W. Kamau Bell plays the Fillmore, but doesn’t hold back for the home crowd

Pub date December 12, 2012
SectionPixel Vision

A word of advice to the person who shouted, “who’s your favorite clothing designer?,” at W. Kamau Bell during his December 9th show at the Fillmore: a guy who wears a “Legalize Arizona” t-shirt during a night he considers one of the biggest moments of his career probably doesn’t give a shit about fashion. (Initially befuddled by the question, Bell eventually responded “Dickies.”) In addition, to the person who asked Bell whether or not he thought was a whore for being on TV, if he is a one … well you paid for your ticket to the show, right?

Glad we could get that out of the way first.

Bell’s Fillmore gig in the city where he resided for 15 years was one of seven on his Kamau Mau Uprising tour – the name an obvious nod to his radical political leanings. But perhaps none of the other venues held as much significance for him as this one. As he told me in our recent Guardian interview, “in some sense that’s bigger than getting a TV show, when they said that I was going to play the Fillmore.”

The comic’s giddiness in reuniting with the people of his adopted homeland (he grew up in Chicago) was evident as his 6’4” frame came lumbering onto the stage, just moments after opener Dave Thomason’s set. Thomason supposedly was going to go off stage and then come back on to introduce Bell, but Bell apparently didn’t get the memo and strolled right into the spotlight sans introduction from Thomason.

You don’t have to be Nate Silver (a.k.a., White Jesus, according to Bell) to predict how a show like this was going to begin. When a local comedian leaves town to get his own TV show in New York – Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell was recently renewed for a second season – it’s pretty much de rigueur that he opens by regaling the crowd with an anecdotal New York show biz story followed by some softball home crowd-pleasers.

And that’s how it happened. Bell told a story about the time he appeared on The View with Taylor Swift and his towncar was swarmed by six or seven deranged teenyboppers. As for the home crowd pleaser, Bell teased the East Bay denizens about their reluctance to cross the bridge for pretty much any reason. Low hanging fruit? Sure. Could he have easily flipped which side of the Bay he was joshing? Sure. Was it necessary? Absolutely! Broad home crowd pleasers are hypeman-stand-ins in the world of live comedy.

Once we got past the “homecoming” novelty (it never fully went away) Bell hit full stride, thwacking the audience with his favorite subject: race! A palpable liberal queasiness was rife in the historic theater when Bell struck his harshest notes, especially those recounting his own experiences with racism — he once got called the n-word twice in one night in the Mission.

And then as kicker, he chucked sexuality in the mix:

“Hey I’ve lived in San Francisco for 15 years, I never had any beef with gay people, I had way more beef with Chinese people than gay people. Way more, not even close and that’s why I don’t think we should let Chinese people get married. If there’s one point I’m making tonight it’s that Chinese people should not be allowed to get married…That’s the funny thing about San Francisco, it has this reputation of being gay but it’s way more Asian than gay and on some level, gay trumps Asian.”

For the record W. Kamau Bell isn’t actually against Chinese marriage.

Bell’s best quality is his ability to derive humor from seemingly humorless racial topics, distributing laughter equally among the crowd. At no point during the show did it seem like a certain joke got more laughs from people of a certain race. No one else can make the Fillmore ignite in uproarious laughter with a joke skewering the supposed notion that black people were responsible for Prop. 8 passing.

Bell’s “I’m glad to be back!” moment played out exactly like it was scripted. It took place in the perfect setting. Nostalgia and a familiar audience drove Bell’s success at the Fillmore. His biggest challenge, of course, lies ahead: replicating those fuzzy feelings in TV land.