W Kamau Bell is one of the most brilliant and controversial names in comedy. He recently moved back to the Bay Area, after a stint in New York hosting the dearly departed Totally Biased with W Kamau Bell. To celebrate his return, he did a “secret residency” at Cinecave in Lost Weekend Video. He’s playing Uptown Showdown: Are We Getting Dumber vs Are We Getting Smarter with Maria Bamford, Dave Hill, TJ Miller, Aparna Nancherla, Greg Poops and Jared Logan on January 31st. Tickets are available here!
Welcome back to the Bay Area! What caused you to return?
What caused me to return? I think it was a calling? I felt pulled back, although I don’t know if the Bay Area wanted me back. Once I left, every time I visited the Bay Area, I’d run into people telling me to move back. I’d tell people “I can’t move back here. I’m in show business now.” But once Fox invited me out of show business, I thought, “Oh yeah! I can go back to the Bay Area now!” It’s the place I’ve lived for the longest period of my life, 15 years, and it became clear to me that, the more I was away, the more this is my home. So, once my wife became pregnant with our second child, we realized that the idea of having a baby in New York sounded like a reality show that I didn’t want to watch on television.We felt the bay made more sense as a place to raise out kids.
What city did you decide to settle back into? There’s a lot of Bay Area that would be just as frustrating to raise a kid in in New York…
We decided to live in Oakland, but we found a place in Berkeley.
Berkeley is kind of like Oakland only cleaner, I guess?
I don’t know if you’d wanna tell Oakland or Berkeley that. Everyone feels that their portion of the Bay Area is very different from other portions of the Bay Area. I remember one time years ago when I was living out here, and I heard some black man call me a “Fake North Oakland N____a!”, and I thought to myself “Man. Has it become that specific out here?” I was living in North Oakland and thought: “This is the fake part? It feels very real to me.”
It’s been a fascinating period for a political comedian. How did you handle the intense onslaught of police brutality and social activism that was inspired by it in your act?
I’ve been talking about it on stage for quite a bit. As the story changes, I try to keep up with that. It’s become the section of my shows that I call “The Bummer Section.” Because there are “jokes” in there and parts are funny, but there is a different quality of laughter in the earlier part, where I talk about the adorable nature of my child. Those jokes are also about race and racism, but they are “adorable child” racism jokes. Sometimes I go on stage, and it’s not even the audience, I just think “I wish I wasn’t compelled to talk about this stuff” and I’ll look down on my setlist and think “Why isn’t their a section about ‘Why puppies are the cutest animals’?” It’s not really a fun time to be the kind of comedian I am. But when I even think about that, I realize that it’s an even less fun time to be a victim of these horrible crimes.
Have you developed an entire “Puppies are adorable” set?
Every time I try to develop those jokes that are simply fun and funny, they can’t seem to come out of my mouth. That’s not how I was raised. I’d love to figure it out, but it’s not in the cards.
At this point, you’ve developed a certain sense of notoriety and fame. Are you still playing shows in front of audiences that are put off by you discussing current events and your point of view on them?
My level of notoriety varies pending which part of the country I’m in. This past week I did New Orleans, where I’ve got stuff going on there, and I played Little Rock, AR, and I don’t have as much going on there. I mean, whenever I go to a town, it’s usually the liberal, progressive people in that town. I really just have to put my head in the space and see what kind of people show up. Even in those communities, the most liberal person in Jackson, MS is a different level of liberal than the most liberal person in Oakland, CA. It’s funny, if you find the absolute most liberal person in Jackson and the most liberal person in Oakland, you’ll find that the person in Jackson is often more liberal than the person in Oakland, because they have to hold down the banner. I did a show in Jackson, and there was a trans person there, and I was “WHAT? YOU LIVE HERE? Can we sit down and talk?” I wanted to learn more, but I also didn’t want to be the person that asked them questions about their life. I couldn’t believe it, that you would choose to live there. I didn’t know how this would work.
I’m imagining they are the toughest person in town
I’m under the impression that they don’t take any shit.
How did you stumble across the Cinecave people?
When I was in New York, and I came back at one point and let it be known on Twitter that I was looking for a place to do a set in the Bay Area. The folks that ran Cinecave I knew when I lived here before, and they told me they were doing shows in the basement of Lost Weekend Video. They asked me to come by, and I said sure. And I stepped on stage and thought “this is the best room I’ve ever performed in!” It only holds like 30 people, and it’s in a basement, and I’m not sure if it’s up to code. Everyone comes for comedy, and they are excited to be there. So, every time I came back, I tried to do a set there. I really liked the room. They’ve captured a magic that a lot of rooms can’t. So, I wanted to do a lot of sets to warm up for a tour, and I wanted to do them Saturday nights. And they were like, “absolutely.” I feel we could sell out 60 seats every Saturday, and we did. I used to work at a video store back in the day, so it was fun to be back and do comedy in a space like that.
There are certain rooms that are the right space at the right time, and that’s one of those rooms.
At the beginning of the interview, we had a brief chat about time. I decided it made more sense to let you listen to it instead of transcribe it. So here you go!