After brouhaha over Berkeley racism incident, Kamau Bell does comedy in his new hometown

Kamau Bell
Comedian Kamau Bell, who lives in Berkeley, is performing standup at The Marsh in Berkeley through Aug. 22. Photo: 92Y Tribeca/New York Comedy Festival

With two young daughters — Sammy, 4, and Juno, 7 months — W. Kamau Bell needs to be home early these days. Hence the name of his new stand-up show, “Home by 10,” running at The Marsh in Berkeley through Aug. 22.

The comedian, who is known for his unfettered jokes about race and racism — he hosted the FXX TV series “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” and his new CNN show, “United Shades of America” has just finished shooting — has supplemented his repertoire with funny stories about parenting and kids.

On the second night of the run, Bell riffed about the fine line between being a father and being a friend to one’s child, and related how he and his wife, Melissa Hudson Bell, picked a preschool for Sammy after they moved to Berkeley from New York about six months ago. (They are so happy with their choice that a portion of the proceeds of the show is going to Heart’s Leap Preschool on College Avenue.)

But race surfaces often: He also touched on how strangers wax lyrical about how beautiful his kids are — something he believes is likely an overcompensation through praise by white people to the fact the children are bi-racial (Hudson Bell is white).


“Why are we making such a great deal of it?” Bell asks rhetorically a few days after the show, as he sits drinking coffee at Au Coquelet in downtown Berkeley. He knows from the reaction of the audience, however, that this joke hits the spot.

“I’m pretty hard on myself, as many of my friends would say. But every now and again there are things that I write where I say, ‘I like that’… that that sums up a situation that exists, and is personal to me in a comedic way, but you don’t have to spell it out. People get it,” he says.

And that, continues Bell, is the best kind of comedy: “I didn’t even have to say it, I communicated it to you.”

Bell is enjoying performing in his new hometown and at The Marsh. He says he likes places that feel like jazz clubs, with low ceilings and a 1960s or 70s vibe, which was also his favorite era for comedy.

“They hadn’t really codified what the art-form was yet,” he says, citing greats like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. “[They didn’t do] jokes that everyone steals from each other and sells to each other. Now, somebody could teach you how to do stand-up. Then, everyone had a different style. Richard Pryor might just do ‘mudbone’ for 15 minutes, or Mort Sahl would just read from the newspaper and make jokes about it… there wasn’t a set of rules.”


Bell says he assesses his audience before starting his act. The Berkeley crowd skews whiter than his usual turn-out, he says, so he makes up for it by “leaning in” to the brown folk in the room. On the run’s second night, he exchanged quips with a black friend, as well as a black woman he didn’t know whose laugh he admired.

Generally, he aims to establish a connection with the audience. “I like creating a feeling that is bigger than the stage and a feeling that ‘if you like what I do then you’re my friend,’” he says. “I like when people engage, but I don’t like when people trump me,” he adds, recalling a recent show when a heckler was intent on telling him when he thought his jokes had fallen flat. Bell put him in his place by informing him that he wasn’t his target audience anyway.

The run also includes a guest comic for each night, hand-selected by Bell. They include Karinda Dobbins, Bucky Sinister, Natasha Muse and Kaseem Bentley. Bell says he has been choosing both friends and comedians he admires and is amused, though happy, with how diverse the line-up ended up being.

“We have everything from ‘black lesbian,’ ‘aging punk rock white guy who’s in recovery,’ to ‘transgender mom’ — and Zach Sherwin who’s a Jewish vegan rapper,’” he laughs.

Kamau Bell with notes for his standup show. Photo Tracey Taylor
Kamau Bell looks at notes for his standup show at Au Coquelet in Berkeley on July 10. Photo Tracey Taylor

Bell’s material varies from night to night, though there’s a core set of jokes he returns to regularly. He brings handwritten notes onto the tiny stage to remind him of some of those that have gone well. One of those starts with him explaining how he always Googles the name of a place he’s thinking of living in, along with the word “racism.”


But he “stumbles into” material too, he says, and those riffs can be the most successful. One night, he started talking about President Obama breaking into a rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service for the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting victims. “I didn’t have an idea for it, but then it came to me that the idea was that it was hitting my black G-spot. And that I wouldn’t want to see any other president sing like that,” he says.

Bell lived in the Bay Area — both in San Francisco and Oakland — before moving to New York to make “Totally Biased” in 2012, and it’s where he made his name on the comedy circuit with his solo show “The Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.”

His return to the Bay Area was made somewhat dramatic after he wrote about an incident of racism he experienced at the Elmwood Café in Berkeley in January of this year. The post on his blog, and its coverage by Berkeleyside, blew up and eventually led to a community forum hosted by the Berkeley Unified School District at Willard School in March. Michael Pearce, owner of the Elmwood Café, spoke, as did Hudson Bell, and several expert panelists.

While the incident is now several months behind him, it is still front of mind for Bell. “I feel like I’m still in the middle of it,” he says. “I will just as likely be recognized for being on TV as for ‘that thing that happened in the Elmwood,'” he says. But he doesn’t regret how it was handled. “We did the right thing — me and my family didn’t just ignore it or do something stupid with it,” he says.

What does that mean for him now, living in Berkeley? “It’s a weird thing to be carrying around,” he responds, mentioning that he walks past the café often, such as when he’s taking Sammy to preschool. “I haven’t stepped foot in the Elmwood Café since then, because I don’t know how to.”

Reactions to the couple’s recounting of the incident ran the gamut from extreme sympathy to sheer skepticism. Speaking about  the latter, Bell says: “There are a lot of people who live in Berkeley who would rather go to their favorite café than believe racism exists.”

There was also some troubling pushback from within the black community. “There was this weird thread where people were taking much delight and joy out of saying, ‘that’s what you get from marrying a white woman,'” he says. This was difficult to take, he says.

“I’m going to have a hard time being intellectual and logical in my response to this,” he says. “You’re talking about my family. You’re using this as an excuse to attack my family and my kids. That should be off-limits, but it’s not. The internet has created a nation of anonymous cowards.”

The Elmwood Café experience led to Bell recording a segment on parenting for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life,” for which Bell brought in one of the forum panelists, Kadijah Means, then head of the Black Student Union at Berkeley High School. Bell had encountered Means during the Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley when she led a BHS march and die-in on the Cal campus. He then met her at the Willard School forum, where she talked, among other things, about her father’s influence on her life. Bell was impressed: “If my daughter grows up to be that kind of black woman, then mission accomplished,” he says.

In the end though, however much some people may see Bell as the go-to person locally on racism and, specifically, racism in the Bay Area, Bell says that’s not his intention, or even his desire. “I like living in the Bay Area but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to say that I am a representative of the Bay Area,” he says. “There are people who have much deeper roots in Berkeley than me. I like what the community represents and I want to fan the flames of what it represents, but I don’t want anyone to think I’m a spokesperson for the community.”

“Home by 10,” W. Kamau Bell’s standup show, is at The Marsh Berkeley through Aug. 22. The Marsh is at 2120 Allston Way. For more information about the show, as well as other shows at The Marsh — including Don Reed’s “Stereotypo: Rants and Rumblings at the DMV,” also running through Aug. 22 — visit The Marsh’s website

Related:
Kamau Bell and Elmwood Café launch implicit bias training initiative (3.16.15) 
Date set for forum with W. Kamau Bell and Elmwood Cafe in wake of racism accusation (03.09.15)
New details emerge in W. Kamau Bell-Elmwood Café storm (02.04.15)
Comedian W. Kamau Bell reports being victim of racism at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café (01.29.15)
Black Lives Matter protest by hundreds of Berkeley High students “shows how it’s done” (12.11.14) 

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