At Beauty Bar – a nightspot where Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and red-glittered walls mix in a prom-for-hipsters way – Kaseem Bentley mounts a mini-stage better suited for go-go dancing than stand-up comedy. “What’s going on, majorities?” Bentley says, elbowing a San Francisco audience that does not look like him. Then he embarks on a set that’s best described as “taking everybody down a notch.”
For 10 minutes, Bentley roasts white commuters on BART (mocking each for carrying “a jar of water full of bacteria”); sums up life in the Marina District (“Union Street; fro-yo; no blacks allowed”); and derides Oakland’s downtown for being dystopian (“It looks like the first two minutes of I Am Legend”).
Sporting a dark brown suit the color of his skin and a big, anachronistic beard, Bentley looks like he’s in the movie Selma. That’s Bentley’s joke, by the way, about his civil rights era appearance. What movie does tonight’s comedy crowd resemble? Something with very few black characters, probably by Woody Allen. In keeping with San Francisco’s actual population, the majority of people at this Mission District bar are white.
With the massive outflow of black residents from San Francisco over the past couple of decades, and with comedy having become one of the most powerful ways we consume news and encounter fresh ideas across the nation thanks in particular to the popularity of The Daily Show, it could be said that black comedians have taken on an important role as watchdogs and gadflies in this fast-changing city. But getting socio-political messages across to a predominantly white audience poses challenges.
All the black people are on stage
African-Americans are leaving San Francisco at a faster rate than other residents. City officials have vainly tried to reverse this unblackening with strategies like underwriting cultural institutions and activities that emphasize a sense of black belonging. But the head count keeps tumbling. According to US census data, blacks made up nearly 15 percent of San Francisco in 1970; today the number has dwindled to below 6 percent.
Yet African-American comedians continue to work San Francisco’s circuit. You can find Bentley, Richard Toomer, Carla Clay, Karinda Dobbins and other locals on some San Francisco bill or other practically seven nights a week. “There are probably more black comics than there are black people in San Francisco,” Dobbins says. She’s not kidding when she says sometimes the only black people at a San Francisco comedy venue are the ones going on stage. “You can have three black people in the show. But you won’t have three black people in the audience.”
For her upcoming San Francisco appearances, Dobbins will commute across the Bay from her home in Oakland, and maybe open a set with, “Have you guys seen any black people today? You’re welcome.” Then she might launch into this demographic critique: “If you were as liberal as you say you are, San Francisco wouldn’t look like this. Just look how white it is. This could be Orange County. This looks like every Republican county everywhere in the US. So how are you telling me this is the hotbed of liberalism?”
You could say Dobbins likes doing instructive comedy for non-black audiences. “There’s certain jokes as people of color that we do in front of white people, to get them to listen to stuff,” Dobbins says. Check out her R-rated videotaped set at the Purple Onion (a North Beach comedy club that in a previous location hosted big names like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce). In the video, Dobbins authorizes white people in the audience to use the n-bomb. You can say the racial epithet, Dobbins says, but only in a room with at least 10 black people. “And if you get out of there with all your teeth and extremities, then welcome to the motherland.”
Does it matter who is in the audience?
Some black comics are sensitive to winning over a non-black room. “It puts you at a weird disadvantage,” Bentley says. “Because you’re like, “Hey there, I’m different than you. Let’s get this out of the way.’”
Drawing deeply on racial joke premises -- because, Bentley says, most of his experiences have been around race -- means running up against resistance to his comedic expression, to his insistence on “going there.” The native San Franciscan tells of another night in the Mission, when his set felt at odds with his restrained, young, non-black crowd. Comic book references would’ve played better, the comedian says sarcastically. “They’re just used to things that make them happy,” Bentley says. “Then ‘Joe Negro’ comes up and talks about race. And they’re like, ‘Can you do something about Wolverine?’ My life is about survival, and they want to talk about Calvin and Hobbes.”
A comedian lives or dies by the amount of laughter in the room. And laughter is generally spawned by the seed of familiarity or recognition. So it follows that you might avoid a topic that your audience isn’t hardwired to understand. For instance, for San Francisco crowds, Dobbins won’t do jokes about black hair care. Hair grease, the Kim’s Wig hair product chainstore, and the hairdresser that offers you a plate of food? These are usually foreign concepts outside of the black community so the jokes would require too much set-up and explanation, Dobbins says. But with race back on America’s front burner due to the Black Lives Matter movement in particular, Dobbins says audiences have some grounding in her go-to material tackling racism. “Now, even comics who really don’t tend to do political material have at least one joke,” she says.
African-American comedy then versus now
Socio-political jokes have long been a staple of African-American comedy, of course. Consider Richard Pryor, who called out America’s systemic racial injustice and celebrated black empowerment in his live appearances and comedy albums like the landmark That N-- Crazy. That album was recorded in San Francisco in 1974 at a nightclub on Broadway owned by Soul Train host Don Cornelius that was also called Soul Train. Pryor addressed a completely receptive, majority-black audience -- In San Francisco? Imagine! -- and landed jokes about the merciless over-policing of black communities.
Other than the dwindling of black attendance at San Francisco comedy shows, what has changed in the 40 years since, is the reverence we give comedians. While Pryor earned a Grammy for That N-- Crazy, he did not perform in an era where satirical TV hosts and comedy sketch stars have a greater ability to influence the way we think than the likes of Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag.
Comedians are the “new public intellectuals,” wrote journalist Megan Garber in The Atlantic this May. We look to them, Garber said, to “not just make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And to fix it.” The magazine highlighted Amy Schumer for a sharp sketch where she prosecutes Bill Cosby in the court of public opinion. It praised John Oliver for influencing US internet policies with his Last Week Tonight HBO show.
But the Atlantic overlooked a black man at the intersection of comedy, race and journalism -- a towering, afroed figure doing educational humor about black lives. (Nope, Larry Wilmore is bald.) That would be W. Kamau Bell, a Berkeley-based comedian who sports an honorific from the American Civil Liberty Union: Ambassador of Racial Justice.
Forged on San Francisco stages, US college tours and cable TV, Bell is proof that comedy is a container large enough for challenging ideas. The African-American comedian managed to turn an ugly racial incident earlier this year -- a waitress shooed him from a Berkeley cafe, claiming she thought he was a homeless man -- into a community-building town hall meeting about how blacks encounter suspicion in settings occupied by whites. The Ambassador of Racial Justice crafted an enlightening This American Life episode out of that experience, too. Yet unlike Pryor before him, Bell often performs for the Bay Area’s white audiences. A recent residency he did in Berkeley’s Marsh Theater was a case in point: big with the over-30, non-black crowd. So much so, infact, that Bell did shout outs to the few black patrons in the house.
For a black comic who speaks about racist encounters with white people, a predominantly caucasian room is not a relaxed atmosphere. In an old interview for his “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About An Hour” roadshow, Bell told the interviewer that the dynamic feels, “less like a show and more like court testimony.” It’s as if the jury box is filled with non-black skeptics who doubt his credibility, Bell said, adding , “I don’t know about this negro,” of the way he imagines the audience thinking.
Yet Bell’s ideal turnout is not an all-black house either, because there’s too much group agreement. Racially mixed, diverse crowds are the best for sharing in laughter, building tolerance, and learning from each other’s reactions, the comedian said. In other words, he’s much more interested in communicating to a broad audience than one that is majority white or black.
So Bell’s comedy about the black experience is really aiming for that universal sweet spot. Take his bit about police brutality, performed in late 2014, right as Black Lives Matter demonstrations against the killings of unarmed black men gripped the nation. To kick off his joke, Bell said inappropriate policing is bad for black people and for white people. He blamed America’s love of the extreme, no-limits cops from Hollywood blockbusters. Then he role-played a reasonable citizen’s encounter with an outrageous movie cop:
‘I don’t play by the rules’
No? Then get me a rule-playing cop.
‘I don’t go by the book.’
I find that the book helps in tense situations.
‘I shoot first and ask questions later.’
I think you’ve got that mixed up! Ask questions, contemplate, and then if you need to shoot, you shoot!
Bell performed that bit at Oakland’s Impact Hub for a December 2014 showcase billed as a way to bridge divides and titled “Laughter and Liberation (Comedy for Palestine...with a Chanukah Twist!)” For once, Bell did his jokes before as perfect an audience as he could wish for. People of color may have tipped the balance in the room that night, but the overall ethnic makeup didn’t seem too far away from Bell’s professed ideal of everybody representin’. As the whole room dissolved into laughter and applause, the universal absurdities heaped upon us all seemed a bit lighter. Our shared humanity felt clearer. Only a comedian can create this kind of police-misconduct-levity, while outside the venue racial conflict rages on.
Kaseem Bentley, Karinda Dobbins together with other comics will appear at the KALW 91.7 Public Radio Standup Comedy Showcase Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. at PianoFight, 144 Taylor St., Tenderloin. $10 online, $15 door. (415) 816-3691; pianofight.com.
W. Kamau Bell will be performing during the live recording of KQED Pop's new podcast, The Cooler, on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at the Chapel, 777 Valencia St, San Francisco. Tickets are $10.
He will also appear Monday, Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. City Arts & Lectures, Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., Hayes Valley. $29. (415) 392-4400; cityarts.net. Benefits the 826 Valencia Scholarship Program. Keep up with his calendar at wkamaubell.com