moontower comedy interviews
Talking to W. Kamau Bell, part one: How religion is like Dungeons & Dragons, andcomedy's like Black Flag
When you make your name with the explicitly political live comedy show Laugh Against The Machine, and name your one-man show after the famously racist sociology book The Bell Curve, it’s fair for audiences to expect that you’re going to touch on some topics that are left out of most polite conversations.
W. Kamau Bell doesn’t just touch on them, though — the San Francisco-based comic confronts them in ways that are by turn hilarious and professorial (the fact that he’s wearing a blazer in most of his YouTube videos helps). It’s an approach that’s paid off for Bell in unlikely ways; one might not expect a one-man show called The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About An Hour to be the ticket to a Chris Rock-produced late-night show on FX (as yet untitled), but starting this summer, we’ll get the chance to see it.
In the meantime, Bell continues to keep busy as a stand-up — which includes a stop at the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival here in Austin. CultureMap caught up with Bell to talk about how Rick Santorum is like a kid playing Dungeons and Dragons, becoming an unlikely talk show host and why he takes his career inspiration from Black Flag.
(Editor's Note: This sucker’s split over two parts — check back tomorrow for the second half.)
So, let’s get right to it — what do you think Rick Santorum was going to say after he said the word "government?"
I have a 10-month-old baby and last week was a crazy week for me. What did he say? I'm assuming he said something racist or hateful or both.
"I think discussing religion in public should be the same as discussing what you like to masturbate to on the Internet in public. I think it should be off limits. It should be something that you feel embarrassed talking about in public."
He stopped himself while talking about President Obama as he started to call him a "government ni..."
Oh, yeah! Here's what I'll say about that: Rick Santorum and many people in the GOP don't have to say "nigger" for me to know that they feel that's what we are. I don't need them to say it. That's really just overkill — and sometimes it's actually just real kill.
It's funny when people wanna catch people on the right in those rare moments like that — I'm kind of like, I don't think we need to catch them in those moments. They actually hate anyone who isn't straight white men or supplicants to straight white men so I don't feel the need to "We gotcha!" them. You got yourself.
Does the racism that’s come out in this primary seem shocking to you, or do you expect it at this point?
I'm always shocked that they're not better at cloaking it. You see these people talk and you think, "Are you not aware that everyone in this room has a camera and is taping this?" It used to be, as a politician, you could meet with these individual groups wherever you went and the only people who heard your speech were the people in the room. But now, these old school politicians are forgetting that if you show up and you say that "Obama's a government nig..."— that's an international new story.
It's really sad that they haven't figured out a better way to cloak their hatred. But on some level, I think Santorum doesn't feel the need to cloak his hatred 'cause he feels like that God told him he needs to be hateful. God makes it okay to be hateful. Not the God I grew up with, but we all pick our gods. [Laughs] Until God shows up and tells us which one is the one, we all get to pick our god, like Dungeons and Dragons. “My God is an elf!” or “My god is ranger!” “My god has several arms.”
Which is part of the reason I think discussing religion in public should be the same as discussing what you like to masturbate to on the Internet in public. I think it should be off limits. It should be something that you feel embarrassed talking about in public. I don't wanna talk about what I masturbate to. You shouldn't talk about which god you pray to. Gross.
"There's more than just two scenes of comedy, the mainsteam scene and the alt scene. And I feel a little bit like the punk rock band — the Black Flag who's like, 'I'm going to go rent a venue and sell tickets and whoever comes — if it's twenty people, fine, two hundred people, better.'"
Lots of comics do politically charged material and lots are thoughtful about politics and race, but you really frame yourself explicitly as a political, racially conscious comic. What’s the benefit to that?
The benefits is that with Laughter Against the Machine and with my solo show, I'm basically cherry picking my audience. Many times, being in comedy clubs, I'll be fifteen minutes into my hour-long set and somebody will be like, "Say something funny!" And I'll be like, "Yeah, I've been doing that for fifteen minutes." [Laughs]
I started taking myself out of the comedy clubs and started booking around San Francisco and around the country in independent venues. So that when you go to town, you put out your posters, you send out press releases, you get press interviews and you say, "This is what I'm going to be doing at this place. Whoever wants to participate in that come to this place at eight o’ clock on Saturday." Some people think that means that you're not actually challenging yourself by being in front of comedy club audiences, but for me, it's no different than if you're, like, a punk rock band, maybe you shouldn't play the Apollo. That doesn't mean you're not playing music — it just means you need to play in front of the people who want to see you. I feel that way about stand-up.
There's more than just two scenes of comedy, the mainsteam scene and the alt scene. And I feel a little bit like the punk rock band — the Black Flag who's like, “I'm going to go rent a venue and sell tickets and whoever comes — if it's twenty people, fine, two hundred people, better.” But I'll know that the people in the room will have read a chapter in the book before showing up to class.
When you were coming from that punk rock background, did you ever see yourself as a late night talk show host?
[Laughs] I still don't see myself as a late night talk show host. It's funny, in doing my solo show, I sort of put aside dreams of fame and fortune for the sake of artistic fulfillment. It just happened that in doing that, I got a lot more acclaim than I'd gotten before. That's kind of how that works and I put a lot of work into it.
My show stumbled across Chris Rock's desk, and of course I'd like to have my own show. Who in Cali doesn't want their own TV show? And it's funny to me — because I talk, it's being called a late night talk show. I never imagined that that's what it would have been called but if that's what you want to call it, that's what I'll do.
When you think talk show, you think The Tonight Show or Letterman and I'm not doing any version of that. It's going to be closer to the old school Chris Rock Show on HBO and The Daily Show, where it's like, you watched The Chris Rock Show because you wanted to hear what Chris Rock had to say, and what comments he and his friends had about the world. And you want to watch The Daily Show to hear what Jon Stewart and the correspondents have to say about the world. You watch Jay Leno because Schwarzenegger's on! Or that girl from that thing Disney did and she's gonna sing a song!
I don't think I'll be a lot of that, “that girl from that Disney thing who's gonna sing a song.” It's gonna be more of "Why is the world so fucked? Here's jokes about it."
Check back tomorrow for more from W. Kamau Bell.
W. Kamau Bell (and 70+ other comics) will be performing at the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival April 25 - 28. Single performance tickets and festival passes are available now.