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