Hari Kondabolu, a comedian who likes to joke about his ethnic background and the way people always ask him where he's from, got rave reviews for his debut album, 2014’s Waiting For 2042
. His popularity has steadily risen since.
Also a writer and correspondent for the Chris Rock-produced show Totally Biased with Kamau Bell,
Kondabolu recently released a new stand-up album, New Material Night, Volume One
, which he recorded live in San Francisco. His full-length comedic documentary, The Problem with Apu
, premieres on truTV this fall.
In a recent phone interview, Kondabolu, who performs at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17, at Hilarities
, talks about his politically minded approach.
Given the current political climate, what is it like to be a comedian that addresses social and cultural issues?
It’s funny. It’s hard because it’s like going up on stage with a joke book. We already know what’s in it. You can’t add much to it. CNN has basically become Comedy Central at this point. For me, the goal is to think of bigger things and overarching issues about what this presidency means. It’s not like the issues are new. These things are highlighted by this president. The bigotry was there, and he threw gasoline on it. To me, I have these issues I’ve talked about forever and continued to write about. Sadly, Trump makes it relevant. It doesn’t get the attention until Trump says something about immigrants or women. It just illustrates the shit I’ve been saying for a long time. It’s sad that I feel more relevant in a weird, fucked up way. I wish it wasn’t that way. It's like The Onion
is breaking news now. That’s what it feels like.
It’s like we had been living under the delusion that tolerance was the norm and that racism had declined because we had a black president.
Oh yeah. This is what people were saying during the election. They said that we were in a post-racial society. Racism is insidious. It mutates. It doesn’t look the way it used to look. It’s this weird thing. Just because the president was black, it didn’t mean that there wasn’t a ton of a racism and that people hated what was happening and planned to act when the opportunity presented itself. [We need to treat] these white supremacist groups as terrorist organizations.
I think younger people have become more tolerant, but they didn’t vote.
It’s interesting. I feel like young people are more tolerant, but there’s also anger and fire. This is not a time of great prosperity as it has been in the past. This is a generation of kids who grew up with a black president and saw one way of doing things and now they see Trump and a different way of doing things. There are kids who are hungry and angry and want change. Young voters find this awful. They voted for Clinton. There were anti-Trump protests right after he was elected — I’ve never seen that. I’ve never seen a global protest before a man stepped into office. Young people are driving that.
Talk about what it was like to grow up in Queens?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Queens is a good representations of the inevitable future of this country. It’s a place with different cultures and languages all living together. It doesn’t mean it isn’t segregated but at least there’s an acceptance that we’re all together in this. There are people who are bigoted but are friends with one other. When people talk about the country changing, they don’t want a place like the place I grew up in that’s multi-cultural and diverse in the broadest way. It’s insulting to feel like people think the way I grew up is awful and scary.
There’s also a huge divide between the rural and urban.
In the middle of the country there’s a certain politeness that you don’t find in bigger cities. There’s something community oriented in the middle of the country. There’s an irony in that. There are tons of great individuals but as soon as you get them in a group there’s a group thing that doesn’t reflect who they are individually. I think tolerance is one thing. It’s a minimal bar. I thought we were moving into acceptance. I thought that was the place where we supposed to be. I’m not Christian but that sounds more Christian. My mother always says, “When you say you tolerate someone else, you’re giving yourself a compliment.” I really like that. There’s a certain condescension that comes with that. If that’s the case, I’m fine with the condescension. But that’s not the case. There’s an irony in the fact that we talk about Midwestern values and Southern hospitality— you hear those phrases — and that’s where the hatred is coming from. Kicking kids out of the country isn’t family values.
Did your mother inform your sense of humor?
I think she informed a lot of it both in terms of being quick and seeing a difficult situation and finding humor in it as a way of coping and surviving. The fact that humor has survived this long means it must have some evolutionary value. There’s something in it that keeps us stronger and lets us survive. The chemicals are released, and we’re sharing these moments of joy. We find something that seems unbearable, and we add some comfort. My mom taught me that just by being the way she is. I’ve applied that to many aspects of my life.
Did your college studies take you in a political direction?
It was more 9/11. I grew up in Queens but went to college in Maine. When 9/11 happened, I already felt racial angst but then all that was exacerbated. I discovered my country after that happened. I don’t think I understood what America was. I didn’t understand how different we were. I assumed the place I grew up was like the whole country. It was a really rude awakening. That shaped me and who I am and what I write about. All the education is directed to what I was inspired to do because I saw so much pain. It was confusing. I idolized Queens in a certain way and yet there were hate crimes in Queens where brown people were being beaten up and deported and profiled. Even in this place I loved so much, it was the same thing. We all went to school together and lived together, and I didn’t know how that could happen. It struck me about how deep this stuff gets.
Talk about your documentary film The Problem with Apu.
It’s the story of The Simpsons
character Apu who is the only Indian American character regularly on television for much of my youth and defined what brown people were in the mainstream. It’s a character but not a singular character. Hollywood mimics. It takes something that works and will continue to use it. There’s a trope. There’s the Indian character who is the punch line and has the accent and is often not even a brown actor. It’s the story of the impact of that character and also the legacy of minstrelsy in the country. Apu is a recent example, but it’s not the only example. If anything, it’s a much lighter version. This is part of a certain way of thinking and treating other human beings. It’s about that. [The documentary] wasn’t meant to be topical. I did it well before the Trump stuff. To me, this is an interesting phenomena that ties into a larger trend. The Trump thing strangely speaks to it. It's about when you develop a society that doesn’t see its individual pieces as human or understand their humanity.
Did you reach out to creator Matt Groening?
Producers and agents did, and that wasn’t happening. It’s a shame. I would have loved that. As far as I know, it’s the only film that criticizes The Simpsons
, which is weird. As a Simpsons fan, it’s a little uncomfortable. This is one of my favorite shows. That’s what good comedy is. It’s finding new and interesting observations. This is one of my favorite shows, but I think a true Simpsons fan doesn’t get defensive about this. They try to see it for what it is. The Simpsons
skewers so many topics and people and are really clever about it. If my movie can do that and be silly and fun, it’s done its job.
What will your show here in Cleveland be like?
I’m working on a new hour of standup. Almost everything will be stuff you haven’t heard before. I’ve been writing a ton and the climate has affected what I write. It’s not going to be a dramatically different point of view. I’m still punching up. I like the range of stuff. There’s stuff about my parents and me growing up and values and what it is to be American. All of this sounds boring, but it will be a funny show. It’s a funny show. It’s been tested around the country. Cleveland is great, and I’m sure Cleveland will be up for a laugh.