W. Kamau Bell on Being a ‘Semi-Prominent’ Black Comedian

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This content was originally published by NIELA ORR on 19 May 2017 | 3:31 pm.
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“Awkward Thoughts” is the latest addition to a small canon of “awkward” work by black creatives. The word has appeared recently as both an adjective and a cultural geotag, locating a book, TV show or podcast left-of-center on the spectrum of Black Cool. Most famously, Issa Rae, the writer, actress and star of HBO’s “Insecure,” rose to fame via the web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” and a memoir of the same name published in 2015. “Are you thinking (perhaps awkwardly),” Bell writes, “that you need help sorting through the stuff that makes up America in order to attempt to figure out how we should remake America?”

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In this book, “awkward” is a filter, a way to view the author’s thoughts on the remaking of this country. Bell deconstructs the country’s contradictions through the prism of his own life, via meditations on the Democratic Party, Denzel Washington, Doc McStuffins, the “Rocky” films, intersectionality and a host of other pop-cultural and political subjects.

Recalling the transformative night he was in the audience while a 20-year-old Dave Chappelle bombed in a black Chicago nightclub, Bell writes, “I realized, I’ve got to make my own space.” That realization anticipates his multimedia hybrid stand-up solo theater show, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour,” and his later success leapfrogging across mediums.

Although the text version is an interesting, if curiously structured, work, the audiobook allows Bell a more apt platform for his offbeat intelligence and idiosyncratic voice. The experience of listening to the text, which clocks in at 10 hours and 31 minutes, is like being the sole patron in a comedy club while Bell performs a marathon stand-up routine. Though some of the humor falls flat in the physical version, the comedic timing comes across in Bell’s oral performance of the book. Reading speeds vary, as does the-voice-in-your-head-when-you-read, but the audiobook allows a listener to hear the jokes as they were meant to be delivered.

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The main character in the audiobook is not Bell the man; it’s his voice. The success of the audio version relies heavily on the comedian’s vocal and modulating verve, the aural equivalent of a pair of eyeglasses that slide down the nose only to be pushed back up again (which I’ve seen Bell, like other eyeglass wearers, do). When I read the description of his first sexual experience — “I was all knees, elbows, and technique-less, like a turtle darting in and out of his shell trying to not get hit by the rain” — I chuckled at the image. After hearing that same bit in the audiobook, I laughed out loud. Because he conveys some of that gracelessness in the cadence of his voice, clumsily taking the angles of words like “technique-less,” his gawky phrasing is more pronounced.

Ultimately, the way to enjoy “Awkward Thoughts” is to listen like a theater patron. According to Bell, reflecting on his solo show “The Bell Curve” in San Francisco, theatergoers “don’t judge the show by the individual moments. They judge the show by the total experience.” The total experience of reading (and listening) to Bell’s thoughts is less awkward than you’d think.

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