,” said Bell. “Even my penis jokes are sociopolitical.”
His smart take on the current state of the world has made Bell a popular blogger. A recent BuzzFeed post, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Late Night Television,” was read widely — and often misread, the comic said. 
“It was quoted as, ‘Kamau Bell says it’s time for a black host on late-night TV.’ I didn’t say that, nor do I care.”
The point of his piece was that those shut out of television can and should seek other avenues to make their voices heard. 
“That’s how I did it,” he said. “I went and wrote my own show and took it on the road and had a lot of friends’ help and paid for a lot of the theaters so I could perform it and built up a lot of popularity; eventually, Chris Rock saw it and said, ‘Hey we should put that on television.’”
Bell moved to New York to host Totally Biased; the show ran for just over a year. When it ended in 2013, the comic went right back to what he’d done before. For fans who know him primarily from television, Bell said his Oh, Everything tour that launched early this year is different in a few ways.
“I won’t be dressed by a professional person, and I’ll probably be angrier,” he said. “Plus, on the show I had to play the host role more than I ever imagined [but] in standup I don’t feel this need to guide you through the sad news with such a soft touch. I can just sort of ... get to it directly without having to say welcome to the show.”
Leaving a popular television show was easier than most people might believe, Bell said. He scrapped through the early 2000s in San Francisco, a time when the typically burgeoning comedy scene was at ebb. 
“I moved in as some of the greatest comics of their day had just left, like Patton Oswalt and Janeane Garofalo,” he said. “It was a time where you could do a lot of shows … but you didn’t feel like show business was coming to get you.”
That changed as the Web became a comedy platform, and Bell went with it. As a result, he was unfazed when F/X canceled his show. 
“I didn’t need to do the Hollywood thing; all my favorite [things] right now are happening outside of television,” he said. “I watch a ton of TV, let’s be clear about that, but most of my media is podcasts at this point.”
In November, he and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver writer Kevin Avery launched a new podcast; Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time PERIOD. 
“Television and film tend to pay the rent really well,” Bell said. “But the way to charge your happiness and to really create projects you like is by doing it yourself on the Internet.” 
As seen in the November 27, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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