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Kamau Bell stumbled his way to glory

NONFICTION

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4'' African American, Hetereosexual, Cisgender, Left Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian

By Kamau Bell

Dutton Press

352 pages, $28.00

“Awkward” has a negative connotation as something to be avoided.

But W. Kamau Bell believes that “all real and lasting changes in the world began with awkward conversations” and “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4" African American, Hetereosexual, Cisgender, Left Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian” is his way of starting the discussion. (He was booked to appear at the Chautauqua Institution Aug. 3).

Bell has had a fascinating career.  He started doing stand-up comedy in college, and then developed a theatrical show called “The Bell Curve” which looked at race in America.  He had a short-lived late night show courtesy of Chris Rock (“Un-famous black guys never get TV shows. Un-famous white guys get TV shows all the time.”)

“Totally Biased” on FX, was canceled after a few months, and Bell admits it was an enormous relief as the stress and lack of control almost cost him his marriage. A bizarre segment with Mike Tyson was one of the last straws:

What very few people knew was that I had actually called my lawyer a couple days before (being cancelled) to see if I could get out of my contract. I didn’t have Dave Chappelle’s money or contacts, but I was seriously thinking about getting away to my own personal South Africa.”

Today Bell is in a great place—happily married with two daughters, and the host of  “The United Shades of America” beginning its second season on CNN. He also hosts three podcasts, including “Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period.”

His book is a series of essays of thought-provoking and well-constructed “awkward thoughts.” Each political chapter alternates with very funny pop-culture commentary, including the requisite Denzel essay, and fun pieces on superheroes, Scorcese’s “Casino” and a terrific love letter to Disney Junior’s “Doc McStuffins.”

As for his awkward political thoughts, Buffalo native and new Democratic National Committee Chair Thom Perez needs to read “Awkward Thoughts about the Democratic Party” and while he has the book open, he should turn directly to page 251 for “Awkward Thoughts about 11/9” (the day after the 2016 election).  

Bell admits that he is still learning, and invites criticism to become a better comic. In one anecdote, a female writer/colleague takes him to task for a joke he told about Condoleezza Rice. She explains why it was offensive and they debate it. He ends up being embarrassed that the joke is on YouTube and uses the opportunity to apologize to Rice. This reinforces his refreshing perspective that having a diverse production team (race, gender, sexual preference) results in a better product. He has made such changes for the second season of his CNN show.
Books by stand-up comedians are often best enjoyed in audiobook form. Comics spend countless hours getting their patter and pacing just right, popping the punch line, pausing for just the right number of milliseconds. So, even if we can imagine their voices, reading their words on the page is sometimes less than satisfying. Imagine them having to listen to us read their jokes aloud — they would surely find it excruciating.

In this case, the opening chapters are fast-paced and somewhat manic, with Bell asking why anyone is reading the book, explaining they may be disappointed. It is innately verbal. But as he warms up, and slows down, Bell begins to find his author’s voice and the written work stands on its own very nicely.

Dropping out of college and doing stand-up did not endear him to his parents. When he tells them he is going into comedy, his father is bewildered. “Kamau’s not even funny,” he replies, since his son was so quiet during the time he lived with him.

Perhaps his best-known “awkward” conversation was with an Imperial Wizard of the KKK, when Bell attended a cross burning for his CNN show. During editing, a lot of the funny moments were edited out because producers thought that when Bell joked with the Klan it made them less scary.

And I thought, White man, the Klan is ALWAYS scary. If I make them laugh, I have the power.  If I make the Klan laugh, then they’re submitting to me. Then I’m winning. If you take out the laughter, then I just look like a Black guy who showed up and got lectured by the Klan.”

There are two stories about Bell and his wife being on the receiving end of racist comments and actions and their dismay as the parents of young children is palpable. Ultimately, however, it is Bell’s role as a father that makes him both hopeful and committed to making a difference with many more awkward conversations.

Kathleen Rizzo Young is a veteran News contributing critic.

 

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