Oops! They did it again

W. Kamau Bell takes his swing at racism
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W. Kamau Bell
Photo by Adam Davis

kimberly@sfbg.com

The best comedians always shear close to the bone with their truths, but believe it or not, few are necessarily a gut bust in conversation. Why is this a surprise? After all, the comic is on the interviewer's mic, not on the clock and on script. Yet W. Kamau Bell plays against type and comes with not only the insights you wish you had spewed first but also the wit, centered on the issues of race that he's been grappling with since childhood.

The rising incidence of racist cracks that reveal the persistent fissures in a country seemingly disinterested in identity politics — and those emerging from the 34-year-old San Franciscan's own milieu, the alternative comedy scene — has led Bell to sharpen his attack with The W. Kamau Bell Curve, which focuses on the ugly slurs spilling from Sarah Silverman, Michael Richards, and Rosie O'Donnell, as well as other, unexpected quarters. And the nastiness keeps coming — cue Golf Channel commentator Kelly Tilghman's recent remark that young players who want to defeat Tiger Woods would need to "lynch him in a back alley" — and spurring Bell to continue updating the show he first performed in October 2007.

According to Bell, racism is on the comeback trail with a crucial difference: "This time it's coming from liberals and creeping in through pop culture in some weird way. I call it political correctness acid reflux. People are just burping out racism." The comic rose to the occasion to make Bell Curve after reading a story about Southern blackface comic Shirley Q. Liquor in Rolling Stone. He was outraged by the fact that the article even questioned whether the Liquor act was racist, much as he was troubled by the things coming from his own field. "It's, like, wait a minute — this is my industry, and again, it's not coming from redneck comics or blue-collar comics. It's coming from alternative comics who are supposed to be liberal comics.

"It's, like, 'Look, you know I like black people, so it's allegedly OK for me to use a joke with the word nigger in it' — even though there's no black people in the audience and you don't have any black friends!" he continues. "Like I say in the show, the most racist things that have ever happened to me have come from people who were friends of mine. I had a friend who once said to me, 'Kamau, I like you. You're black, but you're not black black.' What does that mean? I'm black but you still have your wallet?"

The only child of author Janet Cheatham Bell, Bell is all too familiar with that kind of chum, having moved from private to public to private school throughout his life. "A lot of times I would be the only black person in school," recalls Bell, who now teaches solo performance at the Shelton Theater and frequently opens for Dave Chappelle. "And when you're that person, either they forget you're black, so things happen and you're, like, [in a meek squeak] 'Wait a minute — don't forget I'm black, everybody,' or because you're black they unburden their, you know, 'Kamau, lemme tell you something about black people I've never been able to tell any other black person.' Oooh, please don't!"

Be glad, however, that Bell is telling us about it all.

THE W. KAMAU BELL CURVE

Thurs/24, 8 p.m., $20 (bring a friend of a different race, who gets in free)

Shelton Theater

533 Sutter, SF

(415) 433-1227

www.sheltontheater.com

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