Comedian W. Kamau Bell hosts radical radio show

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Matthias Clamer/FX/Courtesy

Despite being best known for national-scale TV — such as his sadly short-lived FXX talk show, “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” and his upcoming CNN travel show, “United Shades of America” — political comedian W. Kamau Bell is wholeheartedly local, a proud resident of the People’s Republic of Berkeley. He lives blocks away from the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse. He shops at the Oakland-Grand Lake Merritt Farmers’ Market. He used to eat at Elmwood Cafe until he had a jarring racist encounter there. He saw a woman eating an entire raw cabbage at a bus stop and was profoundly confused. He revels in Berkeley’s weirdness and fights for justice to make it better.

His Thursday-night live radio show, “Kamau Right Now!,” at Downtown Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse reflected Bell’s Berkeley roots, giving its liberal, snapping, collectively “mhmm”-ing live audience an unabashedly Bay Area evening of entertainment and political commentary. The event, a partnership with local radio station KALW, was billed as a “live radio and social media” experience or, as Bell described it, “whatever this is.” It was a lively experimental hybrid of formats, of politics and comedy, and of the issues that concern us today, from police brutality to the California drought to the alleged Vietnam War allegorical intentions of “Star Wars” as a part of George Lucas’ radical agenda, all recorded live for radio listeners.

In true live-radio fashion, the evening was beset by technical difficulties. The mics were glitchy, videos froze, and in a particularly unfortunate moment, a cheerful public radio jingle accidentally played over the disturbing video of the South Carolina policeman throwing a black female student across a classroom which gained national attention this week. Despite the mishaps, Bell’s go-with-the-flow affability made the technical hiccups seem more like a charming imperfection than a genuine disruption. The structure of the event was similar to his old talk show, featuring a discussion with panelists, a one-on-one guest chat, social media engagement and Bell’s signature man-on-the-street video segments.

Bell’s panel was intensely local, featuring Center for Media Justice Director and poet Malkia Cyril, SF Examiner columnist and comedian Nato Green, and frontman to Oakland band the Coup, organizer and artist Boots Riley. All three of them are anti-gentrification, anti-capitalist (ranging from skepticism to total rejection) and furious about systemic racism, as is Bell. On a grand scale, they are a radical niche.

Midway through the broadcast, an Iowan fan tweeted that he was, in fact, no longer a fan, after Bell made a joke at Iowa’s expense, and indeed, nobody was catering to rural, middle America. The show was proudly by and for the Bay, as “totally biased” as Bell’s old show. The homogeneity of opinions may have been off-putting to nonlocals or really anybody with different political leanings, but their agreement on broad strokes allowed for fascinatingly in-depth, nuanced discussions of gentrification in Oakland, the state of whiteness and the historical importance of local electoral politics rather than batting totally opposing stances back and forth for an hour. In a one-on-one discussion with climate scientist Juliet Christian Smith of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Bell and Smith got deep into the topic of the California drought.  

None of this sounds particularly funny, and it isn’t, but in the hands of very intelligent people and a very funny host, the issues we face right now were mined deftly for their dark humor. In an indicative moment, Riley launched into a lecture on the lack of leftist engagement in the class struggle, and his fellow panelists nodded along in agreement until finally cutting him off, laughing at the grave, collegiate tone the night had suddenly taken. Corruption and racism and droughts aren’t amusing, but when they’re discussed smartly and with a welcome dose of self-aware levity, engaging conversation about some of the United States’ thorniest problems becomes possible, accessible and surprisingly good fodder for a fun night out.

Contact Miyako Singer at [email protected].