Finding fans, facts and freedom: What comedy means for Kaseem Bentley

San Francisco Chronicle/Courtesy

Related Posts

On his new stand-up comedy album, Lakeview, Kaseem Bentley speaks jokingly about legacy. What is absolutely clear about Lakeview is that it comes from a profoundly personal place, one where Bentley is positive and bold but inherently vulnerable. His interview with The Daily Californian would go on to reveal as much — in similar musings about his legacy, Bentley speaks of his long-standing desire to be a father. Pursuing a career in comedy, he admits, meant putting his dream of starting a family on hold.

One can imagine, then, the importance of comedy to Bentley’s life and, by extension, the importance of finding increasing success with each major career move. Lakeview is Bentley’s latest step toward pursuing comedy full-time — the comedian divulged how the album is intended to draw new fans. He’s good at what he does, but he’s yet to be discovered by a concrete fanbase that will support his projects and help him solidify his brand.

Bentley speaks in fits and bursts. He’ll take a lengthy pause, carefully mulling over the different combinations of words he might string together for his answer. But once he’s decided, he launches in at full speed. He’s not afraid to say precisely what’s on his mind or to wrestle with his beliefs aloud in real time. He’s someone with a lot on his mind — he reflects candidly on his fears for the future, showing a side of him that provides contrast to the intentionality and purpose with which he approaches building his career.

In his stand-up, Bentley likens himself to a boxer, weaving in and out, trying to work his opponents with quick jabs and disorient them with dizzying blows. When he hits, he hits hard and fast — he gets to the point quickly, without any set dressings. But more than just a boxer, Bentley is also a teacher, working at the top of his intelligence and using humor to transform harsh truth into something more accessible. Every punchy one-liner about race comes with its own risk, but for Bentley, that risk is what makes the job of comedians so important.

“I believe that we are given this license to be truth-tellers,” Bentley explained. “I think that people should have the freedom to talk about whatever they want, but they also need to understand that while you should have free speech, you also need to be prepared for the reaction.”

Bentley himself is not particularly intimidated by the concept of a bad reaction. He’s prepared to take the heat, and he’s also prepared to learn, grow and restore justice when needed. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t find the concept of heckling a little infuriating.

The tradition of harassing stand-up comedians during their sets is long-standing, and while most comedians understand that it comes with the territory, Bentley feels that it doesn’t make the idea of it any less acceptable. In his eyes, it only stands as testament to the lack of respect people have for stand-up, which itself is symptomatic of how accessible amateur stand-up comedians are to their audiences.

“I find it insulting and limiting and humorous and destructive on so many levels,” Bentley stated. He notes the failure on the part of comedy clubs to protect their artists from this behavior, as well as the unfairness of the assumption that comedians are supposed to be naturally good at managing hecklers.

Much like a seasoned boxer, you can tell that Bentley has learned some lessons about building a career the hard way. In particular, Bentley cites the time he spent in Los Angeles as especially formative. In Los Angeles, Bentley developed a surgical precision in his development of new material. But more importantly, he learned how to work smarter within comedy as an industry. He made connections, discovered new channels through which to access potential fans and returned to the Bay Area with a plan.

“We have a lot of control, but we have to be forward-thinking, because there are people who are deciding our futures in some ways,” said Bentley. He believes in the importance of being proactive about planning for the future, personally and professionally. That level of activity, he jokes, is something that comes across in his high-energy performance style.

Without doubt, Bentley has come a long way since the beginning of his career. The self-awareness with which he speaks is evident of as much. You can sense how much he’s risked to get this far, but you can also tell immediately that he doesn’t regret it for a moment.

“I was always getting tired of people telling me I should do it, because I knew if I didn’t do it, I was always going to regret it,” Bentley said of his decision to quit education and pursue comedy.  “Once you find your passion, it is very hard to sit there and do a mound of paperwork.”

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].