DURING TIMES as fraught as these, the general public (that's you and me) grasps for voices of reason, authority, and levity, or some perfect combination of the three. And often, the voices we seek out belong to comedians who touch on sociopolitical issues in their stand-up or writing. So when the news coming out of Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York started piling up on the shoulders of the African American community, people started leaning on someone like W. Kamau Bell to say... something.
"I can get caught up in it," Bell says, with a knowing laugh. "When I hear myself saying to my wife, 'I need to tweet about this! People need to know!' that's when I know I've gone to crazy land. But when those two police officers were killed in New York, I very actively didn't tweet about it because I didn't know what to say. I felt this pressure to comment, though, so I said, 'If you want my thoughts on this, follow [poet and rapper] Saul Williams.' He has all my thoughts before I do."
The burden might be a little stronger for the 43-year-old stand-up thanks to his work on the canceled-too-soon TV show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. The late-night comedy/talk show addressed institutional and societal discrimination head-on, and gave a spotlight to an array of minority voices like Hari Kondabolu and Janine Brito.
Thanks to his stellar work on the program, Bell's now the guy that Bill Maher and Meet the Press call on to comment on race in America and the power of satire. As well, after the Ferguson grand jury decision, he penned an amazing essay for Vanity Fair about his own fears of the police and living, like Michael Brown, as a 6'4" black man in America.
As much as Bell appreciates these opportunities, his concentration over the last couple of years has been on his stand-up. And he's been plenty busy in that arena. Last year, he came to Portland twice, with numerous sets at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, and more dates to come in 2015.
"It's been a while since I did a new CD or comedy special," he says. "That's the goal of this. At some point, I want to record a special. And in the wake of Totally Biased, people don't really know me as a comic. I really believe, as a stand-up, you have to leave behind a body of work."