W. Kamau Bell to perform at Calvin

In an interview with CBC Radio show-host Jian Ghomeshi, W. Kamau Bell distanced himself from the role of activist.

“Some people have put that label on me, but I feel like that detracts from activists. You know, that’s a job. I just find that I like to do comedy about things I care about.”

However, when the subjects you care about revolve around racism and its persistence in America, such disclaimers might seem insufficient. Bell, who will be performing his acclaimed standup act “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour,” at Calvin at 8 p.m. Monday in the Covenant Fine Arts Center, has been touching raw nerves and breaking down taboos through laughter for some time now.

Both onstage and in his FX show “Totally Biased,” Bell exudes a personal warmth that mixes well with his pointed routines. One segment on his show, available to watch on Youtube, shows him watching the recent presidential election results roll with members of the Brooklyn Young Republican Club.

While clearly standing (metaphorically) to the left of all those present, he remains jovial even when the subject matter is controversial or tense. At the club, he spoke to a representative of Young Republican Gangsta Rappers, a middle-aged woman wearing what looks to be a Tupac Shakur T-shirt.

When asked why she voted for Mitt Romney, she explained that her goal was to promote a support network for poor urban children. Bell’s bemused reply, “And you think Mitt Romney has a lot of love for inner city kids?” received a halting response.

He is quite conscious of the racial messaging he presents on stage, saying in an Indiewire interview, “I’m a six foot four-inch, 250 pound black guy who people expect to get angry. It’s the vessel you’re in — Bill Maher seems angry all of the time but no one’s afraid of him … I’ve often had a way of going through life ‘okay, everything’s cool. I have a problem, I’d like to explain it to you.’ That’s just who I am. There’s nothing wrong with being happy to be there. I’m not very good at ironic detachment.”

What makes his comedy work on a level above polemics, however, is how his jokes are written and delivered. Using open body language and surgical wit more than anger — though that element is certainly not absent from his routines — Bell comes off as reasonable and amiable.

Ever ready to prod and unmask unstated prejudices, he remains careful with language. As well he should, since most of the appeal of his comedy, and of much of verbal comedy, comes from twisting words, delving into them and finding their power to elicit laughter. His sincerity keeps his audience’s attention and, hopefully, their affections, letting him work the jokes for all they’re worth.

All of that might seem like serious business, and as many comics will attest, the mechanics and artistry of comedy are every bit as serious as dramatic film-making. Once the material is embodied on stage, though, Bell’s words and actions begin to look effortless.

This is a serious, comic, seriously-comic talent to watch. With routines this pointed and subject matter this potentially explosive, he has to be. Luckily, he is up to the task of helping in a small way to make people laugh and put names on the imagined barriers that divide people of different skin color.