W. Kamau Bell Curve: standup comedy turns solo show

W. Kamau Bell's solo comedy show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in about an Hour*, now in its third or so run at The Shelton Theatre in San Francisco is pioneering work.  Bell, a standup comedian who got his start in Chicago, the improv capital of the States, developed his conversational, yet sharp, poignant style at Cobb's Comedy Club and The Punch Line.  But rather than tell you a bit about the show, which you can see in SF, Oakland, or Berkeley, I'm going to tell you a bit about Kamau, who you might also see in SF, Oakland, or Berkeley.
I met Kamau in 1998 around the time that he moved to San Francisco.  There used to be something like an "internship" at Cobb's, back when Cobb's was located in The Cannery in the Fisherman's Wharf district.  Every six months or so, an up and coming comic was chosen to host one of the three weekday showcases as well as host the weekend show once a month, which added up to a lot of stage time one of the two best clubs in the city.  Kamau had gotten the prized "internship" just as Cobb's was getting ready to move to Columbus and Lombard.
On of my favorite bits of his back then was about the omnipresence of African Americans in popular culture.  It went like this:

"What's happened to black people in the media?  In the 60's we had Martin Luther King, Jr. we had Sammy Davis, Jr.,  We used to be everywhere!  You couldn't swing a nightstick without hitting a black person upside the head.  In the 70's…"

Some time around 2005, Kamau became a sort of mentor in my standup work.  We'd meet every week and work on bits, listen to great comics and talk about different realms of skill and how the greats did what they did.  What we had in common was that we both approached standup with a desire to speak a more complex truth than is sometimes found in standup, which is hard, because funny is usually simple and short.
With Kamau climbing the ranks of San Francisco standup along with fellow comedians like Dan Rothenberg, Joe Klocek, and Dan Gabriel (and many others), he moved from opening, to featuring, to the honored position of headlining at The Punch Line about two years ago.  His first headlining shows were especially packed and full of heat–Kamau, like Robert Mac before him, had gotten a really short hair cut, and almost immediately started headlining.  Coincidence?  You be the judge.  When Dave Chapelle came back from his trip in Africa, he was doing a lot of sets at The Punch Line, and Kamau performed with him frequently.  Kamau also appeared on Comedy Central's Premium Blend and recorded his first standup album One Night Only around that time.
So, along the way, Kamau and Kevin Avery had been doing the movie reviews on the Live 105 Morning Show, putting out a podcast ("Siskel & Negro"), working on a screenplay (Kevin) and an internet cartoon (Kamau) and Kamau directed by Bruce Pachtman's show "Don't Make Me Look Too Psychotic."  One thing led to another, and Kamau started teaching The Solo Performance Workshop for people who want to develop a one-person-show or monologue.  Kamau just won Best Comedian 2008 in the SF Weekly, and I'm hoping he takes his show on the road especially because he's got a plethora of opinions and insights about Obama that make it a perfect time to showcase this work.
What I have always admired about Kamau's work is that he articulates the questions of race in a genuine way that's not clichéd.  Especially in The Bell Curve, Kamau thinks he expresses more anger about race than he actually does; on stage he is affable, engaging, and charming.  Kamau's move from standup into the solo show is a courageous step.  Not only does he re-write his show each week according to what's in the news, he also continues to develop both the standup and the theatrical elements of the show.  I look forward to seeing future iterations as they unfold.
Kamau Bell, Standup Comic
The W. Kamau Bell Curve in the East Bay:
Pro Arts, 550 Second Street, Oakland
August 2, 3, 9, 10
Buy tickets here
JCC East Bay, Berkeley
August 16, 17, 23, 24
Buy tickets here
* Directed by Martha Rynberg, The W. Kamau Bell Curve is a co-production of Bruce Pachtman Productions AND Lisa Marie Rollins' Third Root Production

Your Daily Action Partner

In my creativity coaching work, one of the most common things I see is that people have a vision, but they sabotage themselves in carrying it out.  Your integrity with yourself, that is, your ability to think, act, and speak in alignment with your vision is your magic key to carrying out your vision.  When you make an agreement with yourself to do something in line with your vision, you need to guard that agreement with all of your being.  (Therefore, don't make agreements you aren't willing to keep!)  When you break an agreement with yourself, there is a breach in your integrity that must be repaired.

You have to do this for yourself, but you don't have to do it by yourself.  One of the best tools for staying aligned with your integrity is having a daily action partner.  This is a person with whom you make an agreement to call every morning (set a time to call by) and outline what your actions will be for the day.  Each of you take five minutes or less letting the other person know what steps you are taking today.  An action partner can inspire you, fire you up, and hold you accountable for following through on your dreams.  Take turns listening and be compassionate when there is a break-down.  All that needs to happen when you break a commitment is that you speak what happened, what the cause of the breakdown was, and a statement of what you are re-committing to.

        "When you are impeccable, you take responsibility for your actions, but you do not judge or blame yourself." 

        -Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

Dressing the Part

In order to illustrate a few points, I'll tell you a bit about me today…  When I was in high school, I dyed my hair every color of the rainbow.  Green was my favorite.  I pierced my ears, my nose, and eventually I even pierced my lip. As a filmmaker and standup comedian, my image was a powerful statement.  It certainly helped me on stage at a time when I wanted to feel assertive and commanding.  My punk aesthetic was a way to stake my claim for freedom and individuality and playfulness.   

Several years ago, I started a circus and took it on tour across the country.  My circus's gypsy aesthetic of the motley tribe of wanderlusts sent me fishing through antique clothing stores to invent my ringmaster costume…  It was another avenue for creative expression that was powerful and unique in a new way. 

Aliciaindia_headshotRecently, I traveled in India for several months.  I spent time at ashrams, learning yoga, meditating, meeting new people.  I packed one pair of jeans and a few t-shirts from home.  It was with a delicious contentment that I gathered beautiful, flowing scarves and punjabi pants at each stop along my dusty journey.  I had removed my lip ring and let my hair grow, and it's now past my shoulders.  For many years, I enjoyed playing with people's perceptions about appearance, knowing all along that the essence which radiates from deep within is more true than what clothes I put on, what shape my body is, where wrinkles have settled in from smiling, or what color my skin is.

And today, I enjoy a sense of confidence, creativity, and freedom that I wear along with my long hair, high heels, and a new brown jacket.  I am having a ball dressing in a commanding way, and fully inhabiting this new space.  My interactions with people feel unfamiliar.  Along with a sense of power, I also feel a sense of responsibility with the power I'm commanding, and a desire to increase my humility, my grounding, and my compassion to root myself. 

How we present ourselves is a manifestation of how we see ourselves, and a wish for how others might see us.  I encourage you to experiment with your appearance.  Step outside of your comfort zone. If you always wear suits or dresses, try putting on a crazy hat and wearing your clothes backwards to the park.  Creativity is about exploring possibility, and it's fueled by your willingness to be in the unknown. Are you ready?

        "When one lives with concepts one never learns.  The concepts become static.  You may change them but the very transformation of one concept to another is still static, is still fixed.  But to have the sensitivity to feel, seeing that life is not a movement of two separate activities, the external and the inward, to see that it is one, to realize that the inter-relationship is this movement, is the ebb and flow of sorrow and pleasure and joy and depression, loneliness and escape, to perceive nonverbally this life as a whole, not fragmented, nor broken up, is to learn.


The metaphysics of George Carlin

Most people remember George Carlin for flaunting the unspeakable Seven Dirty Words on live television. Sure, he pushed the envelope and paved the way for comics like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. Yeah, he was Saturday Night Live's first guest host in 1975. Of course he was a prolific life-long comedian who put out 25 albums.But what I'm loving today about Carlin is something else.
I was listening to Carlin's interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and I thought I heard Deepak Chopra talking. Having just returned from traveling for a few months in India, I felt the reverberations of Indian philosophy in his words. He told Terry about his philosophy of molecular connection to all things.

(I'm paraphrasing here) Terry Gross: "Is there anything you do turn to to help provide a sense of meaning… or where you fit in or what are you doing here?"

George Carlin: "Some time ago I figured out with the help of some reading that I can't recall now that, if it's true that we're all from the center of a star, everything atom in each of us from the center of a star, then we're all from the same thing, and even a coke machine or a cigarette butt on the street in Buffalo are made out of atoms that came from a star. They've all been recycled thousands of times as have you and I. So, if that is true, and I am everywhere in the universe, in an extended sense, and therefore, it's only me out here, so what is there to be afraid of? What is there that needs solace-seeking? Nothing. There's nothing to be afraid of, because it's all us. So, I just have that as a backdrop, and I don't have to go to it or think of it consciously. I've kind of accepted the idea that I'm perfectly safe and that life, nature, have waves and troughs, ups and downs, left and right, black and white, night and day, fall and winter, positive and negative. Everything has an opposite. If I have a bad time, I'll have a good time coming. If it's a good time, I'm prepared to have a bad time to sort of pay for it. So, nothing really upsets me."

Terry Gross: "…It's kind of like a mix of narcissism and mysticism."

George Carlin: "The trouble is, we've been separated from being that universe by being born we've been given a name and an identity and being individuated and separated from the oneness, and that's what religion exploits…"

I saw Carlin for the first time on HBO's Comic Relief. When all the other eight year old girls were devouring Ramona Quimby, Age 8 books I was voraciously taking in Comic Relief over and over again, laughing at jokes I didn't yet understand.
I loved the sketches Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal did. There was a parade of comedians… Gary Shandling, Tony Danza (who told a street joke about the farmer and his favorite three-legged pig.) Sid Caesar did some physical comedy.
And then there was Carlin's routine on Stuff. With his five minutes, he packed in more jokes than most comics at clubs today. This quintessential rant on our attachment to the physical stuff that makes us feel at Home was truly brilliant.
He talked a mile a minute, he nailed every neurosis, and hit every emotional note with masterful facial punctuation. It somehow spoke to my inner cranky old guy in mid-life crisis. My parents are sort of packrats and junk-recycling artists, and whenever we traveled, it seemed we'd take enough extra stuff to set up an entire household on vacation.
This was the first time someone had taken my childhood thoughts and feelings about my parents junk-collecting and how out of control I felt, and encapsulated them into short bursts of hilarious insight in that inimitable comedian way of "saying what we're all thinking."
Listening to him gave me that sense of connectedness and oneness that Carlin talks about with Terry. And, along with Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, George Carlin was one of the first deeply imprinted artistic influences that made me say, "That's what I want to do."

FYI: And in case you missed it, here's Carlin talking about death on YouTube.

Vision and Heart

In my creativity coaching practice, I work (and play!) with artists who want to elevate their lives to a new level.  I work with people who have never picked up a guitar but really want to play, and I work with people who are long-time artists who want to make a living at their art and finally quit their day job. 

I believe there are a million ways to be creative, and that the most important thing is to give your gift to the world.  It doesn't matter if you make money at it or not.  That's up to you, and if it's your dream to make a living doing your art, I can help you with that.  Hell, if it's your dream to make a living making sculptures from discarded subway signs, I can help you with that. 

I delight in guiding people along the path they set out for themselves.  It's one of the most fun things in the world to watch someone truly, deeply want something, dedicate themselves to it, and achieve it.  And I'm going to tell you a secret:  the final goal is never as satisfying as the process… in fact, some of the biggest pleasures are in really feeling and articulating what you want. 

That's why, the first thing I do with my clients is to get crystal clear on what they want.  We explore what sensations, what colors, what textures, what emotions, what values, and what truths you want to express.  We create a visual representation of that vision that you hold in your heart.  And then we create concrete aims out of that vision.  Your heart and mind are keepers of your vision, and the fire in your belly is the fuel.  When everything you do emanates from your highest vision, and your actions are aligned, you can't help but find fulfillment, spread inspiration, and achieve your aims.

A great way to hold your vision is to make a collage.  Get a bunch of magazines, cut out the images that appeal to your deepest sense of yourself, paste them together, and then post your collage in a prominent place in your home. 


        "Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so you shall become.  Your vision is the promise of what you shall one day be; your ideal is the prophecy of what you shall at last unveil."

        -James Allen, As a Man Thinks

What is success for you?

How many times has your concept, your idea of "success" actually gotten in the way feeling fulfilled?

Often, at a young age, we have a peak experience of freedom, aliveness, love, or fulfillment that occurs during an activity we're doing.  And our young, child mind develops the concept that this feeling, plus this situation, plus the people around me who confirm this story, equal success. 

The truth is that the activity is the portal, the context through which we experience that expansive feeling.  And yet, as humans often do, we associate that feeling with the activity we're doing.  Suddenly and unconsciously, it's not, "I surrendered my body and mind to my activity, and I felt alive!" it's, "I hit the winning home run, the entire crowd cheered, and I felt alive!"  We begin to form a concept about succeeding at baseball as the source of our aliveness.

Perhaps, years later, you "awaken" feeling unfulfilled (hopefully not, but if so, keep reading!)  Perhaps you have had a successful baseball career and yet never touched the heart of your original peak experience.  Or, you may have struggled for both success and fulfillment.  I often speak with comedians who are talented, funny, and accomplished (who also make lots of money at comedy and perform frequently), yet there is a lingering emptiness.  Often in America, we shy away from looking at this emptiness and want to leave it as soon as possible.  And yet, if we are willing to dive into the center of the "hole" in a safe context, we can come out the other side with our heart's treasure.*

One way you can begin to release of your concept of success is to invite yourself to play again.  Set aside an hour with no interruptions and set out an open-ended activity that brings you joy.  You could play guitar, paint, make a collage, sing, roll down a grassy hill, skip rocks…  Find a way to re-create the joy, even for a few minutes, of a time when the activity was more important than the outcome.  And before you go back to your day, write about what happened during your experience and what thoughts or voices arose for you.   

        "Success is getting what you want.  Happiness is wanting what you get."

        –Dale Carnegie

*For further reading: A. H. Almaas, The Diamond Approach